Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ariana Grande's "My Everything" is a beacon of light in the Top 40 darkness

I still remember the first time I listened to Ariana Grande's music.  My brother and I were driving to a baseball game and he told me, "You have to listen to Ariana Grande's new single" and proceeded to put on "The Way."  Beforehand, I only knew her as the burgundy-haired girl from that Nickelodeon show Victorious, and didn't even know she made music.  There was a large barrier to entry going into the song: I wasn't a fan of any other Disney or Nickelodeon star's music, so I had no reason to be optimistic about Grande.  Nor was I into Mac Miller -- this was before he began to gain goodwill by putting out respectable music -- who had a guest verse.  But you know what?  I was blown away by "The Way," which sounded simultaneously like a throwback and something new and refreshing.

The entirety of her debut album, Yours Truly, instilled the same kind of feeling in me.  It's an endlessly listenable record (my sixth favorite album of 2013), full of catchy tunes that were able to show off Grande's powerful pipes.  She effortlessly rode the line between pop and R&B of the mid-to-late 90s variety better than anybody since Jojo.

If that album's charming success seemed accidental, then make no mistake about My Everything, which is a clear attempt by Grande to rocket herself into pop's highest echelon.  Unfortunately, this leads to one of the least successful songs on the record in "Break Free."  It's not a bad song -- in fact, it's pretty catchy on every other listen.  The problem is that it's just generic dance pop fluff, lacking the personality that makes her best songs stand out.  There's just a semi-grating chorus, the obligatory EDM drop near the end, and some uninspired lyrics (just trying parsing the phrase "I only wanna die alive").  It sounds like a song you'd hear on the radio right between two songs that sound exactly like it.  It sounds like something that would soundtrack a scene in Jersey Shore if that show still existed.  It sounds like two rival nightclubs getting into a fight.  You get the point.

She goes way over to the other side of the genre dial with "Hands On Me," a sub-Beyonce strutter with a limp guest turn from A$AP Ferg.  There's something commendable about her trying new things, but stretching to the ends of the pop and hip hop spectrum just causes the songs to snap and fall apart.

When she does stay in the pocket that she carved out on her first album, it once again produces glorious results.  You can see this in the album's roaring middle stretch, which features midtempo bangers like "Be My Baby."  "Best Mistake" puts Grande's pristine vocals at the forefront, resting atop a simple but beautiful piano line that carries the song.  "Break Your Heart Right Back," perhaps the greatest summation of her 90s influences, repurposes Notorious B.I.G. by way of Diana Ross, stretching it out and turning the beat into a skeletal, bass-heavy slinker.  The latter two feature rap verses -- from Big Sean and Childish Gambino, respectively -- that are mostly forgettable, but Grande's sense of melody is strong enough to make up for it during her parts.

One of the most unique things about Yours Truly was just how old-fashioned it was, not just musically but also in terms of lyrical content.  It was an album of hand-holding, stomach butterflies, and kissing underneath the moonlight.  Listeners might be surprised by just how much more raunchy My Everything is, coming only a year after Grande's debut.  (Yours Truly might've been released in 2013, but many of the songs were written way before then.)  "Skirt off, keep my high heels on / I might be a little thing but I like that long" is enough to make an old man's monocle pop out.  But even ambiguous phrases that could be bent to the side of innocence on her last album take on a more sensual vibe on My Everything.

Though her carnal musings come off like a kid trying on their parents' clothes, many of her lyrics have surprising, nuanced things to say about relationships.  On My Everything, they're a real struggle.  It's full of songs where relationships are a fight to remain faithful, to keep the fire alive.  But to Grande, who sings, "I'm loving the pain, I never wanna live without it" on "Why Try," the battle is what makes everything worthwhile.  Later she sings, "We've been living like angels, living like devils."  This an album about how people in relationships can be many opposing things all at once.

Perhaps reflective of Grande's hippie-dippy personality, this is a very even-handed album.  It's rare for pop stars to admit culpability as much as she does here, where more than one song is about her asking for forgiveness in the wake of mistakes she's made.  But even the breakup songs are about the ways in which both parties are flawed.  "Problem" might be lighting up the charts because of its blaring, hair-whipping horns, but take a look at the lyrics and you'll realize it's actually an interesting reflection on being unable to shake the desire to be with a guy she knows is wrong for her.  There are complex conflicts throughout My Everything, between trust and betrayal, giving and asking for second chances, one's wants and what's actually right for them.

Ariana Grande is only 21 years old, and My Everything feels like the work of somebody who is still figuring things out.  The album is a tug of war between the kind of music that will make her more popular and the kind that made her so good in the first place.  But it manages to be a success because her songwriting and vocal talents push her through the record's wobbly-footed moments.  This seems like something that history will remember as a transitional album, marking the time before she really comes into her own as a musician.  If an album as frequently great as this one is an example of Grande not quite reaching her potential, then the world might not be ready for when she finally peaks.

Monday, August 25, 2014

"Brill Bruisers" is the best New Pornographers album in nearly a decade

You'd be hard pressed to find another three-album stretch in the last 15 years that's as good as The New Pornographers' first trio of records.  From the power-pop confection of Mass Romantic, to the no-nonsense hook factory of Electric Version, to the widescreen tunes of Twin Cinema, the band was on a blazing streak of delivering songs as technically proficient as they were catchy.  After a run like that, it's only natural that anything after would seem like a minor disappointment.  Though it has its acolytes, 2007's Fleetwood Mac-influenced Challengers wasn't met with the amount of fervor that their previous albums had.  That album -- along with its follow-up, Together -- might not be as impressive, but they represent a tapped-brakes period that might have been necessary for the bad after their first three releases.

If that's the case, then consider their new album Brill Bruisers a return to form.  The whole record has a punchy, driving nature that the band's previous two -- despite their own pleasures -- just didn't contain.  Each song feels like those trick canisters that open up and release a bunch of fake snakes in every direction.  The New Pornographers have always been ruthlessly efficient, channeling their energy into four-minute pop gems, but "Another Drug Deal of the Heart" manages to be just as catchy and indelible in half the time.  "Backstairs" is the most fun song on the record, but it's also the best, featuring verses from AC Newman that work like a boxer feinting high, only for the Neko Case chorus to sweep the legs and knock you over.  Elsewhere, "Fantasy Fools" keeps things simple, barreling through with the forward momentum of a bullet train.

The cover art for the album, with its austere white background and simple black lettering offset by the neon rainbow lights layered over them, is both visually striking and representative of each track's mission statement.  The songs themselves, as always, follow a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, but the band lays flourishes on top that make them vital and invigorating.  Brill Bruisers mostly accomplishes this through the use of keyboards.  It's not exactly a new instrument in their repertoire -- in fact, they've been using them since Mass Romantic -- but they've never been consistently featured so prominently before.  Here, they saw through the melodies and settle front-and-center.  And they vary their sound through the album -- bubbly and effervescent on "Champions of Red Wine," twinkly and insistent on "Another Drug Deal of the Heart," then spacey and yawning on "Spidyr."

The term "supergroup" gets lobbed around whenever the band gets written about, but they're not exactly a supergroup in a Traveling Wilburys sense.  When the band formed in 1999, many of the members had their own ventures -- AC Newman was in Zumpano, Dan Bejar performed under the name Destroyer, Neko Case had a solo album -- but none of them were blockbuster names.  No, The New Pornographers are a supergroup because each of their albums feel like the joining of musicians who each have their own specific skill sets that mesh together like Voltron.  It's well known that Bejar is one of the band's greatest weapons.  He always shows up for three songs on every album, and his contributions feel like a change of pace without being completely out of place.  "Spidyr" is his peak on Brill Bruisers.  It's a minor epic -- compact in length, but sonically sprawling.  But the band's best kept secret continues to be drummer Kurt Dahle, whose pounding drums hold up every song on the album.  You can feel every thwack and bang like they're resonating in an empty auditorium.

The album offers quick moments to catch your breath -- the string-plucked "Hi-Rise," the open and expansive "Wide Eyes" -- but it's generally a wild ride.  It's the kind of album that can fit in such an array of odd little musical choices -- a harmonica solo that bursts out in the middle of "Spidyr," a skronky breakdown in "Dancehall Domine," a Daft Punk-esque vocoder intro to "Backstairs" -- and make them completely work.  While it may not be at the level of something like Twin Cinema, it comes shockingly close.  The band once wrote an ode to comeback kids, and now with Brill Bruisers, they've managed to achieve a resurrection of their own.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Offering a mea culpa on You're the Worst

Every critic has reviews where they feel like they were off base or that their words didn't do a good job of reflecting how they actually felt about something.  In that regard, I'm certainly no different.  In my year and a half of writing this blog, I've written some reviews that I don't necessarily stand by anymore: my Star Trek Into Darkness review, which reads like a B when I thought the movie was a C-; my negative review of Earl Sweatshirt's Doris, an album I later grew to really enjoy; and my pilot review of Halt and Catch Firea show that later stumbled in a way that didn't reflect an A-.  It looks like I might have another one on my hands with You're the Worst, one of FX's two new summer comedies.  I gave the pilot a C-, but I wonder if my judgment of the previews got in the way of reviewing the actual show, because I've become quite a fan of it.

Part of the reason why I've warmed up to the show is that it has softened the edges of the two leads, Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Beere).  My biggest complaint about the pilot was that Gretchen and Jimmy were so unlikable, and in a way that made them uninteresting and not enjoyable to watch.  Now, they still say and do horrible things, but there's less of a wink-wink, "ain't I a stinker?" air to it.  Plus, it doesn't hurt that the jokes have gotten better.  Showrunner Stephen Falk and his crew of writers have been gradually delivering stronger scripts with sharp, biting humor.  It's much easier to stomach the antipathetic nature of the characters when you're laughing along with them.

The show takes place in Los Angeles, and it's really about the city in a low-key way.  It populates the world with weirdos and people who are just as terrible as Gretchen and Jimmy, contrasting the bright prettiness of the city with the off-color people who inhabit it.  Even Gretchen and Jimmy's jobs -- she's a PR executive, he's a failing novelist -- feel very Hollywood.  You're the Worst uses these professions to have its leads come into contact with the colorful characters of Los Angeles, like the rapper that Gretchen is representing.  He's a clear Tyler the Creator analogue, complete with a skateboarding, cargo short wearing crew of lackeys, and he's just as obnoxious.  The show's fourth episode, "What Normal People Do," perfectly skewers Hollywood with Edgar's (Desmin Borges) storyline, where he initially thinks he's met other war veterans, only to eventually discover that they're just actors who are studying him for an upcoming movie.

Edgar, who is Jimmy's roommate and best friend, along with Gretchen's best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue), round out the show's small cast.  Though it may be limiting, having only two supporting characters has allowed the writers to flesh Edgar and Lindsay out in a short amount of time.  The first few episodes featured them solely bouncing off of Jimmy and Gretchen, but the most recent couple have shown that they're able to hold their own in individual storylines.  In the process, they've actually revealed themselves to be the heart and soul of the show.  The writers have done an excellent job of handling Edgar's past wartime activity, making his PTSD quietly sad, but not depressing enough to throw off the tone of the show.  Meanwhile, Lindsay's marital problems and self-esteem issues are fertile material for them to explore in the future.

Despite its title and my initial criticisms, You're the Worst is one of the sweetest comedies on television.  Gretchen and Jimmy are slowly coming to grips with the fact that they actually genuinely like each other, despite his hatred and her fear of commitment.  First, their pairing appeared to be a union of two people whom nobody else wanted, but now it's transforming into them being together because they truly want each other.  They're beginning to compromise on their hard-hearted beliefs, subtly making each other better, kinder people.  It's a surprising joy to watch.

Like Married, the new show that airs before it, You're Worst still feels a little bit too shaggy and small.  Yet there's also something charming about its ragged nature.  I was watching with the wrong lens at first, and now that I've adapted to the rhythms of the show, I can see that the pilot was pretty solid.  And it's only gotten better, funnier, and more assured in the past few weeks.  The cast is great, the jokes are strong, and the heart is there.  If it keeps improving at this rate, You're the Worst could become one of TV's best comedies.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"They Want My Soul" shows that Spoon is still going strong

It's hard out there for older bands.  The music business thrives on the "hot new thing," constantly talking about up-and-coming buzz bands and pushing established acts further and further towards the fringes.  There are some bands, like Radiohead or Animal Collective, who still get consistent attention and critical praise whenever they put out a new album, but for the most part end of the year lists are dominated by artists with three albums or less.  Bands like The Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian, and The New Pornographers are still putting out terrific records, but they don't get the critical adulation to match that quality.  It's especially rough for Spoon, who might be the most consistent band of the last two decades.  They've put out so many good albums that now people take it for granted, as if to say, "oh, another good Spoon album.  So"?  That's the kind of attitude that lead to Transference, an otherwise great album, becoming perceived as a step-down for them when it was released in 2010.

"Rent I Pay," the first song on their new album They Want My Soul, finds the band firmly planted in their usual pocket.  It's been four years since we've heard those jagged, wiry guitars and that lean rhythm section, so it feels good to have them back.  But at the same time, it's easy to be disappointed with getting the "same old Spoon."  Smartly, the band follows it up with "Inside Out," which is decidedly not the same old Spoon.  From the little plinky piano, to the harp instrumental break, to the spacey synthesizers, it's a song that finds them embarking on completely new sonic terrain.  That risk turned out to be a success, because it's a beautiful track, perhaps their most earnest, open-hearted one yet.

That one-two combination of those opening songs represents the overriding theme of the album.  They Want My Soul is about the push and pull between familiar rhythms and innovations around the margins.  It's an album that alternates between being loose and tightly-wound, with longer-than-usual instrumental breaks among their typical bare bones verses and choruses.  "Knock Knock Knock," for example, has crisp acoustic guitars that give way to some squealing electric ones in the break.  Each song offers a slightly different flavor of the band, from the Ga...-era pop of "Do You," to the bass-heavy groove of "Outlier," to the ragged ragtime cover of Ann Margaret's "I Just Don't Understand."

They Want My Soul is also the first Spoon album to feature a title track.  Just as it was probably a deliberate decision for them to not have one on any of their first seven offerings, it's also most likely not an accident that this was the album on which they chose to break that trend.  Better yet, it's one of the more traditionally Spoon songs on the record.  New and old, new and old.  It even namechecks Jonathon Fisk, the figure around which one of their best songs revolves.  That choice seems to get at one of the other themes of this album: being stuck in cycles.  "Do You" might sound peppy, but the lyrics in the first verse allude to some kind of unshakable addiction.  Meanwhile, the chorus of "Knock Knock Knock" obliquely talks about an abusive relationship.  All of a sudden, the automaton precision and unadorned nature of their sound takes on a more morose, sobering vibe in that context.

Nobody is going to argue that this is the band's best album; few eighth albums are.  But it signifies that they're in a very healthy place in their career, and is a sign that they're not gradually down-sliding, seeing as this is a hair better than Transference.  (Time will tell if it proves to better than 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, though it's doubtful, since that's a modern classic.)  With bony songs full of great guitars and Britt Daniel's versatile vocals, They Want My Soul is by and large what you'd expect from Spoon.  Clearly, that's not a bad thing.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The debut album from Alvvays is a perfect summer listen

There seems to be a ubiquity of bands who make reverb-laden indie pop in today's music climate.  Most of them are pretty interchangeable too, pushing out the same peppy melodies, the same wall-of-sound guitars, the same wistful female vocals.  When done well, it can make for a sublime listening experience, but far too often bands are content with bringing the same generic sound to the table over and over again.

Up-and-coming Toronto band Alvvays was initially pitched to me as Best Coast meets Camera Obscura.  I'm always a little wary of a new one of these bands, but that combination immediately piqued my interest.  I don't listen to Best Coast much anymore, but liked them quite a bit at one point, and I consider Camera Obscura -- my favorite band -- the gold standard of reverb-heavy, catchy indie pop.  And in listening to the debut self-titled album from Alvvays, I can definitely see where the Best Coast-plus-Camera Obscura description comes from.  Similarly to the former's first and best album, Alvvays is perfect music for a warm sunny day.  It's also ruthlessly efficient, containing nine indelible songs that average about three minutes.  And like the latter, the band has found a classic female indie pop vocalist in Molly Rankin, whose sweet, dreamy voice rests snugly in the mix of bright guitars.

Lead single "Archie, Marry Me" is a perfect encapsulation of the album's catchy simplicity.  There are no frills, it's just a childlike, innocent profession of love to a boy named Archie.  Rankin talks about "sailing out on the Atlantic" and being taken by the hand in a gentle, traditional way that'll warm hearts and faces alike.  Even the name Archie recalls something very simple and old-timey.  "Ones Who Love You," the best song on the album, shares that lovely and infectious quality.  Sunny, bobbing guitars in the verses and choruses give way to a swooning bridge.  The first half of the album is full of these kind of uncomplicated structures and head-swaying melodies.

On the second half of the album, the band begins to tap into the other side of the emotional dial.  Much of the more somber songs are about the difficulty of reading and communicating with people.  On the plaintive "Party Police," Rankin sings, "I cannot decipher conversation in your head."  "The Agency Group" is all about a hazily defined relationship, centered around the chorus' revelation of, "When you whisper you don't think of me that way / when I mention you don't mean that much to me."  Album closer "Red Planet" takes the idea even further, telling a story about two people who are seemingly from entirely different worlds.

Nobody's going to mistake this album for being original, but it contains endless pleasures nonetheless.  Alvvays is unashamed about its influences and the band executes its vision with charm and confidence.  There's so much of this brand of indie pop that it's hard to stand out, but Alvvays does so due to the strength of their melodies and the acuity of their emotions.