Tag Archives: pop

Review: Lana Del Rey, "Born to Die"

Lana Del Rey didn’t have a chance, but at least she’s aware of this fact. Titling her album Born to Die, the former Lizzy Grant is certainly in on the joke – even if her multitudes of humorless haters aren’t. Forget the authenticity questions and the bitter backlash, the greatest downside of Internet age musicians isn’t half-baked live performance – it’s the rush to capitalize on the first crest of celebrity.

In that sense, Born to Die is a typical album. It starts strong, including the two singles that fans first fell in love with, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans.” But about halfway through, Del Rey is out of material. Nearly all the songs include orchestral swells, hip-pop beats, and a stable of of distorted vocal samples. Snares rattle and linger, strings weep. Considering the year that the spacey producers behind The Weeknd, Balam Acab, and Clams Casino had, it’s no surprise, but the sound can’t be sustained over a pop album.

Yes, the lyrics are immature, telling tales of teen girl fantasy. The imagery is heavy on the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” qualifiers – bikinis, red nail polish, every liquor consumed in rap videos and strip clubs. But it’s all very intentional, and well suited for the intended audience. One of the more maligned lyrics, the breathlessly dropped “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice” on “This is What Makes Us Girls,” is not to be taken at face value: it’s exactly the kind of drink that teen girls, dabbling in debauchery, would find palatable and popular. Just listen to the rest of the lyrics: “Sweet sixteen and we had arrived / Baby’s table dancin’ at the local dive… Drinkin’ cherry schnapps in the velvet night… A freshmen generation of degenerate beauty queens.” Pop music is chiefly for teenagers; nothing has changed since Please Please Me. Lana Del Rey’s lyrics will resonate with her audience, even if they don’t do anything for music critics.

The title track kicks off with an orchestral swell out of a Disney soundtrack, and then it’s “Off to the Races” (pun intended), on which Del Rey squeals and squeaks like the Lolita the song depicts. As expected, “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” are the tightest, most nuanced pop songs on the record, but “Diet Mountain Dew’s” piano melody and upbeat drumming make it a contender, as well. Del Rey’s pouty spoken word lyrics on “National Anthem” are just that, describing the celebs-and-cash world in which her persona exists. An undercurrent of bass and strings reminiscent of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” distract from the fact that “tell me I’m your national anthem” is a bit silly for a rallying cry.

Here’s where the album loses itself. The music becomes repetitive and Del Rey’s lyrics and melodies aren’t enough to rescue it. “Dark Paradise” is a recast “Born to Die;” “Summertime Sadness” nearly shares a melody with “National Anthem.” With a verse like a Nicole Atkins b-side, “Radio” is promising, but its (literally) saccharine chorus loses the script. On “Carmen,” Del Rey muses about a girl “only seventeen, but she walks the streets so mean;” this is territory well-worn by contemporaries Marina and the Diamonds and Sky Ferreira. The outlier here is the simple “Million Dollar Man,” a jazz lounge number evocative of Fiona Apple which is surprisingly warm despite the unnecessary inclusion of digital noise.

These days, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes have been reduced to 15 seconds, and albums are released before an album’s worth of material is ready. Worse yet, albums present an incomplete portrait of an artist. Where is the playful femme fatale of “Kinda Outta Luck?” Why omit the pitch-perfect bonus track “Lolita,” when it’s Sleigh Bells-meets-cheerleader cheer would be a welcome change of pace? On Born to Die, streamlining Lana Del Rey compresses her into an overproduced version of herself. Not coincidentally, Lana Del Rey’s lyrical fascination with the dark side of Hollywood (the starlet / harlot dichotomy, youth consumed and flames extinguished) is as applicable to today’s pop music world as ever.

The Verge: Friends

Friends, apart from being the latest in a string of un-Googleable buzz bands, makes singularly tight pop songs. Not future pop or nightmare pop, but weird pop (as they call it).

The band’s music began as demos recorded by Samantha Urbani, who decided – after years of writing and recording music – to finally share her work with audiences. The Bushwick band came together through a mix of history (Urbani has known Lesley Hann since 2nd grade) and happenstance (fleeing bedbugs, Hann and Oliver Duncan stayed with Urbani). Along with Matt Molnar and Nikki Shapiro – and a few jam sessions – the band formerly known as Perpetual Crush played their first show, less than a week after their inception. The jam continues in the band’s live show, which finds the multi-instrumentalists exchanging roles on stage.

Despite designating it weird pop, there’s nothing too weird here. Urbani’s lyrics are sly, her vocals meander but always come back to a solid hook. There is a dance music groove that permeates, thanks to robust percussion and funky basslines. The video for lead single “Friend Crush” is a psychedelic kaleidoscope filled with glitter and costume jewelry.

http://vimeo.com/26066398

While “Friend Crush” is a dreamy tribute to friendship, “I’m His Girl” is all swagger. The lyrics offer an empowered take on relationships, and the video feels like a hip-hop clip out of Brooklyn, circa 1988. The b-side is firmly in the next decade, however: a spot-on cover of Ghost Town DJ’s classic “My Boo.” One of the 90s most memorable hooks, it’s a perfect choice for a band whose music is nostalgic yet forward-thinking. And maybe just a little weird.

Friends open for Ganglians at the Red Palace on Tuesday, November 15.

The Verge: Neon Hitch

Another day, another UK singer-songwriter. But unlike contemporaries Adele, Leona Lewis and Jessie J, this one didn’t attend the BRIT School, Croydon’s prestigious star-maker academy.

English by birth but a gypsy by nature, Neon Hitch (yes, her real name) grew up traveling across Europe – by bus – as a street performer and trapeze artist. She ran away to India at the age of 16 before returning to London, where she took up singing and songwriting. Before she even released a song, she was touring with The Streets and 50 Cent.

Hitch caught the ear of pop hitmaker Benny Blanco (Britney, Katy, Bieber, Ke$ha, etc.), who helped her sign a production deal with EMI and a record deal with Warner Bros. She’s already written songs for Ke$ha (“Blah Blah Blah”) and Sky Ferreira (“Traces”), and her own material has that same type of sexy, electro-pop sheen.

She’s currently working on her debut Beg Borrow and Steal with Blanco, and two advance singles give a taste of what listeners can expect. Hitch covers her pop bases: “Get Over U” is the female empowerment anthem and “Bad Dog” is the slut-pop jam (“You know I’m yours so rip my clothes off… Just come inside my cage you bad dog”). Like Fugative before her, her singles have been remixed by notable underground producers including DJ Chuckie, Borgore, and Dave Nada, the latter of whom gave a “moombahbased” twist to “Get Over U.”

[wpaudio url=”https://postcultural.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/03-get-over-u-dave-nada-moombahbased-remix.mp3″ text=”Neon Hitch – Get Over U (Dave Nada Moombahbased Remix)” dl=0]

While her singles have generated a bit of buzz, it’s her genre-hopping cover songs that are really making waves. After taking on songs by Wiz Khalifa (“On My Level“) and Mac Miller (“Donald Trump“), Hitch tackled the hit-of-the-moment, Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci.” Her version is more soulful, with pounding drums and a mellow melody. It’s the kind of cover that stands on it’s own legs, and should have this gypsy living on the grid soon enough.

EP Review: Menya – "Menya"

On their self-titled (and free) EP, Menya definitely puts the pop in electro-pop, shedding some (but not all) of the transgressive energy that marked their earlier releases. There isn’t anything approaching the sex-crazed “Ripe” or “D.T.F,” but in the band’s three year evolution, they have tended more and more towards the mainstream.

Menya opens with “Awkward in Between,” which sets the tone for the album. Lead singer Angie Ripe provides sugary teen-romance vocals over bouncy beats from Good Goose. Rapper Coco Dame handles the verses on “On the Run” and “Flames;” the latter’s hook and half-sung/half-rapped formulation puts the song in similar territory to the B.o.B. / Hayley Williams megahit “Airplanes.”

Sandwiched between new compositions are updated versions of three older tunes, “Oh,” “Diana (I Heart U),” and “Loose (Is The Goose).” “Oh” and “Diana” are two of the group’s catchiest songs; including them here gives new listeners a taste of what Menya has been up to since releasing songs as NYU students. “Loose,” which has been remixed by premier Baltimore club DJ James Nasty, is upfront, in-your-face sex talk – no disco sticks, here.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/menya-loose(jamesnasty remix).mp3″ text=”Menya – Loose (James Nasty Remix)” dl=1]

Menya’s East Coast tour brings them through DC this Saturday at the Velvet Lounge, where they’ll be opening for Baltimore club queen Sherrell Rowe. The trio always bring high energy to their shows, and if this EP is any indication, they’re ready to pop.

The Verge: Grimes

Increasingly, there is a strand of darkly chilling music that turns the notion of pop music on its head. Practitioners include Bat for Lashes, Esben and the Witch, and Zola Jesus: artists who combine ostensibly pop melodies with darkly experimental touches. From the shoegazey to the baroque, this “nightmare pop” (as Esben and the Witch call it) is haunting and evocative.

The newest addition to this cast is Grimes, the stage name of Montreal’s Claire Boucher. Without any musical instruction, or even a passing knowledge until the age of 18, Grimes crafts twisted little pop songs from a patchwork of influences: dance, folk, and industrial music, among others. Tying everything together is her child-like, strangely beautiful singing voice.

“Vanessa,” the lead single off of Darkbloom (a split with fellow Montrealer d’Eon), has caught the attention across the blogosphere. A strong percussive current runs through the song for an entirely different type of witch house. The kaleidoscopic video is just as lush as the song.

While this may be the first time we’re hearing (and seeing) Grimes, the newcomer has been relatively productive during the last year, releasing a mixtape (Geidi Primes, available below) and an album (Halfaxa, on Arbutus). Geidi Primes is a bedroom-pop sound collage that revels in dichotomies: natural and artificial, East and West, old and new, comforting and abrasive. The sinewy “Rosa” could be a Smith’s tune, and strings collide on the sweeping “Sardaukar Levenbrech.”

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/rosa.mp3″ text=”Grimes – Rosa” dl=0]

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/sardaukar.mp3″ text=”Grimes – Sardaukar Levenbrech” dl=0]

Halfaxa has a more sinister undercurrent than Geidi Primes, mixing out-of-tune interludes with fuller-formed darkwave songs. Synths and electronic instruments are sharper, while the low end resembles the woozy bass of drag. The greatest contrast on Halfaxa is between Boucher’s dreamy, breathy vocals and the unrelenting instrumentation. “Sagrad” starts as a gently-strummed ballad before layers of vocals, harp, and a synth pop beat join the proceedings. Drag influences are heavy on the appropriately-titled “My Sister Says the Saddest Things.”

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/sagrad.mp3″ text=”Grimes – Sagrad” dl=0]

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/sister.mp3″ text=”Grimes – My Sister Says the Saddest Things” dl=0]

Add Grimes to the list of female artists ready and able to challenge the notion of women in pop music as party time sex dolls. Not everyone wants to be Madonna: plenty of people want to be Siouxsie Sioux.

Download: Grimes – Geidi Primes

EP Review: Sky Ferreira – As If!

When it comes to pop music, post-Rebecca Black, “we’re through the looking glass here, people.” The viral video hit takes teen pop to its logical conclusion: mind-numbing simplicity. But while Ark Music creations pump out the pop equivalents of pre-teen beauty queens, some artists have bigger things in mind.

Since featuring her in the Verge last August, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the debut album from Sky Ferreira. While that record has been indefinitely postponed, the LA lolita released the As If! EP this week. For reference, Ferreira was three-years-old when Clueless popularized that totally 90s catchphrase.

Lead single “Sex Rules” is a bouncing, glittery ball of 80s mall pop. The frank sexuality of the lyrics (don’t worry – she’s 18!) is kind of jarring at first, only because of the source. But in all fairness, the sex-positive lyrics are relatively tame to what kids her age (and younger) are actually doing.

“99 Tears” is more of the same, replacing sex talk with a broken heart. Another milestone in the dubstep-pop crossover is “Traces,” the wobble-filled ballad penned by Colin Munroe and Neon Hitch. It takes a page from BAR9’s luvstep-approved remix of Ferreira’s “One.”

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/02-Traces.mp3″ text=”Sky Ferriera – Traces” dl=0]

“Haters Anonymous” has a schizophrenic duality to it, with a synthpop chorus and spoken word verses. In the age of Facebook bullies, the lyrics resonate with her target audience – even if they come from someone deep in the LA social scene. As If! closes with its lone misfire, “108,” a song held back by its strange lyrical premise.

In another nod to 90s pop culture, Ferreira and “Sex Rules” are featured in the new ad campaign for ck one. Tired of Dr. Luke (or Ark Music) produced, derivative garbage? Sky Ferreira does slut-pop right.

Introducing Jessie J

Another year, another chanteuse from the UK. Will 2011 be the year of Jessie J?

Jessie J, aka Jessica Cornish, is a 22-year old singer-songwriter. With credits that include co-writing Miley Cyrus’ infectious hit “Party in the USA,” she seems set to be a star in her own right.

On lead single “Do It Like A Dude,” Jessie J is a little bit Pink, a little bit Nicki as she belts out the faux-feminist chorus “I can do it like a brother / do it like a dude / grab my crotch / wear my hat low like you.” Beneath the affected patois and vocal processing, there is something here. Even with the pedantic lyrics, I was intrigued, especially after hearing a remix by luvstepper Jakwob and seeing the video’s grimey clip.

Her next single is “Price Tag,” featuring hip-pop artist B.o.B. The tune couldn’t be anymore different from “Do It Like a Dude,” forgoing edgy for bubbly. It owes much to Natasha Beddingfield and Lily Allen, and B.o.B. adds his usual: an unoffensive, standard issue 16 bars.

After the success of the two singles, plus reaching the top spot on the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll, Jessie’s debut Who Are You has been pushed up a month, dropping on February 28.

Unfortunately, based on early glimpses of the record, Jessie J seems to be moving towards the easy accessibility of “Price Tag” versus the more confrontational pop of “Dude.” The title track is a ballad that showcases her vocal talents, and “L.O.V.E.” is a light-hearted romp. “Nobody’s Perfect” is the best of the bunch, even if it comes off like a Rihanna B-side. Still, I’ll reserve judgement until the record is released. The girl’s vocal talents can’t be questioned; the song-writing might be.