Thursday, November 5, 2015

Album Review: Ellie Goulding - Delirium

When people listen to UK songstress Ellie Goulding, people are generally divided on what they hear: they either hear her folk and indie influences as her sonic center and others hear her Electronica roots, and push her into the larger category of Pop. With "Delirium," the difference is not apparent at all, Delirium is blatant Electro-Pop.

From the swirling guitars of On My Mind, to the Urban tinged Don't Need Nobody, Delirium delivers mid and up-tempos track after track, never stopping for a ballad like her previous albums have (the last half of "Halcyon" or The Writer on "Lights"). The result is an album that to its modern audience will scream Taylor Swift's "1989," while to it's broader and older audience, it will sound completely millennial. 

The main difference between Delirium and previous pure-pop offerings this past year from Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift, is that there is there is no breathing room. From the moment Aftertaste hits its stride, the audience is locked in for a roller coaster ride of strict tempos. While most artists would struggle to keep up with this pace, Goulding does so with the expertise of a near-pro, only stumbling on the forgettable and rather lifeless We Can't Move to This and Holding on For Life. Midtempo power ballads like the mega-hit Love Me Like You Do and Army offer some release - and standout amongst an album of bangers - but don't offer enough to quench the hunger for ballads like Halcyon Days' I Know You Care and How Long Will I Love You. This is perhaps Delirium's biggest fault, that it lacks lyrical and sonic beauty that can be found on Goulding's prior works.

While the album is factory pressed with singles ready to launch on to Top 40 radios with ease, there is something strictly Goulding about much of the album, especially the latter half: While Swift's comparable aforementioned work relied on the strength of drums and synths, Goulding sneaks in the sound that made her a star: a twinkling acoustic guitar. In the intro of second single Army, and the chorus of the retro standout Devotion, she establishes herself with her audience that she understands her place in Pop music, and that she brings something new to the table with a unique sonic palette.

Goulding has called Delirium an "experiment" in interviews leading up to the release of the album. In some regards, the album is an experiment: she has enough on the album that there is something for everyone; she got lucky in that so many of the tracks hit the bullseye. However, Delirium seems more fine tuned than a mere experiment; yes, the deluxe tracks are about as useful as your wisdom teeth, but the standard edition tracks are all carefully crafted to allow Goulding to fully submerge herself in glowing-Pop goodness. 

Overall: 7.8/10

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Single Review: Ariana Grande - Focus

After unleashing one of the best singles of 2014 with "Problem," Ariana Grande has returned before the clock runs out on 2015, with Focus. Another saxophone laden "belty" track, "Focus" is irrefutably a Grande sounding work, carrying all the elements one has come to expect of Grande - except for sixth octave falsettos.

The first point of interest: the chorus. The funky "Focus on me / F-f-focus on me" will definitely polarize some, but it's also bound to inspire dorky car rides and terribly orchestrated vines across the globe. It's somewhere between Uptown Funk and Problem's level of energy, bursting through wind instruments and hand claps creating a transcendent aura of entertainment.

Where Focus seems to lack however, is in Grande's investment in the song. Her involvement seems to be the bare minimum, participating with some bare vocal lines in the verses and pre-chorus, only unleashing some expectedly easy upper fifth octave soprano belts. The attention that Focus is bound to garner isn't coming from Grande's work, it's coming from her name and that ridiculously quirky voice in the chorus.

While it's what we've come to expect from Grande, that in itself is Focus's disappointment: it meets the expectations but fails to exceed them.

Overall: 7/10

Friday, October 16, 2015

Album Review: Demi Lovato - Confident

The past two years for Demi Lovato have been a rollercoaster ride. After the release of her fourth studio album Demi, Lovato preceded to fulfill another season on the short-lived X Factor USA, embarked on two world tours, endured the deaths of her father and dog Buddy, worked her body to a point where she finally felt 'confident' enough to show it off entirely, and worked her voice into the ground before she built it back up better than ever before. There's no doubt about it: vocally, Confident is Lovato's most demanding, spanning four octaves and distancing herself even more from her peers Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, and perhaps even Ariana Grande.

Running through (overdone) melismas in Mr. Hughes, stretching her voice up to a four second long G#5(!) in Stone Cold, and even experimenting in the whistle register in Wildfire, Lovato has continued to show herself as a talented vocalist. Her stamina in-studio is remarkable, and her phrasing on ballads like the choir-backed Father is light years beyond anyone in her demographic. That being said, her voice does pick up on an annoying nasally and awkwardly placed vocal quality in the middle register - in addition to an often unorthodox vibrato - and she seems even more driven to resolve to the tonic with each of her final-chorus-ad-libs than ever before, which can become polarizing. With Lovato, less is more at this point, as seen in the spectacular and sexy aforementioned "Wildfire."

Confident opens up with blaring horns in the title track, before Lovato settles into the near spoken chorus ALA Problem. She segues into the zeitgeist of Jersey Shore summer, the blaring Cool For the Summer and the sonically similar Old Ways which features Lovato first 'bass drop.' The album seems to fall apart at tracks 4 and 5, with the filler mid-tempo For You sandwiching (the at times magnificent) power ballad Stone Cold between itself and the standout of the album, the edgy Kingdom Come with Iggy Azalea. This is thankfully the only tracklisting issue, and the rest of the album makes sense.

Waitin For You with rapper Sirah brings nothing new to the table, sounding like a copy and paste of Track 4 "Old Ways" and the previous "Kingdom Come." Track 8 might be the most understated and epic song of Lovato's career: Wildfire.

"Wildfire" doesn't need anything spectacular to standout: there's no Bb5 run - in fact Demi doesn't even touch her belting register until the final chorus - Lovato leaves her new found falsetto to strut over the flames of the seductive mid-tempo with ease, adding an ethereal element to the song which cannot be found anywhere else in her discography. Where tracks like "Waitin for You," "For You" and successive tracks "Lionheart" and "Yes" fail to stand out, Wildfire does so with ease.

The final song, "Father," seems almost obligatory. Without some wounded power ballad, would it really be a Demi Lovato album? That being said, "Father" makes itself worthwhile: Entirely written from her own hand, Lovato delivers the best phrasing of her career, and allows her to close a chapter of her life which has been thrown open for the past five years.  The final chorus is unparalleled by her previous ballads, boasting a massive choir and vocal.

While Confident lives up to its name - Lovato sounds as confident as ever, and allows herself to blatantly express her sexuality - it can feel bland. The album is just as much of a collection of radio fodder as Demi, but at least Confident is more cohesive. "Confident" occasionally finds itself covering old territory, and when it does, it's almost insufferable; but when it explores and distances itself from Lovato's past work is when it truly shines, and is worth the listen.

Overall: 7/10

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Album Review: Selena Gomez - Revival

Selena Gomez's fifth studio album Revival functions as a line break between two phases of Gomez's career: no longer is she a Disney starlet, nor Justin Bieber's on again and off again, she is her own woman, as seen in her boldly stated cover art. However, perhaps she could've waited to make a better album for the occasion.

Revival finds itself up to bat where it is constantly batting either strikes or home runs with few in betweens. Flip flopping between the strikes: the forgettable "Camouflage" and misplaced "Body Heat;" and the home runs: the infectious and delectable "Hands to Myself" and effective "Sober." Unfortunately the home runs find themselves drowned out by a barrage of mid-tempo strikes, leaving Revival in need of resuscitation by track nine (the aforementioned Camouflage).

The wall of sonic mass that marred 2013's Stars Dance is no longer present, as Gomez seems to find home in more understated tones, like the tolerable "Me and the Rhythm" and the disastrous Charli XCX penned "Same Old Love." What can be appreciated is that Gomez is at least trying; her hand actually touched the lyrics of this album as opposed to doing nothing of the sort on "Dance." 

While the material itself may let her down, she at least sounds passionate, she sounds bold: she sounds empowered. For that, you have to appreciate that she's showing some development, even if she stumbles along the way.

Overall: 5.5/10

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Single Review: Ellie Goulding - On My Mind

On My Mind marks a new chapter for the UK's Pop Princess, after a plethora of soundtrack singles - including the worldwide mega-hit Love Me Like You Do - Ellie Goulding has returned with unrestricted, free flowing Pop music.

"Mind" starts off with a syncopated guitar riff that echoes that of Nico and Vinz's Am I Wrong from earlier in the year. Once the production kicks in, this comparison loses footing, as an electronic-rock sound that Goulding has previously touched upon with live renditions of Burn snakes its way through intricate coos of "Why I got you on my mind." Embracing some of 2015s new found minimalism, the song is somewhat bare: there's no pounding of synths like Figure 8, and even the downbeat is hidden at points.

Ellie also flashes some previously unseen claws: as a response to Ed Sheeran's Don't, "Mind" functions appropriately, even if Goulding is afraid to tell you so without a Max Martin backdrop. From the get go, Goulding launches into the tale "Don't" has engraved in the mind of millions. That said lyrics like:

You don't mess with love 
You mess with the truth
I always hear, always hear them talking
Talking 'bout a girl, 'bout a girl with money
Saying that I hurt you but I still don't get it
You didn't love me, no, not really

rip the rug out from under Sheeran's one way narrative. Goulding launches an incredibly articulate and well planned attack; she plays victim and utilizes her good girl persona at some points, while slyly jabbing into Sheeran's (apparently) faulty account at the same time. Unapologetic and bold, Ellie is honest and sharp, even if the lyrics are too colloquial. 

In a post 1989 landscape, many will lazily claim that "On My Mind" plays to the strengths of what "1989" and Taylor Swift have accomplished. However, Goulding is far too versatile with her persona to play one-dimensional Swift. With each listen, On My Mind unfolds in new ways, a quality that is too often lost in Pop music today.