Pink Sweat$ Brings a Minimalist Take to R&B

Pink Sweats’ second EP, Volume 2, is intimate, well performed, and hopeful just a taste of excellent work to come.

Pink Sweats is a soul/R&B artist from Philadelphia. He debuted last year with his Volume 1 EP released on Human Re Sources Records. The project came from nowhere and caught fire after the smash success of the single, “Honestly,” which peaked at number 10 on Spotify. Sweats brings a unique brand of minimalistic, guitar driven R&B which is a refreshingly intimate flavor of the growing and fantastic scene, which tends toward the more luscious mixes. Now, just a few months later, he’s followed up with Volume 2.

The EP opens with “I Know,” which begins with an excellent, almost guitar riff ripped straight from the pages of the outlaw country songbook. When Pink’s vocals drop in, it’s a bit of a jarring change, but the groove of the track is immediately disarming. With a fantastic vocal performance, great guitar work, and very well used trap drums, this is easily the strongest cut on the list.

“Coke & Henny Pt. 1,” follows and it’s nearly as impressive. The percussion mixes in well placed vocal hisses and snaps that slice the mix in half. The acoustic guitar is perhaps the highlight as it never stops working, carrying the melody across the entire track. Overall, when listening to this track, I was most impressed by the wide array of influences as elements of artists like Kanye and Michael Jackson were extremely apparent.

Naturally, “Coke & Henny Pt. 2,” is next and this cut runs much more along the lines of a more by the numbers modern R&B track. This isn’t a bad thing in all respects. The vocal melody is excellent with a fantastic hook in the chorus, the dreamy production is a nice change up from Pt. 1, and the guitar work is, again, great. However, on a track like this, the minimalist style fails to capture much of what Pink Sweats is going for, and a more luscious pallet would be much appreciated from this point forward.

“Your Side,” while not the strongest track on the list, is an absolute blast. The many layers of delay and ambitious stereo image on the vocals makes Sweats feel almost larger than life and the staccato, acoustic guitar makes a great anchor. The lyrics leave a bit to be desired, but the upbeat groove and energetic lead vocals make up for this in spades. It certainly functions as a return to form from the preceding track as the minimalism is utilized quite well and makes for yet another enjoyable song.

“Body Ain’t Me,” closes this project out and it’s one of my favorites. As usual, the guitar sounds great and the production is tight. The record pops in the background are a bit frustrating, but I find them fairly easy to ignore. The real highlight of the cut is Pink Sweats’ vocals. He seems to sing with something to prove and whatever it was, he proved it. He’s tender and relatable on the verses, almost sleepy in a few low parts, and packs a surprisingly powerful punch in the chorus. Ultimately, it’s a great closer to yet another great EP.

All in all, Volume 2 is a success by virtually any measure. I don’t know that there’s a hit on the level of “Honesty,” but instead, we’re treated to five strong tracks, one after another, each unique and each building on the successes of its predecessor. The record leaves me content with another strong outing and most of all, it leaves me excited for a full length release.

Pink Sweats’ second EP, Volume 2, is intimate, well performed, and hopeful just a taste of excellent work to come.

4/5

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

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LSD Supergroup Drops Fun but Shallow EP

No New Friends is a fun, danceable EP, though it falls well short of its potential.

LSD is a recently formed supergroup featuring Australian pop star Sia, American DJ Diplo, and British singer/rapper Labyrinth. Each member has had quite the career in of themselves. Sia is perhaps best known in the US for her smash hit single, “Chandelier,” but she has eight studio albums, one of which is certified platinum, and she’s a highly respected pop vocalist, known for her powerful belting voice. Diplo is one of the most prolific producers of the modern era, having worked with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Justin Bieber, Lil Pump, and many more. He’s best known for his work with hip-hop and pop artists, and he boasts a handful of Grammy awards and platinum singles. Labyrinth may be the least known of the trio as most of his work is done as a producer and cowriter with artists like Eminem, XXXTentacion, and Ed Sheeran. He does have one solo LP to himself, but he’s best known for his work behind the scenes as a well respected writer and producer. Each of these three artists have had quite a bit of success on their own, and now they’ve joined forces for their first EP, No New Friends.

The record opens with the very fun and danceable title track which at once seems to lay bare every success and shortcoming we can expect on the the rest of the project. Sia gives a strong vocal performance and the chorus features a great hook. My main gripe, however, comes on the instrumental. Diplo’s efforts on this track leave much to be desired in terms of depth, as the track is relatively inoffensive, but very noticeably lacks the depth and lusciousness I would expect from such a team.

“Genius – Lil Wayne Remix,” follows and this is the trio’s debut single, updated with a verse from Lil Wayne that adds quite a bit. I can’t say I enjoyed it quite as much as the original version, which appears later on the project, but Wayne gives a typically energetic verse and Sia once again sounds great on the chorus.

“Mountains,” on the other hand, is easily the weakest of the six songs. Here, not only is the instrumental once again shallow and uninventive, but many of the synths that decorate the melodic hook are just abrasive and irritating. The chorus is certainly enjoyable, but without a strong vocal performance from either Sia or Labyrinth, Diplo’s production is just left to flounder as the main attraction.

This is followed, however, by my favorite track, “Thunderclouds.” Here, we’re treated to two excellent vocal leads, predictably in Sia’s commanding first verse, but also in a surprisingly soulful effort from Labyrinth on the second. It’s one of the most singable and endearing cuts here, and the value of the two strong lead singers and their chemistry can’t be overstated.

“Audio,” is yet another misstep and yet again, it really boils down to whether Sia takes a place front and center on track. In this case, she doesn’t, and we’re left with another fairly shallow instrumental with a somewhat catchy chorus. Most of this project is still fun and danceable, but it doesn’t nearly reach the levels it could’ve had Diplo taken the time to fill out the sonic image and get inventive with the instrumental pallet. Driving, nondescript synths over vaguely interesting drum loops can only go so far.

“Genius,” closes the EP and while I question why this track was even included as it had already been released previously and a remix of the same track appears earlier on the project, it does make for an entertaining closer. Labyrinth gives another excellent verse and Sia is, of course, fantastic. The instrumental is actually somewhat interesting, especially the inclusion of heavily processed violins and the grooving beat. It’s not the best cut on the list, but it’s a strong closer.

All told, No New Friends is admittedly a bit disappointing. With three extremely talented artists joining forces for such a short project once would expect a tightly packed collection of hits, but that’s simply not what was created. That being said much of the project is still fairly enjoyable.

No New Friends is a fun, danceable EP, though it falls well short of its potential.

3/5

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

HOMESHAKE’s Fourth LP is Full of Ambition but Lacking Ideas

Helium may be a promising sign for the future, but in the present, it’s hardly worth a second glance.

HOMESHAKE is a lo-fi, indie pop singer/songwriter from Montreal, Quebec. He debuted in 2013 with two mixtapes, The Homeshake Tape and Dynamic Meditation. He gained something of an underground following which eventually lead to his departure from Mac DeMarco’s band in 2014 and the release of his debut LP, In The Shower. His follow up, Midnight Snack came about a year later followed by Fresh Air in 2017. Over the years, he’s transitioned from a slightly indie-tinged, guitar pop act to a more lo-fi experimental project. Helium is his latest effort, and it leaves quite a bit to be desired.

The album does have quite a bit going for it, not the least of which is ambition. The Seinfeld-esque bass guitar on “Like Mariah,” is a creative touch and “Other Than,” utilizes an interesting siren loop which fades in and out across the entirety of the track. There are plenty of moments like this, where HOMESHAKE seems to have the ambition needed to experiment with a large pallet, and though they don’t always work all that well, it’s fun to hear him try new things.

There are even a few genuinely well put together cuts on Helium. “All Night Long,” is an enjoyable, lo-fi track that features some great, subtle instrumentation. On the other hand, “Just Like My,” and “Nothing Could Be Better,” range from shimmering to ethereal, each full of strong creative decisions and set to fun grooves.

There are even a couple impressive interludes. “Heartburn” is relaxed and features a pleasing roll of wind chimes, while the most daring piece on the record comes in the form of the 90-second, “Salu Says Hi.” The chaotic spoken pieces drape over the droning instrumental well and the bouncing effects near the end are quite intriguing. Unfortunately, it’s on the topic of interludes where we find our first issue.

It should stated that there are far too many of these short instrumentals between tracks, and several of them seem either to be padding the runtime or like they’d fit better as intros to the next track. Beyond this, the opener, “Early,” for example, is just plain boring, with almost nothing happening for the entire 90 seconds.

Boring is a term that applies to much of this album. “Anything At All,” and the closer, “(Secret Track),” are perhaps the worst offenders as their entire runtime seems completely devoid of ideas. One great quality of electronic and lo-fi music is the many subtle layers, each with its own progression, leaving much to be uncovered on repeat listens. Much of Helium however, seems to be the absolute bare minimum, with little thought put into the melodies or especially the underpinning pieces.

In addition, The vocal performances are most just passable at best and frustrating at worst. “Another Thing,” for example, has some of the worst vocals on the album. Some of this may have worked the vocals had been heavily produced and used as another element, not the focus, but with a relatively dry lead, the shortcomings just can’t be ignored.

Worst of all, though, is HOMESHAKE’s insistance on repetitive sound effects, worst of all, the static. Several tracks are saddled with this backing static, though the “Trudi and Lou,” interlude and “Couch Cushion,” spring to mind as especially egregious examples where one, bland static is played behind the entire track. Something like waves on the ocean may have done this slightly better as at least there is some variance, but this static is omnipresent in the mix and absolutely lifeless.

As the album wraps up, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. While I’ve never been massively invested in HOMESHAKE’s work, Helium did seem to be striking on a vein that could yield very unique and interesting results. Unfortunately, he stops short and only delivers a surface level collection lo-fi wallpaper with only the hint of further depth.

Helium may be a promising sign for the future, but in the present, it’s hardly worth a second glance.

3/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2NhfRbU

Chaka Khan’s Return Is Powerful and Fun

Hello Happiness is a legacy album to be proud of and a must listen for fans of funk and soul music’s heyday.

Chaka Khan is a funk and soul singer/songwriter from Chicago, Illinois. She debuted in the mid 1970’s with the band Rufus, winning her first Grammy in 1975 for their massive hit, “Tell Me Something Good.” The funk outfit went on to a fairly successful career with their 1977 LP, Ask Rufus going platinum and a few more reaching gold certification. Khan began working on her solo career in 1978 as Rufus was wrapping up. She was extremely prolific with eight releases by the end of the 80’s including her platinum hit, I Feel for You in ’84. Her output slowed a bit in the ’90’s and her final studio record to date, Funk This, released in 2007.

She’s known chiefly for her powerhouse voice which lead her to the top of the heap in terms of soul and funk vocalists of the 70’s. Having worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, she’s a certified legend of the genre, boasting more than 20 Grammy nominations and some fairly impressive sales. When she dropped her latest album in 2007, her sound was certainly getting old, and had all but fallen out of the zeitgeist. However, with the success of artists like Chance the Rapper and Kanye West bringing back a newfound passion for the funk and soul that characterized the mid 70’s, she’s found a niche in which to justify her first release in more than a decade, Hello Happiness.

This album’s most noticeable quality comes in the instrumentation. “Like A Lady,” features well played violins and an excellent bass line, while “Isn’t That Enough,” is built on a groovy, almost reggae inspired electric guitar and some fantastic drumming. Throughout the entire album, the bouncing, bass-heavy instrumentation is like a musical time capsule from the days of mid-70’s funk music in the best way possible.

On the other hand, there are several moments of modern, electronic brilliance mixed in for good measure. “Don’t Cha Know,” utilizes this well. While the heart and soul of the track is the heavily distorted guitar riff and excellent organ work, they’re interlaced with shimmering, futuristic atmospherics and looping samples that seems to bring the sound directly into the 21st century. It’s an interesting mix that give the album a unique feel.

The real highlight, however, is Chaka Khan’s show-stopping vocal performances. On tracks like my personal favorite, “Too Hot,” or the closer, “Ladylike,” all production and instrumental elements take a back seat as Khan’s iconic voice commands our ears. Most of the album is filled with very interesting melodies, all of which Khan absolutely knocks out of the park. It’s refreshing to hear such a strong voice still coming from one of the all time greats.

Where the album does fall short, it comes down to two elements. The first of these is production, where much of the tuning on vocals is far too treble heavy and seems to hiss at times. This can generally be ignored, but in a track like the opener and title track, where much of the instrumental features high pitched atmospherics, it becomes a bit grating. The track has a lot going for it, but this small issue makes it one of the weaker cuts on the album.

The only truly weak song on the record is “Like Sugar.” It falls in the latter half of the 30 minute runtime and it suffers most of all from the album’s most permeating shortcoming which is simply a lack of ideas. While each track is well made and performed, many of them seem repetitive and beg for just a bit more thought to be put into the songwriting portion. While other tracks commit this sin, “Like Sugar,” is the only time a song seems just completely devoid of ideas before even the half way point.

Overall, this is a solid outing. With this being Chaka Khan’s 23rd album, it would be all to easy for her to coast by on revisiting old hits and phoning in her performances. Instead, she delivers a tight, well-paced, and well performed collection of interesting new tracks that retain much of the magic of hear early work and even experiment with more modern elements.

Hello Happiness is a legacy album to be proud of and a must listen for fans of funk and soul music’s heyday.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2Ei0GvW

Panda Bear’s Fifth LP is Daring and Unique

Buoys is an exciting journey through a creative process with far more hits than misses.

Panda Bear is an American singer/songwriter from Baltimore, Maryland. He’s best known as a co-founder of the experimental pop group Animal Collective along with longtime friend Avey Tare. The group has found quite a bit of success since their debut in the early 2000’s and all the while, Panda Bear has kept a fairly solid output of solo work. As far as recent releases, 2011’s Tomboy was his first effort to make it on the the Billboard charts, peaking at 29. He signed with Domino Recording Company and released his follow up, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper in 2015. The record performed slightly worse on the general charts, it made it to number two on the US Indie charts.

He and Animal Collective have spent several years on the cutting edge of psychedelic and experimental pop music, utilizing unique instrumentation, lo-fi production, and creative song structure to build records that are truly exciting and interesting. After such a long career, a strong fire and fanbase remains behind the collective and their independent members. Panda Bear has had a rather prolific career, allowing insight for fans into nearly every aspect of his creative evolution. Buoys is one more daring chapter in that catalog.

The album’s best quality comes in its massive pallet of sounds. From the lasers on “Cranked,” to the abrasive fuzz of the title track, the album leaves one guessing as to what will come next. Nearly every track features more atmospheric samples, which range from natural and pleasing to artificial and grating, than actual instrumentation and it makes for a very unique experience.

Despite the almost whimsical nature of these samples, he’s actually able to strike some surprising tones. Tracks like the opener, “Dolphin,” and the record’s best track, “Inner Monologue,” use subtle production choices to build a haunting overall style. The latter uses a harrowing sample of a woman laughing and crying in the background as the latter uses dripping water and unexpected mixing, but both achieve a cold and distant feeling, which is when this album is at its best.

Subtlety is yet another selling point of this record. A track like “Crescendo,” while benefiting from intriguing leads in the forefront and a jarring intro, is also colored in with a multitude of hidden details that only become apparent on repeat listens. The entire album is full of these, from hidden bass lines to quiet atmospherics, the sonic landscape of the album is extremely layered and detailed.

Beyond all of this, the percussion is also incredibly creative and unique. From the despondent rhythms set by the ever present acoustic guitar to the youthful samples on a track like “I Know I Don’t Know.” Anything and everything is used as percussion at some point on this record, which adds to the otherworldly aura of the project as much as the complex and often hard to parse time signatures.

There are, unfortunately, weak spots. These mostly rear their heads on the slower, more laid back tracks. “Master,” though full of interesting ideas, is far too simple and is ultimately just underwhelming in the face of the rest of the tracklist. The closer and weakest track, “Home Free,” may be the only piece of the puzzle that just legitimately doesn’t work as it seems to be seriously lacking in direction or creative energy.

Beyond this, my complaints are mostly minor. The lyrics and vocal performances are only passible and a few of the melodies feel a bit repetitive, but these aren’t the focal points of the album, and the strengths far outweigh the missteps.

In its very modest runtime, Buoys accomplishes quite a bit. With tight songwriting and a great stereo image, Panda Bear presents his listeners with a project that is equal parts daring experimentation, manic creativity, and accessible songwriting.

Buoys is an exciting journey through a creative process with far more hits than misses.

7/10

Ariana Grande Raises the Bar on Pop Music with Fifth LP

Thank u, next is perfectly paced, expertly produced, and packed to the brim with fantastic performances, setting a new measurement for what we can expect from Ariana and the pop genre as a whole.

Ariana Grande is an R&B/Pop singer and actress based in New York City. She began her career in the Broadway Musical 13, but found her footing on the national stage with the role of Cat Valentine on Nickelodeon’s Victorious. After showcasing her vocal abilities on the show, she would go on to break into the world of pop music, taking it by storm with 2013’s Your’s Truly, which debuted at number one and went platinum. After 2014’s My Everything went double platinum and 2016’s Dangerous Woman went platinum, she seemed to have established dominance as one of the most successful pop acts of the day.

She’s notable for remarkable control over her whistle notes, an impressive range, and a smokey tone that has worked especially well as she’s continued to incorporate hip-hop elements into her production. She dropped Sweetener in 2018 to very positive reviews, including from myself, and quickly announced that we could expect a second record within just a few months. Over that time and shortly before the 2018 release, her public image seemed to carry some baggage as her long time boyfriend and recent ex, Mac Miller tragically passed away in 2018, and Grande also split with then fiancé, Pete Davidson on less than amicable grounds. While I’d be more than happy to leave all of this information out of a review of her music, she seems more than happy to leave it in as this and more is addressed on her newest release, thank u, next.

First and foremost, Ariana’s vocal performance on this record is absolutely fantastic. Just listen to tracks like the opener, “imagine,” where she even reaches well up into her whistle tones or “bad idea,” where her belt and ability to switch between chest and head voice characterize an excellent chorus. She’s already well known as one of the more vocally talented pop stars in the industry today, and her performances on thank u, next do nothing but showcase that further.

The songwriting on the album is also quite impressive. Songs like “NASA,” and “makeup,” take fairly basic ideas from pop music and write about them from really unique angles. This is a lyrical trick she uses over the entire record, not to mention extremely personal lyrics on “ghostin” where she sings about her remaining love for the late Mac Miller and the effect it has on her other relationships, or the title track where she speaks to her many past relationships, boldly calling them all out by name, and speaks to her need to focus on her self in the future.

Even beyond lyrics, Grande has an incredible talent for writing incredibly catchy hooks and choruses. On the track “fake smile,” for example, her flow and melody is remarkably singable, as is the hook on the surprisingly sexual “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” She’s got such an ear for writing these choruses that keep listeners dancing through the entire runtime.

Best of all, though, is the production. There are specific examples like the layered vocals on “needy,” or the creative stereo image on “in my head,” but the entire album is a pure masterpiece of pop production. The attention to detail on vocal tuning and the overall mix is perfect and allows the producers to craft lush and dynamic instrumentals that surround the listener with a mix of organic instrumentation and well placed, nocturnal trap influences.

Admittedly, there are issues. “7 rings,” while benefiting from a great Sound of Music reference, suffers from the odd, Soulja Boy-inspired flow on the verses which pulls a lot of the momentum out of the track. Additionally, “bloodline,” is probably the weakest track on the record as the instrumental never seems to find its footing and features an awkward horn section. Luckily, these problems are extremely singular, and have virtually no effect on the rest of the album.

With her fifth release, Ariana Grande has not only established herself as the best of the mainstream, pop acts but raised the bar on pop music as a whole. While artists like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift have tried to incorporate trap and hip-hop influences with abysmal results, Grande has succeeded with flying colors and piled on further layers which her contemporaries simply can’t match.

Thank u, next is perfectly paced, expertly produced, and packed to the brim with fantastic performances, setting a new measurement for what we can expect from Ariana and the pop genre as a whole.

8/10

Nina Nesbitt Shows Promise With Sophomore LP

While The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change may suffer from quite a few noticeable defects, it’s a fun listen that hints toward the possibility of an impressive catalog to come.

Nina Nesbitt is a pop singer/songwriter from Livingston, Scotland. She first found fame opening for Ed Sheeran on the European leg of his 2012 world tour. She signed with Universal Records and dropped five EP’s from 2011 to 2013, gaining substantial notoriety and a strong following, particularly back home in Scotland. Her first full length LP, Peroxide released in early 2014 and though it found some success charting at number 11 worldwide and number one in Scotland, it was met with middling to negative reception by critics. While Nesbitt’s lyricism and voice was impressive, any promise seemed to drown in a pool of trendy folk-pop instrumentation and melody. Her subsequent EP releases received similarly mixed reviews until she left Universal and signed with Cooked Vinyl, an indie outfit from London, in 2016.

While her early sound was, admittedly, a bit immature, especially in the prominence of her Sheeran and Swift influences, there was still a bit of promise. She wrote with an interestingly sardonic sense of humor and had a skill for witty turn of phrase, which played well over her acoustic guitar heavy style. With The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change, however, she has wholly revolutionized her sound for the better.

Much of her best qualities are still here, including her voice. Tracks like the opener, “Sacred,” and “Chloe,” are made infinitely better by Nesbitt’s excellent vocal talents. Even on a few of the weaker tracks in the runtime, her voice is able to act as a shining center point thanks to a soft and controlled falsetto combined with a powerful lower register. This is a difficult album to front, and Nina handles the burden extremely well.

She also has an incredible ear for melody. The choruses on tracks like “The Best You Had,” and my personal favorite track, “Things I Say When You Sleep,” are undeniable ear-worms that listeners will be singing for days to come. It’s a rare skill to have, but it’s one which Nesbitt uses to her advantage across the entire project.

Her ear isn’t just well tuned melodically, however, but also rhythmically. Her flow on “The Moments I’m Missing,” and “Colder,” fits perfectly, and is rare to hear in the pop world today. Thanks to this, she’s able to keep her audience entertained through her verses as well as her choruses, creating a fully enthralling track when it works well.

The album is at it’s best when all these elements combine on top of the its greatest strength of creative and unique instrumentals. From the soft piano and atmospheric accents on “Is It Really Me You’re Missing?” to the intriguing latin guitar on “Love Letter,” when the beats work, they work. Even the old school, almost Abdul-esque track on “Loyal To Me,” is extremely enjoyable thanks to a few creative touches. Virtually every track is accented with a few subtle and unique sounds that add quite a bit to the songs themselves.

Unfortunately, the instrumentation is also a source of annoyance at times. Tracks like “Somebody Special,” and “Last December,” are all but butchered by abusing the acoustic guitar as a lead, calling back to the cheesy, folk-pop of her early career.

Additionally, the production has a few persistent issues. From beats that don’t seem to fully develop like the weakest track on the track list, “Empire,” to the near constant use of trap drums which takes some life out of nearly every track, especially the closer and title track.

Worst of all, Nina’s vocal is constantly EQ’d extremely poorly, pushing the high end to the point of an irritating hissing noise accompanying much of her performance. It’s a testament to her talent that she still sounds quite impressive despite this, but never really goes away and actually becomes quite noticeable and annoying at a few points on the album.

Regardless of shortcomings, however, The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change is a massive step forward for Nina Nesbitt. Having left Universal for a smaller, indie label, it seems she’s finally being given the freedom to step out from the pop-folk shadow and take part in the wild and exciting world of modern pop music.

While The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change may suffer from quite a few noticeable defects, it’s a fun listen that hints toward the possibility of an impressive catalog to come.

5/10