AURORA Drops Starkly Gorgeous and Well Executed LP

A Different Kind Of Human is breathtaking take on pop music with a colder, more alienating tone which contrasts well with the undeniably catchy songwriting and mainstream sensibilities.

AURORA is an indie/electropop artist from Stavanger, Norway. She debuted with her 2015 EP, Running with the Wolves which slipped almost entirely under the radar but built something of an underground fan base. It was her full length follow up, All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend, which put her on the radar of the indie pop world, topping the charts in her native Norway and even breaking onto the US charts for a moment after she performed on a few American late night programs. This success kicked off a massive tour which ended with the release of her second EP, Infections of a Different Kind, which landed her a spot in festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella, as well as serving as the first part or “step,” as she called it, in a longterm series of releases. The second “step,” A Different Kind of Human released earlier this week and on it, Aurora is as entrancing as ever.

The album opens with one of AURORA’s fantastic songwriting on full display in the form of irresistible hooks. Tracks like “The River,” and “The Seed,” feature choruses which will catch the ear of even the most casual music listener and stick in their heads for quite awhile. She ties in clear inspirations from artists like David Bowie, for whom she’s expressed much admiration in the past, in putting together some truly fantastic hooks.

Beyond this, her lyricism is even more impressive. On cuts like “Daydreamer,” and “Hunger,” AURORA simultaneously uses a few interesting techniques. On the one hand, she consistently goes against the thematic grain of modern pop music, criticizing our tendencies to live only in the moment and speaking to the importance of living for the future as well. Additionally, she writes with haunting and almost alien imagery that makes for a fascinating experience when trying to dissect her storytelling.

Vocally, AURORA is also quite strong. While she doesn’t quite have the power of an average pop star, she makes up for this in spades with impressive control and an excellent range. Tracks like “Animal,” and “Soulless Creatures,” benefit tremendously from her excellent work as the front woman, her gentle tone providing an intimacy which acts as a strong counterpoint to the bewildering instrumentals.

All this being said, A Different Kind Of Human, as with most great pop music, leans heavily on its production and instrumentation. Most of the instrumentals feature heavy synths and quite a few unique tones but this is nothing compared to the extremely inventive percussion, most of which was performed by AURORA herself. Songs like “In Bottles,” and “Apple Tree,” while already listenable and interesting in their own right, are elevated to entirely new heights by the quirky and unpredictable percussion that drives their rhythms.

The album as a whole, however, just wouldn’t be what it is without some of the most genuinely impressive production of the year. From the intoxicating simplicity of “Dance On The Moon,” to the otherworldly experimentation of the title track, and even the gorgeous but criminally short closer, “Mothership,” the production team gets it right in every way possible on this one. Technically, their mixing and vocal tuning is spot on and creatively, nearly every second of the album is daring and unique, yet still listenable and accessible for all listeners.

Ultimately, A Different Kind Of Human is yet another breathtaking accomplishment for the Norwegian pop superstar. She’s somehow able to blend fearless experimentation with wonderfully accessible elements to create something truly special. The record is cold and distant, yet starkly beautiful in almost every way. If you’re a fan of great, well executed pop music, this is a must listen.

A Different Kind Of Human is breathtaking take on pop music with a colder, more alienating tone which contrasts well with the undeniably catchy songwriting and mainstream sensibilities.

8/10

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The Jonas Brothers’ Comeback is a Decade in the Making

Happiness Begins is simply frustrating because of a strong start and a heap of potential, but lazy writing and terrible production and instrumentation drag the album down every step of the way.

The Jonas Brothers are a power pop trio from Wyckoff, New Jersey. While their debut was fairly nondescript and unimpressive, their self-titled sophomore release in 2007 went double platinum and netted them a Grammy nomination for best new artist. They landed roles in the 2008 Disney Channel smash hit Camp Rock, becoming Disney Royalty. They dropped another double platinum record that year and another platinum album in 2009. Their last two records peaked at number one on Billboard charts and they’d had a multitude of massively successful EPs, tours, movies, and music videos. In 2012, however, after several delays plagued work on a new project, the brothers announced that they were leaving Hollywood Records, their tie to Disney, and began a messy, drawn out process of splitting up. Nick Jonas found considerable success as a solo act with a handful of platinum singles while Joe Jonas fronted the group DNCE, honing his power pop chops and dropping a few hits himself. Now, a decade after their last release, the brothers have returned with Happiness Begins which is, unfortunately, disappointing.

The opener and lead single, “Sucker,” raised my hopes quite a bit even before the record has released. Unfortunately, aside from a handful moments on songs like “Trust,” these hooks just don’t appear as much as they need to. While a few choruses here and there are strong, singable earworms, just as many are poorly written and half baked. This is, to be sure, the strongest quality of the album and could make it sound better than it really is when played as wallpaper music. However, the singable sections of these tracks often don’t hold up to closer listening.

Beyond this, the Brothers do show some fairly impressive chops in the harmony department. Songs like “Used to Be,” and “Strangers,” feature tight, three part harmonies which, though they aren’t nearly as prevalent as they should be, are very welcome additions to the sound. Sadly, this is pretty well the end of the line in terms of positive comments on the album.

One bizarrely poor choice comes early in the record with nearly unlistenable, “Only Human,” and reappears only a few tracks later with “Every Single Time.” Here, the Jonas Brothers take their best swing at a reggae style and whiff entirely. Virtually every aspect of these tracks-the poorly mixed horns, the strange inclusion of synthesized steel drums, the awkward vocal performances-is hamfisted and irredeemable.

Lyrically speaking, the entire LP is essentially filler. Songs like “Love Her,” and the closer, “Comeback,” are especially egregious, but I don’t know that I heard one single memorable lyric in the more than 40 minute runtime. Nothing is noticeably bad, but it all feels somewhat lazy and cliche’d.

The instrumentals also leave quite a bit to be desired. The main reasoning for this stems from terrible choices of tone for the synths that drench every track. There’s certainly nothing wrong with using synths for the majority of the record, and in fact I was expecting this in keeping with their more power pop roots, but the tones range from abrasive and odd to just thoughtless and ignorable on a song like “I Believe. On the other hand, later songs like “Rollercoaster,” use terribly outdated acoustic guitars that seem ripped from a Philip Philips album.

Perhaps the first hint that I was headed for a disappointment came with the very poorly mixed drums on the second single, “Cool,” as well as later cuts like “Happy When I’m Sad.” The percussion generally uses boring, nondescript trap drums which simply don’t fit with the tracks what soever, though when a more organic kit is present, it’s devoid of any body or thickness.

This brings me to the most overarching and inescapable critique of this project which comes down to simply awful production. “Don’t Throw It Away,” is unbearably mixed while “Hesitate,” uses a multitude of irritating effects and poorly tuned vocals. I save this issue for last because it is certainly the cause of the majority of the album’s weakness. There does seem to be at least a passable album hidden in here somewhere, but it’s just buried by one awful decision after another and what’s left is unlistenable. I genuinely wanted to enjoy this record, but there just isn’t much there to enjoy.

Happiness Begins is simply frustrating because of a strong start and a heap of potential, but lazy writing and terrible production and instrumentation drag the album down every step of the way.

3/10

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

Carly Rae Jepson’s Fourth LP Is a Blast!!

Dedicated oozes passion and creativity from every note, and makes up for any missteps with thick, indulgent pop sensibilities.

Carly Rae Jepsen is a pop singer/songwriter from Mission, British Columbia. She debuted in 2008 with Tug of War, released on local, Canadian labels and selling just over 10,000 copies in her home country. She went on to build a respectable local following before signing to Interscope and releasing the mega-hit “Call Me Maybe,” in 2011, which reached diamond certification. From here, her next album, Kiss found strong success in 2012 and Jepsen was set on a path for teen pop stardom. However, with a simple life of one-hit-wonder success laid out, she instead made the admirable decision to challenge herself and her listeners with 2015’s Emotion. The record was a tour de force, jam packed with some of the most danceable pop music in years. This was aided by Jepsen’s decision to make a hard turn toward the indulgent, synth-pop of the 1980’s which had been an obvious inspiration on her earlier work. Dedicated largely picks up where Emotion left off.

From the opening moments, its clear that Carly continues to wear her influences on her sleeve in the classiest way. One of my favorite tracks, “I Want You In My Room,” captures the fearless style of the 80’s pop scene while a later cut like “The Sound,” seems to draw from 90’s artists like Alanis Morissette, particularly in her vocal melodies. Throughout the album, she manages to perfectly toe the line between heavy influence and intentional tribute, never quite settling on either.

Additionally, the production is heavily lifted from the same era, especially in its shimmering synths and start drums. The opener, “Julien,” uses this to fantastic effect and will have even the most heartless listener dancing by the half way point, while “Everything He Needs,” dabbles in spacey, psychedelic elements which I hope to see further explored on a later LP. The mix is so bright and the decisions so daring that every song is a treat.

That being said, the record does fall down a bit when it comes to instrumentation. Simply put, the entirety of this album’s instrumental pallet is made up of synths and drums. While I can generally forgive a narrow pallet on a pop album, Dedicated takes it a bit far. It can often be ignored, but on tracks like “Happy Not Knowing,” and “Right Words Wrong Time,” when the hooks are a bit less impressive or no vocal lines are jumping out, it becomes clear that the instrumentals are actually quite uniform.

On the other hand, the percussion is excellent on this album. The slicing snare on “Automatically In Love,” and the quiet but intricate and heavily effected drums on “For Sure,” are just a few of my favorites, but nearly ever cut on the record carries a strong rhythm section which is both well mixed and lively, despite being obviously recorded on a drum machine of some kind.

Like many pop albums, Dedicated lives and dies by its hooks. This is one of the most singable albums I’ve heard all year, driven by songs like “No Drug Like Me,” “Feels Right,” and “Real Love,” which are genuinely impossible to stop humming throughout the day. This is one element which Carly has had in spades from the beginning of her career and its only gotten better with time.

When all else fails, the album can simply fall back on Jepsen herself and one strong, energetic performance after another. The way she lays it all out on a “Now That I Found You,” or “Too Much,” is just infectiously fun. She’s truly a talent in the world of pop songwriting and performance, evidenced by her ability to elevate every track she touches to an entirely new level.

All this aside, there are a few weak points. As I mentioned, much of the instrumentation is repetitive. Additionally, the lyrics leave quite a bit to be desired and the pacing drags now and then on tracks like “I’ll Be Your Girl,” leaving just a few minutes to feel like rehashed elements from earlier in the album.

Nevertheless, Dedicated is a blast to listen to. Carly Rae Jepsen takes the 80’s-esque style from Emotion and develops it fully on this follow up. While it isn’t perfect, any weak moments are quite effectively painted over by shimmering production, powerful vocals, and screaming synthesizers.

Dedicated oozes passion and creativity from every note, and makes up for any missteps with thick, indulgent pop sensibilities.

7/10

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

Miley Cyrus Drops Yet Another Directionless, Hot Mess

SHE IS COMING is a half-baked, hot mess that is fluctuates between boringly safe and confoundingly awful.

Miley Cyrus is country/pop singer from Nashville, Tennessee. She rose to massive fame as the most prominent figure in Disney’s mid-2000’s class of musical stars. Under the Hannah Montana moniker, she released five LPs full of relatively inoffensive pop music alongside three fairly similar releases under the Miley Cyrus name. Having released five albums by the age of 18, Miley seemed to feel a bit boxed in as the character she’d played on Disney Channel. She quite admirably broke this box with her 2013, triple platinum album, Bangerz, which was vulgar and daring, if a bit meandering. This was followed by the horrendously bloated Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz which received a limited release and her much tamer, full scale follow up, Younger Now in 2017. While Miley’s recent work has been commendable in its effort to push boundaries and change her public image, it’s largely felt aimless and thoughtless and virtually never takes advantage of her genuinely impressive vocal abilities. SHE IS COMING is no exception.

The EP opens with “Mother’s Daughter,” which is perhaps the only listenable cut on the tracklist. The trap drums play quite well against the spacey, piano-driven instrumental and Miley’s vocal performance is actually quite strong. The vocal tuning is entirely over the top and the lyrics are atrocious, but the hook is somewhat singable and Miley seems closer to a middle ground between her pop sensibilities and edgy desires than she has in the past.

“Unholy,” follows and a few of the issues with this project start to become apparent fairly quickly. The change in producers from track to track robs it of any possible coherence and Miley’s breathy, hissing vocal is extremely overproduced. The trap drums entirely overpower every melodic element, though none of them are interesting enough to warrant being pushed to the front of the mix. Worst of all, the lyrics on this cut are just awful, and the entire song sounds completely half baked, as does much of the EP.

“D.R.E.A.M.,” falls in the middle of the project and is one of the most disjointed messes of a song I’ve ever heard. While the chorus is admittedly catchy, Miley’s voice is once again breathy and overproduced as she sings over a hokey piano line which could fit comfortably on a High School Musical soundtrack. The only possible saving grace for the track would seem to be the feature from Wu-Tang alum, Ghostface Killah, but instead he phones in a short, unrelated verse on a completely different instrumental which only takes up that 20 or so seconds.

“Cattitude,” is the forth track on the EP and an absolute dumpster fire in musical form. Every single element, from the bizarre and endless RuPaul feature, to Miley’s embarrassing attempt at rapping on the verses, to the horribly vulgar lyrics is simply unlistenable. I can’t fathom how anyone let this song leave the studio’s doors but luckily for the listeners, it seams to be the rock bottom for the record.

“Party Up The Street,” sees Mike Will Made-It taking over production duties for the only well produced song on the tracklist. Swae Lee’s feature is flat throughout the entire track and the instrumentation is boring and uninventive, but a few of the melodies are genuinely well-written and it seems to be the only cut that anyone actually cared about. It serves as a welcome switch up from the aggressively terrible tracks that precede it.

The project closes with “The Most,” which is fairly inoffensive, though it offers little by way of intriguing ideas. The chorus is fairly well-written and features some of the only passible lyrics on the EP and Miley finally gives an impressive vocal performance, which has been lacking from every song thus far. That being said, its still quite overproduced and uninventive and features an irritatingly nondescript synth lead covering the majority of the melody.

Ultimately, this EP is a mess. It somehow finds a way to feel lazy and half-baked yet overproduced and soulless at the same time. Miley’s recent career has been full of spinning wheels without a track, but SHE IS COMING is the worst in this regard. I don’t see any audience for this or even a reason for it to exist.

SHE IS COMING is a half-baked, hot mess that is fluctuates between boringly safe and confoundingly awful.

1/5

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

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