Ariana Grande Tops Charts With Impressive Fourth Release

Sweetener is as soulful and lively as we’ve ever heard from Ariana Grande, yet far more mature than any of her early work. She sounds as good as she ever has, and sets a high bar for pop music this year.

     Ariana Grande is a 25 year old singer and actress based in Florida. 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. On the show, she showcased her skills as a vocalist and left the role with quite a promising future ahead of her.

   She made her musical debut with 2013’s Your’s Truly, which debuted at number one and went platinum. She followed this success with 2014’s My Everything, and 2016’s Dangerous Woman, both of which achieved massive success, going double and platinum respectively. Grande established herself as a modern powerhouse of female vocals. She has an especially impressive whistle register and smoky tone which compliments her penchant for working with hip-hop artists and bass-heavy beats well. I’d had a generally positive experience with all of her previous work, and I was excited to hear her latest release, Sweetener, and I was, overall, impressed with the finished product.

   The album surprisingly diverse, a description not so apt for her earlier projects. Compare the tropical, steel drum-infused instrumental of “successful,” to the trap-flavored beat of “everytime,” which follows directly after. There is almost a sense of musical whiplash between them. The same is true for the gleeful, 80’s influences on “no tears left to cry,” and dreamy, but short love track, “Pete Davidson,” which even finds a home for a beautiful violin line.

   Ariana is at her best on this record when she taps into her more soulful side, allowing herself to indulge with tracks like the excellent lead single, “God is a woman,” or on the criminally short opener, “raindrops,” which may be the best track on the list. One can even hear hints of this on the title track, as well as the closer, “get well soon.”

   Her harmony work is also quite enjoyable. See the vocal layerings of tracks like “better off,” or “R.E.M.” Between the very impressive production work on her vocals and Grande’s impressive performances on multiple parts, these tracks are infinitely listenable, with several hidden runs and lines which may only be discovered upon repeat visits.

   Ariana does, unfortunately have a tendency to get lost in some of the more demanding beats on project. “the light is coming,” for example, bury’s her easily in addition to suffering from a characteristically atrocious Nicki Minaj feature, and is, without a doubt, the low point on the album. “breathin,” suffers a similar fate, not due to an overactive instrumental, but to Ariana’s uneventful performance. This does work quite well, however, on “blazed,” which combines an infectious, tropical beat and a fantastic Pharrell Williams feature to overlook Grande’s less than stellar vocals and the song’s general lack of direction.

   She even dips into an interesting mix of soul and disco with “borderline.” The track is a fun listen and, thanks to Missy Elliot’s braggadocios third verse, it stands as one of the highlights from an already packed album.

   There are, of course, a few weak spots. Ariana’s attempts at rapping, mercifully rare though they are, immediately butcher any sense of enjoyment of a track, the trap drum effects are atrociously overused, and the lyricism so rarely peaks its head above the mark of uneventful as to be unworthy of mention. These are small issues, for the most part, but they’re issues which should be ironed out by an artist’s third and fourth releases.

   However, I’m left with a relatively enjoyable experience. When looking at the modern landscape of female powerhouses, Grande seems to be situated at near the top of the field in terms of ability to craft an enjoyable record from start to finish. She has an entire, fully fleshed aesthetic, a smokey and enjoyable voice, and she uses her power with reserve.

   Sweetener is as soulful and lively as we’ve ever heard from Ariana Grande, yet far more mature than any of her early work. She sounds as good as she ever has, and sets a high bar for pop music this year.

6/10

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Florence ± The Machine Adds to Intimate High as Hope

Check out my review for the new Florence and the Machine record, High as Hope.

     Florence and the Machine is one of the most recognizable names in all of modern rock music. The indie collective, which is currently listed as having nine members, was formed in 2007, and released their debut LP, Lungs, in the summer of the 2009.

   Lungs was an explosive hit, going five times platinum, and instantly made the band one of the biggest groups in the world. Their particular blend of experimental, arena rock and soft pop quickly captured the zeitgeist, thanks to the success of Florence, as well as groups like Coldplay, The xx, and Of Monsters and Men.

   Florence and the Machine would go on to release Ceremonials in 2011, and How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful in 2015. Each of these were very well received by critics, but suffered somewhat diminishing commercial returns as their sound began to fade from the mainstream. The group had developed a very dedicated fan base, however, and their studio work continued to impress along with infamously impressive live shows. In late June, 2018, Florence released their fourth studio record, High as Hope.

   This album is surprisingly quiet, especially considering the large line up of musicians involved. Tracks like “Sky Full of Song,” and “No Choir,” verge on boring because of their simplicity, and would fall into this trap if not for the excellent vocal work of Florence Welch which highlights every song.

   Isabella Summers’ piano melodies carry the bulk of this album, especially on slower tracks like the opener, “June,” and the charismatic, “Big God.” Here, Welch’s vocals still take front and center, but Summers slides in behind her with one simple, but catchy piano hook after another.

   Not every song, however, is quiet and simple. “South London Forever,” utilizes rhythmic bass drums and a catchy violin groove to stand out early in the tracklist, while “100 Years,” uses sharper percussion and chaotic vocal layers to bob heads near the end.

   Vocally, Florence Welch puts on a clinic here. Tracks like “Grace,” and “The End of Love” are melodic and moving in their delivery, which sees Welch’s singing pushed far to the front of the mix as the undeniable lead, while she brings attitude and unique melodic lines with her to “Patricia,” which is far more upbeat and showcases yet another tool in her arsenal.

   By far the best track on this record is “Hunger.” It’s lyrically impressive, even more so than the rest of the album, Welch’s vocal melody is endlessly catchy, and the crescendoing instrumental,  broken at the choruses by well timed and well mixed cymbal crashes are almost overwhelming. This is a track that will have listeners humming for a few days after.

   High as Hope’s weak points are few and far between, but far from non-existent. Most notably, the pace is too quick. Clocking in at exactly 40 minutes, most of the tracks feel rushed and underdeveloped. The band clearly has the ability it build interesting layers over long form tracks, but choose not to for whatever reason.

   “Big God,” is also the weakest showing of the track list, as it is both lyrically and sonically repetitive. At times, a few of the songs tend to blend together, as they all sound similar, and “Big God,” is an example of a track that will completely disappear from memory in a few hours.

   In total, High as Hope is an excellent showing for the Indie Rock megastars, and adds yet another solid chapter to their strong discography. The album’s unique mix of baroque instrumentation, expressive lyrics, and powerhouse vocals makes for quite the finished product which can be enjoyed by all listeners, from die-hard fans to newcomers.

   With nearly all of the group’s contemporaries having fallen off in terms of popularity, and many scrambling to update their sound, its good to hear a band from the this baroque pop/rock movement hold strong and piece together an album they can and should be proud of.

8/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/0pKZJj9GzcKPCS8r4IaksA

Gorillaz Bounce Back With Excellent Sixth Album

This was a really fun album that I’ll likely be listening to for awhile! Let me know in the comments what you thought of this album, and what I should review next!

     Gorillaz is an electronic, garage-rock/hip-hop artist who got their start in 2001 with their self-titled, debut LP. Referring to Gorillaz in the singular may be surprising to even a few dedicated fans, as the artist is generally known by the animated band of ape-like humanoids, for which a vast and entertaining mythology has been created. The group was created by comic book artist, Jamie Hewlett, with the idea of creating an “Alvin and the Chipmunks for adults,” with musician and Blur frontman, Damon Albarn.

   The groups early work was truly ahead of its time. Albarn melded rap, hip-hop, electronica, and even jazz elements in a way that wouldn’t become anything resembling mainstream for another decade. Unlike their Nu-Metal and early EDM contemporaries, Gorillaz struck a reserved balance between these genres that made their sound feel totally new and unique, and their albums had clear direction and struck to their concepts.

Their 2017 release, Humanz was, in my opinion, the groups first misstep in a long and excellent career. The record was bloated, often directionless, and the features-Albarn is heralded for his ability to mold and fit the style of any and all featuring artists-felt like talented musicians being shoved into roles where they didn’t belong. It was quite a disappointment, but barely a year later, Gorillaz is back with the far more impressive, The Now Now.

This album, which is Gorillaz’ sixth studio effort, is far shorter, clocking in at exactly 40 minutes, and it uses its time well. The quick pace insures that no one track over stays its welcome, but that each idea is still fully fleshed out.

The album is also almost devoid of features, save two exceptions. The first of these is “Humility,” which features George Benson, the legendary jazz guitarist who has worked with acts like Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis on top of his tremendous solo career. The track opens the record, and Benson’s guitar compliments the dreamy instrumental well. The other is “Hollywood” which has an excellent feature from Snoop Dogg and a few ad libs from Jamie Principles that add a strong dose of attitude to the track.

The sweet, dreamy vibe continues on tracks like “Magic City,” and “Tranz.” These songs use heavy synth-pop influences and thickly layered vocals to create washes of sound that develop slowly before billowing over in sugar rush choruses.

Albarn strikes a distinctly darker tone, however, on “Kansas,” “Sorcererz,” and the closer, “Souk Eye.” Here, the synth elements are still front and center, but the chord progressions take darker turn and the vocals have a more spacey quality. This works well as a counterpoint to the dreamier tracks, though they’re a bit less enjoyable.

The highlight of the album is “Idaho.” Here, the tempo is slowed down drastically, and the heavily reverbed and layered vocals take center stage. Gorillaz is often called a “postmodern,” band for many reasons, not the least of which is their general detachment from emotion. This makes “Idaho” all the more special, as Albarn’s weaves his own heart into this track and it shows.

This is followed by the worst track on the record, “Lake Zurich.” There’s nothing particularly offensive about this song, but rather a general lack of anything interesting. There are no vocals, and the electronic melodies which take the lead are often repetitive and boring.

Overall, The Now Now is a large step in the right direction, and erases many of the flaws that plagued Humanz. Its runtime is wholly justified, the few features there are add a lot to the album while preserving the uniqueness of the featuring artist, the vocals are well layered and unique, and above all the electronic instrumentals are fantastic. Its an album with only a few bright spots, but nearly devoid of a weak link.

After one, singular stumble, it would appear that Gorillaz is back in full force.

Panic! Returns With an Average Sixth Record

Took me a bit longer than I would’ve liked, but here’s my review of Panic! At The Disco album, Pray for the Wicked.

     Panic! at the Disco is an emo-pop/punk band who rose to massive popularity with fans and critics in 2005 with their debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. It was an album dripping in attitude and urgency, featuring excellent lyricism and instrumentation, and highlighted by the incomparable vocal talents of frontman, Brendon Urie.

   The band would go on to an excellent career which is especially notable for their putting the “Fueled by Ramen” label on the map, their many tours with fellow emo-punk band Fall Out Boy, and above all, their penchant for delivering vastly different sounds from album to album.

   As the years went on, however, members came and went between records until, finally in 2016, Urie released Death of a Bachelor under the P!ATD monicker as the sole remaining member. It was an album with a lot of potential, but wholly lacking in direction as there was no balancing force to Brendon’s manic creativity. Just two years later, Urie returns with the sixth installment in the Panic!’s storied discography.

   In many ways, Pray for the Wicked feels like a continuation of ideas which its predecessor started. Tracks like “Say Amen” and “Silver Lining” could very easily have fallen on either album, and the synth-heavy instrumentation does leave much of the track listing feeling stale.

   The most obvious take away for even the most casual of listeners is Brendon Urie’s excellent vocal performance. Throughout the album, and especially on tracks like “Roaring 20’s” and “Hey Look Ma, I Made It,” Urie puts on an absolute clinic. His range is particularly impressive, and his recent stint on Broadway in Kinky Boots has brought a brand new dimension to his already very full tool box.

   The strides which are made by the great vocal work are heavily undercut, though, by the dreadfully cheesy lyricism which plagues every track. While Death of a Bachelor was criticized for overusing themes of unrepentant party lifestyles and wild nights, Pray for the Wicked gleefully digs up that dead horse and beats it eleven more times. Tracks like “High Hopes,” and “Dancing’s Not a Crime” are simply unforgivable, while “The Overpass” and “One of the Drunks” would be enjoyable if there was any joy left to be found in this writing style.

   The album, as a whole, is paced quite well. Clocking in at just under forty minutes, most of the runtime flies by, and much of the repetitiveness can be forgiven for this reason. That being said, several tracks feel completely pointless. “King of the Clouds,” and “Old Fashioned” are completely forgettable, and only “Dying in LA,” is able to rescue the latter half of the project.

   Ultimately, Pray for the Wicked is very enjoyable, and works as a musical wallpaper. However, it utterly fails to hold up to any in depth exploration, and leaves much to be desired by way of story telling in instrumentation. P!ATD is certainly standing shoulders above the recent work of their pop/punk contemporaries, but even still, this album is a mere shadow of the urgency and potential which can still be heard in the groups debut.

4/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/6ApYSpXF8GxZAgBTHDzYge

Death of a Bachelor Review

As I work on my review of the new Panic! Album, I realize I reviewed their last album a few years ago when was still writing with Vernois News & has just started reviewing! Here’s my review of Death of a Bachelor!

And then there was one. It’s been ten years since four young, yet incredibly talented Las Vegan’s blew the world away and put their label, Fueled By Ramen, on the map with their first studio album: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. On this album, Panic! At the Disco introduced us to the blend of Broadway level theatricality and somewhat Blink-182-esque post-punk rock and roll that the world had never seen. Drummer, Spencer Smith, strung together one refreshingly simple, aggressively fast rhythm after another. Guitarist, Ryan Ross, and Bassist, Jon Walker, had a palpable chemistry that flowed well to create an undeniably remarkable instrumental score. The score flees to the background, however, as Brendon Urie’s soaring vocals rush a listener back to the last time they were young and defiant. His voice is one that captures you from the first sound he makes, theatrical and enticing.

As the Band followed up with their second studio creation, Pretty. Odd., they completely redefined their sound, which would prove to be Panic!’s standard procedure. Each album stretched their styles to new and uncharted lands, but listeners always followed happily, enjoying the common thread of Urie’s emotionally charged vocals.

The Year 2011 saw the departure of Ross and Walker from the band. With half of Panic! gone, the world could only thank the young rockers for the two albums they’d given us and move on. But the Urie and Smith weren’t done yet. With their third release: Vices & Virtues, they charged on with only half of the original crew and gave us a truly inventive album. So when 2015 began with Spencer Smith’s announcement that he would be leaving the band as well, fewer people were surprised to see the year end with the release of another single from the band, this time with all writing, instrumentation and, of course, vocals, done by Brendon Urie. The singer went on to begin 2016 with the release of Panic!’s fifth project, entitled Death Of A Bachelor.

According to Urie, DOAB is somewhat of a tribute to the man he used to be, before his 2015 marriage. The album itself, however, plays less like a tribute and more like a funeral.

He opens with “Victorious,” a fast-paced pre game of sorts, declaring, with intentional naivety, the age old “tonight’s the night message” but this time with the interesting spin of a man looking back. Though Urie writes in the present tense, you can feel his reminiscence.

“Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time”, the last single before the album’s release, and “Hallelujah”, the album’s first official single, follow this opener, using lines like “If you go on, you might pass out in a drain pipe. Don’t threaten me with a good time!” and “My life started the day I got caught, under the covers with second hand lovers” to display the tone of the majority of this album to be that of reviling in one’s bad decisions. Urie uses the bulk of his time being entertained by his poor decision-making with the childlike glee of a baby smearing his first birthday cake all over his face or a young boy who jumps in a mud puddle in his new shoes. This enjoyment is a bit of a throwback to the delightfully immature defiance of Fever.

“Emperor’s New Clothes” steer’s heavily into the skid of theatricality and is the first to even vaguely hint at the recent departure of Smith, who was the original creator of P!ATD, with the line “Dynasty decapitated, you just might see a ghost tonight.” From here, Urie allows himself a slight venture into the true nature of his feelings toward growing up.

His descent into his real feelings begins with what is, in my own opinion, by far the best track on the album, after which the album is named. During an interview, the singer/songwriter said that he was aiming to blend the sounds of legendary artists like Queen and Sinatra when he created this track. Urie has always been an outspoken fan of Freddy Mercury (the band did a very popular cover of Bohemian Rhapsody) but his mention of Ole Blue Eyes is a bit out of character. However, the accomplished writer blends the two styles masterfully, while putting his own twist on it. All told, this album delights in keeping you on your toes. Around every corner, Urie packs a delightful punch to the gut. Just when you think you know what to expect, along comes a song like Crazy=Genius or Hallelujah to turn you upside down. However, for all the positive points featured on the LP, there are a few negatives.

My main criticism of the album is based on it’s lyrical substance, or lack there of. A good portion of my teen years, like many of my peers, has been sound tracked by P!ATD, so when Brendon Urie announced the concept of this album, a eulogy to his younger “bachelor” self, I was excited. One of the most skilled songwriters of my generation was poised to release his newest work and tackle the issue that I, and many Panic! Fans were finding to be heavy on their minds: growing up. Not to mention that with Urie’s recent marriage and the departure of the final original piece of his high school band, he had plenty of growing up to comment on. Sadly, aside from a few savored moments, Urie cops out. He spends his first three songs enjoying his poor lifestyle choices with similar lyrics in “Victorious”, “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time”, and “Hallelujah”. He later revisits this topic again on “LA Devotee” and “The Good, The Bad, and The Dirty.” Though each of these songs are well written, they essentially repeat themselves and cover a fairly shallow topic that could be efficiently explained with one song (preferably “Hallelujah”). “House of Memories” is the singer/songwriter’s cheesiest attempt at tackling the big issue of entering adulthood. Lines like “Baby, we built this house on memories” and “Promise me a place in your house of memories” offer the same insights that could be found on the Twitter accounts of any high school age girl. When Brendon says “Those thoughts of past lovers, they’ll always haunt me” in the bridge, the listener is left to wonder why he would randomly add in an old love story, a solid two thirds into the piece. Reading the lyrics aloud, one may wonder if Urie realizes that you can miss something other than an ex. “Crazy=Genius” and “Emperor’s New Clothes” also deal with similar issues of Brendon proclaiming his ability to effectively lead P!ATD in the right direction on his own, though Crazy speaks more to an old lover who doubted his abilities, saying “You’re just like Mike, love, but you’ll never be Brian Wilson!” while Clothes aims more to tell the fans that he is attempting to reclaim Panic!’s old prowess, wailing “I’m taking back the crown!”

Overall, the album is good. It’s not the best of Panic!’s work (which I believe is still their debut: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out) or the worst (2013’s Too Weird to Live! Too Rare To Die!) It falls somewhere in the middle. Songs like “Hallelujah”, “Death of A Bachelor”, “Crazy=Genius”, and “Impossible Year”, are inarguable masterpieces, and should be respected as such. The chaotic and unpredictable nature of the project perfectly conveys how it feels to be inside an intensely creative mind with nothing limiting it. For the first time, Urie is let completely out of his cage and unleashed on the world and what he gave us was beautiful, though just a bit too tame. This piece may be a eulogy to the younger versions of us, but it seldom succeeds in making you cry for your loss, as it isn’t raw enough. However, Urie succeeds in solidifying the unspoken motto that has been at the heart of Panic!’s music for years: “All you sinners stand up and sing ‘Hallelujah!’”