Ava Max – Diamonds & Dancefloors: Review

After an artist delivers a less-than-stellar debut, one can only remain optimistic with the positives that seep through the negatives. Unfortunately, Ava Max doesn’t appear to let those positives take command and find better collaborators, instead disavowing our musical comprehension and delivering subpar Dance-Pop stuck in one gear on her latest album, Diamonds & Dancefloors. Ava Max takes us through a 180 spin from her debut, Heaven & Hell, shifting typical electro/synth-pop flair into the same genericism, but with Dance-Pop, with a touch of more personal and reflective content. There is little energy getting exhumed by Ava Max as she tries to sprinkle typical shifts between lower vocals and hitting the fifth octave. She isn’t relishing in the vocal range she can provide and instead teeters between mediocrity and thrill; sometimes, this quality is enough for the listener to find themselves in a trance; I wasn’t one of them.

Ava Max would tell Zane Lowe at Apple Music, “This album is about my life and what I went through in the last year and heartbreak…it’s basically heartbreak on the dance floor,” adding, “It’s gonna make you cry and dance at the same time.” The production is fine on its own, never taking chances in the breaks or choruses, instead relaying the same sonic mediocrity we’ve heard others do, like Zara Larsson, except better.

Diamonds & Dancefloors speaks on heartbreak, focusing on a deteriorating relationship that boasts angst, depression, and reflections on identity, as one wants to distract themselves by dancing through their emotions. It’s not uncommon, with some of the most hypnotic works coming from Eurodance/Electro-pop songs of the late 90s and 00s. From “Better Off Alone” by Alice Deejay to “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn, and Basshunters’ trilogy “Now You’re Gone,” “All I Ever Wanted,” and “Angel In The Night,” this idea of letting loose and coming into your own, emotionally, which can get derivative. Ava Max tries to tap into that zone, style, but she becomes complacent with its lack of melodic creativity and production that takes that next step to feeling refreshing. There’ve been a few times when a song has given us beats that aren’t bottom of the barrel, like that of “Ghost,” which beautifully taps into aspects of Eurodance hypnotizing synths, despite it being predominantly in the choral sections. 

As non-extinguishing as “Ghost” is, it is one of only a few examples where Ava Max taps into her strengths: creating smooth melodies that will have you singing along. Writing is not one of them, as she shows us that her co-writers aren’t capable of boasting some boring and tried lyrics that take simple directions without making something profound. Ryan Tedder, who has written many hits, helps Ava Max turn “Weapons” into a radio hit, but it’s standard. Ava Max uses this song to focus on an idiom, “Stick and stones may break my bones (but words can never hurt me,” which some may feel that’s true to them. But Max’s song doesn’t reflect or hold that true, and instead, she seems like she can’t take words and would prefer the sticks and stones since there’s a bulletproof vest underneath for so many words. It is direct, as are other songs, with some that loosely thread simple metaphors like “Turn Off The Lights.” Much of what is here speaks to those who prefer it this way, but as someone who can find escapism within the melodies and production, it didn’t happen so often here.

Ava Max sews loose threads together to make a barely engaging album. One minute you’re grooving to some luscious choral melodies, and the next, it gets dourer as Max doesn’t captivate you with depth. When she retreats to another known: the more astute and emotionally protective creative, it still doesn’t feel new. “Cold As Ice” sounds like a tempered and groovier take on her Sweet But A Psycho demeanor that she established with her debut, but it still doesn’t pack a punch. With all these downs, when there should be more ups, but there are still some diamonds gleaming on the edges of the dancefloor, waiting for their moment to shine like Sugar Motta during a performance at Satana and Brittany’s wedding in Glee. The last two songs, along with “Get Outta My Heart,” spearhead some of the best work on the album. It uses minor quirks expected with Ava Max’s vocal style – here, she sounds different; she takes a smoother approach to her melodies while letting the Electronic/House elements create something new. It gets me moving, but there’s so little here for me to enjoy that I couldn’t find these to be anything rather than positives I won’t see getting repeated frequently, unlike “Weapons.”

Diamonds & Dancefloors was definitely made for the latter, but the grooves don’t always want to make you bust out your best moves, instead just free-flowing without a care. It has heart, except it isn’t poignant or carries enough depth instrumentally that you can’t help but push this aside and listen to better pop records from similar artists. As much as I can see something here for the masses, it doesn’t translate to something unique but rather something very apropos and diluted. There are a few tracks to like, but not enough to recommend a full listen.

Rating: 3 out of 10.

Ladytron – Time’s Arrow: Review

Ladytron’s latest album, Time’s Arrow, is not as expansive, keeping an almost two-dimensional with many synth patterns and the production’s range in guitar and percussion usage. It takes a while for the wheels to get rolling as lead singer Helen Marnie deconstructs innate reflective points with vigor on many songs. Her vocals add dimensions to each song’s atmosphere and psychedelia tones, seeping into these intricate thoughts that have us viewing some layered dimensions of our being, whether impersonal or not. Marnie, along with co-writers Daniel Hunt, Jonny Scott, Mira Aroyo & Vice Cooler, don’t leave you with ambiguity – the verses speak fluidly through its poetic approach, allowing you to visualize their world, interconnected with yours. It values time beyond the centralized generalizations we’ve heard prior – we get another solid effort that could have gone through another round in the think tank but still a serviceable release.

Starting strong, Time’s Arrow begins to keep its pacing steady, leaving you mystified by its ambiance and fluid melodies. Unfortunately, the synthesizers sometimes feel less intriguing and more of an added commodity that takes away from the small details that underlie the production coating. It isn’t until the later half of “Faces,” the second song on the tracklist, it starts to make sense of its direction – time is linear, but there are rifts that take you in unique sidesteps. It’s playing a bit loose with this concept, sonically, veering and making moments last long or short. It’s a straight shot of pure reflective bliss that stumbles to make anything imperatively potent with the sounds. There are some memorable notes within the production, but its consistency of impact is lesser than their last album. 

Sometimes Ladytron’s use of synths can over-sizzle, and other times it’s a little stale, but rarely in between. However, they never take you away from lyricism that’s lavishly poignant and resonant with one’s inner journey with themselves on a few tracks. In “Misery Remember Me,” we hear Ladytron looking back at one’s disdain for reflecting a person they’re not; it has gospel influence boasting the ponderous chorus and elevating its sense of self while letting the synths take a back seat. Not every track has this lyrical astuteness. Sometimes it teeters toward mundaneness with depth-less simplicity on “Faces” or the lackluster chorus of “California.” Fortunately, it is within the mid-point where the album takes chances beneath the abundance of synths caught between a drought and a rainstorm. Overlaying its poetically influenced lyricism are waning tempos with the different synthesizers they are using; in the long run, it took me away from finding much intrigue with “City of Angels” and “Sargasso Sea.” It’s a disappointing variation in production that keeps it from having a powerful opening and closing.

That middle sector of Time’s Arrow is where it starts to come to life. Beginning with “Flight of Angkor,” the tone gets set with a more fruitful array of synths that bring twinkles to your ears instead of confusing you. Continuing till “The Dreamers,” elements of Dream-Pop get incorporated to buoy the smooth cohesion between monochromatic ambiance and starry melodies. We don’t hear an overreliance on keeping you reeled with atmospheric electronic bliss. It lets the vocals breathe through the thick layers of synths, letting the backing vocals shine through. Additionally, we don’t get this small cluster of contrasting and complementing synths and percussion like in the title song; it oddly works at points, but comparatively, it’s a weaker-written song than the others. It doesn’t negate the vocal performances that radiate beneath harrowing synths that fail to make you return more than twice. 

Time’s Arrow sometimes feels like a distant memory, and remembering leaves you with some slight disappointment. It has these uniquely fantastic moments, but surrounding it, are some less-than-attractive synth layers. The synths don’t take away from the atmospheric aesthetic it imbues. It keeps a steady play consistency that can get a new listener to flow with it, but for fans of Ladytron, this was a lesser effort I wish I could like more than I do.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Taylor Swift – Midnights: Review

1989 came and went with Taylor Swift delivering a defining statement as a pop star. We heard and saw the fire slowly growing since “I Knew You Were Trouble” off Red. But after that, we started to hear her cool down with the electronic quirks from Reputation, which we continued to see with the electronic-focused tracks of her subsequent album Lover. Taylor Swift seems to come across as creatively stunted when given beats/production that emboldens a chance for Swift to go beyond linear synth-pop. Midnights, Swift’s latest album, seems to express a happy medium where she can flex beautifully over chill-out electronica production. Unfortunately, after a specific point midway Swift starts to come across as creatively stunted on the lyrical end, losing that spark that makes the first half such a breezy, good vibe. Comparatively, a modest disappointment, Midnights is a step back for Swift, exchanging rich text with rich sounds that outshine the writing. It left me feeling like it was missing that special spark we heard predominantly in the first half.

Midnights is this conceptually driven album that revolves around dreams, nightmares, etc., as Taylor Swift’s creative juices begin to flow post-midnight on sleepless nights. But it isn’t always there. Per usual, Swift is developing these reflective stories, hypotheticals that stumble in the second half, either from the writing or melodic choices that Swift makes. We first hear it as she turns the page with “Vigilante Shit.” Swift has done this type of song before on “No Body, No Crime” with Haim; however, that track had nuance, and “Vigilante Shit” feels like a poor extension of the former. From there, you get shimmers of the downward spiral Midnight turns. “Labyrinth” sees Swift tackling themes of heartbreak and growth past them, though it isn’t as gripping, and Antanoff’s backing vocals add little depth to the already simple written song. Surrounding the shard stumbles along the way, the production stays consistent with sonic motifs, particularly from the low pitches from the synthesizers, Mellotrons, and Wurlitzers. 

Throughout the album, it does leave an interesting impression, though not negative or positive. Midnights is Swift’s 6th album working with Jack Antanoff, a fantastic musician/producer; however, the mystique loses fizzle after a while. So your first thought could be, “when do we get an original project without Antanoff, add a different personality behind the instruments and boards. Though the carbonation lasts longer for Midnights, Swift’s and Antanoff’s writing isn’t as captivating with tracks like “Bejeweled” and “Karma.” “Bejeweled” never feels like an individual product, taking cues from past pop hits by Swift. It treads familiar water over this crisp electronica beat that tackles the idea of shimmer as a sound. “Karma” doesn’t have excellent writing, and with oblique melodies, it becomes more of an afterthought in the long run. In “Labyrinth,” the focus is on the atmosphere, but the random drop near the end, though simple and effective elsewhere, doesn’t have that same impact as if you coasted through a track that emphasized more of an emotional core.

The production of Midnight takes from ideas from three “musical eras” of Taylor Swift, the synth linings of 1989, the electronic intricacies of Reputation, and the lyrical complexities of Folklore/Evermore. However, the height of it comes with potent first from “Lavender Haze” to “Questions…?.” Taylor Swift isn’t relying too much on whimsy and fantasy, like confronting people with her boyfriend Karma, instead reflecting on growth. In the blissful “Maroon,” she reflects on a love story that isn’t sparking with youthful fire and rather a humbling tale of togetherness and loss. The use of maroon as the defining color boasts the complexities of its story, like the color itself, complex hues of brown and red reflecting the complex dynamics of a relationship as they express beyond pure honesty. As it is with most of Swift’s songs on Midnight, themes reflect love through different purviews, culminating in varying lessons learned and emotions exhumed.

“You’re On Your Own, Kid” has us listening to a tale of a young person yearning for love, as if it’s this end all, be all; a crutch if you will. As she wistfully drifts into the night, the detailed writing and resonant melodies open your mind to the emotional truthfulness that hits our protagonist in the song. It continues to transfix you like the tracks that precede it. “Anti-Hero” brings forth the past eras of Swift–ones I’ve mentioned before–the livelier synths of 1989, electronic tones like “Delicate” from Reputation, and the lyrical complexities of the Folklore. It isn’t loquacious, and the auditory hand that grips you closer is tender and smooth, unlike the delivery of later songs. Fortunately, after the mediocrity in most of the second half, Swift grounds back into reality and offers something unique with the last two tracks, particularly “Sweet Nothing.” “Sweet Nothing” is instrumentally simple, mirroring her relationship with Joe Awelyn, deconstructing the importance of understanding and growth–she has finally found someone who hasn’t cared about the fame that comes with dating Swift.

Midnights is a minor step back for Taylor Swift, but it isn’t this albatross that fails to hit the mark. Swift came with direction; however, that won’t always constitute a great album. Though linear and coherently consistent, it doesn’t get elevated to the degree past albums have been, specifically 1989 and Folklore. There is a lot to like here, with some solid repeat appeal. Unfortunately, it left me yearning for something more, especially as I sat there listening to Swift sing and elevate the idea of karma to people from her past.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Aurora – The Gods We Can Touch: Review

From the many popstars to make waves, it’s been hard for me to distinguish between artists like Madison Beer and Anne-Marie; however, some have caught my ear, like Joy Crookes and Aurora. It isn’t hard to distinguish yourself from the bunch – there just needs to be an identity in your sound or approach. Aurora, fortunately, has her identity, and it doesn’t stray far from keeping my ears returning with her use of an ethereal cohesion between the vocal and percussion layers. It perked my ears when I heard “Dancing With The Wolves,” and it perks them higher with her new album, The Gods We Can Touch. What Aurora brings on the album is an elevated experience that shows her maturity as a songwriter, singer, and pianist. 

The Gods We Can Touch is an escalating ethereal experience that continues to keep its tonal benevolence while exploring new factions in other sounds to create this dynamic pop album. There is a linear direction from the production, which adds a subtle duality to the wave-like textures – relative to synths, dark, and gothic in scope – with it, Aurora creates whimsically infectious melodies. “Give In To The Love” shows us that beautiful cohesion: the snares contain an enigmatic presence behind the synth bass, while Aurora delivers hypnotically gleeful melodies to keep us grounded. It’s part of the center fuse for tonal themes throughout the album. It reminds us to appreciate the small things around us and reflect on our relationship with them.

One of these things is self-love, which reflects on the song “Cure For Me.” It continues to illuminate Aurora’s talent without taking away from the impact the song has. It takes the synths and percussion to profound levels where the subtle tempo switches between verse, pre-chorus, and chorus leave you in awe. It’s hard to describe the kind of nuances that detail that part. There is a little bit of jaunty swing from the organs, a bit of island from the percussion, and the synths are the supporting actor; however, it all culminates into this grand anthem that hits close. These jaunty organs make a return in “The Innocent.” It is one of her more chaotic tracks, but it continues this elegant hybrid of electro-pop and wave that lines the album. As one of the many highlights on the album, it’s more than that. It reaffirms the bar Aurora sets, especially as she continues to take new directions. 

Upon listening to her last album again, A Different Kind of Human (Step 2), there is a sense of sonic rejuvenation for Aurora as she begins to express more without relying on tiring modulations and vocal pitches. “Artemis” is one of a few that tries to embrace the melancholic benevolence hidden within the crevices of the strings, albeit distant in sound. Aurora has plenty of ideas she wants to deliver, but it begins to steer from her visceral energy. There are tame ballads that offer stripped-down and driven performances, but these songs are simple allusions that still have unwavering depth, despite weak production. Fortunately, most of these problems tend to have you dwindling in the middle of The God We Can Touch. It’s almost like the locomotive had to pause the coal before it overheats, but with the kind of music Aurora brings in the first and second half, there is no way it could overheat.

The Gods We Can Touch ends by taking us to a fever dream where Aurora improves the mundane aspects of the production halfway through. She also adds another pop banger in “Blood In The Wine,” which uses drums and percussion to give us one more bombastic POP before descending in tempo. It lets us unwind as she delivers these themes with auspicious and visceral lyricism. But as it begins its loop around to the start, you realize how smooth the wavelength is in its transitions. It’s what makes it Aurora’s best project to date.

There is a lot to love about The Gods We Can Touch, but it’s far from perfect. However, one major glow-up is the innate replayability of the songs, whether from the writing and melodies or the production. They infect your ears with these luscious sounds that distinguish themselves within the guise of pop, and that is the highlight of going through this multiple times.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever: Review

From her auspicious debut to the more grounded and mundane follow-up, Billie has yet to make the kind of impact that exists outside new artist hype. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? made her presence known, albeit having moments that bore. Unfortunately, it continues on her follow-up album Happier Than Ever. Billie delivers some inspiring work that elevates my thoughts on the others. Unfortunately, others fall into mediocrity as her delivery resembles Kate McKinnon’s parody of Jodie Foster from Silence of The Lambs.

Everyone knows that Billie Eilish has a beautifully strange voice, but it leaves you questioning: why does she continue with the same schtick? She has a range and can create whimsical pop songs with new territorial peaks alongside her brother. For example, “Everything I Wanted” encapsulates the nuances of dance-pop, which rarely works with lower-tempo singers unless the production has glamour. At some point, you begin to make the differences obvious, and unfortunately, that is rarer here than on her last album. Dua Lipa and Charli XCX are perfect examples in which you can see the contrast. Charli has the range, while Dua Lipa commands the stage with presence, poise, and an empowering backing production. Billie isn’t like them, and her path seems to be reminiscent of artists who predominately stick with the motto: if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’ve seen the appeal and have been boasting Billie Eilish’s talents since &Burn, but her growing pains become too apparent. For Billie, it’s evolving past that dark-trap pop singer and giving the world the range her voice can reach. But she has a style focused on emoting relativity, which has been commonly heard in emo-music today. This stems from the post-production work, which lessens the backing vocals and creates a brooding mood. However, there are a few moments where we see Billie glow, as we hear the maturity from albums 1 to 2.

“Oxytocin” is one of these rare instances. These moments transpire when Billie Eilish hops out of her shell, expanding the parameters of the walls that surround her. And this is speaking in regards to her overall sound as she has been vocal about slowly shifting away from singing about her public image. As a result, she shifts away from moody pop sounds to industrial electro-pop. Stepping away from an ASMR approach on Happier Than Ever has lifted some weight off her shoulders as she tries to deliver something different than her last album. And it shows.

But despite elevating to new heights on some of the production and performances, there are few songs where Billie Eilish’s voice gets a boost. “Lost Cause” does so by delivering an awe-inspiring range of vocal inflections. The way she can shift her mood on a song has been an empowering dynamic of her appeal. People feel connectivity and see the teen-pop icon as transcendent as Britney Spears was in the initial rise and domination of teen-pop on the charts. She delivers assuring work, but there is rarely a moment where I become Leonardo Di Caprio Pointing at the TV when I hear something different.

One of these songs is “Billie Bossa Nova.” The name is a bit on the nose, but it delivers. Finneas O’Connell shows his growth as a producer with smooth transitions in styles, which can be hard to do when you’re shifting from a focused electro-pop dud to a beautiful bossa nova record. He has produced predominately in the pop realm, and Bossa Nova is far from pop; however, Billie’s voice fits the characteristics beautifully, and Finneas shows he can do more than core pop songs. In songs like “Therefore I Am” and “my future,” her vocal performances elevate the contrasting side-eye gripe feeling she brings on the former and the soft-self awareness of the latter.

Unfortunately, the few highlights that stand out can’t make up for the slight-bore the rest of the music delivers. You often miss out on solid songs upon a first listen, and Happier Than Ever contains some. The song “GOLDWING,” for example, sees Billie Eilish delivers with an overly soft voice you forget she was singing. It happens on occasion with other songs like “Everybody Dies,” which are as forgettable as your late-night bill after a drunken meal. It doesn’t play off the irony contextually, and it becomes derivative amongst the grouping of songs. 

There is no proper balance on Happier Than Ever. In most cases, I find myself falling asleep to the mundane. Billie Eilish has given enough to keep interests high, especially since her debut with “Ocean Eyes” at 14 years old. In a way, she is giving her fans what they expect. For others, they will hear the objective fluidity in the post-work, which makes that craptacular string arrangement on “I Didn’t Change My Number” sound clean, despite how it comes across. Would I recommend Happier Than Ever? Only If you’re a fan.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

The Weekly Coos Presents: A Retro Dance Party

When it comes to Dance music two definitions come to mind. It is a genre. It is a label for a song’s specific vibe and correlation to the dance floor. It started with Disco creating a new atmosphere for club-goers, stretching far and wide until it stripped down to sonic style with more synths and bass grooves. It has now become nuanced, along with the second wave of European dominance in the club scene with early House and Eurodance, as we see with the influx of pop stars coming from overseas today.

As people, we have this innate reaction when a recognizable hit or, as some put it, one-hit wonders, starts playing. We start tapping our feet to the groove that comes from our core, leaning into mingling and escaping our comfort zone. Everyone will have their niche taste or the music that will get them grooving; for me, it is Dua Lipa and others, who may listen to Heavy Metal, may still throw down when “Cosmic Girl” or “Virtual Insanity,” by Jamiroquai starts playing. But the dance floor is for all types of music, despite pop trends weighing in what would be a dominating force in clubs.

The variety of trends that have dominated the pop-sphere have waned and dissipated as new ones arise; however, the influence remains in new trends. I emphasize new trends because they aren’t necessarily new. They are refurbished, slightly better, and catchier variations of what there was in the 90s and early 2000s; this includes more staying power with the trove of singles that became monster hits. But unlike these new artists, the kind of dominance and perseverance these songs have had to stay relevant.

Some of these notable songs and artists include: “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel65, Darude’s “Sandstorm,” and “Rhythm Is A Dancer,” by Snap! One could go on and on about how many of these artists we have had in that time frame, but it’s easier for you to tunnel down that rabbit hole filled with awe and whimsy; the kind of whimsy that Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” brings. That whimsy delivers on other occasions, like the memory of a certain song’s peak on mainstream and hearing it on car rides that played Hot 100 radio.

Some of us remember them for that one song, while others have had a continuous appreciation for their later work; particularly those in Europe. The same goes for other artists, like A Touch of Class or Alice DJ. They leave isolated hits that can turn up the dance floor at any themed party, with an isolated few aging gracefully to stay in the rotation with today’s music. Fortunately, these European artists benefited from the influence it had on American pop stars like Madonna, Cher, and Brittany Spears, with the latter of the two releasing pure Electro-Pop/House albums. I could go on and on about the kind of stimulation this music brought the club when the wavering punk rock scene started to slowly begin its hibernation. And like a bear, we fortunate enough to have them keep waking up and delivering detailed memories of the past.

These songs eventually became epitomized with social trends like Throwback-Thursday and more. With the massive reach from these social media platforms, it has allowed for natural growth in that intoxicating feeling nostalgia delivers. It’s a syndrome filled with intoxicating electronic sounds and swinging grooves. And there is no cure, except for dancing it out. So come dance with me, as we listen to dance songs throughout the years. 

Marina – Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land: Review

It has always been astounding that a talented voice like Marina Diamandis has yet to fully create an album where she finds a proper equilibrium between production and lyricism throughout. She has shown a lot of flashes in her career; specifically on Froot, the third album in her resume. Despite a lackluster fourth release, she has come back full circle to deliver a beautifully vibrant electro-pop album with more hits than duds on her fifth studio album, Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land. This album takes a trip down memory lane, both lyrically and sonically, as she delivers tracks that are resonant of her universal pop career through metaphorical landscapes. At times it takes missteps by guiding toward some broad redundancies in the themes/lyrical content, but the production still shines as a co-lead.

There has always been something about Marina’s voice that had me questioning why she kept steering in a slightly generic – dance pop route that never highlighted her strengths. But the more she started to learn and grow, as an artist, the more it started to seem that she is usually at her best when she is in some control of the sonic direction, instead of forcing the production to fit a concept. Though that isn’t necessarily the case with every producer she has worked with, delivering some standouts like “Primadonna,” off her sophomore release, Electra Heart. On a lot of these earlier albums there has been too much of a focus on grabbing the best and putting out glamorized dance records to fit a concept. When she is one of the foundations for the production, whether solo or with co-producers, there is a shift in focus.

The production on Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land is unlike her earlier, more fraught work, weaving these unique dance and electro-pop, some of which doesn’t overly glamorize and allows her words and themes steer the ship. However some tracks steer the ship too far from visceral direction the first few deliver before going into – the at times – redundant subject matter, like on “Purge The Poison,” which focuses on breaking apart the evils in society and America. It keeps going on the off-putting “New America,” which is about the issues with the social problems of America and it is taken into a world of boredom.

Unfortunately the production is the only highlight to come from the aforementioned tracks, amongst others, where the production takes the limelight. The other tracks contain sonic consistency and, despite some decent lyricism, Marina delivers great performances, like on “Pandora’s Box.” It has a tedious message that uses Pandora’s Box as a form of trying to let the emotions flow or if not, what is eventually let out is uncontrollable chaos. And though that’s a little on the nose, Marina gives a subtly beautiful performance over a melancholic electro-pop centric ballad that buoys the echo-backing vocals into organized chaos. 

Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land isn’t devoid of quality from both the production and the writing. The title track and “Venus Fly Trap,” for example, use these radiant metaphors, some of which reflect on Marina’s person and being, to express these warming and inspiring themes about life. A lot of the subsequent tracks start to embody more centric pop conventions, opposed to the glitzy electro-pop. A huge factor comes from the fact that she is keeping it simple and letting the glowing instruments create the backing. One such instrument that gets a boost on the production is the percussion and electric guitar, which carries the load. In doing so, Marina and her co-producers free flow, introducing an array of differently constructed production for the tracks. They take Marina’s vocal prowess and, like in past work, give us the work she flourishes in, the soft-emotional ballads.

Marina is at her apex when she breaks down the comfortable dance conventions coating her music. It’s because her voice is like the most powerful instrument she has always had and with the few ballads she gives us, there are some great ones. However, the individual standout comes from “I Love You More Than I Love Me,” which reinforces the thought that her love is worth more than what happened between her and her ex, Jack Patterson of Clean Bandits. The track that closes Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land, “Goodbye,” brings forth a beautiful message to her older self, letting her know about her individual growth as an artist and person. This is evident with the control she had on this album, like she did with Froot.

Through its ups and its downs, Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land brings unique perspectives and less-fraught production to deliver a mesmerizing, albeit flawed, pop album that shines like the album cover. It has its moments in the sun and catches you with unique melodies and harmonies you’ll find yourself coming back a bit frequently.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Olivia Rodrigo – Sour: Review

When “Driver’s License” first hit, it took a while for me to embrace its brilliance. It felt like an auspicious push by her record and fanbase, as it was hard to believe that she wouldn’t turn out another phenomenal hit. As the weeks eagerly passed since, Olivia Rodrigo kept pushing the limits, delivering and performing hit after hit after hit; and the momentum hasn’t stopped – as evidenced by the amount of hype behind her debut album Sour. It doesn’t feel like any debut I’ve heard in a while, particularly because it does not feel like one. Olivia Rodrigo has a keen ear as a musician and singer-songwriter as if she has been in the industry for years. And that is what spread throughout Sour, as it is engulfed by illustrious pop and indie rock anthems and ballads that all intertwine into one long and thoroughly written introspective piece about maturity, adolescence, and love, despite falling short due to some ballads feeling redundant.

Sour doesn’t like to mince words. As a Disney star, sometimes there are limits to where you can take aspects of your artistry. There is an image that the company wants from some of their heavy hitters, fortunately for Olivia it didn’t happen till the momentous reception to her follow up to “Drivers License,” which takes the extreme by making love extreme with the word fucking prior to the word. She opens Sour with two tracks, “brutal” and “traitor,” that quintessentially provides backstory to the themes and directions Olivia will take on the album as you let it play. 

“Brutal,” is this crazily audacious punk-garage rock anthem that takes mold from this generational trauma that befalls people from the stresses of stardom. Her vocals take an exceptional leap from “good 4 u,” which just feels like the angsty version of “Drivers License.” It brings a different edge, as opposed to “brutal,” which is reminiscent of the uproarious stylistic vocal performances that made artists like Avril Lavigne and Alanis Morissette have a different footing and push into stardom-their own way. 

“Traitor,” is the complete opposite of “brutal.” It takes a different approach to “Driver’s License,” where instead of recalling how her ex would play coy and flirt on the side with his ex-Disney star sidepiece and how Olivia let herself become mistaken, further believing that there was some chance. The melancholic melodies weave a constant push-back for her emotions, in the way she beautifully exuberates confidence in her feelings, letting the vocal performance tell us all. It is unlike the other ballad-like tracks as there is more instrumental depth.

As it continues tracks like “Driver’s License” and “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” come and deliver with vibrant moments of nuance, like the piano bedroom pop ballad that is usually missing now from some other prominent artist. “1 step forward, 3 steps back” is similar to “Drivers License,” but like the Saturday Night Live skit, this song feels more like a girl singing to herself with a piano in her room since it doesn’t focus too much on using effects to elevate the backing vocals. It continues on “enough for you,” as the piano plays second fiddle to Olivia’s lyricism, which is at its most relative. It details how Olivia tried to do things like read and learn about things that made her ex seem like an intellectual savant – compared to her and this growing fear he’d find her boring in the long run. 

Unfortunately Sour is a lot of the feeling Olivia brings to songs about her ex, but the subject becomes oversaturated by the time it reaches the end. There are a lot of bright spots and other times  It makes you start wondering when she will fully leave the bedroom and deliver a more bombastic indie rock record. Though there has been a lot of praise, a lot of the songs hit more in one aspect as opposed to the other, whether instrumentally or lyrically. So while Olivia Rodrigo immerses in the music with main producer Dan Nigro, known for writing and producing some songs on Conan Grey’s self-titled debut and Carolina Polatchek’s last album Pang, a few tracks don’t quite hit a run. What he brings is this vibrant array of acoustic guitar riffs that don’t overshadow the underlying subtleties from the other instruments used in some songs and using it as a guiding force, like on “enough for you.” 

Dan Nigro mixes Sour to have cohesion when it transitions from song to song, creating a short rollercoaster ride. The tip of the ride comes from standouts “DeJa Vu,” which is a fun psychedelic pop that embraces the drum and synthesizer and maximizes it to a bombastic overtone. It takes over as the drop hits after the first chorus and emboldens the rest of the track. However, It’s a disappointment that the two producers Dan Nigro brought to co-produce two tracks, ended up being some of the ones with weaker production. Jam City co-produces “jealousy, jealousy,” and it seems like the only real contributions are boring drum patterns and off putting modulations to her vocals.

Sour delivers at a level of expectancy and goes above and beyond that as well. From the opening track and on, the different styles that she approaches succeed with virtuoso. Olivia Rodrigo didn’t hold back and it is great to hear as we await what she brings to us in the future. For now I’m going to kick back and listen to “Deja Vu,” on repeat.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Aly & AJ Brings Many Summer Vibes Early On Their New LP: Review

We’ve been 14 years removed from the release of Aly & AJ’s last album, Insomniatic, but they’ve always been there. For a few years they made music as 78Violet and went back to Aly & AJ in 2015, and just in time for a new rise in popularity from Tik Tok. And as years progressed, since 2007, they haven’t deviated from electrifying pop rock, but has been built upon throughout subsequent EPs. However, their new album, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun, brings that eclectic array of indie-pop rock and synth-pop that carry a sonically thematic summer coating with the electronic-instrument overlays. Though some choices may come off misguided in production choices, there is a lot to digest and love from this after it gets an illustrious first play through.

Going about it once through, you’re mostly handed an eclectic mix of songs that transition well and keep you flowing with a mood, but within those beautiful instrumentations there is depth in the themes Aly & AJ evoke emotionally. There are songs that bring a joyous and fun energy and others that take the tempo and pacing down a notch to deliver these beautiful ballads with strong vocal performances from the two. “Slow Dancing,” for example, keeps it simple as a ballad by relying on fewer instruments in sequences, like the soft transition from the various string instruments to a subtle flute. It ends on a rhythmic solo that keeps reminding you how talented these two are. With the gap between albums and the slightly quiet releases of their EPs, some might not remember; but as well they were given the boost from Tik Tok that popularized some of their older and newer music.

A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun is significantly different from Insomniatic in its approach to the pop genre. The music of Insomniatic gave us a new synth pop rock identity for Aly & AJ, while maintaining the rock from their debut. Unlike Insomniatic, there is more of an identity on this follow-up. The essence of what the feeling of a calm sunset with your thoughts on a California beach is felt and they let the instruments guide the atmosphere, specifically with the synthesizers. Though they rarely go into oblique routes sonically, the little things they add bring more depth to the song, like on “Stomach.” It opens with a folk inspired arrangement of strings before switching into a beautiful electro-pop ballad and giving us the best song on the album.

There are many bright spots to A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun, like glamorous synth-pop songs in “Paradise,” and “Don’t Need Nothing.” But they don’t match the visceral strength and nuances of their more pop rock songs, emphasis on rock. These songs have the most consistency on the album as the mixing gives it a slight garage feel in the way the electric guitar is mixed more faintly than other instruments at times. “Listen!!!” in particular, brings a semi-high motored percussion and electric guitars shredding, further bringing in that rock backbone to this potent anthem, all while transitioning smoothly from these vibrant synths in the opening. 

The album rarely teeters on mediocrity. Sometimes it comes from interesting, but poor execution of some of the instrumental decisions, like the sonically one note “Symptom Of Your Touch,” or the electronic synths and modulations at the end of “Lucky To Have Him.” There are fine vocal performances on the former, but the instrumentation and synths are boring. However, the latter of which starts off on a high note before teetering into a latent closer, but fortunately the track that proceeds it, is a monstrous effort at blending synth pop with simple rock structures, like the small moments of isolated electric guitar notes in between an elegant cohesion of percussion and strings. 

This mouthful of an album does what the title suggests on the bare surface, but within these illustrious songs and not so great songs, the thematic material holds a lot of weight when you go back and break apart meaning. Like aforementioned songs, “Slow Dancing,” and “Listen!!!” break apart conceptions, from wanting simplicity over extravagance or unique details that show a relationship breaking apart and the fear of tackling it head on. The themes don’t sway away much from relationships, love, and California, but there is one constant and that is their ability to naturally bring these elegant vocal performances and great songwriting. 

A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun is contrasting growth in a positive way for Aly & AJ as they deliver an array of songs for varying summer moods and beyond. From infectious melodies and instrumentations, there is a lot of love and take away from this, though after taking off your nostalgia goggles. It hits many strides at various angles, cementing their recent rise in the pop culture zeitgeist with fantastic music.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Julia Michaels – Not In Chronological Order: Review

Some of you may know Julia Michaels as the singer of the hit “Issues,” but for those who need more context – co-writer of major hits like Justin Bieber’s huge hit “Sorry,” and “Lose You To Love Me,” by Selena Gomez, amongst a plethora of pop artists ranging from Britney Spears to Shawn Mendes. As the years progressed, she found equilibrium between her singing aspirations and continuing to be one of the best pop songwriters working in the industry. Within that time she has released a great collection of EPs that have shown her tonal strengths, either vocally or structurally, but they didn’t come with the same visceral strength as the artists she has written for. This isn’t totally the case on her debut, Not In Chronological Order. It brings a galaxy full of electric pop songs and beautifully delivered ballads, despite quick pacing and a short runtime. 

With the range of vibrant and illustrious production on Not In Chronological Order, the album unfortunately leaves you high and dry and yearning for a slightly longer project. One moment you’re starting with “All My Exes,” and eventually you find yourself halfway through. At 10 tracks and 30 minutes, it feels quicker, albeit the slower tempos they use to space out the sonic textures. Before you know it the album starts to end on a high note with both “Undertone” and “That’s The Kind Of Woman.” However, a lot of these songs don’t fully eclipse past the 3-minute mark and it makes the array of great songs feel a little empty, like “That’s The Kind Of Woman.” But the inherent strengths come from her ballads and the production on the sad-dance tracks, like “Undertone,” amongst others.

In the growing presence of sad-dance tracks, there have been many artists who hit the stride, but Julia Michaels is a veteran with glamorous dance tracks like “Body,” off Inner Monologues Part 2. The production of “Pessimist” is a perfect example of the way a song of that caliber should be constructed within that genre. Her “oh-so expressive” vocals is the final bolt that holds it all together, especially on “Pessimist.” This vocal delivery has quicker tempo and stays in constant motion from the track it transitions from.

Julia Michaels’ strength as a songwriter is unbound, both structurally and melodically, but there are those rare moments where she doesn’t bring the strongest choruses, lyrically and at times melodically. These choruses either have a poor delivery or have a standard rhythmic pattern that can start some snoozes amongst some. It isn’t a deterrent, but really noticeable in tracks like “Wrapped Around” and “History,” but not so much in “History,” as it, at least, flows with the rest of the song with fluidity. However, when Julia delivers, she winds up creating these beautiful dance tracks with infectious choruses like on “Lie Like This.” Co-writer Michael Pollack brings an added touch to it, giving it a glamorous coating, like the other few co-writers on the album. 

As a singer and songwriter, Julia’s ear for the right melody further takes her to the accessibility to work with other songwriters. She isn’t always a one-woman force, but when she is, like on her last EP, she doesn’t shy from showing what she can do best, which is structure and creating interesting melodies, with lyrical content coming in at a close third. The construct between the verses and transitional bridges shows these angles, even if the lyrical content of a ballad or dance track takes an interesting turn, like on “Little Did I Know.” This phenomenal ballad centers on love giving you the option between the red pill and blue pill. The track centers on escaping the effect of the red pill as she starts to realize love isn’t as Shakespearean as his love stories were pretty tragic at the end. This track brings out one of the many great collaborators on the album, the piano, but nothing else.

A lot of the collaborators bring their own unique touch of pop from working with various groups and singers, most of which were pop stars/superstars, like John Ryan. He is famously known as one of the many consistently present songwriters throughout One Direction’s career; and what he brings to the table with Julia Michaels are these different type of sonic styles like the atmospheric guitar pop ballad with “Love Is Weird,” and the summer feeling of the slow-melodic electro-pop in “Orange Magic.” 

The work between John Ryan and Michael Pollack are the ones that standout more than the others, but that doesn’t discredit the beautiful production work from The Monsters & Strangerz. Their work with Ryan on the production is what gives a lot of tracks that extra oomph, opposed to the songs she wrote with singer/songwriter JP Saxe, like the over-baked “All Your Exes.” This is where the album slowly falters, as JP Saxe isn’t really bringing much to the table. “All Your Exes,” and the aforementioned, “Little Did I Know,” doesn’t have the strongest delivery, specifically in certain portions of the chorus, like on the second chorus delivery on “All Your Exes.” It doesn’t switch much from the verse’s melody and loses itself as it progresses. Fortunately this doesn’t become the new crazy ex-girlfriend theme.

Not In Chronological Order does what it represents, as the fluidity of sounds don’t come with sequential consistency, but within those roots exists a lot of good to fantastic tracks that will elevate some pop heads and make others feel like dancing. It shows Julia’s ever-growing strength as a vocalist and allows us to see improvement from her first EP.

Rating: 7 out of 10.