Marcus Mumford – (Self-Titled): Review

Marcus Mumford’s solo debut takes the simplicities of the folk-rock sounds from early Mumford & Sons and rarely evolves past the known–rustic power-driven strings and genial percussion. Titled (Self-Titled), it’s a tongue-in-cheek approach to the content we’re receiving. We’re getting bleak and hopeful reflections on Marcus Mumford’s life–not the folk artist who’s taken unique directions with his band’s albums like their Shakespearean-influenced debut, Sigh No More. As hard as he tries to separate himself from his band, he barely nudges toward an identity unless you count the lack of backing vocals and enigmatic instruments playing something distinct and vibrant. And this is not a knock on Marcus Mumford because he isn’t reflecting that lively energy like playing with friends and instead trying to give us a meditation of sounds and words that wants us to feel and put our hearts on our sleeve. It’s primarily rich in Mumford’s songwriting and vocal performances, but the production isn’t always captivating, leaving us lost in translation before the second half.

Marcus Mumford starts (Self-Titled) on a high note by reeling us with a powerful opening that details sexual abuse done to him as a minor. His detailed writing opens the curtains for the stage, and his words are world-building descriptively, horrifying experience sung in an angering, somber tone. “I can still taste you, and I hate it/That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it/You took the first slice of me and you ate it raw/Ripped it in with your teeth and your lips like a cannibal/You fucking animal.” Mumford never lets up, showing these gripping layers beneath the rustic strings and commandingly emotional percussion that reflects the lingering disdain fueling him beneath the surface. Unfortunately, that’s immediately lost when Mumford, and producer Blake Mills, continue to bring teetering tempos and tones. But when Mumford takes it slow and allows himself to feel vulnerable over loose acoustics, we hear that he is aiming at being slightly different. That doesn’t absolve it from the modest dullness offered.

“Grace,” “Prior Warning,” and “Only Child” reflect the drab dullness that makes you want to skip after a first listen. The acoustics–consistent in tonal inflections–isn’t that rich and leave Marcus Mumford’s performances feeling somewhat empty. His vocals, though not limited, can’t keep the songs afloat, so you’re left mum about the experience. “Dangerous Game” with Clairo is where it starts to gain some traction with these more free-spirited folk-rock productions that moderately shift past certain percussion conventions and allow Mumford to deliver something grand. However, it isn’t matched with significance by some of the featured artists, specifically Phoebe Bridgers, whose feature almost feels like glorified backing vocals. Similarly, Clairo performs somberly throughout, feeling distant in contrast to Mumford’s more colorful performance in the first half. They aren’t like “Go In Light” and “How,” where Mumford finds tremendous synergy with Monica Martin and Brandi Carlisle. They match his energy and add dimensions to the vocal performances as they embody the themes Mumford conveys.

On (Self-Titled), Marcus Mumford is confronting moments of the past–traumatic, moments of regret, and other times, looking at painting a more significant emotional picture using interesting analogies to speak to the invigorated complexities of Marcus Mumford’s person. Here, I’m talking “Better Angels,” which sees Mumford opening his mind to memories and the vigorously potent “How,” where Mumford beautifully connects with Brandi Carlisle–as examples. It’s a dynamic force as a closer that makes you forget the humdrum inconsistencies that preceded it. Unfortunately, having a powerful opening and closing can only do so much when there is much meat in the middle. I had some expectations that I’d find myself attracted to the musical simplicity, and even so, I couldn’t see myself loving it much, despite Mumford hitting it with his performances on a more consistent level. Maybe you’ll get more from it than me, but it was very middle of the road.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Hurray for the Riff Raff – LIFE ON EARTH: Review

Alynda Segarra and her band, Hurray for the Riff Raff, have always walked the thin ropes of Folk music, slowly shifting from certain norms to evolve the sounds with a blend of flavors. We’ve heard her tackle the traditional side with My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, slowly branching into Americana and then rock with The Navigator. It doesn’t sound as profound on paper, but the depths that Alynda Segarra takes her songwriting and melodies with the band’s instrument playing, offer a whirlwind experience that will have you enjoying the overtures and subtleties that align within her work; it continues to be the case on their newest album, LIFE ON EARTH. The album is rich and earthy, fueled by some naturalistic punk coating that emboldens Segarra’s emotions.

LIFE ON EARTH lands on impact with moments of catching wind as their sound evolves through each track. Alynda Segarra is trying new things, and as she weaves these complex layers in her writing, the production builds till we don’t have one flavor; we have many. She compartmentalizes the core – for example: “WOLVES” has a punk aesthetic coating a more tame chord progression before it gets flipped on “PIERCED ARROWS.” Segarra’s ability to weave cohesion shows from the start, slowly acclimating into one colloquial sequence. There are moments that Segarra’s vocals growl with the same energy as the production, which for Segarra and the band, shows a kind of understanding of their core. In the realms of pop music, the production of “ROSEMARY TEARS” would embolden a powerful range from artists like Adele to Mumford & Sons. But for Segarra, she finds parallels that impact at the same level.

“ROSEMARY TEARS,” like other songs, is woven through Alynda Segarra’s mind with visceral imagery, letting the vocal emotions carry the depth. As someone who frequents herbs in the kitchen, rosemary is a faint smell, but slightly potent if brought attention to – similar to, Segarra is singing about how her significant other’s tears and the lack of transparency. In the closing bridge, she sings: “I already know/(You never show up and I’m always heartbroken)/(Had to grow tough skin).” To her, she has an understanding of her relationship, but this small piece of hope still lingers. It’s about inflection, and at times, it doesn’t work as well as “ROSEMARY TEARS.” “JUPITER’S DANCE” is the prime example of this – we hear beautifully rustic strings that echo a hybrid between punk undertones and folk-rock coating, especially with the subtle wind instruments.

For most of LIFE ON EARTH, Alynda Segarra flows through old and present memories that reflect on her life – other times, she creates these larger-than-life stories, reflecting issues resonating with her culture: Latina. “PRECIOUS CARGO” speaks on Segarra’s view of Louisiana, where she resides, through the perspective of family, especially as a Nuyorican who sees how immigrants get treated by I.C.E as they search for thriving new opportunities. In the first verse, Segarra speaks through the view of a provider trying to make it through the waters, swimming, only to get caught and treated like animals. The songwriting matches some accounts we’ve heard about, but she keeps it grounded to pieces, allowing the words to speak louder as Segarra delivers a tired essence to the ordeal. The album has many moments like that – moments I’m left in awe by the songwriting, like with “WOLVES” and “RHODODENDRON.”

“RHODODENDRON” sees Hurray for the Riff Raff at their best: poetically resonant and instrumentally captivating – for the most part, that is what we get throughout the album, albeit my reservations on “JUPITER’S DANCE.” The production embodies a rough and empathetic acoustic rock drive, giving a natural cadence to the kind of rock elements they bring. You hear it at various points in The Navigator as it becomes more pertinent in their craft. We hear it continue through LIFE ON EARTH.

LIFE ON EARTH shines brighter than previous albums, as it continues to prove Alynda Segarra’s penmanship and musicality are at their apex. It reflects a growing presence in artistry that was beautifully glowing over the past decade. Like The Navigator, there is no doubt LIFE ON EARTH will continue to stay on repeat.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

The Lumineers – Brightside: Review

In sports, we have what we call “the glue guy or player;” it is usually that player who molds everything together in the most subtle ways. We’re talking mannerisms that encourage good plays and elevate after bad plays for the team members; they can be a top 5 player or someone on the bench. That usually translates to bands, and for The Lumineers, they have lost theirs, and it has become more noticeable in their sound; it was slightly apparent with their last release, III, and more so on their follow-up, Brightside. For the instrumental ideas that they bring into the fold, you hear the empty void left by cellist Neyla Pekarek, whose subtle string constructions buoyed a cadence between the elevated string and key arrangements on their more uproarious folk tracks. It misses her presence, but the album suffers from other problems, like keeping your attention. Brightside is more traditional than past albums; however, as much as this direction is something I’ve expected to come from The Lumineers, it finds itself slipping on the edge after a strong start. 

Brightside doesn’t limit itself within the parameter of its traditional folk conventions, specifically the vocals by Wesley Shultz. There are elements of alt-rock, as they incorporate more electric guitar to contrast a tame delivery of deep emotions from the mandolin. Shultz takes on us on a journey of self-discovery – one wherein we grasp these mental hurdles that sometimes hold us back, like humbling ourselves during our highs. Unfortunately, the production doesn’t tend to give these emotions justice, leaving us tethered to the neurons that make you zone out. It doesn’t help that it is one of the weaker openings for a Lumineers’ album. It tethers itself to stylings of old without feeling fresh, and sure, you can make an argument that their inclusion of a more electronic soundscape is taking the electric guitar and proclaiming it as such. Fortunately, track 2, “A.M. Radio,” is that cup of water to the face after a failed attempt at being woken up.

Now, “A.M. Radio” is what I expected from The Lumineers when I thought they would slowly transition into being more open to other soundscapes at a limited level. It buoys a powerful acoustic guitar and piano base, giving the electronic soundscape a spotlight as a bridge between verses. Wesley Shultz’s vocals are on full display as he gives us an emotionally potent song about turning back time, using radio as an allusion for an eclipse of time. The Lumineers continue to impress with “Where We Are,” where they continue to balance elements of acoustic folk and synthesizers. It continues for a little bit, but it flusters with maintaining an identity. It isn’t until “Reprise” that we get a sense of old to close out Brightside. But it makes another thing evident about the album: The Lumineers didn’t take notes of how to create consistency from their contemporaries. 

Brightside is to The Lumineers like Delta is for Mumford & Sons: after tweedling with more alt-rock elements, they go about delivering their first immersive transition to a new era/sound. It’s been looming for The Lumineers since Neyla Pekarek left, taking away unique subtle backing vocals and tender care for the strings on the cello. It counterbalanced the uproarious percussion and strings on songs like “Angela” off their second album Cleopatra and “Stubborn Love” off The Lumineers. Though there are great things on the album, it forgets that it needs to have an identity a few times. “Rollercoaster” subverts the notion of the title and allows us to feel it through the emotions in his voice, but at times it stays on a mundane wavelength before poorly executing an overabundance of simple synths and vocal modulations, which wastes two minutes of your time before it concludes with “Reprise.”

For what it’s worth, Brightside doesn’t give us a great first half as a tease; instead, it’s like the ideas start to wane thin for The Lumineers as they try to learn where they fit amongst the soundscape. Unfortunately, they haven’t found their voice in this soundscape, despite flashes. It’s because the sound is over-reliant on blending acoustics that the production has to weave layers and transitions carefully. It’s hard to have it both ways, though it may not always be perfect, like Ellie Goulding’s early years. Unlike III, there is less of a disappointment as there are no expectations for an impactful linear direction. 

Brightside may be a tad better than III, but it doesn’t fully come to its own. It rounds out at 30 minutes, and it breezes by quickly without letting you think for a moment about what you are hearing. But when you do, it isn’t as profound, but it is good enough to keep you feeling warm around a fire. I’m hoping The Lumineers figure it out because what I liked a lot works, and it would give their presence more of a definition than their typical hipster-folk/music label.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10.

Fur – When You Walk Away

Ever since falling into a typical YouTube rabbit-hole, the transfixing quality that exhumed from “If You Know That I’m Lonely” delivered a band with inherent promise, mainly because of lead singer William Murray’s beautiful vocal textures. His voice is like a blend between the crooning baritone-esque structure of traditional folk and amplificated underground rock bravado; it interplays with the contrasting rock-and-roll nature of the production, giving us different plates to expand our palettes. Fur has had an identity formed since their first foray in music like the previously mentioned single – a few singles and EPs later – on their new album When You Walk Away, they continue to eclipse past a few conventional ticks like an off-brand moment of solidarity where the guitar consistently shreds, even though it isn’t egregiously apparent. 

Sometimes bands can get carried away, mentally, and any minimalist-elongated lick or riff can hinder a song a bit, as it does on “The Fine Line of The Quiet Life.” It isn’t to dissuade the value of the song, but William Murray’s unique vocals barely scratch the audible surface as they let that elongated focus at the end become more of a focal point. It’s never detrimental toward Murray’s performance, except for the brash loudness that pushes Murray’s voice aside – occurring more frequently in the first half, it’s harder to pick apart the lyrics, which is a heavy component of Fur’s music. 

When You Walk Away is expressive in the first half, as William Murray’s drowned-out voice is overlooked by near elegance within the differentiating chord progressions and sonic transitions – like shifting from somber overtones with the bass to rock-n-roll with the percussion and guitar. Fur doesn’t allow you to walk in blindly, as they open and end, When You Walk Away, with namesake songs that also have the split duality. The album has a noticeable pivot that comes at the end of “She’s the Warmest Colour In My Mind.” It doesn’t have abrasive undertones in the strings and has an elegant balance between rock and melancholy. 

They’re in tune with their musical influences, and it’s audibly heard with tracks like “She’s the Warmest Colour In My Mind” – it’s reminiscent of older 80s rock – with subdued production during the chorus, instead of elevated percussion and strings in the verses. When You Walk Away is focused on reflection and what it means to have this perspective imparted onto you – where you become entangled in these thoughts that cause constant doubt.

When You Walk Away split is divided at the seams – you hear a consistent sonic theme keeping you in tangent with the reflections written in the lyrics for Fur. Part 1’s reflection point comes from captivating your ears with a sequence of instrumentations that fits the angst coming from young adults. The band lets their contained chaos fixated on being methodically placed, with quirky sidesteps from the lead guitar, like at the beginning of “Anybody Else But Me.” Similarly, in Part 2, Fur brings a consistent atmosphere – there is a cadence between pensive singing and broken down singled out instrumentations like on “Holding Up The Sun.” The acoustic guitar leads the rest as it progresses, intertwining a final mix of hope as it speaks on addiction and one’s lack of faith. 

When You Walk Away is intimate and vast in its approach to storytelling, giving us one cohesive journey from start to finish. It’s a reflection of life and music, as William Murray integrates ideas about love and existentialism. Whether the band is reeling in the differentiating atmospheric tones between the heavier rock elements with esoteric ballads that sometimes hit, except in here, where Murray’s intricate and direct like on “What I Am” – a thematic extension to “Anybody Else But Me” – the underlying difference coming from the levels of the vocal layers. Fortunately, it’s a happenstance that a lot of the songs elevate everyone’s strength. 
There is never a moment where When You Walk Away starts to shift you away – Fur is in tune with their sound, never relying on being like someone else with more pop. It’s heard throughout, especially within the plethora of songs in the middle, like “The Fine Line of The Quiet Life” and “No Good For You,” where it immediately shoots you to the peak. There are a few questionable moments within, but the tracklisting gives it a perfect transition between the two sides of the coin. Though they may not be the best songs because of minor problems, there is no denying When You Walk Away opens on an extremely high note.

When You Walk Away is a solid debut for Fur, delivering fans a blend of sounds that hit both spectrums. Unfortunately, I wish the first half was a little better mixed, but the infectious array of instrumental layers makes up for it. It’s a definite recommendation for fans, especially the curious semi-fan that knows a few of their 2017/2018 singles. They are relatable and bring a triad of marvelously plated components that make one of the better rock albums of the year.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Yebba – Dawn: Review

It may not be apparent, but Yebba has been around — quietly delivering elegant performances through different genres of music; however, many know her as the female vocalist on “Same Drugs” by Chance the Rapper — when he performed on Saturday Night Live. I’ve gotten to know her work by burrowing through a landscape decorated with a history of appearing in songs in Hip-Hop, Pop, Funk, Soul, Folk, Rock, and more. Having worked with artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Mark Ronson, and Mumford & Sons since 2016 has given her a clearer slate to draw on as she finds her sound and individualizes herself from contemporaries. Her debut, Dawn, speaks to that as Yebba delivers sweet flavorings to the songs, which range in style — most of which are unique to Yebba, except for few moments that get lost when going grandiose.

Unlike some or many, you find yourself coming into Dawn blind. But like many, I’ve been aware of Yebba’s guest appearances and features; however, what comes to light in Dawn is sometimes unlike what we’ve heard before. Whether Yebba is delivering softened background vocals that compliment the lead artist or as a vibrant lead on Mark Ronson’s Late Night Feelings, Yebba finds ways to distinguish herself from others — further asking the light to center on her presence in front of, and behind, the microphone. She makes it apparent on Dawn as she paints her slate with the influence of sounds from the vast array of genres of her past; she hits the nail more often than not.

Yebba heightens her emotions to give each song brevity — this allows the music to stay direct for better playback. She lets the influence guide the pen, letting loose unique themes like emotional growth. In 2017, a week after Yebba released her first single, her mother, unfortunately, passed after struggling with depression. It’s been a driving force behind Yebba’s fearlessness in her vocal performances, but it has been a hindrance as it seems like she is always performing in front of a silhouette of her mother. 

Yebba opens Dawn with a plea to herself — how many more years? She is continuously distraught that she hasn’t been able to keep happy memories without leading toward tears of sadness that constantly blinds her future. It could come from some hesitancy that guides any hiccups from grasping your emotions tightly, which shows on each song. But on “How Many More Years,” it is something else. Listening to Yebba’s soft and broken vocals gives us a sense that she grasps her emotions firmly, delivering them in doses to keep us invested. She does so without draining us to our core, though “October Sky” came close. 

As one of the most beautifully captivating and tragic songs on Dawn, “October Sky” takes us through a recurring and happy memory she has of her mom. As it is with most of the album, Yebba adopts lingering feelings and notions about her heartbreak, despite knowing this is the start of something great. She embraces her moment and finds ways to show us her vulnerable side.

Yebba lets her voice guide us through her emotions, providing a deep meaning beneath, a sometimes thin, surface. Usually, it starts to be the case on Dawn, as some of the production weaves thin simplicities within the percussion. It initially feels off-putting since Yebba received help from producers like Kaytranada, the Picard Brothers, and Mark Ronson, but the small details make up for it. Despite being known for their electric percussion, it’s one of the weaker components in the album; however, it never gets to a point where it makes the whole production yawn-inducing.

Fortunately, Yebba and her co-producers start world-building on top of the songs, which deliver some glamorous standouts like “Boomerang.” It takes influence from the roots of old-country and folk — breaking apart styles derivative of cowboy-western country dinghies, roots rock, and an effervescently soulful vocal performance, “Boomerang” elevates into it. Similar to “Boomerang,” Yebba brings a similar cadence on “Louie Bag” featuring Smino.

Subtly, “Louie Bag” is like many songs on Dawn, wherein the influence comes from subsections of the musical south, from Hip-Hop to Folk-Country. “Louie Bag” has string and piano key arrangements focusing on Yebba’s verses, while the percussion emboldens a simple hip-hop beat, allowing for a smooth blend in this ode to their youths in their respective cities. It creates a smooth unification of the two, as we hear them performing while in their A-Game. In the song, They burn bridges that have been vandalized on each journey to succeed in their work. Smino’s verse contains more gravitas, as opposed to A$AP Rocky — the other featured rapper. His presence on “Far Away” is from someone standing afar from the living room window.

Fortunately, through captivating performances, Yebba is placing us in her shoes. Most times, you’re taken through the wringer as she lays out what passes her subconscious in these times. And intermittently, with songs like “Louie Bag” and “Far Away,” Yebba distinguishes herself in pop, barely straying from the overall construct of the sound. It’s reflective of Yebba’s trajectory as an artist, with Dawn acting as a stepping stone in showing us her true self. She assimilates into these different types of production that I’m wondering what’s in store as she continues to explore and grow as an artist. If you’re into an enjoyably emotional listen, you’ll leave this album wanting more of Yebba soon.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Maisie Peters – You Signed Up For This: Review

Despite having a presence in the music industry, Maisie Peters boldly names her debut You Signed Up For This. Like some pop stars before her, they had confidence and a defined identity, further being the extra boost to keep them within our stratosphere. Maisie has released two EPs and a full soundtrack for the AppleTV+ show, Trying, but unless you’re conscious within the depth of the pop world, she isn’t an artist who you’d immediately recognize. However, You Signed Up For This confidently creates a soundscape that blends pop-rock with acoustic and folk undertones. And with Maisie Peters’, sometimes, masterful songwriting, her debut makes us glad we somewhat signed up for this.

Maisie Peters is one of many pop stars today that focus on honing their craft as a storyteller; she just happens to be one of the few to make improvements year after year. Though she still has some ways to go, as Maisie Peters is someone who can crumble a song under the weight of her creativity. You Signed Up For This contains as much originality as any Charlie Kaufman film, but Maisie sometimes gets derivative with trying to recreate something to a different tune.

“Psycho” and “Villain” fit into the mold of two songs that carry similar themes and scenes, with the latter being better. “Psycho” is a glamorous pop ensemble that viscerally combines a myriad of instruments into one of the best-produced pop songs this year; unfortunately, the songwriting isn’t as strong. It teeters on slight mediocrity, despite Maisie Peters delivering some captivating melodies and harmonies. On the contrary, “Villain” isn’t a vibrant pop banger. Instead, it takes a nuanced and meta approach to be on the outside looking in. Maisie takes this approach to her songwriting and allowing her to have a greater reach relative to her experiences.

Maisie Peters’ songwriting focuses on a path toward self-reflection/realization, delivering perspectives through dream-like narratives. Maisie breaks down her emotions and details into beautiful components, which make up the whole, like on “Boy,” “Talking to Strangers,” or “John Hughes Movie.” So whenever Maisie isn’t focusing on personal viewpoints, she lets the pen run loose with thoughts and illusions for a life some people wished they could live. Like “Villain,” “John Hughes Movie” is an extension of the few songs about heartbreak throughout the years. They speak to the idea that Maisie is sometimes writing from the outside looking in. By creating these universally understanding songs, she allows herself to flex her storytelling past the overtly personal. 

One example of great storytelling comes from “John Hughes Movie,” which sees Maisie Peters wishing to have a love plotline like the song’s namesake. A John Hughes’ teen film starts with scanty realism until the final moments, where love becomes eternal through a lock of eyes or lips. Like Maisie, I’ve had similar dreams and delusions, and she captures the essence that contrasts the films from everyday life. 

Maisie finds a way to infuse the themes into a relative narrative and vibrant production, with the former being her main strength. But this strength only shines when she isn’t trying to deliver a radio hit.

There is a clear division of sound between the slight esoteric folk-pop hybrids and clear pop bangers she aims to create with a song like “Psycho.” There are aspects of “Psycho” that excel, particularly in the production, and her lyrics are not desirably catchy. She changes the script with a song like “Elvis Song,” where the poppy percussion gives Maisie a chance to sing without any vocal modifiers.

You Signed Up For This carries hyperextended guitar chords on more than 75% of the album, but 70% of the time, it intricately blends with the rest of the production. For Maisie Peters, it’s a strength that gives her the comfortability to be different. The chords have a simple frame, allowing the external instruments to form a direction and create depth. Maisie has a refined sound and identity that her creative juices refill themselves after each conception. The contrasting sounds of previously mentioned songs, “Talking to Strangers” and “Boy,” are a few examples of her sonic identity.

“Talking to Strangers” is rooted in acoustic pop with folk-like guitar notes directing Maisie Peters’ vocals toward the limelight. “Boy” follows a similar path with the string arrangement, but the side instruments take hold of the emotions as the percussion gets louder with each empowerment-like phrase by Maisie. Others come across with a variation of the sounds of these songs while subtly keeping the pop overtones in focus. One that comes to mind is “Brooklyn,” which is a beautiful double entendre on viewing herself as the idyllic female for the suitor while speaking in the third person and indicating that they have to travel to Brooklyn to find her. I felt like it would have been the better closer than the slight snooze of “Tough Act.”

You Signed Up For This delivers on impact with some great songs coming from various directions. It ends on a decent note, but as it quickly repeats from song one, I become immediately transfixed all over again. Maisie has a captivating voice and style that makes her a diamond in the rough for pop and having a refined mentor in Ed Sheeran giving her the tools to make the best album she can.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Lorde – Solar Power: Review

For the better or worse, turning a complete 180 doesn’t always land smoothly on the runway. After two albums, Lorde has taken this turn with only one foot patted on the ground on her new album Solar Power. Throughout the years, we have gotten accustomed to Lorde’s atmospheric and witchy-pop style that oozes synths. And after years of keeping it consistent, Lorde has given the sun a chance. She trades in her black and dark-tinted clothes and raw emotions for bathing suits and warm vibes, and it works for the most part. Lorde has never been boring, bringing something new and exciting to each album, performance, song, and so forth, but not Solar Power

Leading up to Solar Power, Lorde has been a little quiet. Five years ago, Lorde released the phenomenal album Melodrama. Entrenched in dark synths and mood-inducing piano keys, Melodrama explored Lorde’s strengths at the next level. And as I listened to Solar Power, the memory of the first time I played Melodrama hit me. It was an ear-catching experience that grasped me at every turn. That wasn’t always the feeling throughout Solar Power. I found myself dumbfounded, trying to understand how Lorde seemingly missed more than she hit. And this was after feeling mesmerized by the first single. There is a whirlwind of complexities hidden within the crevices, but the lack of shine has made it forgettable. 

Solar Power is reminiscent of the smooth summer rock era of the late 50s and early 60s. Lorde mentioned in an interview with Spotify that one of the main influences for the sound of Solar Power comes from bands like The 5th Dimension, and particularly the song “Age of Aquarius.” Unlike “Age of Aquarius,” Solar Power lacks the intricacies that made the sound such a force in the summer. It has a mellow consistency and themes about wellness and mental health, and unfortunately, it lacks a spark. The closest thing to a spark is the songs “Dominoes” and “Solar Power.” Other times, you’re left there sitting and yawning, waiting for it to breeze by. 

When Lorde fans were beginning to feed again, like them, I was ecstatic about this new direction for Lorde. She isn’t focused on the operatics and instead focusing on releasing her energy differently. After the first single, “Solar Power,” this energy kept growing into an array of unique concepts that never feel complete. Lorde and Jack Antanoff can make these songs vibrant, and instead, they focus predominantly on the atmosphere and songwriting, so it doesn’t cut corners where it counts.

“Dominoes” is the definitive highlight on the album, despite the disappointing 2 minutes run time. The guitar strings twinkle with the radiant and softened sun of a perfect summer day. The context of the song doesn’t match the vibe, albeit Lorde’s vibrant vocal performance. Unlike the former, “Mood Ring” tacks on more than a melodic guitar. The layers of percussion and strings weave in a smooth tangent that elevates Lorde’s vocal performance, including subtle sarcastic notes. Along with “Solar Power,” “Dominoes,” and “Oceanic Feeling,” “Mood Ring” is a rare moment where what they sought to accomplish is accomplished.

The production from Jack Antanoff, Lorde, and sometimes Malay has a smooth consistency on a technical level. You rarely feel like production sounds unfinished or the mixing is rough, and it benefits the quality. Unfortunately, after some time, it starts to sound too similar. Having a laid-back approach can undercut the delivery of the songwriting as the style can wane the boredom here and there. Some songs circle past simplicity due to Lorde’s eloquent vocal performances. It gives Lorde the fluidity to work with different pitches, despite falling into familiar waters sometimes. It saves some songs from tapering off from the bland production.

It gets to a point where you’ll be divisive on which songs you like and which you don’t. It stems from the sonic consistency that makes many songs sound similar. “Stoned At the Nail Salon” and “Oceanic Feeling,” for example. They are focused and atmospheric, as it plays to her vocal strengths. However, one isn’t as interesting. “Oceanic Feeling” is a beautiful closer that paces itself in tangent with the waves of the water she has painted. “California,” which precedes “Stoned At The Nail Salon,” does a better job in weaving together the psychedelic undertones subtly. It lets you embrace the summer breeze created by the song as you lay back under the hot summer sun.

Albeit the shift in direction, the songwriting never takes a step back. Lorde reflects on her life experiences, sometimes traveling to speak to her younger self and tell her everything will be fine. So, it isn’t like Solar Power lacks substance, but it doesn’t have enough external world-building. It muddles the songs into a realm of forgetfulness, as you forget what has played. The pacing doesn’t have issues; however, there is only so much that can do to elevate the sound. For one, add some low-barring drums instead of esoteric strings that are too enamored with themselves that variety tends to lack here and there.

Solar Power is a disappointment primarily due to the production. Lorde’s songwriting doesn’t take a step back as she tacks on some radiant melodies and harmonies. Unfortunately, it constantly feels like I never know which song I’m listening to, as some songs sound too similar to compare. The depth of the songwriting continues to show Lorde’s strength, but the boring production can leave you feeling empty. There is enough to keep interest, but for the most part, it is a fine album.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Clairo – Sling: Review

It isn’t every day a creator comes out with the consistency to elevate any artist to new levels, further finding something that has yet to be unlocked. Max Martin comes to mind quickly when the music is centered on pop and Jack Antonoff has become that for this age of alternative artists. As he did with artists like St. Vincent, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde, he continues with Clairo on her sophomore album, Sling. Clairo has been quietly making noise in lo-fi/acoustic bedroom pop music, but she has yet take make a splash. Sling is different compared to her debut, Immunity, which felt like this bland array of melancholic-emotional downbeat pop tracks that never felt immersive. Sling shifts into a range of elegant folk and pop instrumentals that continuously captures the attention even when Clairo still finds the remedy with a consistent tone and mood.

Clairo’s vocals always had this rustic authenticity that made her debut, Immunity, somewhat tolerable, despite the music’s production not working to her strengths, which is similar to English artist Birdy. Birdy came onto the public eye with her cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love,” but her foray into artistic and pompous pop didn’t resonate as much as her follow-up. Like her, Clairo goes in that direction as Sling highlights her vocal strengths, matching with the sad lyricism she usually writes. It didn’t leave much of an impression, though her follow-up kept it flowing. A part of it could be that it resonates with a style many female vocalists attempt at some point in their career, and that is a heartbreak album taking influence from Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which always perks interest.

On Immunity, Clairo’s vocal range innately slips into melancholic broadness, which can leave a track sounding soulless and tiring. But Jack Antonoff shifts our perception, allowing her voice to capture the emotional gravitas that was sometimes lacking on her debut. Though it isn’t to say this new project is exponentially better than it, the improvement shows in terms of effectiveness. Previously you’d be able to grasp her songwriting strength, but the production never kept you engaged 100%. It’s the complete opposite on Sling, which doesn’t have latent production. It is a continuous testament toward Jack’s genius as a producer, as it matches fittingly with Clairo’s vocals and more so the lyrical content of her music.

Sling is an amalgamation of her life since the release of her debut, amongst the influence that persisted in the making of, i.e. at an estate on top of Mount Tahoe in upstate New York. The atmosphere around her has given us a new direction, sonically, that has Jack Antonoff and Clairo working together to create these beautiful rustic sounds. As Clairo takes a step forward a digs into a variety of themes, like the persistent pressure that goes behind societal norms with motherhood and varying aspects of a relationship. The latter of these can become a bit redundant, as the themes overlap you get lost with certain tracks sounding too similar. Fortunately, this is a minimal deterrent midway, which almost causes a standout track, “Blouse,” to be part of the mix. 

“Blouse” has two bookends, “Zinnias” and “Wade,” bogged by typical Clairo conventions. “Blouse” is a beautiful orchestration that displays nuance toward an apparent stigma that still lives today in the world of social dating apps. Or simply put, we’ve all been conflicted within a relationship about whether or not this person is with you for your looks, opposed to your core. She persists in displaying this within the confines of her music, usually succeeding with other tracks like “Amoeba,” which is a continuation in tone and theme to the opening track “Bambi,” except marginally better as the production is more refined and apparent.  

Sling shows Clairo discovering herself as an artist, branching into a world that makes sense with her low barring vocals and evoking the emotional gravitas that was lacking. Clairo finds new traction, even though it doesn’t keep you completely engaged all the way through. As much as I enjoyed this follow-up, Clairo still has ways to go as an artist, and fortunately, with her youth, there is nowhere to go but up.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

List: Ranking Taylor Swift’s Duets

Throughout Taylor Swift’s career she has had a wide range of duets with different artists she either associated with at the time or with an artist she is a huge fan of, like Bon Iver and The Nationals. She has had her fair share of flops in quality with the way these tracks turn out, but the vocals – for the most part – don’t falter in mediocrity; however the synchronization of the vocals are another story. This rankings looks at both overall construct of the vocals as they harmonize with each other and how complementary they are to the production.


13. Me! – Taylor Swift & Brendon Urie

This is an interesting duet, partially because it is one of those rare “bad” songs from Taylor Swift, and mostly because the vocal pitches don’t complement or contrast each other well. It’s one of the more poppy/lively productions, despite wrought, that Taylor has sung over, “Shake It Off” notwithstanding (because it just so damn great). Some of the production notes, like the overindulgent piano and synths, leave much to interpretation and questioning as Brendon Urie and Taylor lack vocal chemistry. Though it has lively production, it doesn’t have that same oomph and stylistic authenticity of “Shake It Off.” Though Taylor does her best, vocally, Urie is still as self reliant on putting the octane on the high pitch, more adjunct to his recent radio hit – at the time – “High Hopes,” and together it is way too meh.


12. Evermore – Taylor Swift & Bon Iver

Amongst the songs on Evermore, unfortunately, the title track doesn’t evoke the same oomph that the album had through its many intricate moments. It is unlike their previous duet, “Exile,” which used the strengths of both artists with slight nuance. “Evermore” is boring, for lack of a better term. Bon Iver’s vocals feel like they weren’t much there to grasp from emotionally, leading to moments you just don’t to latch onto.

The piano keys and guitar riffs of “Evermore” don’t have that same haunting atmosphere and it relies on falling into something more similar to standard folk/indie rock, as the broken down instrumental tries hard not to play third fiddle. The harmonization continues to show a trend of it working with fluidity, but that isn’t enough to save the track from the many problems it carries, specifically in the longish runtime.


11. Safe & Sound – Taylor Swift & The Civil Wars

This is another, modest, track coming from Taylor Swift that she curated for The Hunger Games film. It is broken down with a simple string melody and ghostly harmonization from each member of the Civil Wars, individually, on each verse. These harmonizations is the highlight of the track. It’s hard to dislike the nuanced arrangement, but it does teeter around a slow pacing that doesn’t feel fully invested in, particularly in how it is mixed. You’re just there waiting for any type of shift in momentum, but nothing ever comes out of it.


10. Everything Has Changed – Taylor Swift & Ed Sheeran

“Everything Has Changed” is honestly just fine. There isn’t much to it that makes me think that it is anymore than what you hear on a surface level, especially considering Ed Sheeran doesn’t sound fully “there” on it.. It may be one of the overall “good” (not great) tracks off Red, but when you compare it to the other duet on the album it falls beyond sub-par overall execution in both production and vocal melodies. It’s, in a way, a very typical-kind of duet most people could mirror, considering the basic piano keys.


9. I Don’t Wanna Live Forever – Taylor Swift & Zane

What starts as a middling and slow composition, grows into an elegant orchestration of vocal deliveries. They overshadow the very typical somber percussion that takes mood-influence from the film, Fifty Shades Darker, for which it was made for. Zayn and Taylor complement each other surprisingly well, considering the contrasting – base – range that both vocal pitches encompass. Unfortunately the track really only has gravitas when the production transitions between the first chorus and Taylor Swift’s solo vocals as the shifty percussion adds more color to an otherwise simple gothic-pop atmosphere.


8. Coney Island – Taylor Swift & The National

This song has definitely grown on me after some time, mostly because of the way Matt Berninger’s voice contrasts Taylor Swift’s over a beautiful string and piano arrangement. At the time it felt like a very yawn inducing track that fit the mold of Evermore, sonically. Though the production, at times, leads in some slight bland directions, the vocals from both artists boost the complexion on the track about separation. It is the best duet off Evermore, but that isn’t hard to accomplish when the title track featuring Bon Iver loses touch on the elements that made “Exile” so great.


7. You All Over Me – Taylor Swift & Maren Morris

Though some may think there is some recency bias, it should be known by now that most of the duets Taylor Swift has made don’t always have the greatest sequences in the production transitions. The way Taylor and Maren Morris blend their vocals together is reminiscent of the harmonizations that Nathan Chapman would implement to Taylor’s voice amplification and depth. Morris does that for Taylor this time around, while incorporating her own complementary twang – accents in her singing. 

Aaron Dressner of The National finds a beautiful way to meet two similar sounds, folk and country, halfway. The country/folk blend in guitar strings and percussion embolden the overall atmosphere more attune to the kind of ballad-like constructs that made Fearless such a momentous debut for Taylor Swift.


6. Lover (Remix) – Taylor Swift & Shawn Mendes

Unlike the unconventionality of Taylor Swift and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver’s vocal synchronization, Taylor and Shawn Mendes have a unique happy medium with the way they harmonize. However, as a song, there are many parts where it goes from being on a high to going down low in execution, like the moments where Shawn free forms – non verbal melodies – which comes off a bit extra. It is a beautifully designed duet that works more than it doesn’t, and particularly because Shawn Mendes complements Taylor Swift, vocally. On the bright side, the production maintains it’s elegant, melancholic guitar and piano-centric combo flowing with ease, but regular version of “Lover” is slightly better.


5. Half Of My Heart – John Mayer & Taylor Swift

The vibrant harmonizations match the simpleness of the melodic/melancholic acoustics, backing the neatly designed pop-rock track from John Mayer. “Half Of My Heart” is a solidly constructed song, from the luscious twang in Taylor’s voice to the verdant foundation of the pop overtones Mayer creates with his producers. “Half Of My Heart” delivers with finely tuned mixing, allowing both vocalists to bring their own bravado in their performances.


4. Breathe – Taylor Swift & Colbie Cailat

This beautiful guitar ballad brings the best of both worlds, as Colbie brings soft and elegant harmonizations to Taylor Swift’s melodies, specifically in the way she elongates the word for emphasis. Colbie Caillat has a voice from the heavens and her quaint summer innocence in her voice adds much to the pop-shy Taylor, who seems to take a lot of notes of the way Colbie creates her melodies, resonate of her work like “Bubbly,” and “Realize.” “Breathe” is part of the small collective of songs that transgress against the underlying quandary we had at the time; is she pop or is she country? This song, instrumentally bridges a gap more parallel to that of folk-pop with the somber guitar strings that conduct the tempo and rhythm of the rest of the production.


3. Two Is Better Than One – Boys Like Girls & Taylor Swift

This beautiful and timely piece of music-pop culture history, where the paradigm shift of emo-rock and pop-punk became more infused with pop rock, that the songwriting didn’t help imply context. It was also one of the few times we saw two genres of the opposite spectrum link and create a song together. This song or ballad is full of vocal decadence with the way they paint the emotional cues, specifically in the chorus. Before this, from Fearless, Taylor balanced pop sonic subtexts in some songs, like “You Belong With Me,” but this is her real first foray into pop without ever feeling derivative of underlying, wrought, emo/punk sub-texts. 


2. Exile – Taylor Swift & Bon Iver

The atmospheric nature that loomed over Taylor Swift’s sonic shift on Folklore brought about one of the greatest songs of 2020. And unlike the duet Taylor made with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on the title track of Evermore, the song “Exile,” from Folklore, is a breath of fresh air. It brings varying degrees of lush and haunting-gospel like sonic execution in the production and vocal textures “Exile” works by incorporating all the aspects that usually embolden their vocal textures; specifically Justin Vernon, whose melodic baritone pitch orchestral amplification contrasts Taylor’s honeyed vocals. The focused piano keys adds atmospheric overtones, which allows the reverb to develop the haunting mood of a track more aligned with themes of separation, like Taylor slowly did from the country roots of Nashville and transitioned into pop. The added depth, vocally and thematically, brings this track forth with enough momentum it will leave you shivering.


1. The Last Time – Taylor Swift & Gary Lightbody

Simply put, “The Last Time” is emotionally draining. Though that doesn’t come as a surprise, considering Taylor Swift created this with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and legendary rock producer Jacknife Lee. In a way, this acts as a precursor to some of the stylistic/sonic overtures of Folklore, specifically in the notes/sonic-influence she takes from the bands she happens to be huge on, aka folk-alternative rock. “The Last Time,” however, takes all these sonic undertones to bridge together the power ballad about a relationship cycle. The moody electric guitar riffs, builds the momentum of the story, while the piano invigorates the atmospheric surface.

Gary Lightbody’s baritone, like Justin Vernon’s, is a beautiful complement to Taylor’s middling soprano range. This allows for Taylor to find her own comfortability parallel to her partner’s delivery and together they created one of the best songs in Taylor’s whole discography.