Arlo Parks – The Soft Machine: Review

Coming off an excellent debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, Arlo Parks has given us these intricate R&B/Soul/Pop hybrids, free-flowing with a natural cadence that evokes those calming emotional notes that keep you ingrained in her sound. It transfixes you into this world that balances the nuances of indie R&B/Soul and Pop with its loverly and atmospherically composed vocals that define the textures of her writing. As Arlo Parks noted through her quick one-minute explanation of the core context of the album, “This record is life through my lens, through my body – the mid-20s anxiety, the substance abuse of friends around me, the viscera of being in love for the first time, navigating PTSD and grief and self-sabotage and joy, moving through worlds with wonder and sensitivity – what it’s like to be trapped in this particular body.” Though that is prevalent within her follow-up, My Soft Machine, it’s an album that does more of the same without feeling consistently unique from her debut, leaving us with her songwriting, vocal performance, and some quality but uninteresting production.

Sonically driven to encompass mood, My Soft Machine mostly excels due to Arlo Parks’ songwriting and vocal performances having an immense pre. It’s an album where even the mildest production brings these solid melancholic sensibilities, but most times, you feel like there was some room to explore more. You hear it from the beginning with the song “Bruiseless,” one of two tracks entirely produced by Parks’, the other being “Ghost.” It feels like this heightened push towards building an album that becomes an embodiment of its lead artist – it’s a commonplace, but all do so differently; here Parks takes the lyrical route – in doing so, it shows Parks swimming through these beats fluidly, allowing her themes to breathe and offer more of an understanding. It’s what’s in between the two tracks that it starts to limp with its steadfast pace and familiarity. They interject, creating a negative fluidity where occasionally it’s more challenging to crumble and ingest what’s getting said because as you dig through, you get more entrenched by Parks’ whimsical melodies in her choruses.

There are occasions Arlo Parks’ choruses have more of a gravitational pull, as they emerge with this hypnotizing energy that sometimes her verses feel like a minimal afterthought. It becomes detrimental to boasting some thematic poignancy, even though the choruses aren’t thin, similar with the visceral depth in her verses. It isn’t too recurring as you can sense the differences, like with “Impurities” and “Purple Phase” – the emphasis is more evenly split, leaving these haunting vocals as a ghostly reminder – with the former, it does enough to hook you with the verse, but when Parks begins to sing, “I radiate like a star, like a star, star, star … When you embrace all my impurities/And I feel clean again,” in the pre-chorus and chorus respectively, it’s simplicity gets reinforced by the whimsy in her voice, allowing to have the gripping depth seen between the love she shares with her significant other. But its when you get to the crux of her verses where you hear what Parks wants to relay, even when it’s a little forgettable like “Blades” or “Puppy,” which don’t tread to new territory with its instrumental inclusions, specifically the synths.

Unlike Arlo Parks’ last album, the production sometimes feels predictable, rarely enticing you all the way and making you love it in its entirety. The soulful strings and subtle, buoyant percussion patterns add weight to the sound structure; yet, it gets disappointing when it slightly retreads mood-focused layers that you feel like you’re listening to the same moods, despite different themes represented. One example comes from “Weightless,” which ventures through safe paths, illuminating only when the chorus strikes, continuing to show the ferocity given to the delivery of either. “Weightless” has solid verse but is a little forgettable, specifically as Parks flows over these simple drum patterns. It leads into a surprising rap verse, but it’s not enough for the song to gain momentum, like “Dog Rose,” where the production is its defining juncture. Its chorus comes stronger than other aspects of the vocal performance, but this guitar-driven production feels stunted by not so gripping vocals from Parks.

One definitive highlight on the album is her duet with Phoebe Bridgers. It’s refreshing and an embodiment of their craft, especially their directional cadence, driving forth this theme of true love. It adds dimensions when the song embodies vague layering that can be reflective of whoever is listening. It’s more so because both artists are bisexual, and it adds nuanced dimensions, allowing the song to have more cognitive meaning, like the others, which continues to be enveloped by the world around Parks. On “I’m Sorry,” we hear Parks talk about this hardened shell she wears, making it harder for others to get through. Or with “Devotion,” she brings this otherworldly rock establishment with her co-producers, creating this incredible tale of queer love that evokes darker moods, alla Prince. She uses these dark conjectures to capture this love, twisting whats negative into the positive, like with the pre-chorus, where she sings, “Girl, I wanna protect you, I do, oh/Your eyes destroying me/I’m wide open, hmm.” It rounds out this solid follow-up that aims for depth, even when the production lacks luster.

The Soft Machine is unique, but not much so with the production. It’s within this zone that takes a safer route to allow the writing to gain emphasis, but in doing so, it sometimes whiffs at making its gravitational pull more powerful. It was something that did grow on me the more it played, especially as I let it connect after giving different sectors more attention based on what’s the most potent. It isn’t to say the supporting cast there isn’t up to par, but it’s more of a disappointment from its lack of consistency. I enjoyed it a lot, but I’ll find myself returning to the debut more frequently than not.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

GALE – Lo Que No Te Dije

Since late 2022, Puerto Rican singer-songwriter GALE has been on the come-up, and music publications have become wary of such. Safe to say, I was also on that delayed hype train quietly amassing for GALE like a Karol G co-sign and a significant spotlight/interview with Rolling Stone. Whether early or late, getting to listen and explore Gale’s artistry has been nothing short of refreshing. She doesn’t try to find herself pushing weight through meandering notes in the ever-growing popularity of Latin-Trap and Reggaeton. Instead, she’s finding footing in pop and weaving styles that fit the artistic vision on her new album, Lo Que No Te Dije, translated to “What I Didn’t Tell You.” For GALE, It doesn’t matter how effective the song may be, as evidenced by the fun cheekiness of some songs, like “D Pic,” a mild-mannered tune that aims at the immaturity of dick pictures through texts – as you dive into the album, for its faults, it’s a refreshing listen, especially as she makes something out of the tried relationship-context for pop songs.

What’s unique about Lo Que No Te Dije is its self-reliance on trying new sounds while leaving an empty slot for GALE to bring vocal subtleties through her melodies, giving us to hear a more rounded product. It makes the transitional sequencing feel fluid, like when it shifts from the electronically bombastic “Problemas” to the smooth cadence of the percussion-driven “La Mitad,” which takes influence from Reggaeton in the drums that adds oomph to keep overtures balanced. It then shifts to this excellent acoustic pop song (“Ego”), where GALE flexes her independence from an egotistical and possessional ex. Here, we hear a defining aspect of GALE’s artistry – following the same strength of song-to-song transition, “Ego” sees a similar cadence in language transitions. Many things are working for Lo Que No Te Dije, specifically the energetic and natural catchiness of varying songs, buoyed by solid production from DallasK and Josh Berrios. They bring a transparent layer between sounds, allowing the vocals to feel the importance of backing sounds, heartening the emotional poignancy in the songwriting. 

Lo Que No Te Dije is conceptually thematic, focusing solely on relationships and deconstructing the varying characteristics one experiences, or many times, more personal. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and if it kept that sonic and tonal consistency, GALE could have delivered something more profound, but she takes unique turns that bring forth a vaster range of relativity. GALE can shift the context of a song and make it fit a specific tone without feeling overly hokey. We hear it with “D Pic,” where she takes an empowering and sardonic tone when bashing her man for sending a dick pic in the middle of the night – we hear it with “Killah,” where GALE feels the power, knowing what she loves and the control she wields, using a metaphorical gun and bullet to express it. As standalone tracks, they still show GALE’s talent as a songwriter but don’t feel entwined with the emotional complexities of other songs, especially the dynamite “Problemas” and “Nuestra Cancion.”

Taking into account the varying angles GALE tackles the sounds of this album – one can readily feel disappointed by the slight disjointedness of these cheeky but explorative pop songs that take an inconsistent pivot from the emotional complexities of others. As I’ve noted, the tracks “D Pic” and “Killah” slightly fit the album’s focus on deconstructing a relationship through this vast worldview on living, but these songs don’t bring much to contain that establishment. They are more so there to reinforce GALE’s self-reliance and confidence. “D Pic” is a fun pop romp that wants to focus on the guitars but forgets close to halfway. “Killah” is another Tropical Reggaeton/Pop song that doesn’t feel that ambitious or colorful, reminding me more of a throwaway that’s added so the album doesn’t land below 30 minutes. Fortunately, there are other reasons to enjoy the album, like some of its reference points and influences within the soundscapes.

As it’s been with pop and music in general, use of influential references becomes more apparent within the soundscapes, like the disco flavors in synth-pop or the electronic elements in Latin Trap. It’s this evergrowing way of building and exploring new foundations, shifting how we hear them sonically, like when Melanie Martinez interloped the melody from “If You Had My Love” by Jennifer Lopez on “Brain & Heart.” Here, those moments, at first, become bewildering and then refined and beautifully resonant with outer notes within the progressional melody. The standout moment comes on “Problemas,” which beautifully incorporates aspects of Justin Beiber’s first verse melody on his powerhouse hit “Baby.” It’s subtle but brings an impactful punch, like the EDM synths on “Nuestra Cancion” or the timid but pertinent consistency of the synth-pop rock sounds of the late 2000s on “Triste.” It’s just this prevailing trip to listen to and get lost in as you feel powerful emotions and dance.

Though “D Pic” and “Killah” are slight “blemishes,” they don’t fully take away from the great stuff going for the album, especially its catchiness, which will definitely have me returning again and again. It didn’t strike a chord initially, but as it kept looping, I heard the luscious details imputed into the tracks, bringing forth something multi-dimensional. It’s a fantastic reintroduction to GALE, but it still doesn’t have the strongest landing. It comes with direction and a sense of being – individualization – yet, the hiccups do stand out, and it lessens this to another solid pop album that will stand the test of time, or so I hope.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Yaeji – With A Hammer: Review

Growing within the electronic music sphere, Yaeji has continued to amass fans through bilingual performances on EPs and Mixtapes and wicked mixing behind the boards, evident with her 2017 Boiler Room Set. It continues to be the case with her debut album, With A Hammer, even though it tiptoes a safer line between house and pop, instead of what we’ve gotten on previous records, which brought in more hip-hop elements. Though it rarely makes turns, Yaeji’s craft continues to shine through as her more lo-fi, softening vocals bring it all together into this unique cohesion of sounds that start to fit more of an aesthetic instead of being expansive. The moments we get these capricious pivots, they offer this renewed sense of being that fit who Yaeji is, where her sound is less streamlined like “Ready Or Not” compared to that of “Michin,” which uses some fantastic glitch-influenced notes. As you sit back and hit play, you’ll notice some fantastical elements that make the music twinkly, almost like the antithesis of what one would produce with a metaphorical hammer, i.e., less bombastic.

With A Hammer left me underwhelmed as some typical Electronic Dance Music notes weave more apropos dance complexions sounds into their construction, making anything that could add a lavish layer, feel like a second-class citizen as it rarely gets a moment to speak. That isn’t to say it lacks directions to get there; it seems that Yaeji is teetering between her iconographical style/techniques and driving home more pop flavors, especially in the vocal performances, which have a distinct cadence towards the approach. To say the music is one-dimensional or lacking focus is incorrect; however, from what has gotten heard, Yaeji’s music isn’t taking some different, hard-on approach to establish a sense of lo-fi grandeur. In turn, she’s keeping itself tightknit between occasional components from the synthesizers, yet it excels when it gets a little bombastic. While trying to incorporate different sonic palettes overlapping each other – often, sounds grip you by the ears and reel you in through a sonic fishing line. It gets you swiftly in the opening track, “Submerge FM,” which beautifully brings forth unique choices like the flute-synth one-two combo that make better ones stand out, like “Pass Me By.”

As the music begins to fluctuate and shift layers, sometimes gripping you with “For Granted” or losing you with “Fever,” Yaeji’s artistic direction gets reflected poignantly as the vocal performances relay that icing that doesn’t get molded well on top. Sometimes you’ll get this extravagant slice with “Ready or Not,” and other times, getting a slightly melted piece, where Yaeji’s performance isn’t as refined as with the title song, “With A Hammer.” It has this fierce, mystifying production which lets the electronic components breathe efficiently, keeping it in toe from start to finish; however, once you get to the vocals, the dronish performance, though seemingly purposeful, doesn’t land as she probably expected. Unlike “Happy,” there are songs like “With A Hammer,” where the vocal melodies don’t always feel connected with the production, making the abstract feel slightly but minimally forced. Tracks like “Fever,” “With A Hammer,” and “Be Alone In This” don’t help round out the rough edges certain ones may have with their in-song transition. It then becomes unfortunate that the vibe getting presented isn’t that cohesive, middling the fascinating contrast between its directional theme and final product.

Despite having these middling moments, With A Hammer contains a more safe throughline for the musical range that keeps Yaeji focused on parameters set for herself. In doing so, she works around a base stream of music where different sounds get tacked on, building these fantastic soundscapes, like the more intimate “I’ll Remember For Me, I’ll Remember For You” or the more lively and fun “Done (Let’s Get It).” What makes her music more captivating is the flow of the vocal performances as it balances the different notes overlaying it, like the flute and trumpet, which reinforce the visceral strengths of Yaeji’s production. Sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, they play along with the beat, growing it more and more within its aesthetic, like “I’ll Remember For Me, I’ll Remember For You.” The trumpet leads a triumphant lead-in and closes with a contrasting down pivot where Yaeji’s modest, angelic vocals keep the electronic ballad zoned in and subtly vibrant. 

Plenty of tracks fit within this model, though slightly more elevated; it’s like this rejuvenating sensation that comes from hearing aspects from the past see growth with new releases where the synergy between percussion and synthesizers as they take on different sonic contexts. In most cases, the synths make a grander stand as they deliver oodles of electronica bliss, like on “Away X5,” where Yaeji’s minimalist vocals flow smoothly through the kinetic synths. But as it treads through these unique directions, the quality of its artistic direction shines through the rough patches, adjudicating a different side than her more colorful and lively nature on What We Drew, her debut Mixtape. You’ll find something here to love, that’s for sure, and maybe more so as they hit a safe zone for the sounds of the genres instead of being more expansive.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Boygenius – The Record: Review

Entwined with the seismic grasp of indie rock’s guitar-centric oeuvre, Boygenius has found a way to bring more value than some systematic construction, especially within the areas of the choruses and bridges. Much of that comes from members Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Phoebe Bridgers, who are equally adept at writing these auspiciously poignant songs that turn into something expansive from common themes it imbues, bringing dynamic lyrical and melodic depth over whimsical strings. What separates Boygenius from others is their ability to create polished production through this subtle rough studio aesthetic that pushes the instruments toward an individualized spotlight. They continuously showcase the elements of rock, conjoined through the motions of the trio’s collective musical characterizations. It gives fans a sense that each brings this unique touch, whether coming from the slower emo textures of Baker & Bridgers or the more nuanced singer-songwriter vocal aesthetic from Dacus. The vision Boygenius has is evident as it gets delivered powerfully on their debut album, the record.

The Record starts and continues innate consistency, but a little after the midpoint, some songs become modestly underwhelming. It downplays the emotionally stimulating indie vibes you’ve been vibing throughout. Though Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Phoebe Bridgers can carry a song solo, they bring their flavor to differentiate the aesthetics and let them all explore different sonic foundations. We hear it potently on the dynamic slowcore/garage-rock production of “$20,”  containing a more punkish vocal aesthetic; the immediate shift from the melancholic performances that precede and succeed the track comes through naturally. Though it has its taste of melancholia with Baker’s performance in the first half, it eventually leads to a whirlwind of chaos. Becoming the opposite with many other songs, “$20” is an antithesis to the calming sense behind the buoying theme of togetherness, empathy, and individualized growth. Through it, they are using specific aesthetic bases to boast the content of the music, like with “True Blue” and Lucy Dacus’s more decompressing, and journey-weary vocals, as she laments on her journey through music and loyalty.

It’s a testament to the trio’s gifted writing, which extends beyond its emotional textures, weaving stories through beautifully direct narrative structures. Like “True Blue,” we’re given these stories that personify Dacus’s life in and around music. With “Emily, I’m Sorry,” we hear the empathy of Bridgers as she laments about a past love. “Anti-Cure” relays a story surrounding trauma as Julien Baker reflects on her near-drowning incident in Malibu. On “Satanist,” the trio looks to bring that sense of togetherness outward as it asks, “Will you be a Satanist with me?/Mortgage off your soul to buy your dream/Vacation home in Florida.” The unique tongue-in-cheek lyrics allow you to get the feeling of communication between performer and listener. It leaves us hearing these auspicious directions the music can take, especially in the one it gets intaked from listener to listener. Usually, it’s more of a one-way street, with the performer looking like the reader in your library circle and telling you these stories that offer a sense of connectivity. That connectivity allows us, as listeners, to bridge these interwoven rock styles that sometimes shift in sonic complexions, like when it goes from something more classical and poppy on “Leonard Cohen” to the more punk-infused “Satanist.” 

Unfortunately, as you’re gliding through such rich songs, you feel a pivot at “Revolution 0,” where the music becomes more of an underwhelming reflection of a slower indie rock aesthetic, except it gets carried by the writing. These songs, “We’re In Love and “Anti-Curse,” don’t always adequately reflect the gravitas of the vocals or boast the production forward, despite resoundingly deep writing, where it comes down to whether the production works for you. They become more of an embodiment of what has been heard, except not as impressive or innovative. Whereas “$20” does something intricate with the guitars and vocal arrangements, “We’re In Love” doesn’t do much beyond the ballad conjectures, as its construction isn’t as refined and more self-reliant on the acoustic strings. “Anti-Curse” goes from this decent pop-rock production (comparatively) to a more toned-down instrumentation that feels lesser than other songs following similar tempos. One of these songs is “Letter To An Old Poet,” which beautifully builds character as it balances ballad-like melodies and is more refined, especially at the end with these twinkly and fiery notes.

At 12 tracks, and 43 minutes, the record flows with a crisp and smooth pace that your first few listens will feel insightful and rewarding. This sentiment goes tenfold for fans that get these artists’ styles, especially as you hear about their growth since their self-titled debut in 2018. It doesn’t matter who you are when approaching the music because it speaks for itself in quality and through poignant and resounding poeticism. Whereas they construct these narratives with clear prose, the way it bridges together allows it to have these defining moments within the vocal performances, especially in the choruses, which balances the performers on the production and lets them feel enriched as they deliver it to you. But as you sit there, reflecting through all of it, you see the brilliance within the music as Boygenius produces a fantastic debut.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Lana Del Rey – Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd

Imagine walking through said tunnel, and the arraignment gets fixed to include remnants of sparkling, twinkling lights guiding you through between ends while following a musical rhythm that emboldens the imagery visualized from the listener. Now, while in that tunnel, you notice a few stones loose like threads on a simple but character-filled dress held together by some quality stitching that makes it look brand new. That’s what it feels like taking the journey through Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, the new album by Lana Del Rey. A lot of that comes from Jack Antanoff, whose production has become more of a weary point of emphasis, despite matching middling effort to contort Lana’s approach toward this intricate narrative that’s self-reflexive. It’s rewarding as it is inconsistent due to some poor pacing between tracks. But we get significant highlights when someone else brings something instrumentally besides Del Rey and Antanoff; you get enough here to satisfy the ears with bountiful music that hits the right chords.

Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd sometimes doesn’t incorporate sounds that reflect Del Rey’s strengths, aiming to shift slightly known. These sounds become lost in obscurity as it brings some trap notes or an oversaturation of electronica without adding depth to the core of its production. Fortunately, these moments are merely sparse, becoming slight components that get forgotten, yet, how it gets incorporated makes it harder at first. The various high points take away from the off-kilter choices that take her through these uncharacteristic avenues, showing the minimal limitations of the areas Jack Antanoff can reach in pop. He brings trap notes at the end of “A&W,” a track I thoroughly enjoyed but loses that spark that made the first five minutes so radiant – additionally, the Trip-Hop Griminess elements of “Taco Truck x VB” aren’t deeply explored. It’s the same with “Peppers,” a Father co-produced track that brings some imagination to the beat the trap/hip-hop undertones, but Lana Del Rey doesn’t align with the conjectures of the sound, feeling like an afterthought next to Tommy Genesis, at time.

Most of the production carries antiquated notes that sometimes don’t feel as unique within the beat because it gets bolstered by the performance of Lana Del Rey, like on “Kintsugi,” where the piano isn’t as pronounced, despite being a focal point. “Fingertips” doesn’t feel like anything new or intriguing, despite solid songwriting and performance. For the most part, the production is good, but it becomes more of a balancing beam for Lana Del Rey and the featured performers. They use their moments triumphantly, even in the bad, as they deliver beautifully poignant and potent performances that further become resonant of a more creative, streamlined narrative structure where we get an essence of creation while Lana’s breaking walls around her. The featured artists match that potency, even in the weaker songs, from Jon Batiste to SYML and Tommy Genesis; there isn’t a moment where the quality of their addition isn’t compelling. She lets others get through, bolstering the thematic pertinence about her character, family, and the world around her in the immediate. 

The themes flow fluidly throughout; whether it’s reminiscing on family and the Grant ancestry on the “The Grants,” reflecting inner growth in “Sweet,” or detailing a secret love affair on “Let The Light In,” you hear who Lana Del Rey is as an artist, especially as she weaves a thematic throughline with the interludes. One significant highlight comes on “Fishtails,” which showcases the remarkable talent within Lana Del Rey; she bridges two different threads of family and relationships through the same path creating this vibrantly wistful path where the synergy between vocals and production excels. Though the orchestration is comparatively weaker, Del Rey continuously elevates it further with the writing and vocal performance. She excels through the elevated atmosphere from these otherworldly ingredients, almost as if she wants to bring us together within that central theme regarding the love and virtues of one’s family. One of these ingredients is the consistent studio or outdoors-like ambiance breaking down the performances before our eyes; it makes the “Jon Batiste Interlude” and “Margaret” such joyous and fulfilling arrangements. It’s a different level of catchiness, where it becomes less reliant on a melody and more on the vibes.

By having the kind of catchiness it does, Lana Del Rey keeps you entrenched in the sounds her producers make, as the words she sings blossom through your ears, despite its lack of a consistent pace. It can sometimes push you away as songs run long, which is typical for Del Rey; however, unlike past songs, this ballad-like pacing doesn’t translate to a predominantly smooth listen, despite rarely shifting off path. It creates a slight impatience as the album slowly dampens the speed and tempo in the middle and end, progressively getting so. Though noticeable, getting through the tracks at such a pace can equally be as rewarding. Fortunately, having producers other than Jack Antanoff allows Lana to tap into these oeuvres of different string rhythms where you get some exuberant moments like Zach Dawes’s bass playing, which adds dimensions to the production he works on, like “The Grants.” It’s making that first and possibly second listen rewarding.

Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd delivers, and on some tracks, pushing further than expected based on what you heard through singles released. Significant highs stand out viscerally, but the lows are tolerable as it goes the limits to make it work, falling short of delivering something unique. It leaves you with an album bloated from these sidesteps, specifically from the pacing within tracks that can turn anyone impatient. But as it rounds out, It’s there, with many quality Lana Del Rey albums – as memorable as Chemtrails Over the Country Club and Lust For Life, reaching the highest peak for something that is replayable, despite bringing a lot to the table.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Aly & AJ – With Love From: Review

Aly & AJ’s return to music hit a momentous high on their excellent follow-up to some remarkable EPs: a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun, and that consistency shined through and through. It keeps us fans, but as fans, we also understand what we like and don’t, so for their follow-up, With Love From comes with incredible highs, continuing that consistency with potent new directions that elevates the craft beyond pop. Shifting from the more summery pop-rock to pop that carries the influence of Americana and Country music on its sleeves. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t stay with this throughout, sometimes shifting back to a more pop-rock-focused sound, even when they aren’t as bad. These pop songs woven within the tracklists feel like it panders to the pop music fans have gotten to love when they could have had more consistency by keeping the aesthetic constant. But With Love From is one solid album that expands beyond the acoustic-driven fortitude of its sonic influences, creating an emotionally potent album.

The music of With Love From isn’t devoid of pop sounds as it plays a vital part in its central core as it guides the varying melodies that lavishly coat the occasionally twangy production. There’s a softening cadence, which heartens the slower tempo rhythms of the strings, allowing one to get engulfed within the twinkling acoustics and slow, methodical percussion that makes you feel like you’re in the room as it’s performing. It’s their liveliness within the performances, which eloquently contrasts the emotionally rich array of sounds. Though it’s a little more direct and nuanced with the first two tracks, Aly & AJ take it a step forward with the beautifully captivating “After Hours.” It powerfully balances styles, allowing the pop-rock notes to engulf the melody while the instrumentations elevate the twangy, danceable moods to keep the spirits high. It’s like a slight anti-thesis to the music getting presented prior and immediately after with the elegant, stripped-down ballad “Blue Dress.” This fantastic four-track run is one of the ones to remember within the album, as some short strings of pop-rock take away from the heavy influence overhead.

“Love You This Way” and “Talking In My Sleep” are the two that don’t feel suitably resonant in the track list as they lean too much into pop, taking away from the remarkable Americana/Country influence and a consistent ride from front to back. “Talking In My Sleep” feels more akin to something from their last album – more glitzy and poppy, the slight identity shift in the strings can’t boast it further, making one lost within the flow. The former is more standard, never seeming to find strength on either side of the musical aisle as the songwriting and melodies aren’t as strong as others. But as they come into your musical stratosphere, they detract from the strength surrounding it through other songs like “Sunchoke,” which audibly brings you front and center with the aesthetic influence behind the lyricism. It’s all reflective, talking about emotional aspects of relationships and life; they give us a take on closing time, delivering an anthem about allowing yourself a moment to reflect and stay positive through the nights. 

With Love From is a harmless but radiant and vibrant pop album that shifts the dynamic from what fans have gotten to hear from them, giving us something different than what one would expect. It isn’t your typical pop-rock album, so the more it progresses, the more you get entrenched in the fantastic melancholy of the string rhythms. Though Aly & AJ are the primary instrumentalists behind the strings, the producers bring forth the dimensions to round out the songs in these songs within the fantastical Americana/Country vibes that have slowly gotten reflected amongst some indie pop artists, like Clairo and Angel Olsen. A lot of credit goes to Aly & AJ’s producers, especially recurring collaborators Ryan Sparker and Yves Rothman, whose resume within this sphere isn’t vast. But they deliver exemplary work with an understanding of the direction taken by its lead artists, and it shows from the giddy-up catchiness of “Tear the Night Up” to the more classical take “Baby Lay Your Head Down.” It’s a continuous feat of great music that gets stumped along the way through more pop-like songs.

There was much enjoyment in listening to Aly & AJ’s album, With Love From; the music gets adjusted to work potently within the confines of its sonic sphere and excel beyond. It left me with surprises and an enjoyable trip to return to whenever the vibe calls for it, considering one can do worse. I’d recommend this highly; fan or no fan, what they build and deliver is beautiful. You’ll leave satisfied without feeling bloated, and that’s all one can ask, as it does change the pace from more loaded hip-hop and pop albums.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Miley Cyrus – Endless Summer Vacation

Miley Cyrus has excelled whenever she attempts new and refreshing within the pop landscape, even if it doesn’t all translate. It’s been that way since her fantastic pop record, Bangerz, continuing through subsequent albums and an EP. Whether it’s the electronic thrill of She Is Coming, island-country-pop vibes from Younger Now, or electro-pop-punk complexions on Plastic Hearts, Miley Cyrus continued to shine during the highs. She finds new ways to create with different styles, like the lavish dance-punk-pop “Night Crawling” off Plastic Hearts. It continues with Endless Summer Vacation, her latest release; we hear Cyrus continuing to try a different aesthetic to Disco/Dance elements of her last album, where it lives more to a summer vibe instead of night club bangers. The distinct style guides you via luscious production, buoyed by the eccentric guitar and percussion layers, keeping the sequencing of tracks focused and on a direct line of listenable consistency. Unfortunately, the songwriting doesn’t match the potency of the varying sounds, feeling more consistent with the choruses and melody structures.

Endless Summer Vacation starts on a high, diluting the Post-Disco influence we heard potently on Plastic Hearts with more lax Dance-Pop/Disco elements like on “Flowers.” It’s a good song that delivers an uninteresting production that maneuvers typical pop angles and solid verses and a vibrant catchy chorus to keep it afloat; it’s after where you get a significant run of tracks eclipsing beyond standard pop tunes. The overhead drives home the strength of the many songs in the first half, like the production, like “Rose Colored Lenses” or “Handstand.” They bring this electrifying energy contrasting the more summery and slightly bubbly “Flowers.” It’s like Cyrus dipped the former tracks into a rejuvenation chamber, only bringing them out after getting supercharged with luscious synths. It gets boasted by Miley Cyrus’ consistent performances that keep the focus high, even when the writing can sometimes be bland, like with “Muddy Feet” and “Wildcard.” They contrast each other thematically, wherein one speaks about wanting love, despite being a wildcard; the other focuses on cheating within a relationship – their attempts at creating analogies and metaphors don’t come as strong, and you’d prefer the more direct approach.

It all gets boasted by Miley Cyrus’ consistent performances that keep the focus high, even when the writing can sometimes be bland, like with “Muddy Feet” and “Wildcard.” They contrast each other thematically, wherein one speaks about wanting love, despite being a wildcard; the other focuses on cheating within a relationship – their attempts at creating analogies and metaphors don’t come as strong, and you’d prefer the more direct approach. Bibi Bourelly, Sara Aarons, or Justin Tranter can’t add much to the depth, leaving much to keeping a sensational chorus to boast the emotional importance of Miley Cyrus’ performances. Her vocals triumphantly glide through the sounds, which never taper off while bringing a smooth cadence through the melodies and harmonies. It helps keep the transitions clean and afloat. 

When it transitions to a more pop-country/folkish “Thousand Miles” from a more synth-pop-heavy “Rose Colored Lenses,” you hear the smoothness by playing with the levels of specific instruments. It’s got me hooked despite these moments of her directness to themes of regret and optimism. With various producers, it can be hard to find balance on an album, especially when it tries to incorporate different styles, like when the pop-rock cadence of “You” after “Thousand Miles” before eventually rearing back into the electric “Handstand.” The consistent tonal rhythm, where it doesn’t stray too far from what it wants to be. But what these producers bring keeps you engaged throughout by bringing something new to the table. Past producers like Mike-Will-Made-It, a recurring producer since her Bangerz days, carry the right touch with the percussion on “Thousand Miles,” “Violet Chemistry,” and synths on “Muddy Feet,” becoming a driving force for their greatness.

Despite many tracks having various producers, there are two instances where producers tackle productions individually, like Maxx Morondo on “Handstand” or BJ Burton on “Island.” They get enveloped in aesthetics without teetering far from the center. “Island” is a beautiful antithesis to the more mundane “Flowers,” as it lets its tropical influence become a base layer, while Cyrus and the drums keep the subtle flow intact. “Handstand” brings a lot of synth-wave elements, maintaining a vibrant atmosphere to coat Cyrus’ vocals and the fantastic synths and glitchiness between verses. However, all the producers seamlessly create productions that have synergy. Not all, but some bleed out of their comfort zone – it’s ever so rare you’ll hear an artist like Brandi Carlisle singing over Mike-Will-Made-It drums. Predominantly produced by Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson of Harry’s House, they balance between styles, where the summery aesthetic becomes more of a plus and less so the goal, especially with the predictable but great piano ballad to close Endless Summer Vacation.

Miley Cyrus brings a quick breath of fresh air that isn’t poised to make you second guess, but as it replays in your head, some of its weakness become more glaring. It can turn decent songs into forgettable moments in the tracklist. Hindering what could be a seamless pop album drags a little near the end, but that significant high with “Island” and “Wonder Woman” as closers are beyond fantastic. Definitely give this a spin, even if it’s lesser than her last album, Plastic Hearts.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Karol G – Mañana Será Bonito

While Karol G continues to flex different sonic palettes, she still tends to fall back on meandering, drab, reggaeton beats that usually don’t divulge the layers of her vocals. Fortunately, it’s less evident in her latest release Mañana Será Bonito, which sees her explore more tropical foundations, mirroring older pop styles beneath the rich drum patterns and strings. Mañana Será Bonito is this slight divergence from the more electronic and Latin trap/pop – Karol G expresses depth in character within her emotional range, buoying a blend of contemplative and confidence-inducing records. They take you through a colorful mixture of sounds that can sometimes surprise you, like when it places the folk-influenced “Gucci Los Paños” in between two club-driven pop-reggaeton beats or when it incorporates more genre-bending. It slowly shifts the perception of Karol G’s artistry as she looks to grow past her previous era and let the music flow through her naturally as she did on Oceans, her album from 2019. Unfortunately, you get the occasional standard reggaeton beat that doesn’t move the needle, leaving you to feel like she could have done something more with it.

Opening with an intriguing sample of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Karol G begins to set the stage for a sound that fiercely dominates the positives of Mañana Será Bonito. It’s more akin to an album like Un Verano Sin Ti by Bad Bunny, where it played with aesthetic and construction to build this album out of a vibe. The difference between the two comes from Karol G driving thematic motifs to reinforce the idea behind the title’s translation and keep a steady flow of themes. She’s delivering music that speaks on past relationships, feeling confident in your body and rejuvenated. It’s how this gets produced – on here, Karol G shares other similarities with Un Verano Sin Ti besides the tropical overtones – she creates constructive looseness where the sound can keep flowing while constantly shifting. That doesn’t always translate to fresh, quality music that brings more than aesthetic, like “Besties” and “Gátubela.” The former is more apropos in its clubby-vibe, never growing beyond these non-exciting drum patterns. The latter delivers nostalgic production mirroring the style of the early 00s, equally feeling like add-ons. 

Keeping with one of her recurring producers, Ovy On the Drums, Karol G feels at home delivering these beautiful melodic performances over percussion-heavy beats. His inconsistency brings down Mañana Será Bonito, leaving you more enthralled by tracks he didn’t produce and or co-produced, as he can grasp his strength and have others build around it beautifully. Ovy On The Drums shines with his work on the tracks “Provenza,” “Carolina,” Amagura,” and “Mientras Me Curo Del Cora,” which Ovy co-produced, but his misses are glaring. Additionally, Ovy opens and closes the album, along with Tainy and Alejandro Jimenez, on incredible highs with tracks that truly build themselves to be more than what they could have been. Like how Ovy incorporates more tropical riffs to shroud the bachata-influenced acoustics and percussion as we get these small subtleties that help refine the album to be better than expected and a properly whelmed surprise.

However, other times it’s more derivative, leaving you wanting more and never satisfying, like “Tu Gafitas” and “Dañamos La Amistad.” They add more to its reggaeton/pop base, expanding it through distinct strings and synth orchestrations overlaying them. “Tu Gafitas” stands firmly, separating itself from the others with twinkly pop tones orchestrated by Finneas, balancing out the Latin flavor with these smooth disco undercurrents. It blossoms into this fantastic moment where Karol G continues to shine after the excellent Shakira co-authored “TQG.” Shakira comes in and commands her presence on the track, like many features that fit the aesthetic, balancing vocal layers, like on the reggae/dancehall-inspired “Karmika” with Bad Gyal and Sean Paul. It’s similar to the monstrous closer, the pop-reggaeton and lavish mix with Carla Morrison, “Mañana Será Bonito,” boasting a powerful duet to new levels, getting us to hear these distinct, reassuring directions, like with dynamic reggaeton/dembow-influenced “Ojos Ferrari.” It’s truly great work.

Mañana Será Bonito surprised me more than it did, especially after her more reggaeton-flavored KG0516, which felt staler in its approach to be more outwardly. But as Karol G refines her sense of musical direction, she explodes with radiant sounds that beautifully fit the cadence of her vocal melodies. Her features boast the delivery of the music, making some of the lesser-quality tracks somewhat digestible in the grand scheme of things, making one solid release from the Colombian Reggaeton Superstar.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Gorillaz – Cracker Island

Induced by vibey guitar riffs, drum patterns shifting the sonic palette, and melancholic vocals, Gorillaz has kept a consistent streak of musical creation. Weaving Alt-Rock and Art-Pop with Hip-Hop and Trip-Hop, Gorillaz has built a perforated platform where anything getting pushed gets skillfully integrated. Known for being features-heavy, Gorillaz contains an amassed grounding of quality solo tracks, further showing us an individualized identity beyond intricate conceptions with artists like Del The Funky Homosapian, Lou Reed, Popcaan, and Grace Jones, to name a few. Unfortunately, The Gorillaz albums have teetered between collecting features and displaying bravado in style, keeping you intrigued due to their seamless integration between artists and genres. Cracker Island isn’t as reliant on its features to bring a sense of originality while bridging pop and funk overtones, giving listeners more downbeat tones with luscious vibrancy seeping through a compact and focused album, even during its stumbles.

Though both sides of the aisle – songs with features, transitioning between each other when the artists aren’t in the same genre stratosphere – can be equally challenging. But what Gorillaz has been able to do with an abundance of features on their album is mesh artists from varying genres and bring seamless transitions between them. On Humanz, we heard them weave fantastic sequences, one of which contained tracks with Popcaan, De La Soul, Danny Brown, Kelala, and Grace Jones into this decadent bravado of electronica and funk. Cracker Island has that high coming in the beginning and end, invigorating the music you’ve heard and giving them dimensional wealth beneath the captivatingly vibey performances, especially at the end. Despite those highs, they dissipate shortly before circling back and giving listeners one of their better sequencing from tracks 4 to 8. The same goes for track 9 heading into track 10. These tracks are “The Tired Influencer” and “Skinny Ape,” respectively, and though the latter has some clean melodies, the synergy between the strings and synths isn’t exciting as a track like “Tarantula.”

These transient moments feel like they’re circumventing the nuances beneath its base core and letting it play out more straight instead of building something more profound. When you get to “The Tired Influencer” and “Skinny Ape,” you’re not so much vibing as you get tranced by its melodies and transitions, where they never feel that different from past songs. It can get said about its use of simple synth structures, but it isn’t make or break for these songs that incorporate them, like the title track or “Tarantula” and “Baby Queen.” They follow tightly woven threads, beautifully guiding the synths to bring extra layers to the instrumentations. They have a rich depth, where the strings and synths create these tantalizingly sing-worthy moments that derive from slower-tempo productions. “Cracker Island” does so similarly, except with more basslines bolstering some of its funkadelic elements. 

“Tarantula,” similar to “Silent Running” and “New Gold,” epitomizes the album as this moment where we’re back to a balance between features and solos. They get bolstered by how they get incorporated, whether it’s more dueting and harmonizations from its featured artists or giving a full-fledged solo performance. Damon Albarn’s writing of these songs’ melodic structure lifts them towards foundational palettes; the sounds stay modestly shifty while retaining sonic motifs with its synthesizer and gear-churning percussion, evident with the disco-funk influenced “New Gold.” “Oil” and “Silent Running” are other unforgettable highlights which pave a clear path with its production.

Though what makes Cracker Island a fantastic visit is the visceral consistency of its features. From Stevie Nicks to Bootie Brown, Tame Impala, and Bad Bunny, they bring this audio/visual parallel boasting how these songs should make you feel. As I’ve previously mentioned, Gorillaz has a vibey depth. It can sometimes be a detriment as it takes you away from the quality of the music, making you love something that hits certain sections of the brain that keeps songs stuck in your head. The Bad Bunny feature sees The Gorillaz beautifully assimilating to the reggaeton sound, creating this tropical breeze that hits you like you’re kicking back with a brewski on the sand, the waves crashing with your feet, and the brisk calmness hits like the middle of a fantastic day. The same goes for “Oil” and “Silent Running,” which eloquently unites the vocals of Stevie Nicks and Adeleye Omatayo with Damon Albarn’s, creating this hypnotic synchronization that will keep these songs on heavy rotation. Frankly, one can say the same for the varying instrumentations which bring forth decadent sets of synths overlaying smooth instrumental layering, like on “New Gold” or the excellent solo track “Baby Queen.” 

Cracker Island is a vibrant orchestration of sounds that levels the varying sonic styles we’ve heard throughout the years. It doesn’t truly aim for all the glitz and glamour, reminding us more of earlier Gorillaz, stripped down and direct, while showing a sense of growth as they assimilate naturally to ever-shifting sonic palettes. I can’t help but get their reggaeton song with Bad Bunny out of my head, like most of the album, which I hope does similarly with you. You get entranced from beginning to end by the synergy created between vocals and instrumentations, and maybe you’ll let the lesser tracks come and go without a blink.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Caroline Polachek – Desire, I Want To Turn Into You: Review

Production exploding with momentous energy, vibrant songwriting, and whimsically enigmatic vocal directions, there was so little I didn’t love about the new Caroline Polachek album, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You. Polachek’s follow-up to Pang offers a continuation of nearly transcendent sounds beautifully engineered and delivered with rich depth; it keeps the album’s distinct direction flowing in constant motion as we get whimsically fantastic lyricism. It’s as if Polachek had varying canvases and painted them with grace, allowing these varying genre complexions to flash and coat her emphatically moody poppy melodies with more than just an identity. It gives it meaning beyond the conjectures of its finite production; Polachek weaves intricate themes through metaphorically inspired storytelling as she tackles individualism and spiraling upward while balancing thematic melodic and sounds through others. It’s a triumphant continuation that has kept its presence on loop significantly, even with its less-than-stellar moment, which are rare, and further delivering one of the best projects of 2023 thus far.

Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is more than its captivatingly luscious grooves boasting that desire to feel free, dance, and emote confidently. You hear it instantly with this stellar run to begin the album. From “Welcome To My World” to “Sunset,” there is a burgeoning desire to let it all loose as Polachek builds upon pop traditionalism like the Trip-Hop controlled “Pretty Is Possible” and the summery “Sunset,” which incorporates more Spanish, Italian, and Romani melodies. Polachek, along with co-producers Danny L. Harle, Sega Bodega, Dan Nigro, Jim-E Stack, and Ariel Rechtshaid, keeps it consistent with steady tones to keep its themes focused on its impact when a track closes. Harle and Polacheck produce a bulk of the album collectively; however, what others bring, is this vibrant sense of direction, no matter what gets set up at the base. They use these stylistic influences brilliantly by building an identity like Sega Bodega does with “Sunset” or how Rechtshaid helps Harle and Polachek bring that Garage sound (electronic genre) to give the percussion its own flourish on “I Believe” or “Blood And Butter.” 

What Danny L. Harle and Caroline Polachek create continues to significantly capture and deliver an understanding of how Polachek directs her craft. It’s a sense that allows her to creatively take ideas about certain lyrical song archetypes, like the divaness of “Smoke” or a sonic vibe like the summery “Sunset.” Whether it’s the drum-n-bass/jungle nuances of “Fly To You” or the garage-breakbeat influence of “Smoke,” there is a resounding depth to the production. It offers a platform for Polachek’s songwriting to shine, especially with more archetypal tracks like “Smoke” or loose ones like “Pretty Is Possible.” It’s this constant motion of emotional density gripping you at the seams and keeping you sat as the notes wrap around your head and slowly infiltrate your ears, making you love what predominantly comes through. There are some minor stumbles where Polachek plays it safe, despite said tracks never wincing in quality, like the scorny (scary and horny) “Crude Drawing Of An Angel.”

Though it’s all exuberant in sound, they may not hit the nail perfectly, like “Hopedrunk Everything,” which is too keen on an atmospheric aesthetic instead of building beyond harmonious strings and choir vocals. With the previously mentioned “Crude Drawing Of An Angel,” the scorny lyrics aren’t as entrenching as it tries to balance the horniness with its vague and efficacious allusions and metaphors. The melodies and production being on point as it beautifully contrasts the atmosphere in “Hopedrunk Everything,” letting the ambiance help its delivery, is what makes “Crude Drawing Of An Angel, a solid ambient scorny ballad. There are many ingredients in the concoction known as Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, but unlike the numerous that whiff at a chance to make something fluid and profound. Caroline Polachek isn’t some outlier who continuously shifts what we think about the artist. On past albums, whether solo or during her time with Chairlift, she has kept more of a streamlined direction, building upon the known instead of finding ways to integrate and create new sounds. Pangs did so at various moments, but it’s refined with Polacheck’s follow-up, which lets these productions be their own character in her musical world.

Caroline Polachek brings all this into creating music that can embody varying elements and still make captivating dance tracks that will easily hypnotize you on the dancefloor. “Bunny Is A Rider” speaks on female empowerment and individualism, feeling free as your confidence boasts your mental fortitude. It’s the song that hits every note perfectly, never stopping the engine while implementing some of the smoothest transitions between verse and chorus. I haven’t been able to stop the loop, almost feeling like Bunny myself. It isn’t the only time we get this, “Sunset” is one, and “Blood and Butter” are another. It’s well-rounded, even with some minor elements not totally working.

Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is well-rounded, even with some minor elements not fully working. Songs take varying angles sonically but never seem to falter as they transition between each other. It’s like a rollercoaster of octaves and musical layers that will keep this stuck on a loop. I can’t recommend this album enough, and I hope you hear what I hear.

Rating: 9 out of 10.