Ava Max – Diamonds & Dancefloors: Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 10.

Ladytron – Time’s Arrow: Review

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

SZA – SOS: Review

Continuing to succeed in her sonic expressions with a diverse palette of sounds, SZA defines how we receive the music by the album title. Layered with emotional and thematic elements, CTRL saw SZA commanding the stage and giving us a concise and consistent range of work that doesn’t make you overthink to understand who she is presenting. She has control. It’s the opposite of the follow-up SOS; it takes you through various soundscapes, some that we haven’t heard from her prior. It’s SZA exploding with all these ideas built through the last four years and offers a reflection of an artist who’s yearning to get heard. It’s like she is on an island with creators, just making music day after day, but nothing is getting released, so she issues her own mental SOS so that she can let it out and we can further understand her artistry. There is crisp sequencing, allowing the album to hurdle through missteps deriving featured artists or simplistic percussion a few times; the minor hindrances don’t over-shroud the lot of fantastic music SZA gives us.

Subtleness may be what SOS lacks, but it isn’t driving the strengths, meaning it doesn’t break the album. SZA keeps her sleeves bare with emotion as she laments and vents about her world, which correlates with sheer relevancy, giving SOS a grander platform for musical resonance. From the beginning, you are not getting hints; you get directness without a curtain failsafe to shield her when she makes a listener uncomfortable, if that. After the title track, we get a stream of consciousness that envelops us through these auspicious, musically metaphorical dualities that boast her person in reflection with the lyrics she delivers. “Kill Bill” sees SZA using the film Kill Bill as a means to create these allusions to situations that have done her wrong; she likens herself to Beatrice Kiddo leading down her path of destruction, which may ultimately see her having to confront her ex’s new girlfriends. Similarly, there’s “Gone Girl,” a starry R&B Ballad that gives us an inside look at the mind of SZA as she contemplates leaving her lover and emphasizing her ghosting by using allusions to the novel and film of the same name.

SZA’s stream of consciousness continues to add weight to her shoulders, buoying a robust response from the listener. One of which keeps you engaged through her songwriting, which outshines the production more consistently than not. Using the title SOS as this allegorical meaning toward delivering an explosion of sounds adds credence to the quantity and varying styles on the album, but more so the latter. Though not inherently bloated, this fresh consistency blooms through all but two tracks, even if there are minor sidesteps. “Far” is one of three tracks that allow itself to feel distant from the pack on a sonic level as opposed to its lyrical textures, which adds to the sentiments getting delivered on SOS. That strong flow of SOS gets slightly drowned by two of the features, which aren’t as complementary, either in style or with the quality of their verse, leaving the songs emptier. Don Tolliver and Travis Scott are the featured artists I talk about; they add little to the 23-track macrocosm of riotous emotions within her delivery, becoming more of an afterthought that could have gotten removed for crisper consistency. 

Fortunately, these two hindrances don’t take away from the explosive work SZA gives us, especially with its song transitions. Continuing to explore contextual verbal duality, SZA begins a wave of beauty with “Gone Girl,” shifting into SZA delivering a rap verse on “Smoking On My Ex Pack,” then turning into this vibrant dream-pop collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and rising further on the monstrous punk track “F2F.” “F2F” takes you back to the early 00s, when burgeoning female punk artists let their angst get heard effervescently. You get taken aback instantly, mainly because it’s something different, and its flows. Though predominantly R&B, some tracks come to you never feel perturbed due to an understanding of SZA’s concept that allows them to come to you freely.

SZA’s vocals naturally assimilate to each style she exhumes, whether it’s punk rock, soft singer-songwriter pop like on “Blind” and “Conceited,” or grand R&B powerhouses like “Notice Me,” “Shirt,” or the bravado of “Low,” with the thematic potency of songs akin to “Irreplaceable.” It shows an exuberant amount of confidence as she commands who she is, especially in her day-to-day life. Unfortunately, some of these tracks don’t get overly creative with the drum patterns, leaving many songs to rely on their building blocks of sounds and vocals to keep you engaged. SZA can take anything she’s given by the horns and steer it toward greatness, and it’s been evident pre-CTRL. “Good Days” is one of a few examples that makes you realize percussion is second nature to the synths, the strings, and an array of melodies that offer a spacious atmosphere for you to get lost in and contemplate. It may be a potential problem that can come from having a deep platoon of producers helping you deliver consistency on a canvas, some of which may add more than needed, like the slim sonic redundancy of “Far,” but SZA beautifully pieces it together. 

SOS is a fantastic collection of songs that delivers upon its concept with emotional splendor; you’re never cashing out as you want to keep this album on repeat. I was one of those to feel that I couldn’t stop leaving it on loop, as the melancholy, sometimes minimalist production, gives us an open space to dissect SZA’s lyricism. Definitely, worth holding out for your lists to give it a chance to break through, and it will, like it did with me.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

2022 Catch Up: Some Albums I Missed This Year

Rina Sawayama – Hold The Girl

Unlike her self-titled debut, Rina Sawayama’s follow-up, Hold The Girl, isn’t as refreshing or profound. It’s almost tiptoeing a line between more by-the-numbers electro-pop without extending her reach beyond minor tweaks here and there within its production, like the guitar riffs on “This Hell.” Beyond inconsequentially detailed anecdotes within the sounds, few songs barely make much of an impression, becoming nearly forgettable because they aren’t as surprising as the debut. That isn’t to say there isn’t something to take away since Sawayama has shown herself to understand the ebullient decisions made to orchestrate lavish paintings on her canvas. Even when songs tend to add a little flare, there is a slight disappointment, like the empty and straightforward “Frankenstein” and “Your Age.” They never get past replicating standard pop overtures that you’d find easily on an Ava Maxx – or Tiesto, Meduza, or any poppy EDM DJ – album.

That isn’t to say it is devoid of any good music. The title song of Hold The Girl is this rich and darkly vibrant electro-pop powerhouse that bridges symphonic vocals – akin to Lady Gaga – and her mysterious presence. With her debut, you never got a sense of what she is bringing with beat choices, and that kind of mystery isn’t as intriguing here consistently. There are varying songs that hit, like “Forgiveness” and “Imagining,” but it’s a predominantly predictable album that doesn’t feel as intriguing like when I first heard the metal rock influence “STFU!” on her self-titled debut. It’s a forgettable piece of work that defines the sophomore slump. But more so, it puts the album title into perspective as it feels like she restrains herself. It plays it safe, and in some regard, you can get something great out of it, but when you’ve debuted as someone who takes chances, it could have been more explorative on a follow-up.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Arctic Monkeys – The Car

As I further listened to the new Arctic Monkeys album, The Car, I couldn’t help but feel like they were missing the spark. Though I was always keen to see them get further into slower tempo jams after AM, it continues to disappoint as they begin to rely on atmospheric and emotionally sifting vocals by Alex Turner and less at creating dense instrumentations. Their last album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, tried to keep it slightly interesting by exploring new styles like Glam Rock on their lead single, “Four Out Of Five;” other similar moments consistently outshone their slower jams. On their follow-up, the effervescent presence of the slower tempo baroque pop and lounge pop. However, some of the finite details in the rock songs, like the funky undertones on “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am.” Unfortunately, it never treads into murkier waters, and some notes become hollow.

Unlike the name of the song “Big Ideas,” there aren’t many here, but the little sparks that shine through give us these whimsically explorative tracks. Additionally, the use of funk in the album is inspired, but they never get FUNKY with it. The tempo stays slow and becomes derivative. It almost makes listening to Alex Turner’s engaging songwriting seem distant in the long run. That isn’t to say you find anything good here. “Jet Skis On The Moat” and “There’d Better Be A Mirrorballs” are some tracks that have stayed with me upon multiple revisits. The way these tracks incorporate the funk into their more loungey fair adds dimensions, unlike “Hello You,” which is broader in its approach. There is a consistency in the instrument playing, as they come with energy, despite the assignment being more a complete 180 from their Alt/Garage Rock days of the 2000s. I found The Car to be a solid effort as they deliver layered lyricism reflecting on memories and lessons learned through countless relationships. Though it may sound standard, Turner’s descriptive, poetic writing adds volumes.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Soccer Mommy – Sometimes, Forever

As a fan of Daniel Lopatin’s work as an artist under the alias Oneothrixpointnever or his work in films making complementary scores, I jump the gun at anything he does or produces. However, something came over me, and the album he produced for Soccer Mommy flew by, and I forgot to return until recently. I sat beside myself lamenting over my neglect as the production of Sometimes, Forever is astronomically grand as it takes Sophia Allison (Soccer Mommy) to new levels that beautifully contrast the more structured songs of Color Theory. Though instrumental in keeping a core rock aesthetic, we hear more effects and experimentation with the instrumentations that you’re taken aback by some of the in-track shifts. For example, the noise-like guitar riffs at the end of “Bones” or the industrial/singer-songwriter punk-influenced “Unholy Affliction” and “Darkness Forever.” It is melodically rich and buoys fun explorations of different soundscapes, even though it isn’t the most lyrically profound.

Soccer Mommy retreads familiar themes, particularly ones enclosed to situations within a relationship, and almost seemingly loses herself in the moody production. Though the melodies are a strong focal point as they radiate an immense pull into its gravitational center, further entrenching us with fantastic sounds. Fluctuating between surprises and the more linear approach, it isn’t hard to get lost in her enigmatic work; Daniel Lopatin lets bass grooves ride waves of ferocity, taking us through elevated heights of darkness and vibrance. We hear it as it goes from the hopeful and whimsical “newdemo” to the dark and synth-heavy “Darkness Forever,” which sounds like a cross between atmospheric electronic wave music and punk. It’s a Rock album first, but how the two elevate it to be something grander shines a light on the dimensions within its emotional resonance, especially in those self-criticisms when reflecting on relationships or other what-ifs.

Sometimes, Forever is an album that I reflect on with glee. I am glad I’ve only gotten around to it now, as the past few weeks have seen some audacious and bombastic pieces of work that a moody and sonically expressive was what I needed. Despite a step back lyrically, it doesn’t hinder the final product; it leaves you in a foggy mist created by the expansive emotional range Soccer Mommy radiates through different inflections. You’d think Arctic Monkeys’ The Car would suffice, but the sounds are hollow by comparison. I know I’ll be spinning the new Soccer Mommy heavily, and I hope you love it as much as I do.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Rauw Alejandro – Saturno: Review

After delivering an exuberant delicacy of sounds on Vice Versa, Rauw Alejandro returns with new and expansive soundscapes that shroud over typical reggaeton tracks mixed within. There is no denying Alejandro’s allure of the electronic genre as a whole; from sounds that evolved from regions and eras, Alejandro is using it as an influence during this ascension as a master of the dance floor. He’s finding himself amongst the stars, taking us inside this futuristic hive where reggaeton grows beyond the perreo and dembow, allowing itself to be something grandiose. Saturno, or Saturn, is taking us through varying levels, or rings, surrounding the core aspects of the album and delivering many danceable heaters. Though it’s easy to understand the lyricism you’ll get from reggaeton artists: danceable, flavorful tunes focusing on love, relationships, sex, and seduction, amongst similar themes within that realm – it isn’t all black and white, and the depth brought about by luscious melodies and fruitful choruses and verses make it a bewilderingly fun ride with a few missteps along the way.

Saturno, by all accounts, aims to deliver futuristic overtures and undertones, whether through the production or from the vocals, to take us to the stratosphere of his mind, where we see how he musically thinks. It excels at that and some; it’s an album where the essence of reggaeton isn’t lost, but the electronic avenues he takes are astronomical, no pun intended. Sometimes you’re getting hints of dancehall, sometimes Miami Bass or EDM, but the overall vibe leaves you in a trance where you aren’t noticing your body grooving. Though I can’t speak to how you motion per tempo, the transitions between tracks are smooth – save for the interludes/skit. But the lavish futurism expressed through the eyes of a reggaeton artist getting past conceptual pop norms and taking his music to new heights. We’ve heard it done before with the disco and funk elements of Rauw Alejandro’s last album, Vice Versa. Here, he’s taking that influence from the transitional period where Disco became more Post-Disco/House/Electronica with an essence of life with his vision as he runs the pop gambit. 

It predominately flows like a steady river with no rapids; however, that isn’t to say there are bumps along the way, with certain rocks (tracks) spotting up that make you shift, aiming to avoid it, even though it’s still there. But the way these sounds continuously expand and express visual splendor – you hear it from “Verde Menta,” “Corazón Despeinado,” and “Dime Quen?” – it’s an electrifying EDM track, resonant of the late 80s, early 90s Eurodance, an adequate but rudimentary EDM/Reggaeton hybrid, and luscious Miami Bass, respectively. But with that more standard track in the middle, the surrounding songs keep it afloat as Alejandro’s melodies continue to capture that futuristic aesthetic.

Unfortunately, Saturno sometimes retreads particular rhythms and sounds in reggeaton that doesn’t grip you, like on “Lejols Del Cielo” or “Ron Cola,” which barely grows beyond the straight line it follows. Additionally, there is a moment that feels like off-choices in the tracklisting – the skit near the end doesn’t add anything toward the overarching futuristic theme, more so acting like a hype-centered bridge between sections of tracks. It doesn’t fit like two previous interludes with viscerally pungent beats. Its translucent nature allows it to absorb these dark yet luminous synths into its ecosphere, where the engagement is high, and its futuristic tech shines through. In “Más De Una Vez,” we hear these laser synths shoot in the backdrop and through the stars of its Electronic/Reggeaton core. We get the essence of this through varying tracks, as his producers use it to envelope more than its core genre complexions, like on “Dejau,” which adds notes of Afrobeat or “De Carolina,” and its use of light industrial electronica. It isn’t like Vice Versa, where the influx of pop grandeur laid a smooth path of consistency, where you couldn’t help but keep it on a loop. 

Saturno is lavish and inspiring, though it’s a little far from perfect. Rauw Alejandro carries an identity he vigorously puts forth as producers eloquently build these electrifying beats with him. Though that isn’t to say it’s perfect, a few issues here and there causes it to lose traction as this steady locomotion of dance bravado. But most times, Alejandro is winding up and delivering a fast one, melodically, almost allowing for the sidesteps to become afterthoughts. They are still there and ultimately take away from the levels this could have reached. It makes a splash and is ready to fire us up as winter dawns, even if it isn’t to the highest temperature, like a 2000s Sean Paul song.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Taylor Swift – Midnights: Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loneliest Time: Review

Playing into the aesthetics, dreams, and life influenced by her time living in California, Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album, The Loneliest Time. It’s apparent and gets heard through these vibrant, dreamy songs that boast the songwriting and her vocals, for the most part. Jepsen has made hits over glamorous synths-filled production that elevate her captivatingly catchy and fun ways. And we get that, but unfortunately, The Loneliest Time doesn’t land as strong, specifically in the second half. At times, it doesn’t feel like Jepsen is giving us that spark we get at the beginning and left with an intriguing concept filled with songs that understand the assignment, but it isn’t all effective. You see it as Carly Rae Jepsen weaves this concept reflective on time– during the day (the first half), it is sonically influenced by being in the sun, having fun, and incorporating happy instrumentations; the night (second half) unwinds more with slower grooves while trying to push the itch to dance. Though it has you grooving, Jepsen isn’t always bringing her all; she’s delivering with little nuance, despite its unique concept, and you’d preferably spin older records.

The Loneliest Time starts strong but starts to lose you with these distinct sounds that don’t acquiesce. You’ll know the difference between what makes “Joshua Tree” a breezy, fun jam and “Shooting Star,” something that feels lost within a world of Disco and Funk as it tries to maneuver similar sonic themes poorly. Though both “Joshua Tree” and “Shooting Star” embolden that dance-pop bravado with captivating grooves and choruses, sometimes they won’t have a similar impact like “LA Hallucinations” and “Party For One” from Emotion and Dedicated, respectively. Despite having the firmness to stand on its own, Jepsen occasionally downplays the vocals in the second half, never taking full advantage of her range and elevating to the strengths of “Surrender My Heart.” It hits you instantly less because of the production and more because Carly Rae Jepsen makes you feel the effusive energy getting brought, unlike “Bad Thing Twice.”

In an interview with Consequence of Sound, Carly Rae Jepsen said, “Loneliness sounds sad, but I think it can be exhilarating and exciting, and I think it can be the most intimate feeling in a really special way.” We heard it before with “Party For One,” but it wasn’t heavy-set on spearheading that connotation as it embodied a confident bravado that is about the dance. With The Loneliest Time, Jespen wants to subvert the preconceived definition that can come with the lonely feeling; she desires to purport it as an intimate and reflective time with turbulence. Think about those moments you yearn for when you turn on do not disturb on your phone, kick back and unwind solo dolo; it’s centering on the emotions that fluster your mind, leaving you with positive or negative notions while still looking for the bright side. From giving a jar of tears with love, through missed time, expressing the confidence someone special got out of you, or commentary on modern dating–these are some examples sung by Jepsen in “Bends,” “Sideways,” and “Beach House,” respectively.

Carly Rae Jepsen brings her trademark upbeat energy that seeps through the melodies, gripping you with a certain catchiness that works more than not. It rarely falls to the production to elevate the performance; it has consistency in its construction, but Jepsen rarely makes an effort to explore it more. “So Nice” doesn’t see Jepsen taking full advantage of the funkadelic grooves, almost choosing to meet in the middle and coasting instead of keeping it interesting. We’re seeing Jepsen shift sonically and attempt to tone down the glam and let the instruments express character; unfortunately, keeping it intriguing and having personality aren’t enough to muddle through bumps on the road. “Talking To Yourself” is familiar to “Surrender My Heart,” except with a guitar solo, and “Beach House” does too much by incorporating raw male vocals to shoe-horn the brutal honesty that fails to make an impact. Jepsen’s writing is slightly flawed and visually dull, delivering stereotypical situations: “Boy number twelve had a look in his eyes/Brought up his ex and he started to cry/Told me he loved me the very first night.” It’s rare, but when it’s noticeable, it devalues the individualized greatness of the production.

Lacking smooth transitions, The Loneliest Time has weird shifts between a vibe into something somber or vibrant. It makes sense when looking at its construction; however, it doesn’t have a seamless transition, as she incorporates characteristics of Country-Pop and Synth Pop on the last two tracks. I loved the stripped-down acoustic guitars contrasting the electricity from the electric guitar with pedals, like in the 15 seconds at the start of the last minute of “Talking To Yourself,” capitalizing on an ecstatic solo, further giving something to look forward to past the tedious chorus and familiar sounds. The synth-pop coating offers a bright contrast to the more club-oriented and disco-influenced “Bad Thing Twice” and “Shooting Star,” predominately due to Jepsen’s effectiveness. It makes sense when looking at its construction; however, it doesn’t have a seamless transition, as she incorporates characteristics of Country-Pop and Synth Pop on the last two tracks.

“Go Find Yourself or Whatever” is a Country-Pop song that feels grounded and better than most songs Jepsen has delivered on the album. The captivating melancholy stays in your mind, especially if you stop there. The Loneliest Time ends with a duet/feature performance by Rufus Wainwright on the eponymous track, which continues that melancholy, somber tone but feels displaced as the closer. It doesn’t have captivating grooves and feels like something that could have gotten left off. Though it isn’t what many expected, it still offers a semblance of something refreshing, unlike her Dedicated Side B, which felt like a slightly uninteresting extension of a superior A side. There is enough to enjoy on The Loneliest Time, but it isn’t the strongest effort by Carly Rae Jepsen and is a disappointment in the long run.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Jessie Reyez – Yessie: Review

Among Jessie Reyez’s best qualities–that have overwhelmingly attracted me to her music–are her melodies and songwriting, which focus on establishing and delivering powerfully driven stories through distinctly dark and soulful tracks. Her debut, Before Love Came To Kill Us, masterfully stamped this as a known, but the consistency gets placated by Jessie trying to bring too many sonic ideas into the fold. That’s the opposite on Yessie, a more refined, intimate album that doesn’t try to go in various directions, instead finding herself musically. Yessie has smoother transitions between the R&B notes and variations of pop, soul, and rock overlays, which get concocted with different genre-style undertones within the production–equipped with depth and poignant lyricism; its concrete consistency makes it one of the best albums of 2022.

Yessie shows Jessie Reyez delivering atmospheric complexions between reflective coldness, hypnotic confidence, and personal contemplations of the now, leaving her heart on the sleeves bare with powerful emotions. Unlike her debut, the transitions between themes are pure, never making you feel disjointed as you proceed chronologically; the same goes for the production. Having it work is pivotal since we hear Jessie transitioning between distinct styles without stumbling, either in-song or song-to-song, like the Hip-Hop centric intro “Mood.” We hear her transition from a more Hip-Hop flow to a soul chorus with a harmonious sample of “Los Caminos De La Vida” by Los Diablitos of Colombia, which one would think these clashing styles would sound jarring. Fortunately, the synergy between them allows your imagination to grasp anything given and vibe with it effervescently. 

Though transitional effectiveness between songs is pure–starting clean with varying ilks of R&B/Hip-Hop/Pop–later vigorously with more distinct and generative styles as it turns the bends with “Mutual Friends.” Like the songs that preceded it, Jessie’s coming at it with ferocity through more personable one-on-ones no matter the style, like with “Tito’s” or “Forever.” Its soulful confidence adds contrasting layers that mesh beautifully. Here, Jessie and featured artist 6lack sing to their significant other, who is making a mistake by leaving a situation that reflects opposites attract. “Forever” is a compelling contrast to the aforementioned “Mutual Friends,” which backs the sentiments of the impactful “Queen St. W,” which establishes Jessie’s coldness that further gets reflected during the bridge and chorus of “Mutual Friends.” “Yeah, our mutual friend/Asked me how I sleep with so much hate in my heart/I told them I sleep like a baby,” (Bridge), “But if you died tomorrow, I don’t think I’d cry/I gave you one too many nights” (Chorus). The production’s consistency in elevating the effectiveness of her melodies and lyrics is potent here, capitalizing on a uniquely triumphant piano ballad. “Mutual Friends” minimizes or relatively dilutes the drum beats, letting Jessie Reyez discharge intensely and leaving me speechless as it takes notes from Billie Eilish’s dark-pop style, except Jessie makes it her own. Each track is different, refreshing, and significantly impactful on both ends, whether she is coming cold, confident, or lamenting, yearning for more as the music hits on the senses it evokes.

It becomes a testament to Jessie Reyez’s will to express herself refreshingly through radiant production that doesn’t juke you around in the ups and downs, primarily because there aren’t any off kiltered moments. She isn’t trying to formulate too many ideas and forcing them to acquiesce chronologically. Though there is some fantastic work on Before Love Came To Kill Us, her debut, it isn’t more concrete like Yessie. Yessie is more of a translation of Jessie Reyez’s being through varying situations she found herself in personally and how they’ve morphed her into who she is. We hear that through various styles, which get incorporated into the sounds like the confidently nuanced and personably fun “Tito’s” or the emotionally potent and rock stylings of “Break Me Down.” Two contrasting sounds amongst each other and other tracks on the album bring monstrous energy that has them feeling in line with the contextual tones throughout, specifically the latter. “Break Me Down” has the style and vibe of a mid-00s emo rock track with great explorative depth that you’re staying along due to its consistency with the transitions, like when we go from the cold “Mutual Friends” to the confident and mesmerizing “Tito’s.”

“Tito’s” is a darker dance-pop groove that hits those dance censors, making you groove to the beat as Jessie Reyez exhumes immense confidence in her lyrics and melodies. Its summery post-disco influenced production by Calvin Harris and Maneesh, as Jessie reminds us of the depth of her talent by turning a potential rudimentary dance banger into something more complex. After getting heard on“Mood,” we hear Jessie singing in Spanish more frequently, which we’ve rarely heard her do in the past–neé a feature with Romeo Santos saw her performing predominantly in English to his Spanish. It’s an extension of the strengths of Reyez’s monstrous performances, adding value at the end with the primarily Spanish track, “Adio Amor.” It adds exponential value to Jessie’s artistic duality, which sees her transcend soundscapes and deliver pure authenticity. It’s what stayed flowing through my mind–how impactful and less derivative of itself it is, as we see these fruitful transitions that never have you second guessing.

The music of Yessie is swarthy, melancholy sounds, creating gripping relatability that takes different sonic outlooks that aren’t as predictable. From the bilingual electro-R&B “Adios Amor,” which continues to show Jessie Reyez’s coldness, to the similarly thematically driven rock-like “Break Me Down.” It’s a crisp progression of greatness as Jessie Reyez capitalizes on delivering a personification of herself with remarkable depth. It isn’t an album that exponentially breathes club, or dance bangers, instead letting it round out stylistically akin to the atmosphere/tones derived from the beginning, becoming more apparent or subtle as it goes along. It left me bewildered with excitement, as Jessie Reyez has been someone who’s shown to me that she can create something special, and she does so here. Go check out Yessie now!

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounce Vol. 2: Review

Funk Wav Bounce Vol. 2 lacks a track that captivates and tingles the senses of summer’s cadence. When we think of summer, the vibes that radiate are crisp, danceable, smooth, and sometimes percussion-heavy, and with Funk Wav Bounce Vol. 1, we got just that with the opening track, “Slide.” The gravitas behind each element is like that first bite of your favorite snack after a long-winded day that doesn’t resonate on Vol 2. There are some decent–at times–solid tracks, but the poor construction from an artistic lens gives us an essence of what could have been otherwise better moments. It’s evident with “Obsessed,” a track that becomes lost in third-rate vocals from Charlie Puth, or opening with “New Money,” which offers a lackluster intro that wastes 21 Savage’s talent. It says a lot about the parallel between albums, and though there isn’t much to it, a few highlights are there for you to pick out and play on repeat.

Though it wasn’t a major standout, Funk Wav Bounce Vol. 1 dropped with a dynamic one-two punch to start it off. That first punch,” Slide,” is something that has yet to get reflected in quality since its release. There was this whimsical synergy between Frank Ocean and Migos, along with beautifully incorporated percussion patterns at a minimalist level; there was a reason the mood and vibes equated to grandeur. It had the POP from beautifully delivered melodies and a verse from Frank Ocean, an otherwise surprising collaboration between two different sounds. The closest we get to that feeling that comes midway through the album on “Stay With Me.” It’s a memorable funkadelic-disco track that grows on you the more you listen. At first, it may not acquiesce with your senses, but as you focus, you hear these unique transitions between the different vocal styles of Justin Timberlake, Halsey, and Pharrell. A part of me wished there were more of a connection between it and the 1:24 minute “Part 2,” which would make an elegant and indulgingly longer dance track. Unlike it, others had me questioning the decisions behind each. It begins with a jarring mix between 21 Savage and a synth pop-rap beat where the two don’t blend well, and 21 just feels muted.

After you get past it, presented to you are an array of tracks that don’t aggressively range in quality, but some decisions shift the final outcome. “Obsessed” begins with forgettable vocals by Charlie Puth before Shenseea grabs the steering wheel and makes a powerful argument about removing Puth’s vocals–more so when he delivers a slightly pale and mundane vocal performance in the second half. Similarly, “Somebody Else” contains an imbalance with the potency of the performances/verses, but not enough to make me question the addition of Lil Durk as a foil for Jorja Smith. Durk delivers a smooth flow that blends with the production, but his verse isn’t as captivating, teetering more on decent comparatively to the various rappers who tackle this subject. It isn’t offensively bad and meshes well with the vibe, but it isn’t anything profound. Jorja Smith’s vocals have beautiful consistency, but it doesn’t get used well. It’s like “Potion,” which reminds us of Young Thug’s chameleon-like nature as he offers a great partnership with Dua Lipa. Unfortunately, their talent gets misused over an uninteresting EDM/Post-Disco Pop track.

Though Funk Wav Bounce Vol. 2 isn’t all confusing decisions and lackluster mixes, some highlights round out the tracklist. From “New To You” to “Nothing More To Say,” there is a crisp progression of tracks that offer something of quality, whether its the 80s R&B/Dance nuance of the former or an absorbing hype track in “Ready or Not,” which stays on a steady wavelength, agreeing with the kind of intensity the songs after offer. Among this string of tracks is the aforementioned “Nothing More To Say,” a definitive highlight that brings forth the strengths of all involved instead of plastering prevalent artists and seeing if they can make it work. The latter is evident with the lackluster concoctions we hear at the beginning and end, whether from production or artists involved. It’s particularly disheartening when Calvin Harris brings along Pusha T and fails to meet in the middle, further becoming a middling closer after two more forgettable tracks. It’s a cluster of mediocrity that never sees the light and instead keep shifting the faulty one with older, worn, but slightly effective ones.

Funk Wav Bounce Vol. 2 isn’t anything to write home to, especially as it leaves you feeling mum toward the whole listen. It felt more like a chore than anything else, and we’re left thinking about how it went wrong. And that’s because it comes across as something pushed through fan pressure allowing it to not flow naturally like the first. However, that’s also an issue he had calling the first Vol. 1, which in turn caused more hype and demand to reflect that hunger, and it’s safe to say I was not satisfied.

Rating: 3 out of 10.

Maggie Rogers – Surrender: Review

Like some, I’ve wondered where Maggie Rogers could take her career since her debut came and delivered intriguing genre stylings, like electronic-folk, and not like the Ellie Goulding kind that felt more pop. Instead of exploring it more, she expands what inherently worked more consistently on her debut: Heard It In A Past Life–that is electro-pop, rather loose, and more alternative-electro-pop. It’s what makes Surrender a fascinating journey that explores the notion of surrendering yourself, allowing an opening for a “transcendence of sex and freedom,” as Maggie Rogers would describe. She isn’t succumbing to the external pressures of the disco trend, allowing the melodies to shift and form these captivating tracks, which keep you engaged through most, retaining a sense of balance between that and quieter pop that slowly hits the pedal as it gets to the end.

Surrender doesn’t mince expectations, and it reminds you head on instantly. Disregarding the musicologist’s idea of the leading hitter squared at track two or three, Maggie Rogers hits you with varying sounds that radiate magnetic synergy. They encompass layers of rock underneath exquisite electronic overtones, specifically synths, taking you through these clouds of dance-bliss. You’re in your room, feeling and letting Rogers’ words empower you to surrender and be yourself instead of masking individual weaknesses. “That’s Where I Am” begins a new start after finding someone in “Overdrive,” which tells us where Maggie Rogers at mentally. It reminds us how she can make minimalist lyrics feel more effervescent. In the first verse of “That’s Where I Am,” Rogers sings: “I found a reason to wake up/Coffee in my cup, start a new day/Wish we could do this forever/And never remember mistakes that we made.” It establishes a mood before shifting into escaping with this person, offering emotional gravitas with how she structures and delivers her lyrics. It continues to ignite the sentiment of going overdrive in the previous track. 

Similarly, track three, “Want Want,” continues to expand on these notions that embrace growth, pleasure, and an understanding of having it both ways. It embraces coy humility as Maggie Rogers sings about her innate synergy sexually with this person. However, it isn’t a continuous reflection of this journey, and she gives us scenes of the past, weaving a parallel between then and today. We hear through sentiments that steer toward acceptance, like on “Shatter” or “I’ve Got A Friend,” where she surrenders herself to her emotions. There are elements to Rogers’ music that offers a balance between styles, from the electro-pop to more alternative, live instrument heavy indie-pop rock. She reels us with captivating melodies and a mix of crisp pop drum beats, eclipsing certain constraints and finding ways to make humbling minimalism feel realized. It’s pertinent as it tries to create a median with sounds, especially as we hear clean transitions between tracks. One of the better transitions comes between “Horses” and “Be Cool,” specifically on both sides of the spectrum, like “I’ve Got A Friend.” Between the former two, there is an escalating string section at the end that capitalizes on the emotional gravitas of “Horses” and then tempers us with “Be Cool.” Though these tracks carry weight on both ends, there are varying moments where Maggie Rogers’ writing shines, like with “I’ve Got A Friend” and “Horses.”

In “I’ve Got A Friend,” Maggie Rogers takes us to a time she met this person, her close friend; she was slightly stunted by how the friendship flourished, creating disbelief between the expected and the natural. As she notes in her first verse: “Who would’ve said/When I met you at a party/Everyone was drunk on 40s just south of Stuyvesant/That I would get to know your sisters/Bring them with us every time that we were in Austin,” she realizes how special their connection is, bringing some jovial jubilance when describing their closeness: “Oh, I’ve got a friend who’s been there through it all/Masturbates to Rob Pattinson, staring at the wall,” without swaying from the emotional complexities between them noting: “I’ve got a friend who’s tangled up inside/Tried to hold her hand the day her mother died/I’ve got a friend who’s been there through it all/Talked me out of jail, talked me off the panic rail.” It’s one of many examples that shows the meticulous care Rogers’ brings to the music, giving us a sense of being while offering personal reflections that feel personable.

Unfortunately, Maggie Rogers on overdrive isn’t something that lasts forever. As the album comes to a close, “Symphony” and “Different Kind of World” don’t offer equivocal strength when trying to capture your attention. The production for the former doesn’t have an elegant contrast with the minimalist-style writing, eventually overstaying its welcome at 5:11. Similarly, “Different Kind of World” broken down acoustics feels off when compared to the tracks we have that preceded it. In past songs, some acoustics contain a continuous balance of varying harmonic pieces that buoy the guitar or piano, and these elements carry oomph. It isn’t till we get close to the end that the track shifts into this uproarious sequence of kinetic drums and synths, but it doesn’t save it from being anything more than a forgetful ballad.

That isn’t to say there isn’t something to take from Surrender. Maggie Rogers is coming headstrong and giving us more personable tracks that have more definition than some of the core singles of her last album. Instead of creating more livid-dance sequences, there is an essence to the dancing and singing. Definitely an improvement from her previous album, it’s something I’ll be returning to soon more frequently in the nighttime and other times, in my room during the rain.

Rating: 8 out of 10.