Sunday, October 17, 2021

Review: Music of the Spheres • Coldplay

If there were ever a plot, Coldplay lost it somewhere in the clouds a while ago. A decade into their career, the band began to feel like a venue for musical self-indulgence. Over the course of the band’s four latest albums, what was a by-the-numbers descendant of U2 became a closer cousin to Maroon 5, though the Adam Levine outfit follows a downward trajectory compared to Coldplay’s unpredictable one. Whatever the catalyst, we received the textured synth-rock album Mylo Xyloto and a Beyoncé collaboration from it, at the very least. (For that, we give thanks.) But as a residual effect, there’s an uncertain feeling about Coldplay’s mission statement. Each record moves the target somewhere unexpected: Dance music, back to alternative rock, Afrobeat, vocoded ambiance… was Beyoncé already mentioned? Their latest effort, Music of the Spheres, certainly does nothing to clear up any misunderstandings: Rather, it shoots their sights into an intergalactic fever dream, aboard a synthpop rocket fueled by pop music super producer Max Martin.

Twenty years ago, the idea that English alternative rock band Coldplay would grab a number-one hit featuring work from a South Korean boy band and Max Martin in 2021 would seem asinine, wouldn’t it? Well, look who’s laughing now, I guess. The slow gravitational pull toward a full pop Coldplay began as early as 2014, and now with the likes of BTS and Selena Gomez in tow, the band both passes the torch onto the next generation of artists and attempts to prove they can still compete in their stadium. When the moments are big, they’re gargantuan: Chris Martin weaves his way around supercharged synth hits on “Higher Power,” “People of the Pride” has some underplayed utility as a lazy, social media era protest song, and even “My Universe” has a great little chant about it. Everything between the tentpoles, though, feels like a scenic roadmap, littered in emoji titles and springy beats, to the next big moment – mostly fulfilling in the moment, yet never as memorable as the album’s few shiniest offerings.

Adorned in a consistent cover of pillowy synthesizers and vague idealist lyrics, Music of the Spheres is the most focused, and maybe even most daring on paper, Coldplay project since 2011’s Mylo Xyloto – but unlike that record, Music of the Spheres suffers from lukewarm execution. While Max Martin’s production work is both textured and alluring, the album would fall nearly anonymous if it weren’t for Chris Martin’s unmistakable tenor delivery. The band’s songwriting has dulled from the days of “Fix You” and “Yellow” as they seek to unite, not resonate with, their listeners: Aside from something like warm homecoming dance ballad “Let Somebody Go,” which feels just slightly more genuine than most here, the record operates on the idea that Coldplay fans experience love and relationships on only a universally superficial level. Given that nothing on Music of the Spheres sounds outright offensive, though, Max Martin’s melodic mathematics were crunched just fine: It just appears that sometimes, Coldplay was left out of the calculations.

Music of the Spheres is available now under Parlophone Records.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Retrospective: Rock Steady • No Doubt

‘Shit. We made a mistake,’ I thought to myself on a Friday night. My husband, a friend, and I stood among a pack of strangers behind an 8-foot crowd control fence, what felt like miles away from a riverside amphitheater stage. We had paid for general admission and received nosebleeds at best, for an artist we went to see mainly due to the close proximity and bottom dollar price bracket. It wasn’t often that our third-tier Midwest city snagged an artist worth mentioning, and tickets were an alluring bargain price. We just wanted to see live music again. Almost an hour later, standing in the very same spot, I regretted having had any regrets. The setlist contained not a single unfamiliar song; many, I could yell word for word alongside the artist on stage. I realized Gwen Stefani is an underappreciated hitmaker, boasting more enduring anthems than I could recount off hand.

Perhaps Gwen Stefani gets forgotten because she is not as dynamic of an entertainer as she attempts to sell herself. She is not the vocalist to invite for a performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.” No matter how many songs that new husband invites her to duet – at least three now, if you haven’t noticed – Stefani isn’t equipped for any straightforward country singing, either. No, Gwen Stefani is at her best as the party’s spiteful ringleader, squared up perfectly for a restless rocker or a pounding hip-hop beat – and for decades, that’s exactly what she provided. In all fairness, both sides of her career (with No Doubt and as a solo star) have been filled with as many blazing comets as pieces of space junk: The first two No Doubt records barely lifted off the ground, and her second solo record was a glorified pile of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. scraps with a few phenomenal singles. But then there’s a record like Rock Steady.

• • •

Following two non-starter releases, No Doubt’s 1995 breakthrough record Tragic Kingdom was one of those rare CD-era albums that spawned more radio sensations than many streaming acts can muster today. A listen to Tragic Kingdom feels like a greatest hits record. Five years stood between it and the band’s follow-up, Return of Saturn. Despite the long percolation period, Saturn felt like a failure – by Tragic Kingdom standards, many albums would. (At the aforementioned concert, Stefani told the crowd that she “hates” the lead single from the album, “Ex-Girlfriend.” In fact, the phrase “puke my guts out” was used to describe it. She performed it anyway.) Just one year later, the band would emerge from a very compact chrysalis: With inspiration from afterparties the band threw in conjunction with Return of Saturn shows, Rock Steady would find Stefani and No Doubt in their most carefree, party hard headspace.

Rock Steady is, plainly put, a weird album. Smashing together genres from across the musical spectrum, it just shouldn’t work. Between the high voltage cross-pollination of rock and dancehall, the album sails listeners into alcoves of unmistakable reggae – a direct descendant of ska, the reason behind No Doubt’s genesis. (It’s not at all a bad thing. Rather, “Underneath It All,” a little tropical breeze of a song, reached the highest chart position of all the hits that No Doubt managed to spin up in just a few years.) Yet it works… and it works really well. Its chaotic mission statement is clear within the first few songs, and if a listener sinks into it, the album’s swings can become pleasantly disorienting as it continues its course. One moment, the band recruits Prince to cram together Boyz II Men-worthy harmonies and crunchy electric guitars on “Waiting Room,” and the next, they deliver a vocal arrangement for the title track that listens like the Andrews Sisters’ new groove.

Now, hold up. How’d we get to the Andrews Sisters from “Hella Good” and “Hey Baby,” among the best party songs this side of Y2K? Well, with some globetrotting and an abundance of trust in the process. When not pushed away for the humid little midtempos, electric guitars scribble a jagged line through the record, whether they’re grinding up against Stefani’s vocal line (“Hella Good”), detouring the record into a grungy house party (“Detective,” “Platinum Blonde Life”), or guiding her through the accents on a punky melody line (“Don’t Let Me Down”). Beyond its guitar work and Stefani’s voice, though, Rock Steady is open season. The band uses ska rock as a launch pad, bouncing between lax, even romantic spaces (like “Underneath It All”) and more characteristic outbursts. “Platinum Blonde Life,” for one, is a smash single waiting to be plucked from the album 20 years late – as if it didn’t have three massive ones as it stands.

• • •

There’s a key distinction between Rock Steady and the other albums in No Doubt’s roster: Fun. Of course, we all have fun listening to “Just a Girl” or “Don’t Speak,” bangers created before “banger” was common vernacular. The problem resided in No Doubt: They weren’t having a good time when they wrote them. Those songs are painful and angry: “Oh, I’ve had it up to here!” A metaphoric white flag was turned into a massive hook for all to scream. Return of Saturn documents a schism in Gwen Stefani, who had one eye on success and the other on marriage. On Rock Steady, meanwhile, love (among other substances, surely) is in the air: Dance, make out, vamp, holler – anything goes in the album’s late night hours. Bass player Tony Kanal told Billboard, “When we started making this record, we decided to put everything else aside and just have a great time. While we're writing music, let's keep the fun going." 

While Gwen Stefani’s roster overflows with isolated hits, there are two truly outstanding records in No Doubt’s catalog, Tragic Kingdom and Rock Steady. They wedge themselves into musical history through opposite narratives: The former is a singular ska punk brush stroke, while the latter collages a record from anything in reach. Bar maybe “Start the Fire,” the band typically displays good judgement on how far they can bend each song, though, resulting in Picassian abstracts on their influences rather than a maximalist appropriated glut. In its review of the album upon its release, Entertainment Weekly called the band “oddly flimsy” “rock Martha Stewarts.” Joke’s on them – Martha Stewart is a convicted felon who rolls with Snoop Dogg, and most of Rock Steady, a 20-year-old record indebted to almost every genre while being tied down exclusively to none of them, still knocks as hard now as it did then.

Rock Steady was released on Dec. 11, 2001, under Interscope Records.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Review: In the Meantime • Alessia Cara

Alessia Cara leapt into fame from a laptop in her parent’s house. Now, she comes to us from her apartment, and she’s worried. “What if they forget about all I've done, if I built it up just to be no one?” she asks herself on “Box in the Ocean,” the impressive introduction to her third studio album, In the Meantime. It’s a legitimate fear: Off the back of sleeper hit “Here" and follow-up single "Scars to Your Beautiful," the singer-songwriter won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2018 and snagged two high-profile collaborative hits with Zedd and Logic. Her own material, meanwhile, continued to sound homegrown despite its major label vehicle: Her second record, The Pains of Growing, drove her introductory bedroom budget sound to a dead end. It seemed like Alessia Cara was content in defaulting to her comfort zone, no matter the stale air that surrounded every stanza – until now. Her third record matures her sound from a more inspired space: Wrapped in a variety of contemporary sheens, the album brings her up to speed in the pop music landscape.

Our 20s are a strange decade in our lives. In many cases, they begin in chaos – our future shines before us, and life is the game through which we’ll eventually reach it. By their end, our 20s tether us to our new normal. Opposite Lorde, who released an album just last month that celebrates the mid-20s stabilization, Alessia Cara has had a tough time in the adjustment. “What if my best days are the days I've left behind? And what if the rest stays the same for all my life?” she sings on “Best Days,” a mid-album ballad with immense staying power for a listener who, too, struggles under time’s militant march. Time carries on, even when a global pandemic steals over a year and counting of our primetime decade – and to make matters worse, Cara went through one hell of a break-up. “If you’re with someone else, come clean. I’d rather be by myself than let you lie to me,” she tells a partner on “Lie to Me.” More often than not, she translates her feelings well – and even when she indulges in an easy cliché as she does on “Drama Queen” or “Fish Bowl,” she compensates with a sharp ear for melody.

While its lyrics jitter with anxiety, In the Meantime goes down smoothly. Produced with visions of the tropics, the record mixes together rhythm and blues and pop, with splashes of disco and bossa nova for good measure. Snappy drums thump and bass grinds against the bottom of many tracks without seeming like flashy distractions from the artist at hand. Cara’s voice carries a clean and inoffensive timbre, and here, it’s often layered and run through some subtle digital magic to coat the music in a sweet glaze. "Somebody Else" and "You Let Me Down," which contrast pointed feelings with bright window dressing and superb vocal work, provide solid representations of Cara's musical direction. The album shouldn’t, however, be considered Alessia Cara’s poptimism reinvention. Under its sheathing, the album doesn't push Cara beyond her unpolished diarist tendencies, and even at 18 tracks long, it doesn't often try to punch far above its weight. While it isn’t the uncharacteristic revelation record to reel in a cult following, In the Meantime is an unexpected step forward for an artist who has both recognizable talent and motivation to refine it.

In the Meantime is available now under Def Jam Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall