Friday, July 3, 2020

Review: What's Your Pleasure? • Jessie Ware

What was an artist like Jessie Ware to do? After beginning her career as a well-connected back-up vocalist, the singer-songwriter released her debut album in 2012 with lop-sided success, favored in her native United Kingdom. The album – and the two others that followed it, each with diminishing returns on investment – resided in a grey area: Her rich vocal texture and mid-tempo songwriting were too serious to bill as straight-up pop music, even in a post-Adele world, but they were just alluring enough to shy away from dull adult contemporary marketing. All the while, Ware’s voice proved to be more popular in another venue: With her mother as her co-host, she started a food podcast, which has racked up 3.5 million listeners in its run so far. So what was an artist like Jessie Ware, whose chats about food had garnered more attention than her latest Coachella set, to do? Swerve.

Her fourth studio record, What’s Your Pleasure?, ditches the middle-ground approach to contemplative somber pop – and instead, Ware employs her smooth soul intentions to restore the most primal, human instincts to this year's disco revival. Rather than plug and play the beats and strings into the mix with dance floor authority, Ware and her producer – James Ford, who worked on Ware’s back catalog, plenty of Arctic Monkeys records, and early Haim and Florence + the Machine material – slide each subtle element into place with an organic rhythm. The record doesn’t cut to the point with barbed melodies or aggressive beat-downs. Rather, it works its way into subtle but powerful climaxes more akin to funk and soul music – an impressive reinvention in Ware's artistic vision that proves she wasn’t completely compatible with the hodge-podge commercial pop sphere from which she originates.

When the fairytale overture on opening cut “Spotlight” stalls out, a saturated bass line and hand claps emerge from the shadows to support the album’s best vocal work. From there, What's Your Pleasure? is a slow burn of hazy titillation via lounge-chic seduction ("In Your Eyes," "Adore You," "The Kill") and more often, throbbing pulsations: A drum and bass tickle the senses beneath “Save a Kiss,” preluding a dance-induced sweat tsunami forming on the horizon, and a whiplash beat tosses the chorus chant of "Mirage (Don't Stop)" from wall to wall. When the doors to the club are kicked open in the morning, though, there's a sobering reminder: "The heart of the city is on fire. Sun on the rise, the highs are gonna fall," she sings on the closing number, reminding us that reality can't remain suspended forever. And while that's true, What's Your Pleasure? is at least one well-deserved midnight escape for the senses.

What's Your Pleasure? is available now under Virgin EMI Records.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Review: Women in Music Pt. III • Haim

Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim are making the best music of their careers. To do it, they had to find themselves again.

The last time we heard from the sisters, they had just added a slick pop flair to their vintage soft rock. Their sophomore record, Something to Tell You, is laid back and effortlessly cool – maybe too much so. As they recorded and promoted the record, they suffered in the background: Diabetes tried to dominate Este’s schedule, while Danielle tended to Ariel Rechtshaid – her boyfriend and the band’s primary producer – after a cancer diagnosis. All three women cite exhaustion from extensive touring and frustration over blatant sexism they endure in the rock music industry. After glossing over their personal crises in days past, they’ve since learned to confront them, translate them into song, and in the process, find peace in their wake. Given this context, the devastating undercurrent throughout their newest album, Women in Music Pt. III, feels both overdue and amplified.

"Man from the magazine, what did you say? 'Do you make the same faces in bed?' Hey, man, what kind of question is that?" the sisters sing on "Man from the Magazine," a folksy  response to a music journalist's scummy slight toward Este in an early interview. The sisters have good reason to be upset, and they unleash their feelings through interesting and instantly gratifying vocal arrangements and analog instrumental work. Honoring and elevating Haim's artistic identity, Women in Music Pt. III often juxtaposes its percussive foundation and crushing lyrical touchstones with a smooth brass, bass, and guitar top-coat. For as much relief that can be felt through every pounded beat, woozy guitar riff, and open harmony stanza throughout "The Steps," album closer "Summer Girl" is just as successful without much more than a sax, an exposed bass line, and a hushed vow of steadiness to a struggling partner. Booty call anthem "3 AM," meanwhile, does both: Its pre-chorus emulates the tantalizing allure that comes from a potential midnight hook-up before its chorus comes stomping down with a reality check. 

Through a masterful sense for musical dynamics, these three women know when and how to stoke the coals and throw water on the flame: Their electric guitar, bass, and drum work on "Up From a Dream" results in a heavyweight cut with a shredding guitar solo, and similarly, career highlight "Now I’m in It" culminates in a thunderstorm of tight-knit harmonies, modest electronic flourishes, and a thick bass line. "Don’t Wanna" triumphs in a sunnier fashion when it piles on twangy mandolin and full-bodied keys to fill out the mix. But there’s power in the understated, as well, when the sisters swoop into acoustic and mid-tempo environments: "Los Angeles" opens the record with an easygoing guitar skitter and drumbeat, and "Gasoline" evokes some great '90s adult contemporary memories. "Hallelujah," a back-to-basics acoustic track, may even be among the album's most gripping, easily topping any other song with which it shares a title, as the sisters share their mutual appreciation for each other.

In a recent podcast interview with Pitchfork, the Haim sisters gushed at length over two legacy acts: Stevie Nicks, who introduced herself to them while blaring Haim’s first record through a portable speaker in her hand, and the late Prince. Their echoes can be heard on Women in Music Pt. III – Nicks’ incredible soft rock and unshakable spirit are overt inspirations, while Prince’s unadulterated sense of rhythm and organic funk is stronger here than any previous Haim record. The sisters collage together tracks not only with pieces from musical heroes both past and present, but with clear musical intuition on what just sounds right – regardless of genre construction. Their sidesteps into sad banger territory ("I Know Alone," "All That Ever Mattered") and reggae undertones ("Another Try"), for example, can still be traced back to the same lineage. In that sense, Women in Music Pt. III feels like a contemporary statement and a longstanding testament simultaneously.

At nearly an hour long, Women in Music Pt. III is also a towering testament, at that – and not a single moment feels inessential. Danielle steps forward more firmly as the band’s pseudo-frontwoman in a traditional sense, but the three women’s talents are balanced and spotlit in their own rights. They each prove to be crucial to the record’s success: Danielle earns co-producer credit on every song and takes responsibility for a myriad of instrumentation. With this album’s dependency on sturdy underlying grooves, Este’s sublime bass work dictates each track’s mood board. And though Alana’s instrumental contribution shouldn’t be underplayed, some of the record’s most enthralling moments transpire when Alana’s vocal harmonies radiate out from behind her sister. The very best recorded display of their collective synergy and musical force, Women in Music Pt. III reflects three women who – both metaphorically and literally – have hit their stride.

Women in Music Pt. III is available now under Columbia Records.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Retrospective: Believe • Cher

The mother of reinvention is known by her mononym. Within a few years of dropping out of high school at 16, Cher became a household name – and would remain one for over 60 years and counting, falling in and out of favor with American audiences more times than can be counted. Having indulged in so many Hollywood activities that her brand far supersedes a typical celebrity’s umbrella, she has used music as her primary vehicle: From folk to disco, Cher’s borderline androgynous contralto can be heard in nearly every popular genre to have emerged since the 1960s. While she and the late Sonny Bono maintained a short-lived iron grip on pop culture upon their debut as a clean-cut distillation of the novel hippie movement, Cher marked her most important career touch-point when she released Believe in the winter of 1998.

Discussions on the Believe legacy are predominantly centered on the single of the same name, a career pivot point for Cher so prominent that the record’s other nine tracks fade into the vignette. Before making then 52-year-old Cher the oldest woman to strike a number one single in the United States and earning the artist her first (and only) Grammy Award, the title track was allegedly an unwanted demo written in the early ‘90s that floated around her record label before making it to her lap – and for a while, it seems she hated it, too. Dissecting the song and its origins when it was still inescapable, The New York Times reported in 1999 the pitch correction that ripples Cher’s verse runs – the first known commercial release use of Auto-Tune – sparked unexpected passion for the song: “You can change that part of it over my dead body. Don't let anyone touch this track, or I'm going to rip your throat out,” she told then-freshman producer Mark Taylor, according the article.

The threat seemed to signal a significant change in Cher, who remains notorious for disliking much of her own music. (“I think you have to be a bit of a narcissist to hear yourself and think, ‘Oh, that's fabulous,’” she told Billboard in 2002.) It was released two years after It’s a Man’s World, a soft pop-rock album with a tongue-in-cheek title for which Cher seems to have the most distaste. “I thought it sucked,” she told a fan just a few years ago on Twitter, her favorite communication platform nowadays. In the tour book for her latest concert series, she even withheld the record’s cover from a page detailing her six-decade discography – despite the fact that it houses “Walking in Memphis,” a song on the tour’s regular set list, and “One by One,” indisputably a top-tier Cher track. The despised album put a cap on an entire career of trend-hopping for Cher, who had jumped between genres a few times before settling into adult contemporary by the late ‘80s.

• • •

Before the ‘90s began, Cher had done everything but never landed solidly in any crowd. ''I don't have a clue as to who my fans are anymore,'' Cher told The New York Times in an October 1987 profile that spent much of its word count questioning her validity in any of the media spaces she occupied. In 1987 alone, she starred in three films – Suspect, The Witches of Eastwick, and the Oscar-winning Moonstruck – and released a radio-ready rock record after a five-year musical hiatus. Even something as monumental as Moonstruck, however, doesn’t seem to be as important of an artifact as Believe. Setting the trajectory for the last act (and eventual encore) of her career, it finally provided her a permanent home in an entertainment subset that she resisted, fancied for a moment on a trial basis, then abandoned a few decades prior: Dance music.

While Believe was not her first dance record – Take Me Home and Prisoner attempted to capitalize on disco in the late ‘70s – it was her first good dance record. Admittedly, the title track is most potent: A soft yet full-bodied synth pad and sharp kick drum dress up what could have been an easy Cher-signature pop-rock ballad in another life, certainly providing some groundwork for sad and pseudo-empowerment dance songs (now known as “sad bangers”) like “Dancing On My Own” and “Crying on the Bathroom Floor.” Its success is not isolated, though: “All or Nothing,” a clean-cut bonafide dance track, and “Dov’è L’amore,” a bastardization of Italian lyrics and a Latin pop flair, are arguably just as powerful. “Strong Enough” is essentially an unadulterated disco cut with a bit of polish. And let it be known here: “Runaway” and “Taxi Taxi” are underrated belters. On both tracks, Cher barrels right over relentless drum machine thumps and electronic glitz without getting caught in the digital machinery herself. Contrary to prior evidence, Cher was damn good at dance music – so why should she bother to vacate the territory?

The follow-up to Believe, 2001’s Living Proof, carried a crystal clear working title: Son of Believe. Arguably the better Cher dance record, Living Proof shares its predecessor’s primary producer, Mark Taylor, but magnifies the digital gears that Believe set into motion: Heavy vocoders without the loss of personality, a drum machine left on autopilot for 50 minutes, and many opportunities to unleash some guttural melodies. Becoming one of the few constants in Cher’s career, Taylor would continue to work with her on all following records – including her supercharged ABBA covers album in 2018. (While the backhanded compliment “camp” has been used to describe – and dismiss – Cher for years, the ABBA cover record merits nothing less than the label.) It could be argued that dance music has been Cher’s longest committed relationship, both in length and intensity: While Believe and its successors all performed moderately well with general audiences, their singles dominated dance chart in the United States – a fickle chart environment in which women typically fare much better than men, perhaps due to a significant demographic for both dance music and Cher alike.

• • •

Cher’s seemingly permanent move to dance music was the result of a suggestion from Rob Dickins, who presided over Warner Bros. Records at the time. “Without really thinking, I said to her, ‘Gay men adore you. They don’t really like the records you’re making, but they love you. Now, wouldn’t it be a great idea to make a record where they could love the record and love you?’” Dickens told Pink News in an interview to honor the album’s 20th anniversary. Believe fell squarely into the Eurodance music of the late ‘90s, a whitewashed derivative of the disco music birthed from queer people of color a few decades prior. The genre inherited disco’s queer reputation and its remnants can be heard as the cornerstones of club music today, earning a similar distaste from those (straight men) who detest the idea of liking something that could be construed as feminine or homosexual.

Believe has everything it takes to become a gay cult classic: Diva energy, throaty howls, breakneck beats, overt self-empowerment, an obligatory (but relatively good) Diane Warren song, a clunky dance costume for a decades-old soft rock ballad, and to top it off, Cher herself. Though already an advocate for LGBT rights via (eventual) support for son Chaz, who came out as a lesbian woman in 1995 and a transgender man in 2009, Cher burrowed into gay club culture and used her existing celebrity status to elevate it to the mainstream. It was a vital move toward acknowledging her gay fans in a sincere fashion and cementing herself as an ally in an era during which queer advocacy was still taboo, though it would soon gain momentum relatively quickly. For a frame of reference, Believe was released just over 20 years ago – in the same year that Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian and was temporarily blacklisted from show business, and two years after I, a gay boy who would spend most of his childhood confused about his feelings, was born.

To some, the album may seem unremarkable in hindsight – which may be fair, to some degree. Despite its success in dance music, the album's performance was a slow burn: It debuted in America at number 139 on the Billboard 200 – ouch – before climbing its way to number four. Musically, it didn't push boundaries as much as it did embrace and enhance existing Eurodance trends, retrofitting a heavyweight industry titan's name to legitimize a chintzy niche genre most often tied to teen pop newcomers, Scandinavian implants, and gay discotheques. Maybe it was a bit gimmicky and glitzy, but it gave a voice to an uncomfortable closeted boy without a true sense of belonging in the Midwest during the early aughts. And for that, it was – and still is – a monumental record in its own right.

Believe was released on Nov. 10, 1998, under Warner Bros. Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall