Saturday, November 7, 2020

Review: Disco • Kylie Minogue

From the average American’s perspective, the longevity of Kylie Minogue's career might seem perplexing. Though she has released records on a regular rotation since 1987 and has performed modestly in the United Kingdom and Australia throughout her career, Minogue has hoisted only five songs into the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. (America, we need to do a bit better in that department.) What is more unbelievable, however, is that it took this long for her to brand a record with the upfront name Disco. With a pinched, forever young voice and no less than a dozen thumping club records to her name, Minogue is maybe the most loyal to the dance floor compared to any post-Eurodance contemporaries – so if anybody deserves to claim stake to the genre via album title, it’s her.

It’s a bittersweet time to think about the club and concert venues: They’re places we shouldn’t be for our own protection, even if some seem to believe they’re immune to airborne viruses. Minogue channels our desire for normality here, drilling messages of unity into a dance record that was largely pieced together mid-pandemic in a home studio. “We’re a million miles apart in a thousand ways,” she opens on “Say Something,” a spectacularly dynamic cut that builds upon a deep, gurgling synth run to spark magic. (Coincidentally, the opening song, "Magic," has a similar sparkle.) And of course, the art of dance is both a self-referential lyrical pillar and a mandated response to the music here: “You and me, let’s dance ‘til morning and wake up feeling no regrets,” she tells her “Dance Floor Darling,” a definite highlight even despite its criminally abridged chorus.

In true Kylie Minogue fashion, Disco sterilizes earnest influences – this time around, high-energy disco music of the 1970s and 1980s – with a modern skew. While “Supernova” and “Real Groove” both rivet her voice right into turbo-charged electronics, they’re not without some bass licks, string runs, and yes, even cowbells. “I Love It,” meanwhile, is precisely the sugar-spiked chintz we’ve come to expect from Minogue. For the better part of a quarter-century, she has been a reliable source of surface-level, turbo-charged dance records that borrow from a rotating door of authentic musical landmarks – but not in at least a decade has she seemed this focused to a new muse. Although Disco rarely scrapes the emotional depth and raw funk of genuine disco, there's something to be said about its sharp hooks and consistently fantastic presentation.

Disco is available now under BMG Rights Management.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Review: Positions • Ariana Grande

Ariana Grande’s force in the music industry has intensified by at least tenfold in the past three years. Doubling her full-length catalog and signing onto high-profile collaborations, she has scored four number one singles in recent history – and despite her systematic release schedule, her newest music somehow sounds more steady than any of her first three records. With her last two records – especially Thank U, Next, her most consistent yet most middle-ground record to this point – she signaled permanent residence in R&B-indebted pop music. But on Positions, her singular focus already shows its fatigue.

Largely downtempo and filled with on-the-nose filthy talk, the album begs to be her sex encyclopedia. The title track – the best offering of the bunch – takes her from the bedroom to the kitchen for a myriad of activities. She requests a more personal touch on “My Hair,” which manages to exercise and showcase her voice unlike another else here, and something without strings on “Nasty.” It’s liberating in theory, sure, but in reality, Positions is merely a spread of monotone streaming-era snacks; each track is just a few minutes of the same slurred vowels and underutilized strings.

On “34+35,” which is (hopefully) more lackluster than the activities it details, Grande ironically declares the mission statement of the record: “You such a dream come true. Make a bitch want to hit snooze.” While she shows tremendous steps forward in recovering from unthinkable circumstances – the terrorist attack at her 2017 Manchester concert, her ex-boyfriend’s fatal overdose, a very public and forever documented rebound relationship – she unfortunately seems to have taken the worst parts of her last record and left the rest behind. Yes, the tactic has made her a hit-maker, but at the price of also becoming the lowest common denominator. Snooze, indeed.

Positions is available now under Republic Records.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Review: The Rarities • Mariah Carey

In 2018, two Mariah Carey albums entered cultural conversation: One was the brand new Caution, arguably her leanest, most effective release this side of Y2K. The other was Glitter, a record synonymous with turmoil in Carey’s lore. Released on Sept. 11, 2001, soon after Carey was hospitalized for an untreated bipolar episode and suicide attempt during its lead-up promotion, the record and its associated film were deemed Carey’s first true failures as an entertainer and were retroactively scrubbed from her digital footprint. But by the release of Caution, fans – Carey calls them her lambs, collectively the lambily – had reconsidered Glitter and its media framing: The only option was to demand reparations for the record that had been dwarfed by the criticism against it.

The resulting hashtag movement, #JusticeForGlitter, gained traction on Twitter and shot the record to the top of the iTunes best-selling albums chart. While the market share of iTunes downloads had already eroded by then, it was enough to catch attention from legacy media and Carey herself. To thank her lambs, she incorporated a Glitter medley into her live shows and posted the record in all its post-disco glory to streaming platforms – with simply “MARIAH” listed in its label attribution, hinting that she may have bought the rights to the record from her former label. Despite popular perception to the contrary, Mariah Carey is much more self-aware than she is portrayed. And from time to time, when she isn’t releasing something like Merry Christmas II You or #1s to Infinity, she knows exactly what diehard fans want from their favorite artists – something like The Rarities.

Not unlike a digital bootleg parceled together with illegal downloads and leaked material, The Rarities parcels lost songs from across her career into a most-wanted mixtape. Largely containing downtempo cuts from early to mid-1990s record sessions, the collection of session scraps is sturdy enough to legitimize Mariah Carey as a solid songwriter even outside of the hits. It becomes a new milestone in the retroactive redemption already in motion to reiterate that she crafted her own music during her blockbuster run in the '90s, a fact that many listeners ignored at the time. And while nothing on The Rarities feels essential to her career – sensual rhythm and blues number "Do You Think Of Me" is the only track to feel like a foolish omission from its parent album – not a single moment is unenjoyable, even if many are simply unremarkable.

The disc of outtakes is an invaluable gift for Carey’s fans, but the second disc may be better suited for the casual listener: A crystal-clear recording of a 1996 Tokyo concert, the first international tour stop in her career. It is particularly important given that she largely neglected to tour until that point in favor of rapid-fire album releases under her then-husband's control. The concert recording here is a stellar showing at the height of her career's first act: Carey reveals alternate melodies and delivers some of her smoothest vocals to be captured in a live setting. With its crowd-pleaser setlist and impressive vocal performances, the concert attempts – and succeeds, at least more often than the first side of this record – to accomplish the same mission statement as her accompanying memoir: The vindication of Mariah Carey as a songwriter, a vocalist, and a world-class entertainer.

The Rarities is available now under Columbia Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall