Saturday, February 11, 2023

Review: This is Why • Paramore


Resurgence. Revival. Renaissance. Pick a cliché, apparently one beginning with the letter R, and it’s probably been leveraged as an accurate description for whatever is happening with American rock band Paramore right now. After almost a decade of turbulence and digressions – like major beef with a former bassist and a silly cancellation over the band’s signature hit – the band snapped back into place last year. “Misery Business” was reintroduced into their repertoire by way of Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, Twilight soundtrack pinnacle “Decode” was rightfully resurrected with a streaming release, and most importantly, they announced plans for their first new record in six years.

Built upon the fundamentals of post-punk and alt-rock, This is Why finds Hayley Williams disjointed and disappointed. Despite her reputation for unleashing ground-rattling belts and roars – and she’s still got it, on cuts like the doom-riddled, vengeful “You First” – she often throttles her voice down to a snarl: “If you have an opinion, maybe you should shove it,” she opens the record in an uneasy, tumbling melody, on a borderline paranoid statement piece that became its title track. And even when the band gives playfulness a go, on “C'est Comme Ça,” it’s purposefully tuned to track toward unsettling: Gum-smacking “na-na-na-na” hooks are bookended with deep, faux Brit-accented spoken poetry on carrying on life in a disordered society.

Instant Paramore essential “Figure 8” or even the panicked “The News” may placate stubborn purists who long for the days of pre-Paramore Paramore, but beyond that, This is Why once again redefines a band that long abandoned the concept of definition anyway. The album listens not like the battle cry of a band at war, as they so often did before, but as the postmortem documentary of learning to accept life in the miserable aftermath. “Might get easier, but you don’t get used to it. Keep on autopilot,” she advises on “Thick Skull,” a sweeping finale from a band that rocks hard, occasionally self-soothes, and above all, consistently displays self-awareness in its current circumstances.

This is Why is available now under Atlantic Records.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Review: Let Her Burn • Rebecca Black

“Multiple versions of the same person, all of them hurt. Don’t think the performance is working,” Rebecca Black laments on “Performer.” The guitar-led ballad closes a 30-minute flash-bang of a debut record, Let Her Burn, that rushes through its track-list with one thing to prove: Rebecca Black is a performer. And it does so successfully: Pulling out unexpectedly dynamic songwriting and wrapping herself in metallic production, Black wedges herself into the motherboard of hyperpop music and translates the genre through a dance-rock lens.

Whether she's confronting herself, an ex, or society at large, Black keeps the record sharp and to the point. Across many of the album’s tracks, gurgling bass, abrasive industrial beats, and a slurred whisper converge into an unstoppable storm. On “Destroy Me,” a hyperactive beat cuts up a heavyweight electric guitar as Black makes a masochistic plea: “Watch me while I crash and burn again and again. Go ahead, destroy me.” Bass carbonates into bubbling dance grooves on white-hot highlights “Crumbs” and “Misery Loves Company” without shaking the album’s dark mechanical underpinnings. 

The music on Let Her Burn carries itself with inherent anger, encasing emotions in an overheated electronic ecosystem of synthesized instruments and electric guitars. The production choices are punchy and stand in stark contrast to Black’s comfort in a soft soprano range, but the dichotomy is ultimately part of the point: The music commands our attention for the overdue statement of a woman who was placed on the cross unjustly and ridiculed on a global scale. But the joke's on all of us: We let her burn, and now she's risen from the ashes.

Oh yeah, did I mention she’s that Rebecca Black? Yes, that one. Not bad, right?

Let Her Burn is available now as an independent release.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Review: Queen of Me • Shania Twain


Shania Twain is at the forefront of my earliest pop culture memories: From the records to the music videos, she exuded both star power and humility in every move. She seemed unstoppable but approachable; witty but not snarky; carefree but not ignorant. These are all qualities that she aims to restore on Queen of Me, her sixth studio record and her second album since making a return to recording music after dysphonia and Lyme disease diagnoses benched her voice for a decade. While her last record, Now, set out with things to prove, this one has no worries on the horizon. On its cover, she’s sporting a cowboy hat on horseback – but beneath the Wild West surface, Shania dares to kick country music right over the fence… almost.

At one point in her career, Twain was in the business of redubbing her records to rewrite the reality of her songwriting between international pop markets and the rigid construct of domestic country music. The easy translation of songs like “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and “Forever and For Always” proved Twain’s underappreciated potential as a pop songwriter while pushing country music into the forefront of the pop conversation. On Queen of Me, however, country is almost an afterthought than the primary driver of the music. Sure, “Giddy Up!” has a great little two-step stomp and “Last Day of Summer,” the album’s lone ballad, has a fireside sing-songy way about it, but so many other cuts here are unabashed dance tracks that play it safe in a new genre for an artist once known to slice through Nashville with sharp one-liners and innovative sounds.

“Inhale/Exhale Air,” an on-the-nose appreciation for the literal act of breathing after an intense bout with COVID, has Shania written all over it, as does “Got It Good,” which is admittedly an improved rewrite atop the bones of “Not Just a Girl,” another song on the record that was imported from an earlier Netflix documentary. But then there’s a ton of material that feels like costume play: Lead single “Waking Up Dreaming” is an anthemic pop-rock karaoke session. On “Number One,” she embraces a gurgling bass line and ditches her own melodic staples in favor of a new collaborator’s penmanship: According to Twain’s interview with Zane Lowe, the top-line was written by Twain and Mutt Lange’s adult son, Eja.

With its high fashion photoshoots and extensive media blitz, Queen of Me was expected to gallop into the cultural forefront. And while it does paint the bright overtones that were missing on her last record back into Twain’s music, the album more or less trots into consciousness. It’s a fun record that perhaps pushes Twain furthest from her origin point, but in doing so, she ends up in a new league – one where she is among the most tame contributors rather than the boundary-shattering trendsetters. Where does that leave her? Somewhere between sounding like herself – quite literally, as her voice noticeably continues to recover from the Lyme disease damage – and simply enjoying herself, our expectations be damned. But hey, the best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun, isn't it?

Queen of Me is available now under Republic Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall