Friday, July 17, 2020

Review: Brightest Blue • Ellie Goulding

Not long ago, a single release was meant to be a fair representation of its artist: Folks enamored with a popular radio single expected the song to reside in a corresponding album with meaningful context. As we shorten our attention span app by app, how people interact with music has fallen more frivolous than ever: Short-form video app TikTok now plucks songs at random from relative obscurity and pumps artists with false confidence as their tracks become one-off meme soundtracks. Labels fudge song titles on streaming platforms to align with viral snippets and commission remixes to bolster popularity, but often, it seems the popularity spike doesn’t translate to a full body of work or a sustainable career. That’s perhaps what makes Ellie Goulding’s business model so perplexing.

A popular name in both Europe and North America, Ellie Goulding has three strong albums and a decent number of hits to her name. As a consistently above-average commercial performer, she doesn’t seem like someone who should need to chase a hit to green light an album. But by the time it was announced earlier this year, her fourth studio effort, Brightest Blue, was already a few years old. While it sat dormant on her Google Drive, Goulding was preoccupied with other matters: Her name headlined a string of sloppy singles with Generation Z rappers, supposedly in the name of artistic liberation – and much more importantly, she got married last year. It could be assumed that Ellie Goulding’s perspective today differs from the one from which she wrote most of Brightest Blue, which could make the it seem more like a time capsule than a current statement.

With the record, not much of an attempt is made to reconcile everything Goulding has done post-Halcyon, her sophomore release. She recently wrote off overblown pop moment Delirium as a risk with poor return on investment – “I wrote it off before I even went out on tour with it. I knew in my bones it wasn’t right,” she told The Guardian recently. The past year’s worth of American streaming-pandering collaborations are lumped onto a second disc, carrying the appeal of a party favor grab bag filled with circus peanuts. The main album, however, knocks Ellie Goulding back into a proper timeline: Familiar names Joe Kearns, Jim Eliot, and Starsmith return to co-write and co-produce smoldering cuts that scale back any commercial pop inclinations and allow her versatile soprano to drift to the forefront.

As it largely recounts betrayal and revival, Brightest Blue bleeds between swollen ponds of choirs and gentrified strings. The most electricity is generated early in its run with "Power," a crowning jewel of her discography that contrasts dark bass with a bursting chorus, and "How Deep is Too Deep," a moody cut that edges alternative rhythm and blues. At the opposite end, the title track closes the album with skyrocketing surges of strings. Between its bookends, however, the record is often a much more understated reflection on unresolved feelings: While it bows just slightly in its midsection with the noticeably fuzzy "Tides," it regains its momentum in most other areas with a reliance on impressive vocal dynamics. Her vocals are the plush pillow-top of the trendy mid-tempo "Bleach," but the sturdy backbone on both piano ballads ("Flux," "Woman") and bluesy "New Heights."

In some ways, Brightest Blue follows the Ellie Goulding blueprint set into motion with her debut release after it was reconfigured to accommodate her first sleeper hit: The sufficient crowd-pleasers patched into – or in this case, pinned to the coattails of – a record filled with noticeably greater songs. But especially compared to its predecessor, Brightest Blue couldn't be less of an Ellie Goulding record: It is understated and under-produced, mostly to its own advantage. Whereas Halcyon stacked vocal chops and runs to create incredible textures, Brightest Blue accentuates Goulding's stamina as a vocalist – not as a production asset. And after having spent years tied to a career moving faster and more erratically than expected – even during the clunky promotion of this very album – Ellie Goulding manages to become the centerpiece of her own music once again.

Brightest Blue is available now under Interscope Records.

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.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall