Sunday, August 30, 2020

Review: Smile • Katy Perry

The coordinated narrative embedded into Katy Perry’s most recent album campaign allows her to paint herself as a living relic of the early 2010s. Conveyed as someone who had hit fame’s unimaginable pinnacle and later fell from it, she explores the mental ramifications after the rug was pulled from beneath her in interviews with The Guardian and Zane Lowe. After having digested failure and its effects on someone who thrived on popularity, she claims to be apathetic toward success, having matured past the need for external validation. The linear story line, however, inappropriately stamps an expiration date on her career as if to justify her latest album’s under-performance in advance without referencing any specific mistakes that may have led Katy Perry to where she is now. 

Perry has been a mirror of the times she occupies, even if it meant she magnified errors in her own judgement. Two of her earliest notable hits trivialize bisexuality and demean gay stereotypes in a time when it was considered acceptable in mainstream culture – and surprisingly, they haven’t been scrubbed silently from streaming platforms as an overprotective afterthought or even addressed since their initial splash. Most of her chart-toppers were produced with the man who was once the largest name in pop music but since has had his career obliterated with accusations that he sexually assaulted one of Perry’s peers. She stayed silent as Hollywood erupted over the case and silently shifted away from the accused producer – though an unsealed deposition reveals she felt more like a pawn in a game she didn’t ask to play.

Her silence on serious matters was characteristic: For most of her career, she had never presented herself as any more than entertainer – and while that may have never settled well for those who penned very serious reviews for very serious major publications, it certainly wasn’t an unpopular career model. After three blockbuster records – one of which will forever act as a near-impossible benchmark for not only her own popularity, but any other pop star to follow – it could be said that Witness, her fourth record, was a sign of fatigue for both the artist and her casual listeners. Or perhaps it can be pointed to under-baked songwriting and faulty delivery on promises to make her pop music more meaningful in a divided America. Or likely, it was just an odd fit for a woman who had spent most of her career making ignorant mistakes that she blames on her sheltered upbringing.  

Whatever the reason, Witness is undoubtedly Katy Perry’s least enjoyable record for her and us alike: She has now admitted to a deep depression after Witness and its commercial performance left her without the external gratification to which she had grown accustom. Since its release, she retreated to light entertainment in its purest form – reality television – and entered a steady relationship with Orlando Bloom, resulting in her pregnancy announcement this spring. But when most women would retreat for a moment to enjoy their first experiences in motherhood, Perry charged forward with Smile, a course correction record released one day after her first child’s birth. Its short, disconnected hits total up to about half an hour of music, all packaged as a chintzy red-nosed reminder to hold out hope – that is, if that message wasn’t already made painfully evident in her return to straightforward pop music.

Perry built an empire atop massive synthpop tracks courtesy of Max Martin and Dr. Luke, the latter of which became a commercial and moral liability not long after the release of Prism in 2013. That may explain the literal army required to bring both Witness and Smile to fruition as she redefined herself without them, but Smile is certainly more loyal to the Katy Perry lore than expected. “Never Really Over,” a Zedd collaboration from last year, gets top billing on the record – and for good reason. Its rapid-fire stanzas and stair-step harmony make it her stickiest offering in years. Directly after it, however, she was brave enough to abut two songs about distracting from the urge to cry – both perfectly fine archetypal sad bangers, but a bit strange to hear in succession.

Perry might be at her dullest when presenting as blatantly inspirational: Just as “Firework” might contain the worst songwriting from Teenage Dream, “Smile” and “Resilient” from this record lack integrity. “Resilient” particularly suffers, especially without the benefit of a memorable melody or a Naughty by Nature sample like the title track. On the rare occasion that she doesn’t dress down her experiences in the tired token phrases she employs on otherwise enjoyable songs like “Daisies” and “Champagne Problems,” she can address issues with tact: “If I had nothing to lose, I’d call my mother and tell her I’m sorry for never calling her back. I’d pour my soul into a letter and send it to my dad,” she sings on “Only Love.” That is the kind of reflection one would expect from a record billed as a therapeutic rejuvenation.

Though Smile may feel like much less of a cultural takeover than Perry’s previous records, that seems to be by design – perhaps to avoid the potential for backlash, or maybe more importantly, to focus attention toward a newborn baby girl. Its gentrified disco and succinct bursts of energy boil down heavy subjects into much easier listening. It has its truly bright moments – “Never Really Over,” pandemic-appropriate “Not the End of the World,” “Only Love,” and even the under-appreciated “Harleys in Hawaii” make the album worth a listen – but Smile is largely an uncomplicated, unsurprisingly surface-level look at her depression and recovery that serves better as feel-good fodder than a dead-on confessional. And even if you haven't accepted it by now, that's exactly what should be expected from the artist at hand.

Smile is available now under Capitol Records.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Retrospective: Trouble in Shangri-La • Stevie Nicks

Whether they collect, compose, record, or write about it, those with a passion for music often consider it an important generational art form. We remember that one record that a mother would play every Saturday morning during a family breakfast, or the one to which a cousin introduced us at a sleepover. Memories linger from that long road trip when the radio numbed the sound of parents’ bickering from the front seat, or that time when you tried to introduce your mother to P!nk’s “Get This Party Started” and she found it so annoying that you were banned from listening to it. (While I can’t confirm, I believe that last one may have been a memory just for me.)

My parents were not particularly fanatical about music. Once a state of the art system when my parents were college-aged, the large stereo in their living room today is in the same state as it was throughout my childhood: Two blown-out tower speakers, a half-functioning tape deck, and a jammed six-CD player are the dusty relics in home electronics. Their walnut display case is used as a mantle of sorts for portraits and figurines. My mother had one CD in her car for years – a CD single of Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow’s “Picture” – and had long abandoned Richard Marx and Joan Jett cassettes from her younger years in the bottom of that stereo cabinet. It was considered lucky to hear more than two songs per station before my father flipped to the next frequency on the car radio.

I learned most about my parents’ music tastes in the car from those stations. My upbringing in rural Ohio was relatively unremarkable compared to my fellow Midwesterners: Corn fields, small towns, and endless radio stations on the dial that all played a stockpile of the same country and rock staples. My parents’ preferred stations introduced me a narrow stock of familiar songs from what I considered to be anonymous voices. I knew I liked some of the songs but could recite only by emulating the guitar line or mumbling a few incorrect lyrics based on what I could understand; I also didn’t hesitate to make objections to those I disliked, purely out of retaliation for not having musical control on our trip to a Saturday night family dinner. 

During those trips, Stevie Nicks entered my life, though I didn’t know it. Between Fleetwood Mac and her solo material, Nicks was a fixture on the radio rotation lists. I knew the “Edge of Seventeen” guitar riff before the “Bootylicious” sample – perhaps a feat for my age bracket – and “Landslide” was a particular favorite for five-year-old me when my parents had control of the listening selection. Her nasal-forward, ragged-edged inflection and poetic nature struck me even as a child, when I could identify her as only the “white winged dove” singer. Stevie Nicks didn’t walk red carpets or make guest appearances on Nickelodeon, so I didn’t know her or Fleetwood Mac by name until high school – much later in life than probably acceptable – and I certainly was unaware of her turbulent legacy that should be required education for any music aficionado.

• • •

Released in 2001, Trouble in Shangri-La may not be Stevie Nicks’ objectively best or definitive record; often that title is handed to Bella Donna, her initial schism from Fleetwood Mac that would foreshadow subdued involvement with the band’s subsequent 1980s records as her solo career proved more sustainable than her bandmates’ endeavors. But Shangri-La is perhaps the surest sign that Nicks’ and her songwriting can endure nearly anything. “Silver Springs” still cuts to the bone each and every listen for the same reasons that the material on this record – much of it written decades prior, though newer cuts like the title track and "Bombay Sapphires" are among the most potent and most signature Stevie of the bunch – translates well, even on the other side of a second drug addition and a production re-imagining in a musical landscape much different than she had last encountered.

After her rehabilitation from a decade-long cocaine addiction in 1986, Nicks was made dependent on a prescription tranquilizer to keep away from cocaine. The prescribing doctor, she told Rolling Stone in 2017, "stole eight years of my life." And it showed through her music. Her only full-length record released in that time frame – Street Angel, dropped in 1994 – is dampened under the drug’s power. In a Time Out magazine profile in 2001, she said, “So I listened to the record – I'm off all the drugs – and I knew it was terrible. It had cost a fortune. I tried really hard to fix it, but I couldn't. So I had to go and do interviews for it, just like I'm doing right now, and it was everything I could do not to say to the interviewers, ‘I hate this record.’” But for as much as she was disconnected from Street Angel, she can be heard more connected than ever in the Trouble in Shangri-La tracks.

For Trouble in Shangri-La, Nicks entrusted production rights largely to Sheryl Crow, who built a booming solo career in adult contemporary music in the ‘90s, and John Shanks, who before that point had worked mostly with singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge. (Soon after this record, he would – perhaps to his chagrin now – serve as executive produce on two of the three Ashlee Simpson records.) Their now charmingly dated early aughts production softens Nicks’ bedrock with adult contemporary and folk inflections. Ultimately, the record swirls with feminine collaboration: Crow, Natalie Maines, Macy Gray, and Sarah McLachlan – quite the timestamp of 2001, if I’ve ever seen one – all appear within record’s framework alongside Nicks and her two longtime back-up singers, though their presence never impedes on a vision that is singularly Stevie.

• • •

Especially in contrast to her Fleetwood Mac bandmates, Nicks specializes in mystique but leaves no question as to her subject. Like all her records in the new millennium, Shangri-La benefits from revitalized demos written in the creative highs and personal lows of the Rumours era – so especially in the record’s front end, her time with Lindsey Buckingham becomes her muse. “Sorcerer” and “Candlebright,” both Crow reworks of early demos, sees present day Nicks reflecting on a novice version of herself – one who had no idea of the successes she’d have nor the prices she’d pay to earn them. A career highlight, “Planets of the Universe” builds from a scenic painting into a fury so harsh that Nicks scaled back these last stanzas for the album cut as not to offend: “Take your leave of me now. Disappear through the year. I wish you gone and I don't care,” she sings of the man with whom she shared – and would continue to share – the stage for years. 

Nicks became the reigning queen of rock and roll on that stage, having been the only woman to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. But on Shangri-La more than any other record to date, she embraces change and veers toward country and folk music: “With Trouble in Shangri-La, I really felt that I was making a step away from the past. [...] Because when you're in a great old band that still exists, you can always live on that... you can always be that. Or you can go ahead and do your own thing along with doing that,” she told VH1 while promoting the record. While something like “It’s Only Love” sounds more like Sheryl Crow karaoke, the most subtle moments of change may shine brightest: Nicks dips into her chest for the lowest notes on “Every Day” and reaches upward into a rare falsetto on “Candlebright.”

When she was uninspired in the mid-‘90s, she asked fellow rock heavyweight Tom Petty to write songs for this record over dinner: His response inspired “That Made Me Stronger" and earned him a warm message of thanks in the album's liner notes. “Well, you know me better than I know myself. Can you write this for me? He says, ‘No, you write your songs yourself,’” she sings. She may not have created all these songs herself – in fact, much of this record seems to have been birthed from the ad hoc sessions and close collaboration that Nicks hints did not happen within the tough love and tight schedules of her earliest solo days – but she pushes her creative vision and takes ownership over the results. While it is typical of "comeback" records that arrive long after an artist's initial boom tend to be crushed beneath an overall legacy, Trouble in Shangri-La is an essential career milepost and the first true renaissance of Stevie Nicks.

Trouble in Shangri-La was released on May 1, 2001, under Reprise Records.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Review: Dreamland • Glass Animals

The COVID-19 crisis has provided us no choice but to change the way we write, produce, promote, and listen to music. Since the viral disease proved serious enough for the world to shutter its doors on non-life supporting functions and typical human interaction as winter neared its end, no art has been analyzed without the lens of self-isolation. The concept of a "quarantine record" has become a cliché for albums released while we can enjoy them only alone, from the comfort of our makeshift work-from-home stations. Charli XCX led the charge to document the do-it-yourself hobbyist approach to her newest record, and Taylor Swift recently revolutionized the concept when capturing the emotions that are left to bang between the walls of our empty homes.

Dua Lipa and Fiona Apple were among the first to have found the narratives around their newest records re-framed into quarantine's terms; Lipa's otherwise club-ready sophomore release was lauded for allowing its listeners a personal getaway from silence, while Apple's already elusive lifestyle and introspective songwriting lent themselves seamlessly to the new normal in 2020. And with their third record, English pop outfit Glass Animals join these ranks. After having its pre-release tour canceled due to mass gathering concerns and its release pushed back to prevent adding digital noise at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests, Dreamland has been redefined by its time period despite bearing compelling signs of growth and a personal narrative detached from global conversation points.

On the band’s 2016 sophomore release, How to Be a Human Being, Bayley translated his first years as a touring artist through characters based on those he met and questioned along the way – a method that charged fictional characters with the responsibility to speak on his own experiences. Though Bayley tends to write his tunes in second-person on Dreamland – singing directly to his subject, as if we aren’t here to spectate –  he provides a bystander’s uncomfortable perspective on – and relief from – a lifetime’s worth of trauma, not just a six-month residency in abnormality. With its titular track, Bayley introduces the record as his own rejuvenation, hinting at lasting memories that will be explored in later tracks with vivid intensity: "That first friend you had, that worst thing you said, that perfect moment, that last tear you shed, all you've done in bed, all on Memorex," he lists off from the contents that float within Dreamland.

Bayley credits this record’s self-confrontational approach to an accident that halted the band in 2018, when a truck hit drummer Joe Seaward while he was riding a bicycle. And although the incident, which caused life-threatening brain injuries and required extensive rehabilitation for Seaward, is never directly referenced in song on Dreamland, the event triggered a retrospective on moments in which Bayley felt just as vulnerable. Suspending the few seconds of dead air that occurs between breaking bad news and the response it elicits into a four-minute pressure cooker, "It's All So Incredibly Loud" might best capture discomfort. Its unorthodox structure swells under the suspense but never pops. It's also an interesting take to hear him crawl through tragedy on “Domestic Bliss,” his voice creaking to match his uncertainty when he witnessed habitual domestic abuse at a childhood friend’s home: “Why do you smile when he cries? Why do you cry when he wins?”

The band's debut record, Zaba, was heralded for its mystique and humid ambiance, which both eroded from their work over time but have been replaced with sharper musicality and frankness without losses in the band's finesse. Even within the gloomy jungles of Zaba resided indications that Glass Animals would morph into what is heard on Dreamland. The band's deep percussive nature, for example, remains their modus operandi, but their rumbling foundation's edges are better defined with sharp beat samples. Hip-hop sensibility lends itself perfectly to Bayley's strongholds in repetition and rhythm, while the band's lyrics and favor for low-fi synthesizers – in particular, check out the whiny horror flick synths and spacey samples on "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," a dark ode to a friend who tried to commit a school shooting – keeps the record from falling into anonymous streaming fodder.

The band's pivot is perhaps most evident on "Hot Sugar," a mutant slow jam that simmers just below boiling point, or "Toyko Drifting," a chest-puffing warehouse banger drenched in vocal alterations and equipped with the album's most assertive production. But nearly every song on Dreamland is instantly stickier than expected due to effective implementation of ticking hi-hats and pounding beats over faux-vintage synthesizers and simple hooks. "Tangerine" guns for an eight-bit video game aesthetic, employing a killer vocal line and textured plucked synth more effectively than even Drake’s "Hotline Bling" – a close cousin to this one’s instrumentation. Standout track "Heat Waves," meanwhile, embodies its name only in its studio form, in which a sturdy beat chops up deep wobbly synths. In stripped form, the song is rooted in fragility rather than magnetic appeal – and perhaps that's the point.

Dreamland may journey into the abstract much less than the band’s previous records, but its balance between straightforwardness and poetic imagery is something to be admired. The record scrapbooks repressed memories and splices in some stray thoughts – admittedly, we all have drifting thoughts of "big dicks and big 'ol titties on the sly" from time to time, don't we? – while gluing them over the band’s sharpest melodies and most gratifying instrumental visions yet. Not if, but when 2020 in the fine arts can be viewed through rose-toned reminiscence a few years (or maybe a few decades) from now, Dreamland could be misfiled as an oasis from quarantine. Though it is just that in some ways, what's more memorable is what we learn about Dave Bayley through his processing of the people who molded him well before 2020 – and he just happened to put it all to some pretty rad music, too.

Dreamland is available now under Wolf Tone Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall