Grimes – “Art Angels”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Flesh Without Blood,” “Kill V. Maim”

Grimes has never been known by one genre. She’s sometimes included in witch house, but she defies one of the basic principles of the genre. Her stage name – Claire Boucher, offstage – is short and easy to remember. “Grimes.” Template witch house artists do the opposite, names that can’t be found on Google. Like M△S▴C△RA, or ///▲▲▲\\\ (pronounced ‘Horse MacGyver’), or oOoOO. Her new album, her fourth, is predictable only that we’ve come to expect anything we haven’t heard from Grimes before. “Art Angels” is, more than anything, a pop album.

“Art Angels” is a very mixed album. As always, Grimes blends many influences and ideas to create a wholly original, bastardized sound not unlike the baby on the cover. It isn’t as consistent, this time around, although the high points are just as high as ever. The album takes a much more conventional format, overall. This might be due to Grimes famously scrapping the album she was working on last year because she felt it was “too depressing,” keeping only “REALiTi,” an altered version of which shows up here. Something about the album feels familiar, in the song structures, as if Grimes was leading us by hand into a dark forest but keeping us from being afraid.

Generally, the album’s better songs are the ones that have density and energy. “Flesh Without Blood” is one of the catchiest songs of the year, regardless of lyrical content. There are catchy tunes throughout. “Easily” is a dancy (if not somewhat lacking) song. “REALiTi” and “World Princess, Pt. II,” although similar, are both exceptional and engrossing late-album bangers. “SCREAM,” which heavily features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, is also an excellent track.

“Belly of the Beat” might be the album’s lowpoint, a largely acoustic track that might sound better if there was a different artist’s name attached to it. Some of the ‘lighter’ songs are disappointing. “California” borders on being too poppy, especially as it’s placement as the first real song, after the intro “laughing and not being normal” (which is a great track, while we’re on it). It centers itself as a lyrical ode, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before.

Still, you have to pride Grimes on trying new things. She’s included just about everything she can into her music, and she’s even made conventionality work for her. “Art Angels” tells us that, yes, Grimes can occasionally do wrong. But even when she does, she’ll right it on the next song and she’ll still sound great when she does. Her vocal screams – you know the thing she does – permeate the album, breaking up the songs from being too radio-friendly (“California” lacks them, and suffers because of it). It’s also impossible to ignore the power she holds. Grimes learned how to play multiple instruments after recording her last album, the near-perfect “Oblivion.” She does everything herself now. After realizing that only men were being allowed to use the production equipment for her music, she’s begun producing herself. Now she writes, performs all music, produces, choreographs shows and designs the album art and videos. And the video for “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” is really something. And although she defies all genres, she’s generally lumped in with electronica music, which is chronically male-heavy. Grimes can release albums that aren’t perfect, and it doesn’t really matter, because she can tell young girls listening that they can do this, too. It’s why the collaboration with Janelle Monae makes sense – they’re two drastically different artists, but they’re both energetic, genre-bashing feminist singers.

Sorry. Went on a little tangent there. But Grimes is an incredibly important musician, and even if this album is frustratingly inconsistent, it could stand as her bid for greatness. “Flesh Without Blood” probably isn’t going to pick up any radio play, but it’ll gain more new listeners than “Genesis” or “Go” did. I’m worried about her next projects, that Grimes scrapped an entire album and ended up with an album like “Art Angels,” which flirts with greatness but rarely gets to it. But, she remains one of the most interesting artists in music today, and the album works well enough for the listener to forgive the sagging moments. “Art Angels” works because Grimes makes damn sure of it.

-By Andrew McNally

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Lana Del Rey – “Honeymoon”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “God Knows I Tried” “High By the Beach”

It is 2015, and Lana Del Rey has nothing left to prove. She has two successful albums, a unique voice, and a controversial SNL appearance. So where is the sultry songstress to go next? “Honeymoon” sees the singer retreat into character, simply spinning tales of seductions gone right and seductions gone wrong.

Lana Del Rey’s major debut “Born to Die” helped establish her as a strong singer, and one with a Bond girl-like aura. Last year’s “Ultraviolence” helped build up her persona as a Hollywood classic sob story plucked from time. So on “Honeymoon,” she reconciles these two works, and lets her voice alone carry the album.

Indeed, trying to pick out her best vocal song on “Honeymoon” would be no easier than just throwing a dart at the tracklist. Her voice, powerful but restrained, dominates every track on the album. She coolly draws the listener in, like a scent drawing in an animal in an old cartoon. And suddenly, we’re trapped, ready to either join her or listen to her talk about others that didn’t join her. Del Rey’s voice is easily the strongest aspect of this album, to the point that reviewing the music is irrelevant; if you’ve heard lead single “High By the Beach” then you’ve heard the most musically interesting song on the album.

“Honeymoon” does suffer from a problem that her first two albums skirted around, and that’s repetition. This album is repetitive to a fault, every song engineered the same way like the old club singers used to do. The two exceptions are a weirdly misplaced reading of a T.S. Eliot poem, and a cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” The album takes a few listens before tracks soak up individually, which is not something to say of her first two (especially “Ultraviolence”).

Still, “Honeymoon,” once given time to air out and set itself align, is quite a pop album. Del Rey has settled into her pop persona remarkably well. Between her three major release albums, she’s established both a voice and an identity, and has set herself aside from any contemporaries. Each album has its own being, with fault, but each is strong. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more of the same from Del Ray soon, but then again, it wouldn’t be surprising to see something totally different, either.

If you like this, try: Nico, the film “Sunset Boulevard”

-By Andrew McNally

Madonna – “Rebel Heart”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Living For Love” “HeartBreakCity”

Madonna’s new album has a song called “Bitch I’m Madonna,” so, what more do you need?

As we’ve settled deeply into this digital age, there’s been a feeling of resentment about the blending of music and technology, spurred on largely by Thom Yorke, Bjork, and others that don’t see the value of platforms like Spotify, and by the likes of U2, who have no idea how to harness technology to any sort of advantage. The elders seem to think that they’re outdated, and that their further output won’t be able to hold up amongst the music of younger acts. But there’s plenty of musicians fighting against the aging – like Madonna. On “Rebel Heart,” her 13th studio album, Madonna shows no signs of aging, instead standing with and against modern acts like Nicki Minaj, Diplo and Kanye, including them in the album and shoving them under her career in the process.

Madonna’s previous album, “MDNA” was lackluster. It couldn’t find the formula to match Madonna with EDM. On “Rebel Heart,” she’s learned to just be herself and let everything fall into place around here. Indeed, the album’s strongest songs are the ones where Madonna just powers through the dance music around her. On “Living For Love,” “Ghosttown” and “HeartBreakCity,” her voice dominates over all, and although they’re not always the most immediately enjoyable songs, they’re the ones with the longest staying power.

Generally, the bigger the ideas are on this album, the worse they’re pulled off. “Iconic” is the most high-concept song, a track that features Chance the Rapper and, uh, Mike Tyson. Tyson is a voiceover in the beginning, Chance is wasted in a forgettable guest spot, and Madonna herself is lost in the EDM-y overproduction. It’s a big track, one that’s immediate fun, but leaves a bit of a sour taste. “Bitch I’m Madonna” is like that too – it’s a great track overall, but it’s aided by Diplo and Nicki, and Madonna gets lost in the beats. This isn’t something that happens consistently, just on a few tracks, but it highlights the tight line Madonna walks as a 56 year old pop singer.

But, more often than not, “Rebel Heart” just works. With track titles like “Illuminati,” “Holy Water,” “Joan of Arc,” and the aforementioned “Bitch I’m Madonna,” we’re seeing a side that’s showing no reservations. She hasn’t calmed or grown weary in her years; this is the same performer we had in the Sex days. Her voice and her persona haven’t lost an edge, even going so far as to call out everyone in pop culture today on “Illuminati,” from Steve Jobs to Bieber to ISIS. Madonna is back out for blood, and it feels more natural than it has in a long time. “Rebel Heart” may not be a masterpiece, but it’s one of the better pop albums of the year so far.

-Andrew McNally

Meghan Trainor – “Title”

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “3am” “Like I’m Gonna Lose You”

Like many pop songs, you’ve probably heard “All About That Bass” on the radio and thought, ‘I bet her album is all like that, but a little worse.’ “Title” is a solid debut for Trainor, in that it sees her properly explore different influences beyond most debuts. But, it ends up being hurt by the very same thing.

If you’ve seen pictures or videos of Trainor, or seen/heard “All About That Bass,” you’d think she has a pseudo-bubblegum pop vibe to her. The album’s first song, a cutesy 25-second vocal interlude (???), does nothing to dispel that. And the third track, after “Bass,” called “My Future Husband,” doesn’t exactly sway away from it either. But Trainor does show off a number of talents – on “3am” she adopts more of a doo-wop/soul quality to her vocals. She does try her hand at rapping, successfully on closer “Lips Are Movin” and unsuccessfully on the horribly titled “Bang Dem Sticks.” And she does pull off two ballads – the mid-album sleeper “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” with John Legend, and “What If I” later on. Otherwise, the album is topped off with pop/R&B mixes that vary from catchy to overlong to forgettable.

As of now, it’s safe to say Trainor is known as the “All About That Bass” girl. And to her credit, that’s somewhat unfair. Trainor might only be 21, but she’s been making music independently for years. And it’s also unfair that with that song’s ever-increasing popularity (including a surprising Grammy nod for Song of the Year) mixing with her brief time in the actual industry, she might be stuck with that title. What makes Trainor’s debut more interesting than other debuts is also it’s downfall – lack of identity. By combining bubblegum pop, R&B, hip-hop, etc., we get a full array of Trainor’s talents, but we don’t really get enough of each to really know who she is as a singer. I’ve discussed this before, especially in dealing with Ariana Grande, who is having the same problem (in an opposite way). To be a female pop singer in 2015, you have to have a persona. Beyonce, Adele, Lorde, all have the personae to match the music. Trainor is still forming one (although already further along than Grande), and having a hit as big as “Bass” this early might end up being detrimental to her. Although “Title” is interesting as a debut, and Trainor’s superb songwriting skills are on focus the whole time, it isn’t consistent enough to produce a proper image. And as far as her lyrics go, she aims throughout the album for feminist anthems about body positivity and owning oneself – but a simple Google search leads to articles of how problematic “All About That Bass,” “Dear Future Husband” and “Title” are, among other tracks. The image she’s trying is one straight out of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” (more a coincidence of time than an actual influence) but isn’t nearly as crafted.

There’s a few different ways to look at “Title.” On a purely musical standpoint, it can be seen as a fun collection of songs that mix throwback rhythms with modern vocals. It can also be seen as a marvel of songwriting from a talented young woman. Or, it can be seen more in-depth, as a varying, frustrating collection of songs that each try so hard to be unique that they end up uniform together. It’s tough not to look at it lightly, tough not to glaze over its flaws. So where “Title” has some pop highlights, it struggles from problematic and contradictory beliefs, and a lack of an image in Trainor. She’s certainly a talented songwriter and a versatile performer, and there’s promise on “Title.” The whole package just isn’t there yet.

If you like this, try: Into diverse pop? What a time to be alive. Into problematic female performers? Azealea Banks.

Prince’s “Art Official Age” and 3RDEYEGIRL’s “Plectrumelectrum” – A Review From the Uninitiated

Grades: Art Official Age: B+

Plectrumelectrum: D+

As a music critic, there’s been plenty of times where I’ve faked knowledge of an artist to give some insight into the recording of an album. I’ll admit it, I can’t say I’m on an equal playing field when I talk about both Ariana Grande and Foxygen, I have to look up information on someone like Grande because I’m much more inclined to listen to Foxygen in my own time. But I can’t fake Prince. Not admitting that I don’t know the first thing about Prince’s back catalog and topsy-turvy history would be unfair to him. Prince is a legend; a hero of pop music, and trying to fake my way through a review would not do him any justice. I know that he and Warner Bros. got into a bitter, bitter feud in the ’90’s, partially the reason for him to change his name to a symbol – so Warner would have to find a way to market it. And I know that he’s both feminine and seductive, yet legendary and encompassing enough for the NFL to pick him to play a Super Bowl halftime show (and one of the better ones). What I do know about Prince is that his music has jumped all around, and that’s exactly what his solo album, “Art Official Age,” does. So if you’re not familiar with his music, know that the album is inconsistent but often fun and honest. And if you are familiar, then you probably made up your mind before it even came out. Okay? Okay.

“Art Official Age” starts with a track titled “Art Official Cage,” and it’s a song that would have never existed in the “Purple Rain” years. It couldn’t have. It’s ripped from hip-hop and EDM, with big beats and air horns. It’s fun, and there’s way too much going on, but that’s part of the joy. The album jumps across fun, funky songs and big ballads, all of which are distinctly Prince and neither of which are aligned with any other pop artist. It’s the album’s best and worst quality, that it jumps so frequently and unexpectedly. Luckily, it’s good far more often than it’s bad.

The ballads come early, with the third track “Breakdown.” Prince hits some cringingly high notes, and pulls them off, obviously. “U Know” is a pseudo-ballad two tracks later, but one that has Prince rapping a bit. The hip-hop element is palpable on “U Know,” and is throughout the album. Prince constantly feeds off of genres that fed off him thirty years ago. Ballads aside, the album is a lot of fun, and Prince sounds like he’s truly enjoying it. Late album track “Funknroll” is exactly what it sounds like, a huge disco bash that’s a ton of fun and could easily be thrown on repeat for an hour without getting old. Second track “Clouds” is a strange track, with a strong spoken word that sets up the album’s loose premise of waking up in a world without gender pronouns. And leadoff single “Breakfast Can Wait” is an oddly specific, sexual song that’s exactly what you’d expect from Prince.

“Art Official Age” isn’t all great. The theme of waking up without gender pronouns are neat (and Prince to the max), but it never shows up outside of spoken word bits that are great on “Clouds” and finale “affirmation iii,” but are weak on the other tracks. And Prince seems to be borrowing just a tad too heavily from Daft Punk’s disco playbook – in that he tries lengthy, funky songs, but doesn’t pull them off as well as the duo. There are two tracks, “The Gold Standard,” and “Time,” that are far too long. The former is almost six minutes, the latter almost seven, and there isn’t much of a reason. They just inflate the album’s 53 minute runtime. But it starts strong and it ends strong, and it’s fun in between. People hanging out under rocks like myself should find a lot to groove to on this record, and find a lot of originality in it’s melting of both genres and themes.

On the inverse of that is the debut album from Prince’s backing band, 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album, “Plectrumelectrum,” flows through different genres and influences just as “Art Official Age,” but does so in a much more murkier and standard way. The band, who Prince is proudly touting as being all-female, gets off on the wrong foot with the lackluster “Wow,” a song that lacks the energy to be a true leadoff song, but has enough energy to not be a cop-out slow intro. After that, the album is a topsy-turvy ride, hitting high highs and low lows.

A low low is “Boytrouble,” an overlong and inane pop song that’s stylistically similar to far too many songs that have come before. Another low low is that the album appears to start off with a classic rock vibe for the first four or five songs, before slowly diverging into funk and hip-hop, without seeming to have any real reason. It flows well at the beginning, but the longer it goes on, the more it becomes a collection of songs instead of a fluid album. The album never seems to come to having any point, other than Prince showing off his (talented) backing band. Likewise, on “Fixurlifeup,” he sings lead, and he sings about misogyny in music and how bands shouldn’t be called “female” bands, yet he prides himself on showcasing his handpicked female backing band, contributing to the problem himself. (Not that he shouldn’t have an all-female band, just that he’s being pretty hypocritical about it).

The album isn’t all bad, though. There’s some great, exploratory songs. The title track (and longest on the album) is an instrumental classic rock jam that shows just how talented the band is. And the follow-up, “Whitecaps,” is a pleasant vocal-based pseudo-ballad. And the album has a better pacing, clocking in at a tighter 42 minutes, with some fat trimmed. The album certainly has it’s moments, it’s just very inconsistent and never has a sense of purpose. Perhaps the thing that summarizes it best is that the album’s final track is a different version of “Funknroll,” from “Art Official Age.” It’s a slightly different version that’s still good, but just not as much.

Not knowing anything about Prince didn’t harm me in listening to 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album is more direct, even if it hits different genres. It isn’t a great album and I give only a reserved recommendation for Prince fans only, but it still has some fun moments. And, they’re talented. they’re extremely talented. Non-Prince people like myself can at least enjoy it just as much (probably more) than Prince fans. As for “Art Official Age,” it’s also inconsistent, but it’s fun and energetic, and it might be a refresher for his fans. Or at least that’s what it sounded like to me.

-By Andrew McNally

Taylor Swift – “1989”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Out of the Woods” “Shake It Off”

Taylor Swift’s first full foray into pop music is a beautiful mess, an experimentation in something that’s never an experiment. For the most part, “1989” is standard-fare pop, behind equal parts music and vocals. Swift’s music really isn’t any different, it’s just more pop-based. It doesn’t always work, but it’s more than enjoyable enough to make up for it’s weaker moments.

“1989” plays like a typical pop album. It flows through songs upbeat and ballad, with fairly standard lyrics. Opener “Welcome to New York” is a little slow to open a pop album, but it’s got a strong synth beat and the lyrics about the country’s biggest city mark a snarky metaphorical change from small town country. The album is held up by strong synth rhythms throughout. “Style” is helped by a synth beat, as is the Imogen Heap-collaborative finale, “Clean.” And, massive smash “Shake It Off” has a pretty strong rhythm to it too.

Swift’s lyrics are pretty self-serving. She knows her audience, her lyrics pander most to pseudo-literary young women, the type of songs that are relatable to a girl in high school but have a poetic aura. If Swift’s lyrics didn’t win you over before, they probably won’t here. They’re not bad – just not for everyone. “Shake It Off” is one of her stronger songs, rallying against sexist portrayals of her relationships in the media. “Clean” marks an interesting simile between a break-up and curing addiction. But the strongest lyrical song is probably “Out of the Woods,” a track with music written by Jack Antonoff. It deals with relationships, as always, but it’s more subversive and just a little darker than listeners are used to.

What makes this album different is principle. It’s: “Hey, T Swift’s doing something kinda different,” and that works for it. Transpose these songs into a different singer’s catalog and half of them wouldn’t register any sort of response, but Swift is experimenting in conventionality. And what results is an imperfect record that feels like it wants to be imperfect. It’s cohesive and tight, and asks to be weighed as a whole instead of by individual track. It’s kind of a mess, but it succeeds because of it. It’s a fitful new direction for Swift to go in and it’s easy to forgive the mistakes.

-By Andrew McNally

Side note: This review took a while partially because I just don’t have time, but partially because I had the stream the album track by track via Tumblr. I get the marketing strategy of pulling it off Spotify but I don’t necessarily agree with it. It doesn’t sit well with fans.

Ariana Grande – “My Everything”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Problem” “Bang Bang”

There are certain singers and rappers that, when they show up on a track, are automatically going to outshine the star – Beyonce, Andre 3000, Nicki Minaj. The problem with Ariana Grande is that she’s shown up by everyone. Iggy Azalea, Big Sean, Zedd, Cashmere Cat, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, A$ap Ferg and, in an excellent Deluxe Edition-only song, Juicy J and Minaj all make appearances and they all help otherwise mediocre songs excel. On the four songs where Grande stands alone (not counting an intro), she sounds like an empty copy of a different singer.

“My Everything” does have its moments, most of which being the quicker, more EDM-embracing songs. Despite my best efforts, local rap radio has forced me to love “Problem,” a song with beats bigger than Grande’s whole first album combined.  “Break Free,” with Zedd, “Hands On Me,” with A$ap Ferg and “Bang Bang,” with Juicy J and Nicki Minaj are in the same boat. They’re great, fun songs with crushing beats but inoffensive mission statements. When Grande lets loose and has some fun, the album does too. These four songs are well-positioned, too, saving bursts of energy to come up every few tracks instead of using it all up early. Of the ballads, and there are plenty, the most noteworthy one is “Love Me Harder,” collaboration with The Weeknd, which matches some great vocals with catchy beats.

The rest of the album isn’t bad – it doesn’t ask you to form any kind of opinion. Much of the album, even the better songs, goes in one ear and out the other; cheap entertainment that’s forgotten as soon as it’s over. Grande’s voice shines throughout, and it stays as bouncy and inoffensive as it can, which results in a generally fun listen. The real issue lies in Grande’s lack of identity. She can really sing, maybe even better than most other pop singers out there right now (saving you, Adele), but her ‘carefree, bubblegum’ identity was unfortunately worn out in the early-00′s. Pop singers nowadays have to establish their own, unique beings – Adele is a soulful, 60′s throwback, Lorde is a hip-hop inspired, minimalistic hip-hop basher, Lady Gaga is a theatrical and newsmaking shock. Grande is trying to establish herself as a straight pop singer, but to do that, she’s going to have to compete with the current queen – Katy Perry. And frankly, in this current music world, only one is going to be allowed continued success.

So “My Everything” isn’t bad, just forgettable and bland, and it is never sure of where it wants to be placed. Grande is still (very) young, and she’s still finding her place. Working with big names like Zedd and Minaj could still shape her place in a crowded music scene. But for now, she’s standing as a successful but unexciting singer, and her second album provides a safe, somewhat bland listen.

-By Andrew McNally