Tag Archives: pop

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

7 Oct

To some degree, you know what you’re going to get with each new Lana Del Rey album. Actually, to a very large degree, you know what you’re going to get with a new LDR album. She’s taken her aesthetic of Hollywood sadcore and mined it thoroughly, albeit skillfully. There’s a grab-bag of images that come with any of her albums and they are the same fast cars, Gatsby, bad relationships, Hollywood glamour, nostalgia, Los Angeles style that you should expect by now. However, this iteration is her at her best. She’s brought a sharpness here that’s unprecedented and delivered one of the strongest albums of the year.

The opening track drops the one-liner “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news” with a wonderful casualness and follows it later with the clever and scathing stanza “Goddamn, man-child / You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two / Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all / You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you / But I don’t get bored, I just see it through / Why wait for the best when I could have you? You?” and has an interesting pause for breath before the second you, before she cuts loose to sing it and this expertly transitions the song from the storytelling to the music. The schtick of the self-aware, submissive woman is becoming a little too routine, but she has mostly has the chops to still pull it off.

However, it falls apart for the less expert of her songs. “Mariners Apartment Complex” has a couple of very sharp lines (like the opening pair of “You took my sadness out of context / At the Mariners Apartment Complex) but it just doesn’t do enough of anything. It starts out with very strong storytelling, but then doesn’t deliver on it and is too laid back musically. Similarly, “Love song” is trite both musically and lyrically. “Cinnamon Girl” and “How to disappear” at least save themselves from the hyper-dramatization of the storylines with very well done music.

In the same way, “Bartender” manages to overcome the self-indulgence of the story with the fact that it’s just excellent music. Her voice works very well against the piano and song’s minimalism works very well. Unfortunately, it’s sandwiched by “The greatest”, which is just air and “Happiness is a butterfly”, which is as self-indulgent as “Bartender” but not as skilled. Mostly however, her missteps are saved by her ability to make very good music. “Doin’ time” is a fascinating cover and manages to match the album’s aesthetic, but is still incomprehensible as it is neither clever in itself nor as a part of the whole. It sounds good though. Her voice does a real number on the song.

When things come together though, the album really shines. The aforementioned title track is able to match her A-game lyricism with strong music and she is able to pull off the complete package fairly regularly. The trip-hop opening of “Fuck it I love you” is very strong and then she picks up the pace just to let it drop as she croons the chorus. Her lyrics are razor sharp as well. She’s pushes complex thoughts and detailed pictures with a remarkable economy of actual words.

“California” is the LDR aesthetic at its best. It has awkward slang, doomed relationships and space for her voice and the result delivers on the promise. Similarly, “The Next Best American Record” puts everything together.
The true highlight though is the single “Venice Bitch.” It’s slow, woozy dream pop done very, very well. It’s effortlessly ethereal and it’s got that good American imagery that she thrives on. It plays hard on the sadness of Americana and finds space for an amazing electric guitar squeal in the middle. It really does it all.

The album finishes with “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it.” It’s a shockingly risky song to make. It’s stripped down too far for comfort and that puts a lot of weight on the song and you can see it buckle under that weight repeatedly. However, the distillation of the song, the album and her entire body of work into the couplet “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have / But I have it” is extremely powerful and done beautifully by her.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! is not an album without flaws, and it’s starting to feel like those flaws will follow Lana Del Rey for her entire career, but it is nonetheless excellent. When she puts all the pieces together with the skill that she can sometimes summon, she makes music as good as any out there and this album has no shortage of those moments.

@murthynikhil

Jamie Cullum – Taller

14 Jun

When I first discovered Jamie Cullum in the late 2000s, he had already recorded five studio albums, and was playing in jazz festivals around the world. And while he was the kind of musician who brought his grandmother’s carpet to lay out on the stage at Blenheim Palace, he was also full of irreverent energy: stomping his feet on the keys of the piano, slapping his palms all over and underneath it, jumping on top of it and leaping off. His vigour was electrifying, and even deeply moving for a reserved person such as myself.

The Pursuit (2009) marks a neat halfway point between the start of his career and now, and it was in the album that followed in 2013 that I first began to hear creeping hints of self-doubt and insecurity:

As I sit and wait for some answers
The questions go round like a kamikaze pilot
Enlightenment’s just a romancer
I wish it were here burning brightly through the skylight .

Family life seemed to bring a new introspective quality to Cullum’s music. It’s not easy to slow down and take stock, to critically examine the costs and rewards of a glamorous profession in the arts, and to confront the fear of failure.

“Innocence is nice, but the world offers us more and it’s wrong not to take it.” As we grow older, so many of us feel that we have irrevocably lost our access to uninhibited creativity and joy. But the complications of being an adult unlock an unfamiliar kind of happiness, and an emotional depth we could never have imagined in innocence. The chords behind the crescendo of “Drink” conjure up with great accuracy the vertiginous relief and fear that accompany the first sensation of joy after a long unhappiness.

But the cheeky musician we’ve known is still around, and he announces it in the title of his latest album. Taller marks a milestone in a twenty-year-long career in jazz music. A bold, effervescent, and unceasingly fun artist now stands at the sobering brink of his forties; and the music inspired at this juncture is nothing short of a gift to everyone who has followed his work over the years.

Jamie Cullum is a small, if dynamic, man, and there has been no dearth of leg-pulling in the tabloids and on the internet about his height, and about his marriage to a substantially taller woman. The fact that he addresses this perceived deficiency head-on indicates that he hasn’t lost his sense of humour, and also that the discontent that has been simmering in the previous two albums will be explored more fully in this one.

“Usher”, the fourth track on the album, is a full-blown sonic party reminiscent in the best way of James Brown and the golden age of Soul. It’s crunchy and granular in a way that is profoundly satisfying (especially if you, like me, have been unable to avoid Trap and American R&B, the slickness of which, though often soothing, can quickly lose your interest). But the lyrics are not quite as cheerful as the music. And it’s a similar story with “You Can’t Hide Away From Love”, another favourite from the album: its lush orchestral arrangement recalls Audrey Hepburn movies, but with menace.

It’ll give you two black eyes
And discolour all your skies

It’ll have you on your back
And break into your flat

So reel me in
Till I’m gasping for air;
There’s no love without despair

It’ll shake you to your core
And leave you crying on the floor
But I’m telling you you can’t hide away from love.

This album examines not only personal demons, but also shared anxieties. Volume 2 of The Eighty-Eight, “an adventurous magazine for the occasional thinker” (or “an occasional magazine for the adventurous thinker”), which Cullum puts together with his friends and family, features a poignant essay about his Indian and Burmese heritage. More than one song on Taller references Brexit, the refugee crisis, British imperialism, and perhaps even the Me Too movement.

Cullum dwells on the unease of living in these times. There’s a stripped down version of “Mankind” on his YouTube channel well worth a listen. The irony of this composition is that it combines gospel music with lyrics that say “so long to sacred,” but there is a refusal to give up on people and the idea that love will conquer all. As Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in Fleabag puts it, “people are all we’ve got.”

This album is an exploration of fundamentals, and Cullum sings repeatedly of digging and searching deep within the earth. One cannot help but think of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging, and the hope and doubt it expresses about writing and creative work as activities that productively uncover and reveal. “The Age of Anxiety” quotes WH Auden (“only love is what survives of us”), and imbues the song with its apprehension of mortality.

Age of Anxiety, Live from Craxton Studios

Cullum’s interest literature and great works of poetry (his favourite writers are Virginia Woolf and Paul Auster) is perhaps what gives his lyrics their unusual and beguiling quality.

The fact that he has always been an expressive vocalist only makes this better; and speaking of vocals, “Monster” showcases a falsetto range we’ve never heard from him before.

Literary inspirations aside, Cullum draws from an eclectic range of musical sources. For a few years now he has been reverse-engineering pop music on his YouTube playlist The Song Society, and curating more challenging compositions for his program “The Jazz Show” on BBC Radio 2. It’s fascinating to see these influences coming together to form an album that sounds — fittingly for a crossover artist — unique, and one that does not sit comfortably in either the pop or the jazz genre.

The great thing about the songs on this album is that they’re more than just tunes. Each song develops; it meanders into different moods and colours and tones. If you were to leave a song midway, you’d probably miss the best part, and definitely miss the whole story. The album requires, and rewards, patience. This is the kind of art I find myself most grateful for these days.

Taller is an invitation to revisit Jamie Cullum’s oeuvre; because the seeds of inventiveness and thoughtfulness were always there. I’ve been rediscovering the deluxe version of Catching Tales, for instance, with its cover of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, which is a youthful, groovier expression of “Drink”, the backbone of the new album. I am so excited to dip back in to this amazing body of work. There is no doubt about it: Jamie Cullum is a peerless and towering talent.

By Eesha Kumar

Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2019

1 Mar

Last month, we started a new feature here at Top Five Records: a run-down of the top five songs from every month. We heard from quite a few of you that you loved it – so without further ado, here’s our list for this month!

5. “Body Chemistry” – The Drums

Don’t let the unrelenting bassline on “Body Chemistry” fool you into thinking it’s a harmless, upbeat bop. On this new track from the NYC-based indie-pop band The Drums, lead singer Jonathan Pierce provides a peak-millennial take on anxiety, romance, and the crippling self-awareness in between. “I know some good luck, and a good fuck, a nice glass of wine and some quality time is gonna make you mine,” he acknowledges, “but it’s not what I’m trying to find.” The song itself reminds us of some of the best tracks on Spoon’s last album, so that’s always a good thing as well. The Drums are set to release their fourth album in June.

4. “In the Capital” – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Melbourne-based pop-rock quintet Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (there’s a mouthful!) had a very well-received debut album (Hope Downs) last year. Their sound is essentially a cross between the woe-is-me melancholy of Deerhunter and the sparkling pop of Real Estate – but it’s not as odd a combination as you would think. “In the Capital”, a new track that was released earlier this week, apparently came about as lead singer Fran Keaney was swimming. “I can’t neatly describe it, but something like connection despite distance. I was thinking about transience and water and death and big cities and fishing towns and moon river,” he says. Have a listen for yourself – we think he’s got it down spot-on, actually.   

3. “Fast Times” – Albert Hammond Jr.

Albert Hammond Jr.’s third full-length album, Francis Trouble, won us over last year with its boisterous yet clean-cut vibe. With “Fast Times”, Hammond is back with a track that is equal parts nostalgic and melancholic. “I was over there, completely unaware / It was me, that you saw / How little did I know / All the things would go,” Hammond sings, wistfully reminiscing about carefree days long gone. The music is of course immediately evocative of the early 2000s-heyday of crisp, fast-paced rock, for which Hammond’s past (and present!) band, the Strokes, were a primary driver. After “Fast Times”, we’re certainly keeping an eye out for more music from Hammond.

2. “GummyBear” – Mini Mansions

Mini Mansions are an LA-based three-piece band comprising The Last Shadow Puppets’ bassist Zach Dawes, QOTSA bassist-turned-singer Michael Shuman and Tyler Parkford. If that line-up sounds like the band would make fun, bass-driven tracks that could fit well within Humbug-era Arctic Monkeys, you are exactly right. In fact, Mini Mansions are just coming off of a supporting tour on that band’s North America leg, and something great seems to have rubbed off of on them. “GummyBear” is an instantly accessible dance-rock track about a love-hate relationship (“Boy, I thought you was sweet, girl, but you’re just sugar-free”). Mini Mansions plans to release their third full-length album, Guy Walks into a Bar… in July – look for them!

1. “NASA” – Ariana Grande

This month, Ariana Grande released thank u, next, her much-awaited follow-up to 2018’s blockbuster hit, Sweetener. New converts to Arianaworld, such as yours truly, were skeptical that a brand-new album mere months after the monstrously successful Sweetener could live up to the hype that Ariana has created for herself. However, those thoughts can be laid to rest and buried under six feet of earth, because Ariana is almost definitely the new queen of pop music.

The title track from the new album, of course, has been in constant rotation on radio stations and Spotify playlists since late last year, but there are actually a shockingly high number of other great songs on there, too. The best of these, in our opinion, is “NASA”, a space-themed ode to modern romance. “I’d rather be alone tonight / You can say ‘I love you’ through the phone tonight,” she says, an on-the-head flip of decades of popstars who’ve told us that they need to be around their men 24/7. Of course, being an Ariana track, there is also a maddeningly catchy chorus – this one involving a playful spell-out of the titular government agency. We’d be surprised if this song alone doesn’t play a part in raising the brand value of NASA.

Read our full review of thank u, next here.

Ariana Grande – thank u, next

25 Feb

It’s an unlikely thing to say about someone who’s already pop royalty, but thank u, next is Ariana Grande taking herself to the next level. She’s already a superstar and a household name, but this is the album that really pushes herself as maybe the most important act in pop today.

This felt clear from the moment the title track dropped. There’s a maturity to “thank u, next” that was expected at this stage of her career but is no poorer for that. This could have easily come off as cynical and trite but Ariana has an effortless sincerity here that carries the song. Her conclusion of self-love would have been cliche in less skilled hands but instead you find yourself happy for her. Pop has always played out at least in part in the E! News of the day but Ari has made it service her music and not the other way around.

Her voice is the centerpiece of the album. Powerful when it needs to be, delicate when it needs to be, it gets the showpiece here that it long deserved. Her musical instincts are likewise impeccable. “7 rings” felt like a misstep at first as repurposing “My Favorite Things” needs to be handled with care and her interpolation is unconventional. She pulls it off though and pulls off the tonal shift of flossing as well. This is a large part of what makes this album such a statement. She’s built the confidence to inject some strength and variety into her work and the result is eye-popping. 

Unsurprisingly, I also really like the sexy, playful Ari you see in songs like “make up.” “NASA” is a lot of upbeat fun. It even feels a little retro and I’m always a sucker for spelling titles out like it’s the 80s again. Also, the metaphor still makes me smile. “needy” reminds me pleasantly of the last SZA album.

I like her harder stuff more though. “bloodline” has a great, assertive beat and the callousness is delicious. “bad idea” is very sharp. “break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored” is supercilious and excellent for it. This is the Ariana Grande that I am now here for.

This album is Ariana’s best yet and hopefully a blueprint for what is to come next. This album apparently only took a few weeks from alpha to omega and the result is more free-flowing, more honest and more confident than ever before. It’s time to crown a new pop queen.

@murthynikhil

tUnE-yArDs – i can feel you creep into my private life

2 Feb

I can feel you creep into my private life.jpg

This is definitely a pop album with enough going on to make for an interesting couple of listens. It draws from a staggering variety of sounds and keeps them reasonably coherent. Unfortunately however, once the early novelty wears out, there’s just too much that doesn’t work and the album as a whole is dragged down.

“Hammer”, for instance, starts slow but becomes quite good disco-pop in a style very reminiscent of Broken Bells and something like “Coast to Coast” is similarly just good pop. The eccentricities of “Private Life” and “Home” just don’t work that well however. The experimentation of “Colonizer” likewise fails despite the high initial promise and ends up just sounding banal.

While the weaker songs do detract substantially from the album, there is enough here of interest to reward a few listens and if you’re looking for a new pop album that puts some work into being new, this is a good place to start.

@murthynikhil

Charli XCX – Pop 2

18 Jan

Pop 2 is a pleasantly experimental mixtape from the now huge Charli XCX. This willingness to experiment is what got me interested in her debut album True Romance and what was missing in both SUCKER and Number 1 Angel.

It could use a real banger however. None of the songs are up to the standard of her best such as her also recent and absolutely fantastic “Boys”. “Femmebot” is close, but doesn’t quite have the energy it needs. It, like a couple of other songs in the album, is unfortunately let down by the feature. Tommy Cash does very well in “Delicious” though, and Charli herself is more than able to carry the album anyway. Songs like “Out Of My Head” are just really good pop and I love the bubblegum in “Unlock It”. The album’s production is relentlessly innovative and Charli effortlessly pushes it further still to the extent of there being literal screeching in the background of “Tears”, a move as unexpected as it is excellent, an epithet as apt for the album as for the song.

@murthynikhil

Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

20 Aug

Los Campesinos! exists in a very specific space and it’s not a space for everyone. The cleverest line there, “31, and depression is a young man’s game” really tells you how much you’re going to get out of this album. It’s easy to dismiss if you’re not the kind of person it hits, but there’s some good music here.

It’s glossy clever-clever pop that is pleasant to listen to, but is largely forgettable. There’s a plethora of catchy tunes, and something like “Got Stendhal’s” is completely ready for radio play. However, despite the braininess that Los Campesinos! feels the need to exhibit at every turn, there’s no standout line and a lot of what they pass off as profound feels naive. While I like “I Broke Up In Amarante”, I feel that their refrain of “It seems unfair to try your best, but feel the worst” to be banal instead of cathartic. Even the music, while solid, lacks the innovation to help it stand out. Songs like “The Fall of Home”, while solid slow alt-rock, never really lives up to its potential.

This is an album for a time and a place, and it does an admirable job at that. It’s unable to transcend that as the best albums do, but it never needed to.

@murthynikhil

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