For years, Australian songstress Sia Furler‘s name was inextricably linked to all things blue.
There were her cosmic, soulful ballads with Zero 7 including “Destiny,” assorted slow burning singles from 2004 album, Colour the Small One such as “Where I Belong” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” and of course the singer’s now signature “Breathe Me,” the instant tearjerker that won the singer literally thousands of fans overnight thanks to its perfectly timed inclusion in the series finale of Six Feet Under.
With her 2006 album, Some People Have Real Problems, Sia slowly began tracing the outlines of something much bolder and brighter for herself. Bubblier up-tempos, such as “Buttons” and “The Girl You Lost to Cocaine” demonstrated Sia’s ability to go beyond the realm of the ballad. But perhaps more than anything, they suggested that perhaps the singer simply wanted to have some fun for once.
This week, Sia releases her fifth studio album, We Are Born, and it appears as though the singer finally got her wish.
Each song on We Are Born is vibrant and playful, colored by zany guitar riffs, celebratory hand claps, and impossibly catchy collection of lyrical hooks. Like a toy box stuffed to the brim with springy sounds and silly noises, it’s perhaps fitting that Sia’s new album sees its release only a week after the premiere of Toy Story 3.
Songs like “Bring Night,” “Clap Your Hands,” and “You’ve Changed” are so instantly familiar that it’s almost hard to believe we’d never heard these songs before. “Bring night, bring the night on!” Sia chants on the former (along with the voices of half a dozen or more celebratory participants) as she bounces above loud sirens and frenzied guitar licks brighten up the anthem.
Others including “The Co-Dependent” and “Never Gonna Leave Me,” simply ooze with feel good melodies, providing summer jam-ready guitar riffs and sing-a-long friendly lyrics.
The cohesive flow of the album is due in large part to the genius production by rising pop legend, Greg Kurstin. The producer has seemingly tapped directly into Sia’s on-stage persona for this record, providing a soundscape of bright beats and noises that completely translates the singer’s on-stage effervescence into music (as witnessed live in Boston, check out the MuuMuse review here.)
Even in Sia’s most solemn moments, the beat remains (mostly) bubbly, as with the gorgeous “Hurting Me Now”: “You think it’s a joke, but baby, you don’t even notice,” Sia softly murmurs during the song’s otherwise slap-happy chorus. It’s a devastating number, but you’d never know it if you weren’t paying attention.
It’s only with the album’s major ballad, “I’m In Here,” that Sia revisits the territory that first catapulted her into the public’s consciousness with Zero 7 and her trademark single. In short, it is the album’s “Breathe Me”–vulnerable, pensive, and an utterly gorgeous display of Sia’s range and delivery style.
Ironically, perhaps no song on the album captures Sia’s essence best than with her cover of Madonna‘s 1989 single, “Oh Father.”
While a major undertaking to begin with (covering the work of legends is always the stuff of danger), the singer masterfully tackles the Queen of Pop’s grief-ridden ballad, complimenting the track with her own signature warble and Kurstin’s playful, bells-and-beats production. The song may be Madonna’s, but the sound is completely and undeniably Sia’s–a perfect representation of what a cover should sound like.
With We Are Born, Sia has finally colored in the lines drawn by her past efforts. The album is not only Sia’s first major pop moment, but also her personal best and brightest yet.
To preview and purchase We Are Born on iTunes, click here.
Earlier this year, Swedish pop sensation Robyn announced that her next album, her first original studio album in five years, would finally be arriving soon–in three parts.
Now known as the Body Talk series, the three EPs that make up the collection will be released throughout 2010. The first of which, Body Talk Pt. 1, sees its official release in America today, June 15.
On her latest release, Robyn has taken the winning synth-pop formulas from her essential 2005 self-titled record and applied them to her continuously adventurous nature in an effort to dig deeper–for bigger beats, more texture, and more complex rhythms.
Perhaps no song off of the record is more of a shining example of who Robyn is as an artist than the opening cut. On paper, the song isn’t much more than an endless barrage of complaints about the singer’s hectic schedule: “My phone is killing me / My email is killing me / These hours are killing me / My tour is killing me,” she sing-speaks over a deep, building synthesized beat.
Yet this is Robyn, an artist surrounded by a nearly tangible air of cool, assured energy reminiscent of Madonna circa True Blue. She doesn’t come off as obnoxious, which is why each complaint sounds more like one sick rhyme on top of another, all leading up to that deeply appreciated climax: “Don’t fucking tell me what to do!” (If you don’t get what I mean about sounding annoying, just try to imagine Ke$ha singing this song.)
There’s also “Fembot,” the track that ushered in the Body Talk era after its initial appearance on the singer’s website. Infectious and playfully boastful, the song finds Robyn in robo-mode: pushing buttons, flipping switches, and initiating “slut mode”–whatever that means. While it seems every pop star these days is dabbling in technological titillation, Robyn’s supersonic flow just makes the song feel that much more authentic.
Further on, the brooding anti-melodies of “None of Dem” and the bright, flashing lights of “Cry When You Get Older” symbolize the marriage between Robyn’s earlier pop sensibility with her current advances into layered, complex construction (see her collaborative work with Kleerup and RÃ¶yksopp). They may still be dance floor haunts, but construction wise, they’re much more than a simple repetitive chorus and a single bass beat.
Admittedly, the album does feel a bit unpolished toward the end with the inclusion of Swedish lullaby “Jag vet en dejlig Rosa.” While a pretty melody, the song doesn’t quite have the legs to stand as a track in its own right.
At its core however, it is “Dancing On My Own” that embodies the heart and soul of this mini-record; a 21st century reconfiguration of the classic discotheque record, colored by icy rapid-fire synthesizers and flawless Swede-pop production courtesy of producer, Patrik Berger. The song is the purest definition of sad disco, as well as the logical artistic progression after the success of her previous tear-jerking stormer, “With Every Heartbeat.” For this song alone, the album deserves all the accolades it will surely receive.
Then again, this is just one third of a collection. I have no doubt that when the Body Talk series is complete, we’ll have received twelve to fifteen stunning tracks that would make for a truly solid follow-up to Robyn–as well as a slew of B-Side-worthy extras and unfinished snippets to help line the package with additional goodies.
To preview and purchase Body Talk Pt. 1, click here.
Reinvention can be a tricky thing.
The Bionic campaign began with the promise of a pop superstar’s futuristic return to the scene after an extended love affair with ’20s and ’30′s-inspired vintage sound. On the way back (to the future, if you will), Christina Aguilera would confront setback after setback in trying to properly relaunch herself.
In looking back at the campaign’s early stages, there’s little doubt that the Iamamiwhoami viral videos–now all but confirmed to be a project created by Swedish singer Jonna Lee–largely contributed to the initial deconstruction of the Bionic campaign’s magic.
For those unfamiliar, the mysterious web series first cropped up on the web in late 2009 as a series of two or three minute clips uploaded on YouTube. The videos featured an unidentifiable blonde frolicking around in the forest licking trees, rolling in mud–and generally just being weird–as lovely, lush electronica music played in the background.
While warped video and sound effects veiled the singer’s voice and face, early screen-shots from the clips all stubbornly pointed to the same source: Christina Aguilera.
At some point, most people began to believe–or at the very least, wanted to believe–that the “proof” photographs that circled the blogosphere did indeed come from Aguilera’s camp.
After all, the album was newly titled Bionic (which sounded forward-thinking), she was flying below the radar (filming Burlesque with Cher, as it turned out), and her album’s growing collaborator list was comprised of avant garde, left-of-center artists and producers like Ladytron, Hill & Switch, and Le Tigre.
So when the preview of the radio-friendly lead single “Not Myself Tonight” finally premiered on Aguilera’s website back in March, the hope that one of pop’s princesses was going deep underground quickly and definitively deflated.
“Not Myself Tonight,” too, was another major strike against Bionic. Production wise, the song sounded as though it were recorded in 2002; a by-the-numbers club banger that was neither bad nor particularly innovative. For a comeback track after an extended absence from the pop scene, however, the decision to release the song as the first single was devastating. The song’s final chart positions only further solidified proof of the folly, peaking at a modest #23 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The final blow against Aguilera came in the form of a new-found rival pitted against her in the media: Lady Gaga. Almost immediately after revealing the cover art and album title for Bionic (and truly, ever since her masked VMA performance in 2008), Aguilera continued to battle sharp, inaccurate criticism for allegedly lifting Gaga’s future-pop styling, eventually leading her to write a formal response to the drama on her website.
Yet anyone that truly understands pop should know that there’s no real style swiping between Gaga and Christina. They’re two blondes operating within the confines of the mainstream pop industry and both happen to hone excellent voices. Beyond that, there’s are few comparisons to make.
Their sounds are entirely separate, and as far as their artistry is concerned, Christina had been exploring issues of sexuality and dabbling in exotic fashions long before the name Lady Gaga ever hit the ears of most critics now lashing out against the singer. In fact, Gaga is probably one of the only artists that Christina doesn’t sound like on Bionic.
To be fair, the video for “Not Myself Tonight” did no favors in building a case for Christina as an artist in her own right. Scenes featured within the video depicted Aguilera in various states of undress and bondage, as well as shot-by-shot homages to Madonna‘s early ’90′s work including “Express Yourself,” “Human Nature,” and “Erotica.” While clearly out of reverence rather than unoriginality, the decision to release a video based on the work of another artist was ill-timed at best.
And so, at long last, comes Bionic–a record four years in the making, produced by the artists and producers that Aguilera admires, written to express her thoughts on womanhood, sexuality, and lifestyle.
Kicking off the new record comes its dubstep-laden title track “Bionic” which, while an excellent number, sounds as though it were lifted straight from the recording sessions of Santigold’s debut album back in 2008. It’s hardly surprising, given that the producers of the song are the very same who first worked with Santigold, but the general expectation behind an artist-producer collaboration is a creative middle ground that sounds entirely new (in theory, anyway).
“Many times imitated, not duplicated / Can’t be replaced,” Aguilera sings on top of the stuttering, grinding beats, she sings during the song’s second verse. Yet herein lies the problem with Bionic: It does sound duplicated.
One of the singer’s greatest weaknesses here is a propensity toward sounding like a mimic. From lifting Sia‘s warbling delivery style on “I Am,” to the dead-on imitation of M.I.A.‘s monotone delivery on “Elastic Love,” the singer seems to be so lost in the shuffle of talent that I can’t help but wonder if “Not Myself Tonight” would have made for a far more fitting title for the record.
Imitation aside however, there’s no denying that a great deal of Bionic is actually quite good.
Despite her reinvention into robot territory, Christina’s still found plenty of time to entertain her lady region (as with Back to Basics‘ “Still Dirrty”), including the booty-popping “Woohoo,” featuring Nicki Minaj, which finds the singer doling out instructions on how to navigate below the belt. “You don’t even need a plate, just your face, ha,” she offers during the instructional chorus.
There’s also the Latin-tinged “Desnudate,” a romping, stomping burst of breathy desires being purred into the listener’s ears. Further on, the tempo drops for a coo-heavy, Janet-esque offering with “Sex for Breakfast.”
Then there’s just plain self-indulgence, as with the album’s final moment, “Vanity,” a wonderfully cocky electro-pop ride through tongue-in-cheek lyricism. “Mirror mirror, on the wall / Who’s the flyest bitch of them all? / Never mind, I am,” Christina taunts off the top of the track before calling on her queens and launching into a flurry of bratty boasts.
Given all the controversy surrounding Christina’s pop star status in 2010 however, the irony sort of just writes itself in the final seconds of the song: “And the legacy lives on, going strong / Let us not forget who owns the throne,” Aguilera pompously declares. “You do, mommy,” baby Max responds. Crickets.
And while the gorgeous Linda Perry-penned ballad “Lift Me Up” is the next best candidate to follow Aguilera’s already established classics, “Beautiful” and “Hurt,” there’s little debate as to the album’s true shining moment(s), which comes in the shape of three Sia ballads: “I Am,” “You Lost Me,” and “All I Need.”
These songs aren’t just torch tracks–they’re the kind of next level balladry we’ve come to expect to come from the Australian singer-songwriter responsible for “Breathe Me.” Here is where Christina truly shines, delivering a wealth of vulnerability and control when needed and a signature yelp when it’s time to truly unleash.
At the same time, the album also suffers from a fair share of filler, including the noisy, childish chant of “I Hate Boys” and the needless noodling found on the rather unspectacular “Prima Donna.” “Glam” is another dud that, while initially promising, ultimately fails to inspire enough energy in the chorus to prove itself as fierce as the lyrics imply.
As one may gather from the song descriptions, the main issue with Bionic is that it lacks any solid musical identity, as well as any real sense of cohesion.
Perhaps if the album had been separated into a more logical two-disc process–a side for serious contemplation and sophisticated pop such as “Birds of Prey,” “Monday Morning,” (both of which having been unfairly ousted onto the second disc) “Bionic” and all of the killer ballads–as well as a side for the best of the sex-drenched club jams (“Vanity,” “Woohoo,” “Desnudate”), the package itself would be more appealing.
As it stands, Bionic is a convoluted set of semi-working parts that could use some serious rewiring. But while the machinery included within isn’t necessarily pieced together properly or as cutting edge as promised, there’s still good enough reason to invest in Aguilera’s latest reboot.
In December of 2008, 19-year-old singer Diana Vickers was prematurely eliminated from the fifth season of the UK’s X Factor.
Within months after her departure however, the young singer was already creating a healthy amount of buzz around her debut–enough to nearly overshadow that of her former competitor’s efforts, Alexandra Burke and JLS.
The buzz was due to an ever-expanding rumor list of drool-worthy collaborators and musical legends, including Guy Sigsworth, Starsmith, Chris Braide, and Cathy Dennis. As the news trickled down, the promise of these recording sessions grew greater, as fans waited to hear what the quirky singer was quietly cooking up in the studio.
Then came the release of the singer’s debut single, “Once,” an instantly catchy, thrilling rush of explosive choruses and big bass beats. The single proved that Vickers’ odd, hushed delivery and near-broken vocals lent themselves perfectly to pop, causing the song to rocket to the #1 spot on the UK Singles Chart in late April of 2010. Her debut album soon followed on May 3, which also hit the #1 spot on the UK Album Chart the following week.
Songs from the Tainted Cherry Tree is incredibly solid electro-pop package, colored by an unconventionally raspy voice and a youthful spirit. Neither dance music nor torch song balladry, Vickers’ album is a refreshing blend of bright electronic hooks and classic crooning, refusing to be characterized in either direction.
With glittering, multi-layered electronica-inspired songs like “You’ll Never Get To Heaven,” “My Hip,” and “Remake Me & You,” Vickers follows in line with such artists as Ellie Goulding and Imogen Heap) in forging the somewhat newly founded genre of indie electro pop. The songs, which feature extensive production and wild, whizzing noises, mesh together to create a whimsical soundscape complimented by cheerful crooning and dizzying melodies.
“The Boy Who Murdered Love,” set to be the next single released from the album, is among one of the most immediate standouts on the record. In the song, Vickers recounts a love gone sour with the most biting of lyricism and pained delivery: “You’re the boy who murdered love,” she begins, “cold hands and a heart of stone. You’re a Midas in reverse, you’re the king of pain and hurt.” Everything about the song burns with broken-hearted anguish, resulting in one of the most delicious of the electro-pop confections on the record.
“My Hip,” which features Vickers herself taking a turn on the trumpet, is another highlight. Taking a break from the lush, ethereal electronic sounds for a brief foray through frantic, skipping beats and trumpet flares, the singer charms her way through a gleeful crush. It’s both adorable and addictive.
Vickers’ only cover on the album is also a delightful surprise for music fans, The Sugarcubes‘ song, “Hit.” Vickers’ version blends in effortlessly with the rest of the record, replacing the groovier original beats with bright, poppy synthesizers and swirling electronic beats. As it (unsurprisingly) turns out, the singer’s voice takes well to BjÃ¶rk‘s throaty yelps, making it sound more like an original selection than a mere karaoke attempt.
The ballads, however, are a bit more temperamental than the uptempo offerings. “Four Leaf Clover,” for instance, is an overly soggy misstep that, aside from the song’s lonesome verses, never fully redeems itself from a rather cliched chorus. The same applies to “Me & You.”
It is only with “N.U.M.B.” and “Notice,” two incredibly sophisticated slices of adult pop, that Vickers truly raises the bar for the rest of the album and firmly establishes herself as more than just a pretty voice. The proof comes three and a half minutes into “N.U.M.B.”, as Vickers tackles the final repetition of the chorus expert delivery, emitting a soaring, heartbreaking final note that comes crashing down. Chills.
Vickers’ debut is far more exciting and listenable than most of what’s come out of the X Factor/Simon Cowell hit machine as of late. Songs from the Tainted Cherry Tree is a highly listenable, engaging album of lush electronica that proves why Vickers is much, much more than simply a finalist on some reality show.
Known for providing some of the most innovative, genre-bending dance-turned-R&B-turned-rock ‘n’ roll tracks of the 21st century, Kelis has always been known to be a formative, if not consistently underestimated figure in the music industry.
With “Acapella,” the singer’s colossal first single from Flesh Tone, it was clear that the singer was by all intents and purposes ‘back’ after a four year hiatus from the industry. The song, which would eventually hit #1 on the Billboard Dance/Club Play charts, doubled as a successful re-introduction into the scene and provided a perfect showcase of the album’s major themes: carnal beats, soaring vocals, and an emphasis on forward-thinking electronica.
But while all signs pointed to promising results, it’s hard to say if anyone could have expected this album; one that could easily be declared the best albums of the year thus far. Yet that’s exactly what we’ve been given.
Flesh Tone is only a nine-track album, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. Each track seamlessly feeds into the next thanks to a series of transitions, resulting in a non-stop primal party mix that holds true to Kelis’ initial hopes for the album. “Itâ€™s an album you can get sweaty to,” Kelis explained to Rap-Up early into the promotional campaign for Flesh Tone. She wasn’t kidding.
With opening tracks “22nd Century” and “4th of July (Fireworks),” Kelis immediately builds a case for her complex new sound. Both songs are structured more like ten different tracks being played at once, transitioning into new bridges and alternating melodies and dance breaks.
Soon after comes the lonesome sounding “Home,” which sounds like one thing and expresses quite another: “The lights are shining, I’m already home,” Kelis croons above scorching synthesizers and a blaring beat. The pulsations are bold and vibrant, even if her voice remains mournful.
There’s also “Emancipate,” which may well be the “Vogue” or “Express Yourself” of 2010. “Let me tell you what love is,” Kelis announces like a proper disco diva at the start of the song. “It’s about meeting each other half way…I’m in route.” What follows can be described only as a modern re-imagining of Erotica-era Madonna, as the mantra “Emancipate yourself” repeats again and again on top of strut-and-pose synthesizers. It’s an instant, undeniable gay anthem for the next generation.
The David Guetta-produced “Scream” is another major moment for the singer, as Kelis finds herself getting even more comfy in her new role as commander of the dance floor. “You’ll never know if you don’t let it out/ You have enough, they’ll call your bluff” Kelis announces as the song dives into the chorus. Here, the synthesizers flare like smoke pouring from the speakers while the frantic electronic noises begin to dissipate, making each repeat of the chorus sound not unlike a rocket launching from Earth.
The true triumph, however, would be the final moments of the record with the Benny Benassi-produced “Brave.” The song is the most personal of the bunch (aside from the final ode to her newborn son, Knight, entitled “Song for The Baby”), which finds Kelis taking on her divorce, pregnancy, and various other inner demons in a rave-happy, carnal explosion of noisy synthesizers and grinding electronica. “It was crazy. Had a baby, he’s amazing,” she croons across the song’s first verse, “He saved me. And this time, it’s just us.”
An immediate favorite from the get-go, “Brave” is truly what brings Flesh Tone from greatness to the upper echelons of incredible.
The brilliance with Flesh Tone is that Kelis has taken very Top 40 production value (Jean Baptiste, for instance, often works with the Black Eyed Peas) and transformed it into complex, next level electronica with multiple layers and dimension. These aren’t simply three minute dance tracks with catchy, radio-ready choruses, they’re part of a complete album experience providing the soundtrack to a host of stories and emotions.
In short, the best way I can describe this album is to declare it a kind of Confessions on a Dance Floor of the new decade. And that, my friends, speaks volumes.