Friday, November 23, 2012

Friday Update: Cher, Britney & Will.I.Am, Solange and Loreen Interview

In case you think I'm doing nothing at all in between posts here, take heed of some new stuff I've done for GCN.

Today's music post covers a pretty diverse range of tunes including the new Cher (!) tune, that Britney/Will.I.Am track that appeared online last weekend and music from Solange and Villagers for "the hipsters" amongst you. Peep that post here.

Also, this month's copy of GCN is now online and in print across Ireland. It includes my chat with Eurovision star Loreen which was alot of fun to do. Click here to read the online edition, click through to the main mag and read my feature on pages 28/29.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ashlee Simpson Returns: "Bat For A Heart" is Here

Ashlee Simpson has veered between acting, pop stardom and reality TV in a career that's taken something of a break in the last few years. The sister of Jessica, her own albums scored big on the US charts (Autobiography and I Am Me debuted at number one) thanks to her MTV reality series The Ashlee Simpson Show. Her 2008 release Bittersweet World, roped in Timbaland and the Neptunes but didn't fare as well with audiences. Aside from some acting that including a turn in the 2009 Melrose Place remake, Simpson has kept a relatively low profile.

On Halloween she tweeted a teaser for a new single, Bat For A Heart complete with a low-fi and interesting visual, Simpson twirling and emoting in black and white while ruffling her short, blonde tresses. Today the full track has appeared on iTunes worldwide.


Linda Perry worked on the track with Simpson and tweeted awhile back that it was a one-take demo that they never returned too. That much is apparent in the loose, simple feel of the production. Oddly enough, it works. Sure, the polish and giant hooks that cemented her biggest hits don't feel as present here but what does exist is a solid chorus and a moody, impressive feel. It's got an 80's indie-kid vibe to match the kind of bratty-pop rock Simpson excelled at with a weird, wobbly piano effect adding some punch halfway through.

The lyrics have already had tabloids in a lather, with the title alone hinting at a reference to her ex-husband Pete Wentz. On the chorus's key line "I'm gonna bang bang, f**k you up/ twist you outside of my head" she sounds defiant and feisty while lines like "my heart is cursed cuz you were never there" suggest more than a touch of sadness.

There's not much info about whether this is the sign of a major label deal or just for hardcore fans (this chat with Nylon from the Summer suggest it's quite informal), but it's a nice reminder that despite all the jibes she received (we're thinking of that infamous SNL moment) Simpson is a popstar with a snarly, unique voice and a decent back catalogue.

Bat For Heart is available now on iTunes, keep an eye on Ashlee's website for more info.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Popstar in Bloom: Christina Aguilera "Lotus" Review

"Rise up, Lotus, Rise, this is the beginning" Christina Aguilera coos on the opening track of fifth album Lotus. She may have licked her wounds after the disaster that was Bionic in 2010 but Lotus sees one of pop's signature voices claw back into the fray.

The Goldfrapp-lite opening intro mentioned above sees Christina whisper over a wobbly R&B meets electronica beat. It's a kooky and slightly drawn out opener but it hints that she might be about to head into the futuristic sonic textures Bionic promised but didn't deliver. In reality it's a misnomer with the album zooming into an uptempo but straightforward pop vein for a solid six tracks.

Surprisingly, it gels fairly well early on. Zippy, zesty danceable rhythms highlight Christina's pipes as well as any mournful ballad when done properly. Army Of Me, as she's pointed out,  is a fairly obvious nod to Fighter and it's "You won't stop me message". It's not quite as impressive but it's a solid slab of fist-pumping pop. Red Hot Kinda Love is a cheeky but enjoyable sex jam that feels more flirty and knowing than some of her previous attempts at proclaiming her sexuality. Make The World Move is an awkward collage of soul pop and electro flourishes as Aguilera's co-judge on The Voice, Cee-Lo pops up for a warm and fuzzy ode to just getting along with everyone. It's a tad cheesy but the bouncy production and ebullient chorus make it an adequate slice of pop candy.

Next is current single, Your Body one of Aguilera's strongest pop moments in quite some time albeit one that is failing to smash on the charts. The first of two cuts co-written by hyper-successful Max Martin (Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Basically Every Big Popstar of the Last 10 Years), it's followed by the straight-up dance pop of Let There Be Love, which is a tad generic but comes equipped with a hook so big it's hard to dislike and it gives Christina plenty of moments to ad-lib and holler with the best of them.

Then comes a ballad-y chunk. The Sia penned Blank Page is truly lovely, a sister track to Beautiful that could do big things as a single. Sadly, Cease Fire and Sing For Me fall flat, letting Aguilera's own vocals become grating and misplaced when they should be soaring and uplifting.

Next up is a Rihanna "I like a bit of sex, me" style romp in Around the World which has a fun, down and dirty vibe but feels a tad slight. Circles is a bitter but oddly enjoyable flip of the bird to detractors. It's not very strong melodically but it's a rare moment of genuine personality on an album that seems to drain much of Aguilera's famed bolshiness. Best of Me is another decent if not stellar ballad that has a nice sense of melancholy to it. 

A real surprise is the duet with her other Voice judge Blake Shelton on Just A Fool. Yes it's a country-pop extravaganza that's blatantly squared at US radio but it's actually a decent duet and one of the strongest songs musically on the whole release. It's one of the few songs that Aguilera nails both in terms of emotional delivery and vocal hysterics too.

The addition of the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition (The standard release for the album in many European territories) will get the hopes of fans who know that her previous album hid some gems on it's deluxe side. Sadly, they're a mixed bag. Light Up The Sky is sweet but unmemorable, another mid-tempo track too concerned with schmaltz then letting Aguilera shine vocally. Empty Words is something of a hidden gem with some nicely drawn lyrics and a big, belt-y hook that wouldn't have been out of place on the main edition of the album. Shut Up is the sequel to Circles with a bleeped but still feisty hook telling imitators, haters and people of that nature to "Shut the f**k up". It's not her strongest song but it is an enjoyable slice of bratty pop. There's also a decent, if not dazzling remix of Your Body by Martin Carrix to enjoy too.

Decent but not dazzling, could in fact be applied to the majority of Lotus. It's certainly not a stinker and hits enough sweet spots over it's lean run time to please fans and suggest that there's life in Christina as a big pop star. Sadly, it never quite delivers the knockout moment you know she needs to really succeed. 

Lotus is out now on RCA.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

16 Years of Spice: Looking Back At The Start of The Spice Girls

This month sees 16 (!) years since the Spice Girls relased their debut album in Europe (with a US release following a few months later in early 1997). Sure, 16 isn't your typical celebratory milestone for an album but in a year that's seen the Spices reunite at the Olympics and gear up to release a musical based on their songs it seems fitting to give their debut the once over.

The odd part of the Spice Girls success was how it was so very big very quickly (The Official Chart Company in the UK posted some mind-boggling stats about just how huge their first few singles were this week) but never really lasted that long. The success of Spice fever across the world between 1996-1998 gave the girls a run of huge hit singles and a worldwide obsession very few groups have come close to reaching since.

Marketing and merchandise became a key piece of the Spice juggernaut with the girl's faces being used to flog lollipops, cameras, deodorant and basically anything else they could think of. Big name endorsements and the celebrity as a brand is a common link amongst today's stars but there's no doubt that late 90s marketing machine behind the Spice Girls set a benchmark for the next near-20 years of pop stars. Their would-be feminist Girl Power slogan may have been partly a marketing man's dream come true but it was also a neat slogan, the sort of "You Can Do It Sista!" message that was reimagined by the Pussycat Dolls as something altogether more sultry nearly 10 years later and the sort of stuff that would become de-riguer once Firework / Born This Way/ We R Who We R all become chart topping "message" songs.

But the thing about the Spice Girls thta many forget is the songs were in fact, brilliant. There was no way that intense a fandom, that much success, could have worked the way it did if it weren't for the group's gaggle of perfectly formed singles. Indeed the batch from that debut were particularly strong, from the pop-rap stomp of Wannabe to the balladry of 2 Become 1.

With a band as big as the Spice Girls were, those bold, shiny hit singles threaten to overshadow the rest of the album. And it's obvious throughout that the strongest songs were picked to go to radio, have videos etc. But what makes the album such a treat is the R'n'B feel underpinning various key points.

Say You'll Be There feels like a bubblegum take on TLC's early work and elsewhere Love Thing, Last Time Lover and Something Kinda Funny play with a similar feel. People remember the cartoon personalities of each Spice (those nicknames: Baby, Sporty, Posh, Scary and Ginger were genius) and the cheesy pop underpinning their biggest moments but on songs like this they almost sound, wait for it, cool. There's a sense of something sassier and more knowing about tunes like this that give proceedings plenty of kick. The charm of the Spice Girls as group was the slightly rough-around-the-edges and energetic feel they had, less polished than your average group and all the better for it. Album cuts like this let that personality shine via song, dripping with the kind of good humour that typified their every TV appearance.

The underrated Mama is slight lyrically but is a rare chance for the group to show that they could sing and harmonise well as girl-group if not quite reaching the early 90s heights of En Vogue et al. Naked is  an odd, melodramatic mid-tempo moment  but a welcome trip into saucier territory with any real attempt at sensuality cut short by the unintentional hilarity of Geri's spoken word verses. The true gem though is If U Can't Dance which borrows it's rumbling hip-hop beat from 1990 rap hit The Humpty Dance, a cool kiss off to rhythm deficient boys that sounds poles apart from everything else on the album. It's another moment that completely jars with the bubblegum "buy a can of Pepsi with our faces on it!" image the girls curated after they became huge stars and a reminder of how well this album has aged 16 years later.

Indeed as a body of work Spice is lean, filler-free and utterly fun. The opening salvo of the three big singles puts their strongest hits up front but also tees up a jolly, carefree ride that is part bubblegum, part streetwise hip-hop pastiche with the still irresistible swing of disco-pop nugget Who Do You Think You Are being a mid-set highlight. It's interesting too that the swiftly released follow up Spiceworld garnered more hits but moved away from the R'n'B references that made their debut so charming (It was still a strong pop album but certainly more cartoon-y than it's predecessor).

As the group plug the musical and use the goodwill from this year's Olympics performance to enjoy renewed press attention it's fitting to look back on a short but to the point pop album. One that set in motion a machine that would make five girls very famous, spark the late 90s teen pop craze that gave us Britney and co. and sell lots and lots of merchandise. Spicemania might have been about more than just the music but that music still sounds pretty damn good to this day.

Viva Forever, the musical based on the Spice Girls' music opens in London on November 27th

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Jessie Ware - Live at The Sugar Club Dublin - Review

Jessie Ware's Devotion is one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year and with good reason. It's a beautifully made soul-pop album that takes it's cues from the very best UK dance producers and let's her tremendous vocal prowess shine. Ware touched down in Dublin this week for a sold-out show at The Sugar Club to a room packed full of avid fans. Ware, an endearing and entertaining presence on stage, even brought up the house lights as she jokingly tried to figure out exactly who her audience was on the first night of her own solo tour.

However you could classify the crowd at the show they were undoubtedly under the spell of the British songstress. She ran through all of the material on Devotion (including deluxe edition tracks), with a tight live band adding an upbeat texture to the tracks that gave them a new sense of life in a live setting. The intimate feel of the Sugar Club, that Ware jokingly suggested was like a David Lynch film, lent itself well to be completely sucked into Ware's captivating delivery but with a surprising amount of bounce in her set it was a shame to be in a venue without more room to do a little dancing (bar a few brave souls who twirled up the front). 

Still there was little to fault about Ware's hour-long set. Album tracks like No To Love and Taking In Water sound bigger and more expansive with a willing audience and that aforementioned live band, 110% stands up as a smartly made dance song with a melancholic air while the 80s sheen of Night Light continues to be a winner. Her cover of Brownstone's 90s R'n'B hit If You Love Me was an unexpected surprise, a faithful rendition that wouldn't have sounded out of place on her own album.

The high-point undoubtedly come in the final songs, having charmed Dublin into submission Ware deploys Wildest Moments as her penultimate number, an earnest sing-along erupting amidst the crowd. Closing with Running, Ware asks the crowd to stand up pointing out that her mum will be proud she had a seated venue on it's feet. It's a blissful moment, the goodwill and slow-burning pulse Ware has been building for sixty or so minutes reaching an exuberant climax. She warmly thanks the audience before pointing out she doesn't do encores, takes a few snaps with excitable punters and departs. An accomplished and polished performer with a beautiful voice that genuinely sounds even better in a live setting, Jessie certainly did Mama Ware very proud during her Dublin show.

Jessie Ware's debut album Devotion is out now

Monday, November 5, 2012

5 Year "Blackout" - Britney's Best Album Remembered

Britney Spears may be appearing on US TV screens as a talent show judge right now but five years ago she was in an altogether different place. 2007 was the year that Britney’s meltdown became tabloid fodder, award show gold (in the wrong way) and made a star out of one overly emotional YouTuber (you’re welcome Chris Crocker).

More importantly it was also the year she released the impressive album Blackout. Britney's fifth effort was a triumph on several levels, for upping the stakes of her sound, for how it stood out from the pop pack and for the fact that it's much-hounded star even finished the album at all.

The Britney Spears saga become something of a nightmare throughout 2007. Spears had given birth to her first child the year before but divorced much-maligned lover Kevin Federline and soon used excessive partying to numb the pain. There was a forced rehab visit or two and that infamous head-shaving / attacking the paparazzi with an umbrella moment that has become a weirdly iconic image in the celebrity meltdown pantheon.

While all this oozed across gossip blogs, Britney was piecing together recordings with producers like Danja, Bloodshy and Avant and Sean Garrett many of whom were deliberately avoiding mentioning Britney's personal struggles (except on two standout tracks) to serve up a forward-thinking pop record.

Blackout arrived at the end of October 2007 with little proper promotion. Her appearance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards was a disaster and the video for Gimme More a barely salvaged rough cut of Britney twirling around a stripper pole (more on that here). There was no press interviews apart from a famously weird Ryan Seacrest radio chat. The songs were effectively left to do the talking.

Gimme More isn't just a terrific lead single for the project, it's also still one of Britney's best singles ever. It's deceptively simple but so slinky, dark and suggestive it's impossible to resist. Danja's layered production takes a plinky video game beat, adds creepy strings and weird whirring noises while Britney coos over each and every syllable. It's one of those immediate, dance-ready Britney tunes given a dark and sexy twist.

I tackled Piece of Me for Idolator's look-back at Blackout and my comments on it apply here. It's a rare moment of self-awareness in the Britney back-catalogue as she gives a defiant middle finger to media attention over an agressive Bloodshy and Avant beat. It's single release in the UK/Ireland arrived not long after the infamous incident of Britney being removed from her home on a gurney in front of hordes of paparazzi. It was a creepy moment as the looming tabloid figure that Britney had become jarred with the popstar whose new direction was winning over fans both old and new.

Radar is another sprightly Bloodshy and Avant production that has the ear-wormiest of hooks while Break The Ice is a swirling, futuristic take on the sort of R'N'B pop that was huge in 2006/7. Heaven on Earth is oddly upbeat, a sweet but slightly moody synth pop ode to a seemingly perfect man. Get Naked amps up the sleaze factor straight after, the dirtier sister track to Gimme More with a thumping, hypnotic suggestiveness apparent.

Freakshow plays with dubstep sounds years before Spear's future hit Hold It Against Me , while Toy Soldier channels Gwen Stefani and M.I.A. in a skittering, kinetic hip-hop infused number laced with attitude. Hot As Ice is somewhat clunky but endearing in it's brash knockabout quality. Ooh Ooh Baby is a callback to early Britney but more grown up. Perfect Lover brings things back into a darker vein, Danja layering up layers and layers of buoyant rhythms over a breathless Britney vocal. 

Closing track Why Should I Be Sad is the only mid-tempo note on the whole set, a R'N'B ditty about a no-good man that she has to leave behind. It's standard stuff but delivered by Spears in an emotional way that suggests she's a little too invested in the content amid choice lines about expensive gifts she bought and gossip mags.

Blackout still remains the most consistent set Spears has ever released. While peers like Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake had found a sense of credibility from hip-hop approved hits (Timberlake's work with Timbaland) or mature artistic choices (Aguilera's much vaunted Back to Basics album) it took Blackout for Spears to finally shed her bubblegum beginnings for a believable sonic evolution.

The proceeding albums didn't always mine similar territory. 2008's Circus had high-points but resorted to the mixed-bag of styles that plagued her earlier releases. 2011's Femme Fatale was tightly made and packed with big songs but favoured a more bombastic approach, the sense of subtlety and pop-grit of Blackout left behind. 

Blackout is a fan fave and critical darling five years down the line, with hysterical fan reaction to Britney's tweet about Blackout 2.0 a good marker of the esteem in which the album is held. It may not have had the push that a pop album can expect in the current chart world but Blackout still sounds just as good unfolding from your speakers as it did five years ago. 

Blackout is out now and you should really just get a copy because it really is quite brilliant.