Tag Archives: pop

Album Review: First Aid Kit–Ruins

Rating: 8/10

I recently called Caitlyn Smith’s debut a benchmark of vocal ability–and this latest record by Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, known collectively as First aid Kit, might just be the benchmark of harmony, and how to express lyrics already so potent in even deeper ways with just the right chords and dissonance. Similar to the Secret Sisters, these siblings have an uncanny ability to bring out that forgotten element of music and make harmony one of the key factors of their musical expression. Melody and vocal ability are not the only musical elements being thrown out the window in the age of the song, and duos like these are necessary to help remind us of the dying art and great importance of harmony.

So take all the harmonic nuances and chilling chords of a Secret Sisters record, but add much more variation in style. The Secret Sister’s’ latest record was minimalist, allowing their vocals and harmony to be the main focus. First Aid Kit’s approach is to showcase their incredible singing with backdrops of folk/Americana, (“Fireworks,” “Ruins,”) pop, (“Rebel Heart,” “It’s a Shame,”) and stone cold country (“Postcard.”) IN this way, the production is varied and interesting and only serves to elevate the sister’s talent and prove they can excel at more than one style. It’s also what might hold them at arm’s length from traditionalists and more mainstream fans alike, but rather than their sound feeling like it can’t make up its mind, it feels defined. Far more than many, First aid Kit have, for the most part, a distinct handle on how best to produce a particular song to let that song live up to its full potential and resonate with its listeners.

Then we add to all of this all the complex and heightened emotions of a breakup record, triggered by Klara’s own recent split, and this record gets a touch of the same restlessness and self-discovery which marked Lilly Hiatt’s latest album, Trinity Lane. Similar to that record, this First aid Kit release largely captures a moment in time and all the various emotions sparked by that moment. There’s a sense of loss on some songs, regret on others, and a thread of hope running through the entire album that connects the whole thing and makes it cohesive, regardless of the varying styles and moods.

It’s hard to single out individual songs from this project because the whole thing tells its own story and takes a complete journey, contributing more as a finished product than as the sum of separate songs. Certainly the most country offering here is the charming, shuffling “Postcard,” which makes great use of the piano, an instrument I’d have liked to have found more on this album after hearing its effect on this song. It’s hard to question the ever-building five-minute opener, “Rebel Heart,” either, although this one does decidedly lean more towards the folk pop side of things. There’s vulnerability on “Fireworks,” reflection on “My Wild Sweet Love,” and forward-thinking resolve on “It’s a Shame.” It all works together and serves a purpose, and really, for the first eight tracks of this ten-track journey, there is no measurable misstep.

It does end on a bit of a whimper, however, at least compared to the extremely high bar the sisters set for themselves earlier, especially across the first half of this record. “Hem of her Dress” is the glaring exception to their smart production choices, bursting forth into some sort of loud, boisterous, almost mariachi ending that completely takes away from the thoughtful lyrics of the song and does not match with the acoustic feel at the beginning. The closer, on the other hand, called “Nothing Has to be True,” is very smart sonically but doesn’t carry as much weight lyrically as some of the other material here. Maybe it’s just the standards to which I’m holding this talented group, but it definitely seems like First Aid Kit end this record at a decidedly lower point than the one at which it started. That’s not to take away too much from a great album, but honestly, halfway through this release, I thought we might be looking at the first 10/10 of the year.

And that’s mostly what you should take away from this review, that a good portion of this album is not just good or even great; rather, a good portion of this album is flawless. The production is interesting and tasteful, the writing is smart both melodically and lyrically, and the harmonies are stellar. I mentioned that some people might not get this group, people on both sides of the divide, but perhaps a better way to view First Aid Kit is that they’ve got something to offer everyone, and all of it is quality music of substance. For this listener, a lot of it happens to work, but if your tastes are stricter, maybe you’ll gravitate solely toward the more traditional “Postcard” or the more modern “Rebel Heart.” Whatever your natural inclination, I encourage you to give these sisters and this album a listen; talent and good music cross all genre lines.

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Album Review: Caitlyn Smith–Starfire

Rating: 7.5/10

Let’s establish two things about this album before we go any further. One, it is not country, and Apple’s label of “singer-songwriter” is only slightly more appropriate, as basically it’s pop, or perhaps folk pop. Two, it’s not claiming to be anything other than itself, and maybe that’s why, even though it comes from Nashville, and Smith has written songs for country artists, we should just treat this as a musical endeavor, independent of genre. It would be different if Caitlyn Smith were marketing this as country, or if her brand of pop were even remotely radio-friendly, or if she weren’t anything but herself on this record. But she’s being authentic, and for some, it might take a couple listens to get that, or at least it did for this listener. But if you take Caitlyn for Caitlyn, and you value quality music, you’ll enjoy and appreciate this effort.

So what is it about this flavor of pop music that makes it so different from radio-friendly material? certainly the title track, with its catchy lyrics and rising chorus, would be a pop radio hit in a different world, but even this has more substance than 90% of what you’ll find on either modern pop or country radio. But even more than the substance, it’s the organic and intimate nature of most of the album which sets it apart. “East side Restaurant,” a heartbreak song in which the narrator makes the other side of town seem as far away as if her ex were across the ocean, only works because the production isn’t overdone, and you feel as if you’re sitting there with Caitlyn in the restaurant. “Scenes From a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday” carries that same intangible, almost live feel, so that it’s as though you’re sitting in the bar in another booth , observing the same people described in the song. And “Cheap Date” wouldn’t be half as good if it didn’t sound so intimate, speaking of forsaking a date night on the town for a romantic night at home. The warm piano here really adds a nice touch to this track as well.

And not enough can be said about Caitlyn Smith as a vocalist. It’s not just her insane range and power, shown off on the aforementioned “East side Restaurant” and “Tacoma,” but also the incredible depth of feeling in songs like “House of Cards.” She can slay a fun, sultry song like “Contact High,” and then blow you away with her vulnerability on “This Town is Killing Me.” It should be noted that this one is the most country and is the one you should start with if you’re a strict traditionalist. Here, Caitlyn tells us in heartbreaking detail the struggles she has gone through and continues to experience on a daily basis just to make it in Nashville. She sings, with such conviction that it’s impossible not to sympathize with every word, “I wanted it so bad, and now I just wanna go home.” And oh yeah, then there’s the range and power, and moments like on “Tacoma” where Caitlyn nails the key change a cappella by holding out a ridiculous note with such raw intensity that you can’t help but be impressed. It’s rare to find such a wonderful technical singer who can also convey so much emotion, and I know I’ve made much of this, but independent artists, take note. This album is the benchmark of vocal ability among all albums I’ve reviewed on this site to date, and the one which shatters all arguments for good writing eclipsing a superior voice. I can tell you now that this same record, with the same songwriting, and even the same intimate sound, left in the hands of a less competent vocalist, would be mediocre at best and absolutely boring at worst.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some boring moments on the album as it is, and sometimes, it seems like Caitlyn and/or her team were going to the other extreme, showing off her voice in lieu of strong songwriting. The first two songs on the album are unfortunately two of its weakest tracks lyrically, and this is part of the reason that it took me awhile to warm up to this record. Then you get to “Starfire,” and it all comes together, blending that amazing voice with better melodies and smarter lyrics. After that, there’s not really a bad moment at all, except for “Don’t Give up on my Love,” a pretty forgettable track in the middle of the album.

The great part of this record, though, is that all those strong songs just keep getting stronger. This album has already grown on me significantly and will continue to do so. There’s always something new to uncover in the lyrics or a moment to be awed by vocally. The terrible part of this record? Caitlyn’s heartbroken line in “This town is Killing Me,” as she whispers, “Nashville, you win. Your steel guitars and broken hearts have done me in.” Nashville, you embrace plenty of things that aren’t stone cold country, and yet here you are, overlooking the ridiculous crossover talent of Caitlyn Smith. Is it because she’s female, or because her songs have substance and character? Is it because even though she’s singing pop music, she’s being 100% herself, and you know you can’t manipulate her into some sort of Music Row tool? Or is it just that you haven’t embraced talent in so long, you have no idea what to do with it when it’s right in front of you? Whatever the case, Caitlyn Smith and her talent deserve better. She deserves more than obscurity and songs that, in her words, “Never see the light.” I hope she will break out with this album, as she rightfully should.

As noted, traditionalists may be opposed to this record because of personal taste, but I encourage you, if you can get past genre lines and recognize talent and good music for what they are, please check this album and artist out.

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Song Review: Carrie Underwood’s “The Champion” (featuring Ludacris)

Super bowl Anthem Rating: 5/10
Overall Rating as a Song: 2/10

So let’s assume this song stays a sports thing. Carrie Underwood and Ludacris are a terrible pair on paper, but maybe I can see appealing to a wider audience with this collaboration. The lyrics are generic, but maybe this is also what you need, just something to hype people up for the Super Bowl. I could take it or leave it I guess, but it serves its purpose and isn’t really hurting anyone at all with is existence.

But let’s now view this as a Carrie Underwood song, and actually, let’s not even take into account that it might be sent to country radio. Obviously it’s pop and has no shred of country in it whatsoever, and if it gets serviced to the country airwaves, this will be another problem altogether, but for a moment, let’s ignore this because of the artist in question. Carrie Underwood has never claimed to be strictly country, has always released pop singles, and has even sent songs to pop radio. She’s never been holding the torch for traditional country, even if she’s been a beacon of talent in the mainstream, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that this single favors electronic beats over fiddle and steel.

What should be a surprise, however, and should be met with disgust by all Carrie Underwood fans everywhere, is the absolute butchering of a world-class voice by one, distorting and transforming her to sound almost robotic, and two, by forcing her to sing something so lacking in any measurable melody. This song relies on rhythm, except for one or two spots before the chorus where you hear Carrie break free and subsequently weep for the fact that her voice is kept constrained to these four or five notes and choppy rhythms. Carrie Underwood is better, and indeed, this song could have been better even for what it is had her voice been allowed to shine. This is Underwood’s best quality, and it’s being utterly ignored here. And let’s hope this is a standalone single and not some horrifying glimpse into the sound of her next album; country pop is one thing, straight pop is another, but singing pop infused with hip-hop phrasing and beats is on quite a different level and does not suit the particular vocal quality and talents of Carrie Underwood. The voice that gave us the stunning tribute to country’s fallen greats and the Las Vegas victims on live television should not be forced into these boxes in some sort of misguided effort to stay relevant.

And what about the part of Ludacris in all this? Well, admittedly, the spelling out of “champion” is a bit irritating, but his part actually comes off better than Carrie’s, and well it should, because Ludacris is at least in his lane here. Carrie Underwood doesn’t even sound comfortable singing this–which almost makes too much sense since she doesn’t ever sing stuff like this…but I digress.

But I don’t want to focus too much on Ludacris, for if this does stay a sports anthem, or even if it goes to pop radio, there won’t really be an issue with him. If this comes to country radio, again, obviously it’s a different story, but for now, Ludacris is not the problem with this song. The problem is it doesn’t fit Carrie Underwood in the slightest. So let’s hope it stays a harmless NFL hype song, and that her subsequent singles and album won’t carry this influence–because this, friends, is not Carrie Underwood, and it shows.

An Unapologetic Assessment of Kelsea Ballerini’s New Record

Country Rating: 0/10
Pop Rating: 6/10

The above rating discrepancy perfectly sums up what is wrong with mainstream country today–you can sing anything and have it be labeled country, never mind the definition or roots of that genre before now. Make no mistake, Kelsea Ballerini, although she did have some more pop country stuff on her debut album, has released, in Unapologetically, the most blatantly non-country thing I’ve heard in 2017 operating under that title. Thomas Rhett’s album is more country than this. Kesha’s album, though correctly labeled pop, is more country than this. This is like a complete “f you” to country music and all it stands for.

And this is arguably an even worse offense when you take into account the industry’s systematic discrimination of women, and factor in that Kelsea is not only pretty silent on the issue, but continues to take advantage of it for her own success. She was in the right place at the right time when Keith Hill made the infamous tomato statement, so she became country radio’s token female. Never mind that she’s got not one shred of country anywhere on her sophomore effort. It’s a pop record through and through, and for better or worse, mainstream country has demonstrated with alarming firmness that there are only so many slots for females, so Kelsea Ballerini becomes in a way even more polarizing than some of her male country counterparts as she mercilessly hogs one of the precious few slots to release immature pop music. When you think of all the talented and systematically overlooked women in country music, both of the more traditional and the more pop country persuasions, it’s hard not to cringe every time you hear “Dibs” or “Yeah Boy” gracing your radio dial.

But in this complicated era of country music and all things being marketed as such, some difficult situations sometimes arise. It’s easy to hate stuff like the aforementioned “Dibs” and write off Kelsea Ballerini as an immature pop princess, but what happens when she shows personal growth on her second effort? You could see glimpses of it even on her debut, though except for “Peter Pan,” her maturity wasn’t allowed to show in her singles. It doesn’t often happen, but how do you judge the music when it is so obviously mislabeled, yet it’s pretty decent music for its own genre?

In a just world, I wouldn’t be making assessments of albums so blatantly pop as this because they’d be in the correct genre, but the fact is, Ballerini called this country, and I have to call it out for not being country in the slightest. That said, music always comes first before genre lines, and Kelsea Ballerini has made a pretty decent pop album. I’m sorry she didn’t label it as such, but from now on, I’m going to review it as such, as that does more justice to Kelsea Ballerini and her music.

The most encouraging thing about this new record is Kelsea Ballerini’s obvious search for more depth and maturity. You’ve got songs like “High School,” where she sings of a guy who’s still stuck at seventeen, still driving his high school car, still calling his high school sweetheart, because he can’t grow up and move on. The girl continues to ignore his calls because she’s not looking for a relationship like this. It’s a much more realistic way of portraying high school than much of mainstream country, and Kelsea, in her twenties, is writing songs about growing up while men in their forties still sing about trucks and tailgates and cell phones like they’re still teenagers. She also shows maturity and vulnerability on “In Between,” which details all the ways she’s living in between a child and an adult; “Young enough to think I’ll live forever, old enough to know I won’t.” Again, a song like this shows a lot more self-awareness from Ballerini than we might have imagined she possessed after listening to stuff like “Yeah boy.”

She’s still exploring relationships for much of this record, just as on her debut, but again, the writing and themes go deeper. In the opener, instead of some bright, upbeat pop song, we get the dark, moody “Graveyard” that is comparing this guy to death essentially, as he takes the hearts of “hopeless, broken girls” and casually breaks them one by one, all to end up in his graveyard. It’s an interesting metaphor, and the production works well here. “Roses” is the more developed version of “Legends,” which, by the way, is slightly more bearable in the context of the album, but still remains pretty empty and shallow. “Roses” explores the same theme but compares the relationship to roses in that they are beautiful for a period but eventually die. “Miss me More,” although it suffers from some annoying production, is a pretty clever take on the aftermath of what seems to have been a controlling, abusive relationship. The narrator has lost friends and dressed differently than she would have, all for the sake of this guy, and now that it’s over, instead of missing him, she misses herself, the person she used to be. Another clever moment comes in “I Hate Love Songs,” as it makes fun of all the clichés associated with falling in love. She still loves her man, but it’s not a cliché. This song would be better if it weren’t sandwiched between two love songs, but taken on its own, it’s quite a cool piece of songwriting and one of the standouts.

There are still some major problems with this record, production being the worst. There’s some overproduced, annoying stuff going on in the chorus of “Miss me More” which serves to distract from an otherwise thoughtful track. “Machine Heart,” which is also one of the worst songs here in terms of writing, just sounds lifeless. This song really adds nothing at all to the project. “End of the World” isn’t a bad song and actually demonstrates Kelsea’s knack for melody quite well, but it’s underdeveloped lyrically, as we never really figure out why the narrator was at the end of the world in the first place. We hear that she found new love in a very dark place, but when you say things like, “gotta go through hell to get to heaven,” it leaves me wondering what hell entailed. “Unapologetically” is just forgettable, as well as being rather unfortunately placed after “I Hate Love Songs.” “Get Over Yourself” is a bit hard to decipher because it’s hard to tell whether she’s really over her ex, as the song states, or whether it’s meant to be an obvious lie, and we’re supposed to get that she’s lying to herself. I tend to go with the latter, which would make the writing better, but the writing ultimately isn’t quite clear enough, so it’s just kind of confusing. And “Legends” is still empty, bland, and boring, and absolutely the worst single to release for this and the worst way to close the album.

But there’s nothing here to make you cringe like many of Kelsea’s radio singles from her debut album. “Legends” is the worst offender here, and that’s just bland and uninteresting. It actually shows quite a bit of growth from Ballerini, and there’s definite improvement in her songwriting. There are some terrible production choices on this record, and fixing those might have even made this rise to a light 7. The parts that Kelsea Ballerini is responsible for aren’t bad at all, even if sorely mislabeled. It’s not fair to ignore the fact that this is not country in any universe, and I’ve made that perfectly clear. But it’s also unfair to overlook the improvements made by an artist, and Kelsea has shown improvement, as well as the ability to listen to her critics. A pop album through and through, but not a bad pop album by any stretch.

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Pop Spotlight: Yes, I’m Talking About Kesha’s Rainbow. Sue Me.

Why am I talking about Kesha’s latest album? Even taking into account I said awhile back I was going to start spotlighting non-country stuff occasionally, why this? It’s not as if it’s got any shortage of coverage.

Truthfully? Because it’s held my attention more than any other album these past couple weeks, especially during my small break from writing.

So then, why is this long-awaited Kesha album the one I keep coming back to at the moment, especially over country records?

Well, honestly, my initial interest had, as I”m sure is a commonality among people who paid attention to this project, to do with the drama surrounding Kesha and the release of this record. I wanted to know all about #FreeKesha, and whether she’d really made music that sounded different from her ridiculously processed, virtually lifeless party music from before. And then I listened to this record and was pleasantly surprised by a lot of things, not the least of them being that she seems to understand country better than the majority of mainstream country artists. It’s reflected in the cheating song “Hunt You Down,” which is reminiscent rhythmically of “Walk the Line,” and certainly in her version of Dolly Parton’s “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” which is both unique to her and a tasteful representation of the song. Her mother wrote this song, and Kesha grew up with classic country music. She’s obviously not country, but it’s plain to see that she does respect it, and it’s cool to see Dolly Parton joining her on this song like a nod of approval. The two sound surprisingly good together as well.

Admittedly, some of my fascination and connection with this album is personal. I don’t want to insinuate that I’ve experienced even half of what Kesha would have of us believe she went through, but at the same time, I can empathize to a certain, if small, degree, and a song like “Praying” just takes me out of a place of review altogether and just leaves me in a place of solidarity with her. This is just an incredible song honestly. You can tell she’s pouring her heart into it. The same goes for “Learn to Let you Go,” which is sort of the upbeat, less serious version of this one. She’s stronger in this one, but it’s still so honest. It’s the sincerity in these and some of the other straight pop songs that make this different from her previous material; this really is Kesha. You might not enjoy the style, but a lot of this is real. Music is supposed to make you feel something, and that’s what Kesha does for much of this album.

But she’s not always reflecting on her past either. “Boots” is a very cool, fun song that shows her having moved on and found love. “Woman” is sort of like a more mature version of one of her older songs, and “Bastards” and “Let ’em Talk,” although both serious, serve to provide a lighthearted way of saying we should ignore the well, bastards, in our lives, and move on from the hatred. This record ends like that with the very cool, very atmospheric “Spaceship,” where she asserts that in death, she’ll finally be able to escape all that hatred and fly off to her home in another galaxy. This one has got to be the most interesting as far as production, so if you are drawn to weird production, I urge you to check that one out.

So, if you like pop albums, this is absolutely the best one I have heard in 2017 without question. If you are more staunchly rooted in country, i still say check out “Hunt You down” and “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You).” If you like interesting production , there may be a lot for you to enjoy here because there’s quite a bit of diversity and certainly some intriguing collaboration choices. Some of you might just hate this because well, it’s not your style, but it pleasantly surprised me, and it gave me passion to write, which is more than I can say for many country projects that have come out recently. Not in the business of rating pop albums because well, for one, I don’t listen to them as regularly as country and therefore don’t have as much to compare this to, and also because I’m no authority on pop music, but if I’m just rating this against stuff I’ve heard in 2017, without consideration of genre, this gets a solid, strong 8.

Standout Tracks: “Praying,” “Boots,” “hunt You Down,” “Spaceship,” “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)”

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