Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Brooklyn indie-folk band spread further on sophomore LP.
There's no shortage of creative curveballs on Big Thief's second effort. The unfurling transformation of "Coma" from demo to all-absorbing hypnosis; the looped banjos of "Object"; the sparseness of Gaelic sermon "Mary"; the sharp shift between bright pop momentum on "Shark Smile" and the heavy-plods of chaser "Capacity". However, it feels more competitive than complimentary, serving as a noble attempt to counterweight the looming presence of vocalist Adrianne Lenker. Her astute observations and harrowing hushed delivery remain a constant centrepiece, striking such prominence that the songs end up sounding quite similar.
Star navigates a less bombastic pop universe on fifth full-length.
After steadily charting nine Number One hits since 2008, anthem-roarer Katy Perry is stumbling through the fog and strobes of a less bombastic pop universe. Fourth album Witness surfs on gentler throbs of house music and lets ballads smush into art-pop soup. It's all a perfect fit for a Hot 100 dominated by the subtle, nuanced, EDM-informed music of artists like Halsey, Camila Cabello and Troye Sivan. But subtle and nuanced was never the calling card of the artist behind songs like "I Kissed a Girl." Perry has replaced the eye of the tiger with the heart of a contemporary night owl, making an album of mostly moody, dreamy, reserved music – and one double-entendre-filled, AC/DC-ready food fight in "Bon Appetit." In turn, a pop icon blends into the rest of the radio.
Working with super-producer Max Martin and a list of modern cool kids (Duke Dumont, Jack Garratt, Corin Roddick of synth-pop band Purity Ring), Witness is a mish-mash of electronic-leaning pop: the currently trendy revival of British 2-step ("Witness"), a dancehall/disco smash-up ("Chained to the Rhythm"), fake Sam Smith ("Save as Draft") and a look back on vintage early-Nineties house music ("Swish") that jacks the same Roland Clark sample that Fatboy Slim did in 2000. Throughout, Perry is less like the so-unusual, candy-coated Cyndi Lauper of "Teenage Dream," and is more an anonymous disco crooner, a breathy moderator leading us through passionate but muted songs of longing and empowerment.
A brassy voice that once held long notes and sang lines like "I am a champion" is now devoured in effects and reverb, rarely reaching the excited joy of punkier electronic-poppers like Robyn, Charli XCX or even recent singles from Lorde. The exceptions are "Roulette," an explosive EDM Eurythmics update (produced by Martin and Shellback), and the gospel-choir-assisted "Pendulum," which brings a vintage Perry vocal performance to some late-Eighties filigrees by Kanye producer Jeff Bhasker. But her advice in that song doubles as a criticism: "Don't try and reinvent your wheel/'Cause you’re too original."
The true king bids adieu with effortless wit, riffs and wisdom.
In the wake of his March passing, Chuck Berry's first studio album in 38 years is obviously more than a face-value proposition. The all-in guitar boogie of the opening track, "Wonderful Woman", is both a broad embrace to all who cherish his signature duck-walking style and a profoundly personal celebration as three generations of the Berry family trade licks between lusty verses about love gone by.
"Big Boys" mines the same timeless feelgood rock & roll vein. It opens with yet another variation on that trademark "Johnny B"/"Beethoven" riff, then tumble-turns through a tale of wide-eyed youth that manages to uncork the exuberance of the eternal teen like – well, like Chuck Berry on a roll.
It's hard to feel quite so involved in his slow-stomping cover of Tinpan Alley standard "You Go To My Head", or in the sentimental croon of his own "Darlin'", but it's harder still to begrudge a couple of last, slow-dancing duets with his daughter, Ingrid.
A live Tony Joe White nugget and a fond bookend to history in "Lady B. Goode" pad a soft mid-section, amply redeemed in the last two tracks. In the enigmatic spoken-word fable "Dutchman" and the breezy closing wisdom of "Eyes of Man", the gracefully departing pioneer displays an undimmed gift for the loaded conversational rhymes that founded the reference library of rock & roll.
British ambient pop trio play it safe on uneven sophomore record.
It's hard to imagine Jamie "xx" Smith much likes London Grammar being compared to his band. He'd have reason to groan, too – while London Grammar's first album enjoyed the rare combination of critical acclaim and huge international sales, their second is less impressive, a dirge-heavy collection that lacks the colourful counterpoints of its predecessor – and certainly the boundless imagination of Smith's work.
Hannah Reid's vocals are undeniably arresting – she's got lungs to match Florence Welch's – but the songs lack the range of her clarion alto. Lyrically, too, Reid stumbles – "follow your dreams" on repeat in "Wild Eyed" is hard to stomach, and her reminder that "Maybe what we are and what we need, they're different things" (shock horror!) cripples "Non-Believer", an otherwise palatable track about her scepticism of a friend's new lover.
Some songs work, among them "Big Picture", produced by Jon Hopkins, with lovely arpeggiated guitar chords rippling under an equally pretty chorus; close relative "Who Am I"; and "Everyone Else", Dan Rothman's guitar imparting a lilting lightness over Dot Major's mannered percussion. But producer Paul Epworth, old hat at making mighty-voiced women (Adele, Florence Welch) sound ever more grandiose, fails to guide his young charges towards much new or exciting – unlike, say, the beat-driven "Metal and Dust" or bongos-laced "Flickers" from their debut – and the album suffers for it.
In a celebratory mood, Callinan collabs with international friends.
Album two sees Sydney's enfant terrible parlaying more of his shit-stirring persona into his music. "Night on the piss, the shit hits the fan," he deadpans in his laconic drawl on "My Moment", a creeper that culminates in garish EDM sirens, while "S.A.D" is a balls-out electro-ballad... about drugs. This is Callinan's dance record, filled with typically wry lyrics, amusing cameos – Jimmy Barnes lends his howl to "Big Enough" – and Callinan's cool cronies (he counts Connan Mockasin, Weyes Blood and Jorge Elbrecht among his friends and fans). The power-ballad finale, though, is more self-aware than silly, as Callinan admits, "it was all bravado".
Ultra-bubbly love songs that don't linger long.
From the stadium-sized sparkle of opener "J-Boy", it's clear Phoenix are playing it straighter than on 2013's subversive Bankrupt!. In fact, the Parisian quartet celebrate much of the luxury they skewered last time. They also embrace gushing romance, with frontman Thomas Mars professing love in multiple languages on the title track before cooing "We're meant to get it on" amid "Fior Di Latte". While still mingling swanky and sleazy impulses, the band tap the high-gloss euphoria of the Bee Gees and ABBA with these synth-licked, dance-slanted songs. But for all its streamlined craftsmanship, Ti Amo suffers from a certain weightlessness, trafficking in pleasures most fleeting.
Massive retrospective features previously unreleased concert recording, remixes, B-sides, outtakes and a book of photography by the Edge
The Joshua Tree, released in 1987, is U2 at their biggest: 11 sweeping, aching anthems to self-doubt, humanity, hope and America-focused anxiety – all straightforward and pop-savvy enough to propel them from arenas to stadiums. It was the fastest-selling album in U.S. chart history when it topped Billboard in 1987, and currently sits at 10 times platinum, an album so huge that the band is playing the record in its entirety on an arena tour 30 years later. The second retrospective box set (the first appeared in 2007) is a giant, four-CD (or weighty seven-LP) collection that features the pristine-sounding original album, a previously unreleased concert recording from New York, new remixes, B-sides, never-before-released outtakes and a book of photography by the Edge.
The band sound energised and even playful on the Madison Square Garden performance (fans may recognise the gospel-tinged "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with its Bob Marley outro from 1988's Rattle and Hum). Bono does his best preacher impression on "Bullet the Blue Sky," while the Edge plays soaring, Led Zeppelin-y slide guitar. The ominous meditation on a psycho killer, "Exit," features a snippet of Them's "Gloria," à la Patti Smith. Bono yells, "Fuck it up, Edge" before the solo in "In God's Country," and he calls the "Trip Through Your Wires" "sort of a love song" that he dedicates to himself. It's a brilliant snapshot of the band, even if it omits the cover of the Beatles' "Help" and their own "Bad" and "Spanish Eyes," all played that night. (A concert film of this show, or any other on the original Joshua Tree tour, is the only missing ingredient in the box.)
It's notable that the band chose a recording from New York for this set, as Joshua Tree plays like a bittersweet love letter to the U.S., from the angsty "Bullet the Blue Sky" to the uneasy "In God's Country." "As the album was being recorded, we consciously tried to evoke the landscapes of America with our music," the Edge wrote in an essay accompanying his photos. "This mythical America or 'Amerika' – described for us in the movies of Scorsese, Coppola, Wim Wenders, in the music of the blues, and by the authors we were reading at the time ... was a place of fascination for us. The promised land, both brutal and beautiful." Imbued with their own distinctly Irish viewpoint (captured most notably in "Red Hill Mining Town," written a few years after the U.K.'s mining strike, and "Running to Stand Still," about a heroin-addicted couple in Dublin), it's a note they never struck quite the same way again. But it's rich enough to resonate in new ways decades later, especially in the some of the LP's attendant deep cuts.
The previously unreleased Steve Lillywhite alternate version of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" presents the song as more of a straight-ahead rock song with acoustic rhythm guitar and almost funky rhythms. Co-producer Brian Eno's "One Tree Hill Reprise," made this year, presents a more impressionistic and altogether Eno-esque take on the album standout, adding swelling string sounds before fading away like a river to the sea. The rest of the outtakes and B-sides, which appeared on the 20th anniversary box set in 2007, provide looks at the streets with no name the band daren't not travel, including the original version of "Sweetest Thing," the moody "Wave of Sorrow," springy "Rise Up" and ambient "Race Against Time." "Drunk Chicken/America," which features an Allen Ginsberg poem, is also weird enough to show they knew how to cut loose.
The only dicey part is an uneven disc of six remixes: some provide new insights, others fall flat. Jacknife Lee's "Bullet the Blue Sky" presents the hard-rocking track as something of a slamming Nine Inch Nails industro-rocker with a cleaner take on Bono's vocals; and co-producer Daniel Lanois turns "Running to Stand Still" into a sweet crooner. Worst are a pair of exercises in restraint: a decidedly minimalistic "With or Without You," for which Lanois has removed all vestiges of the Edge's guitar, and a downright bizarrely muted, unenjoyable interpretation of "Where the Streets Have No Name," which mostly sounds like you're hearing the tune through your neighbour's wall, courtesy of longtime U2 collaborator Flood. But these are mostly curiosities packaged in a wealth of material. With three other discs and a book of the Edge's moving black & white portraits of the band in the California desert, the box is a thorough portrait of a band on the verge, ready to burst into the arms of America and the rest of the world.
Newcomer pushes to the front of the pack with punchy pop debut.
She's got hooks that rank with Lady Gaga's best, a husky croon reminiscent of Amy Winehouse and the sultry insouciance of Charli XCX, and if her debut album's anything to go by, 21-year-old Dua Lipa might just be the breakout star of 2017. A mix of hip-hop, power ballads, tropi-synths and traces of EDM, the one constant throughout is Lipa's smokey vocals – poured over plinking synths and a propulsive beat on the glorious "Be the One", and saucily convincing on "IDGAF" and the cockney-chorused "Blow Your Mind (Mwah)". It's not quite "dark pop", as Lipa calls it, but it's real, diverse and assured – a rare triple threat in pop.
Three-year wait over for second album from New Orleans rocker.
"It's like everything I touch is gold," sings Booker on opener "Right On You", and you can forgive the boy for such a line in the wake of his superb self-titled debut of 2014. On this follow-up the 28-year-old has moved away from robust garage-blues towards a more reflective, melodic statement. With the earworm "Truth Is Heavy", the gospel-inflected title track and the string-laden "Believe", Booker exhibits an expansive and sensitive talent with an acute understanding, and a highly distinctive interpretation, of the soul tradition. While there is nothing as electric as "Violent Shiver" from his first LP, he is maturing beautifully.
Former Pink Floyd man sounds a fiery return.
Roger Waters has been both one of Pink Floyd's biggest critics and best ambassadors, which is easy to do when you've been touring The Wall and haven't released your own rock originals since 1992. So it's refreshing that his return to the studio is both familiar and angry. The raw, spacious production by Nigel Godrich brings to mind Dark Side of the Moon, eschewing digital studio trickery in favour of analog synths, live instrumentation and tape loops. Fuelled by Trump-era outrage, Waters' venomous political barbs have never sounded so relevant. Like Bowie's Black Star, this is an exciting, career-defining record from a man in his 70s.
Electro-pop debut offers plenty of style but little substance.
UK singer/guitarist Pixx (born Hannah Rodgers) has given her debut LP a title that hints at an examination of our fractured modern era, but the content within tells a different story: there are songs about waterslides ("Waterslides"), not wanting toes to be stepped on ("Toes"), and having a desire to dance like the rest of the girls ("The Girls"). Pixx may not dive deep, but she has art-school style to burn and a reasonable feel for Grimes-esque warped electro-pop. The problem is that Pixx isn't idiosyncratic enough to intrigue (her polite, over-enunciating voice is fine but undistinguished, like a Gen Y Dido) or able to create pop earwormy enough to endure.
English suburbia provides unlikely inspiration for UK pop trio.
Taking inspiration from the tidy towns and dull suburbs that surround London sounds like a fool's errand. But this English trio has long known how to sprinkle some sparkle on the ordinary. Their ninth album is another boot sale of pop ephemera, throwing in Latin disco-pop ("Dive"), Italo-pop ("Underneath the Apple Tree") and Stereolab-style Kraut-pop ("Magpie Eyes"). And in "Out Of My Mind" they've created a dance-pop earworm that could be a hit if handed to Kylie. The concept stretches over 19 tracks, before Sarah Cracknell recites train station names and explains the allure of the home counties on "Sweet Arcadia".
An expanded new edition helps us rediscover the band's 1967 masterwork.
In 2006, the Beatles coaxed producer George Martin out of retirement to remix and rearrange several of their iconic songs for Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas stage production Love. Martin, though, had a worry: At age 80 his hearing had turned difficult, and so he brought in a collaborator: his son Giles. The younger Martin had produced classical music, as well as recordings by Kula Shaker, Jeff Beck, Elvis Costello and Kate Bush. "He's my ears," George Martin said. What ears they turned out to be: Giles recombined parts of many of the Beatles' songs into a mash-up of the band's audio history, sometimes encapsulating much of it in a single song. "Get Back" opened with George Harrison's memorable thrum from "A Hard Day's Night" and Ringo Starr's drum prologue from "The End," caught sight of an overpassing jet from "Back in the U.S.S.R.," pulled in part of the audience's expectant murmur from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and borrowed a bit of the orchestral swell from "A Day in the Life," landing on John Lennon's "Glass Onion."
The results proved radical and revelatory and conveyed how resilient and exciting the band's music remains – and how beautifully and imaginatively George Martin had produced it all in the first place, working with four-track recorders and inventing new sounds and technology. With Love, Giles Martin did what nobody had ever done successfully before: He reconfigured the Beatles' sounds into an alternate soundmap, making it plain these decades old songs still had revelations and delights for contemporary ears. When Love was over, you didn't want it to be – much like many viewed the Beatles themselves.
Now, the surviving band members and their legatees have authorised the reconsideration of a major canonical work: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, originally released 50 years ago on June 1st, 1967, in England, and the following day in the U.S. The new Pepper comes in various packages: single and double CDs, a deluxe box of four CDs and two DVDs (containing videos and 5.1 surround mixes of the original album), as well as a double LP that, like most versions here, includes several of the album's original developing and alternate tracks. All editions feature a stereo remix by Giles Martin (George Martin died in 2016, at 90) and Abbey Road audio engineer Sam Okell. The ambition might seem a bit of a risk or even redundant. After all, Sgt. Pepper has been considered by many as not just rock's greatest moment, but also as a central touchstone for the 1960s – an exemplar for a generation that was forging new ideals, and granting themselves new permissions, including the use of psychedelic drugs. The Beatles had already done a lot to make that change possible, but Sgt. Pepper – coming along at a time when many thought the Beatles superfluous, in the face of other new adventurous bands and records – crystallised it all. Langdon Winner later wrote in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: "For a brief while, the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young."
Additionally, Sgt. Pepper's groundbreaking sonics – its mix of pioneering textures, complex composition and inventive recording techniques –also won the album standing as a legitimate art form that revised and extended classical music's archetypes. (This achievement also imbued much of rock itself with a new prestige and aspiration.) In part, the unprecedented acclaim resulted from Paul McCartney's insistence on the album as a conceptual song cycle that existed as a whole entity: The Beatles, posed in ornate Victorian brass-band military costumery on the cover, were playing a fictional band, singing from perspectives free of any indebtedness to their prior musical sensibility and well-established images. (Ringo Starr later described it as "a bunch of songs and you stick two bits of 'Pepper' on it and it's a concept album. It worked because we said it worked.")
But that was 50 years ago. A lot changed – including the Beatles, who ended acrimoniously in 1970. What can we learn now from Sgt. Pepper's new incarnation? As it turns out, Giles Martin reveals considerable new wonders – particularly in his stereo remix of the original album (which appears in all the new editions, and as a standalone disc and digital download). The remix, in fact, provides a long overdue epiphany. Martin observes in his liner notes: "The original Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was primarily mixed as a mono album. All care and attention were applied to the mono LP, with the Beatles present for all the mixes. ... Almost as an afterthought, the stereo album was mixed very quickly without the Beatles at the sessions. Yet it is the stereo album that most people listen to today." In other words, popular music's most elaborate and intricate creation – and one that helped end the mono era – wasn't made to be heard in stereo.
Perhaps that's been Sgt. Pepper's unlikeliest secret, though for those who compared the original mixes over the years the difference was noteworthy: The mono version hit harder, sounded fuller, whereas the stereo soundstage diffused that force. You hear it from the start: The mono version of the title track jolted full-force, particularly in the collusion of Paul McCartney's bass and Ringo Starr's storming drums. Martin has said that in attending to the new album's mix he was aiming for a "3-D mono" rendition – and he has achieved it. The titular opening track finally jumps out of the speakers in a more centralised stereo: It's sharp, vivid, forward leaning – the sound of a big band doing very big things and not fucking around about it one bit. Indeed, everything here is more vibrant and forceful; it's for the ears of today. Ringo's three-beat drum salvo that launches the chorus in "Lucy in the Sky" now gives new gravity to the song's hallucinogenic imagery and chimerical whirl; "Getting Better" has an aggression that belies the song's title claim, making clearer the idea that this is a song about a fucked-up man contending to overcome himself and confessing his flaws and confusion; "Good Morning Good Morning"'s horns and relentless rhythms propel the distress implicit in John Lennon's vocal (Lennon later said he was going through a personal hell as the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, and this song reflects that); and "A Day in the Life" acquires even more frighteningly palpable depth. The song has always stood outside of Sgt. Pepper's phantasmagoria. It was a vision of dreams, death, chaos, revelation, and it held and scared us as it faded into a final oceanic piano chord, reverberating around a room of keyboards. That moment now holds and scares even more; its finality sounds boundless.
Extra discs in the various Pepper packages consist mostly of the album's tracks in development (the fourth of the six-disc box showcases mono versions). It's particularly fascinating to hear the simple and spare origins of John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" (recorded for the album but released earlier in February 1967 as a single, along with "Penny Lane") and "A Day in the Life." Both songs sound abstracted and simple at their outset, then grow otherworldly; they are mesmerizing transfigurations, and they transmute right before our ears. Some songs arguably benefit from their fundamental, pre-effects treatment: "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is spookier in its Take 4 version, and much warmer in Take 7, with McCartney's pumping bass steps and Ringo's razor-sharp cymbal accents. Similarly, newly released takes of "With a Little Help From My Friends," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "Lovely Rita" and "Fixing a Hole" demonstrate that before curlicues and overdubs were added there was still a quartet sensibility at the heart of most of this music (The Beatles never would have made this music had they kept touring, but contrary any claims, they could have effectively played almost everything here live and stripped.) You especially feel the band as a tight unit in "Getting Better," "Good Morning Good Morning" and the blazing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)."
By contrast, "She's Leaving Home" which featured Paul and John's voices accompanied by a string nonet but none of the other Beatles. (The song's writing credit now appears solely as Paul McCartney's. Several other credits have shifted as well: the title track, along with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "When I'm 64," "Good Morning Good Morning," "With a Little Help from My Friends," "Getting Better" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" appear as McCartney-Lennon creations, rather than the more familiar Lennon-McCartney attribution. "A Day in the Life" shows as Lennon composition, while "Lovely Rita," "Fixing a Hole" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" appear under the original Lennon-McCartney arrangement.) George Harrison's "Within You Without You" stands outside the Beatles. Harrison set aside his guitar, instead playing sitar and conducting Indian classical musicians while George Martin conducted a conventional classical string section. "Within You Without You" was derided by some as tedious and preachy, but it has weathered beautifully. Sgt. Pepper has often been characterized as a gestalt: a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. But Harrison's Hindustani song and Lennon's "A Day in the Life" proved the exceptions. "Within You Without You"'s message of transcendence and unity – and of haughty judgement – was, as one critic observed, the conscience of Sgt. Pepper. "A Day in the Life," the album's closer, dispelled the whole fantasia that had come before. It was haunted – the ghost that outlasted the dream.
Sgt. Pepper's moment – its glimpse of a Garden of Eden, its florid sensibility, its depiction of "Cellophane flowers of yellow and green/Towering over your head" – could not hold. Bob Dylan moved back to folk music late that same year with John Wesley Harding – never once touching psychedelia – and the Rolling Stones reasserted rock & roll as a gritty, edgy, blues-based vocation with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," in April 1968. The Beatles were chagrined. The year following Sgt. Pepper's release, Lennon himself deprecated it as "the biggest load of shit we've ever done." By 1969 the Beatles had adopted a new motto: "Get back to where you once belonged," and proceeded accordingly, until they fell apart. Even so, the album itself never fell from its pedestal. It has always been seen as an unsurpassed milestone. Not so much for its psychedelic vision, rather for what it set loose in form, cohesion, texture, layers, adventurism, technology and utter boldness. Those possibilities bore fruit across the breadth of popular music, in Born to Run, Around the World in a Day, OK Computer, Yeezus, Lemonade and To Pimp a Butterfly, among countless others. Also, George Harrison's "Within You Without You" opened ears not only to Indian sounds but to widening vistas of world music. We live in soundscapes now that Sgt. Pepper helped lay the groundwork for.
Above all, though, the album represented accord and imagination as means to enlightenment – a last bulwark of agreement before the dark set in. We have lost a lot since the summer of 1967, including any more chance of being naïve. But now, thanks to Giles Martin, we can hear the Beatles' apogee as it was always meant to be heard. That won't save the world, but it can still beguile us, and that remains a generous miracle.
Note: There have been some questions about the reconfigured songwriting credits as they were itemised in the review. iTunes' composer column lists the writing credits for the main disc of the 6-disc of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition) as they appear in this review. Other editions of the 50th Anniversary sets – including the 2-disc and iTunes download versions, and the mono disc in the box set – retain the traditional credits of Lennon/McCartney for all songs, with the exception of "Within You Within Out You," by George Harrison.
Main illustration by Goni Montes.
Black Keys man leaves the garage for some country-pop sunshine.
You already know what this will sound like, right? Swampy blues-rock rhythms, fat and fuzzy riffs and howling vocals, all covered in a slick of garage rock grease. I mean, it's the singer-guitarist from the Black Keys, after all.
Well, you're wrong. Auerbach has done what few guys in well-known bands do – he's made a solo album that isn't just a pale facsimile of his regular gig. He does it in a couple of ways. Firstly, he collaborates and plays with some names that help him change his game – 70-year-old country songwriting royalty John Prine puts his smart storytelling stamp on seven co-written songs; Duane Eddy (yes, Duane freaking Eddy!) twangs away on two tracks; two members of the Memphis Boys, the house band on hits by everyone from Elvis to Neil Diamond, are behind him.
And secondly, he makes Waiting On a Song unfold like a Seventies AM radio station playlist, when country, soul, blues and pop mixed things up with warm and sparkling results. The title track, with its Motown bass line and chiming glockenspiels, is a song about trying to write a song; "Malibu Man" is tricked out with countrypolitan strings and horns; and "Shine On Me" chugs and hums along like a Jeff Lynne-produced slice of Wilbury-like pop. And that Mark Knopfler-esque guitar? Well, that would be Mark Knopfler. Yes, Mark freaking Knopfler!
The star's second album is a sprawling breakup epic full of dystopian synth-pop realness.
It makes sense that Halsey proclaims herself a "Marvel nerd," because she definitely nailed the origin story. Born in 1994, just a couple of weeks after Biggie dropped his debut Ready to Die, she blew up into an out-of-nowhere pop icon with her breakout hymn "New Americana," speaking for a new generation of electro-angst youth: "High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana." Halsey keeps levelling up her pop-rebel game, being her own loud and messy self in public, with the sass of a confessed "fucked-up stoner kid" who grew up as a suburban Jersey girl named Ashley Nicolette Frangipane and renamed herself after a Bed-Stuy L train station. Bisexual, biracial, bipolar, but definitely not buying your next drink, she comes on like God's gift to hashtags, almost daring the straight world to keep underestimating her.
Halsey shows off all her wild musical ambitions on Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, a bold second album that consolidates all the strengths of her 2015 debut Badlands. It's her sprawling science-fiction breakup tale, indulging her taste for wide-screen melodrama – she begins the album by reciting the prologue from Romeo and Juliet, introducing a tale of star-crossed lovers trying to break free from the fatal loins of their families. (Halsey even has a line from Romeo and Juliet inked on her arm: "These violent delights have violent ends.") But of course, in her hands, it turns into the story of a restless young pop star who jets around the world, leaving shattered hearts in her wake, yet still can't find true love, admitting, "I have spent too many nights on dirty bathroom floors."
Halsey keeps Hopeless Fountain Kingdom moving, going for adult dystopian synth-pop realness. She's out to make damn sure nobody mistakes her for some harmless starlet who served as sultry hook girl on that Chainsmokers hit; she shakes off that image like she's dumping a mattress she stole from her roommate back in Boulder. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom sounds more like Trent Reznor's "Closer" than the Chainsmokers' – with flourishes of industrial clank and guitar grind in "100 Letters" ("I find myself alone at night unless I'm having sex"), "Heaven In Hiding" or "Alone." Her Shakespeare-as-Depeche Mode concept holds up even as the tracks jump from one usual mega-producer suspect to the next – Gregg Kurstin to Benny Bianco to Lido.
She duets with Migos' Quavo in "Lies," which presents both sides of a strange relationship gone off the rails, as she sneers, "Are you misled?/I gave you the messiest head." "Good Mourning" is an odd one-minute interlude with a little kid saying, "All I know is a hopeless place that flows with the blood of my kin." "Bad at Love" is a Kiss-worthy tour of beds she's wrecked around the world, from "I got a boy back home in Michigan/And he tastes like Jack when I'm kissing him" to "Got a girl with California eyes." Most daringly of all, Halsey strips down musically to lean on her voice in the vulnerable piano ballad "Sorry," where she worries whether she'll ever like herself enough to let anyone get close to her. She's hardly the first twenty-something pop upstart to face this dilemma. But judging from Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Halsey could go anywhere from here.
First album in six years from Byron singer-songwriter.
A glance at the people Pete Murray has worked with on his sixth album – Trials (A.B Original), producers Tony Buchen (Montaigne) and One Above (Hilltop Hoods) – might suggest a drastic sonic change from the Byron singer-songwriter. Camacho isn't that big a left-turn, though there are production tweaks on songs like "Connected" that until now wouldn't have been associated with Murray's cruisy vocal croon. Camacho is at its best when Murray throws in a few surprises – see the tasty horns in "Give Me Your Love" – but such moments are more the exception than the rule. Still, Camacho is reliable and solid, which has always worked just fine for Murray.