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Posts Tagged ‘Pop’

Annie – “Out of Reach”

December 30, 2016 Leave a comment

Before there was Carly Rae Jepsen and Kristin Kontrol, there was Annie. The Norwegian singer gained some amount of fame over a decade ago with her 2004 album, Anniemal, which was a hit on music blogs back when music blogs were semi-relevant and people read them. I heard the album a few years later, when I was a stereotypical indie snob who looked down on any kind of pop music, and it helped convert me into someone who saw the craft and emotion that good pop can have.

Annie has fallen out of the limelight since, in part due to not being a very prolific artist (she’s released just one full length since Anniemal, 2009’s underrated Don’t Stop) and in part due to music websites turning into PR factories for established pop stars. Once Pitchfork and the others started celebrating celebrity-driven pop made by Beyonce, Drake and Rihanna and covering their every move, there wasn’t room for artists like Annie, who had found her niche as a pop artist for the people who enjoyed a good song but didn’t particularly care about the public lives of famous people.

That’s why I missed Annie’s Endless Vacation EP in 2015; it got some token reviews from websites, but virtually no discussion that could be heard over everyone clamoring for Taylor Swift and others. It turned out to be one of the releases in I listened to the most in 2016, and has a couple perfect Annie songs on it: the opening track, “Kiara Mia,” and “Out of Reach,” which I think is the best song she’s ever recorded.

At its best, Annie’s music combines the blissful feeling of pop with melancholic, wistful lyrics, like on “Heartbeat,” which was the song she was most known for back in 2004. “Out of Reach” is like the platonic ideal of this type of pop song, with a tropical sound, Annie’s light, dreamy vocals and lyrics that I find deeply relatable and poignant. On the surface, it tells the story of a potential lover that got away, but for me it taps into deeper feelings of how I live my life and parts of me I want to change.

I’m a very introverted, passive person, and it leads to me always feeling like I’m missing out on something in the moment because I’m too scared to go out of my comfort zone. Then, like Annie on this song, I spend time in the present dwelling on those mistakes in the past; the possible friends I could have made, the dumb things I said, the various forks in the road where I went down a path I wish I hadn’t. I assume this is a somewhat universal thing, but I am egregiously bad about it, and instead of confronting the issue head-on, I tend to stay to myself and listen to songs like “Out of Reach” while avoiding human contact.

I am not typically a New Year’s resolution type of person (I’m more one of those obnoxious “YEARS ARE JUST CONSTRUCTS THAT MEAN NOTHING” people), but in 2017 one of my hopes is I can be less of a recluse and take some of those chances that I’ve avoided in the past. And I don’t know if I would have been fully motivated to do that if not for “Out of Reach” and how perfectly it articulates that human experience.

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#9: Cléa Vincent – “Retiens Mon Désir”

December 16, 2016 Leave a comment

I’ve only really dabbled in French pop, but Cléa Vincent instantly reminded me of one of my favorites: Isabelle Antena, who back in the 80s combined electronic dream pop and Brazilian bossa nova, which was best showcased on her album Camino Del Sol. Like Antena, Vincent makes songs that are elegant and refined (it might just be that she’s French and I’m a boorish American), but her focus is more on the dancefloor, with a sound somewhere between Antena’s and the mutant disco stylings of Lizzy Mercier Descloux.

Vincent funnels those older styles through a modern pop sensibility, using a lot of colorful sounds and instruments to craft catchy hooks. Her music is instantly very warm and inviting, but is also tinged with a bit of melancholy. It’s that “I’m sad, let’s dance” style of pop, like on “Château Perdu,” which starts as a downbeat piano ballad before turning into a joyous saxophone-driven dance floor freakout.

This is another album where I don’t understand any of the words, but they feel even less necessary here, since pop music almost never relies on its lyrics to be enjoyable. (There’s also some practical application: lyrics distract me when I’m working, so this album soundtracked a lot of my writing.) Instead, it’s easy to bask in Vincent’s sunny productions and her charm as a singer, which made Retiens Mon Désir one of the year’s most satisfying pop diversions.

Kristin Kontrol – “X-Communicate”

August 22, 2016 Leave a comment

As the mastermind behind Dum Dum Girls, Kristin Welchez (at the time known as DeeDee) perfected the art of making the old seem new again. From album to album, the band traveled through time, morphing their sound around influences from different decades while still sounding like the same group. They peaked with 2014’s Too True, which went back to the 80s with a Siouxsie and the Banshees meets C86 aesthetic and was one of my favorite albums from that year.

Artists are often pressured to make music that is confessional, where they reveal their darkest fears and sing about horrible things that have happened to them. But in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin made a point of remaining anonymous — the band always had a focused style with the members dressing alike, and she rarely sang overtly personal lyrics. Now she has left Dum Dum Girls behind, but chosen to remain behind a veil of anonymity with the persona Kristin Kontrol, a name that I doubt is a coincidence. After years of being in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin has expressed frustration with how she felt boxed-in by the group and the preconceptions people had about it. With X-Communicate, she retakes control of her musical identity and the result is the closest she has come to an individual statement.

Kristin’s personality comes through more in the construction of her songs than her lyrics. Something I noticed about the last Dum Dum Girls album was how much I appreciated a band that could just craft simple pop songs that sounded good without relying on goofy instrumentation or other gimmickry. This is a gift Kristin has that has translated to X-Communicate, and it comes from her deep knowledge of pop music and what her idols have done before her to make it great.

And while Dum Dum Girls could sometimes be justifiably knocked for being too into nostalgia, X-Communicate feels more like a current pop statement. Similar to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, it is borrowing from the past to make music that feels fresher than what is actually trendy right now. It also has the same feeling of an artist breaking free from how they have been perceived and starting a new musical life for themselves through pop music.

For most of her career, Kristin has had one foot in pop and the other foot in “indie.” The biggest difference on X-Communicate is that it is pure pop, which allows her more room to showcase her vocals compared to some of the more minimalist music she made in the past. The songs also have a lot more rhythm than her previous music did, with prominent bass and danceable beats, and guitar takes a backseat to keyboards and synthesizers as she channels pop from the 80s.

The fifth track, “Skin Shed,” most obviously states the album’s theme of reinvention, and near the end Kristin name-drops Nina Simone and Stevie Nicks. X-Communicate is a worthy tribute to those artists and others that Kristin idolized, and is also proof that she can stand on her own as a solo artist.

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Carly Rae Jepsen: An Appreciation

October 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Like most people, my first exposure to Carly Rae Jepsen was her inescapable smash hit “Call Me Maybe.” At the time, it was frequently derided as obnoxious, but I secretly kind of loved it. It was catchy and fun, but it also felt different from other music on the radio, in part because of Jepsen’s personality, which comes through in the song’s title.

“Call Me” obviously makes me think of the Blondie song, which had Debbie Harry’s confidence and cool. Pop music is often about those two traits, with artists exuding swagger and needing to appear like they’re on the cutting edge. “Call Me Maybe” added that one word — “maybe” — which gave it such a different feeling from all that other music. It was a song about not being confident: “Call me… maybe?” Uncertainty and shyness are rarely traits I hear in pop, and it endeared Jepsen a lot in my mind, because within the artifice of pop music she felt like a real person.

Since “Call Me Maybe,” I’ve become more annoyed at how egotistical so much pop is. So many songs are only commentaries on the artists’ own celebrity, whether it’s addressing their “haters,” talking up their own skills, or lashing out at the media that covers them. I never quite know what I’m supposed to get out of that as a listener. Am I supposed to care that a very popular artist apparently has haters, or about how they’re living it up in NYC? Even the catchiest chorus can’t make up for not caring about the artist’s lyrics and personality.

Part of the appeal of Jepsen’s new album, Emotion, is how it avoids these self-involved pop tropes and instead focuses on the sort of lyrics that have been the bread-and-butter of pop music forever, about love, falling in love, loving love, and various other love-based things. This has been perceived by some as a flaw in Emotion — that its songs are too blank and don’t reveal enough about Jepsen herself — but in the current landscape I find it to be a strength, an antidote to the increasingly viral nature of pop. When so much pop is about branding and being a phenomenon, the focus Emotion puts on crafting actual songs gives it a humble, even admirable quality.

And it helps that the craft on Emotion is really, really, really good. Jepsen reportedly wrote a massive number of songs, working with an army of producers at several recording studios before picking out the best ones for the album. This lengthy recording process is the opposite of what was expected of her after “Call Me Maybe” blew up and she rushed out her previous album. When she was already being predicted as a one-hit wonder, the logic was that she should strike while the iron is hot, before people forgot who she was. Instead, she took her time to make sure the songs fit together and sounded the way she wanted, which is why Emotion feels like a single artistic vision despite the cavalcade of personnel attached to it.

Emotion won’t yield a “Call Me Maybe” level hit, but that isn’t the point. Jepsen’s goal was to make a pop album (yes, an album) that sounded timeless, that wasn’t the product of novelty. Given some of the gems on this album like “Run Away With Me,” it’s hard to argue that she didn’t succeed.