album reviews

Shura — “Nothing’s Real”

A dreamy, hazy intro is the first thing you get from our newest pop princess Shura’s debut album. Scraps of dialogue from Shura’s father and what sounds like a rocket blasting off in the distance tune in and out like a fuzzy radio. As “(i)” fades, it’s replaced by the album’s title track. Nothing’s Real shifts from ’80s homage in songs like “What’s It Gonna Be” to near imitation in “Nothing’s Real”. Shura uses this album to take on a presence like those of the early ’80s queens, each track presenting a girlish, almost naively feminine voice.

The defining measure of the album is Shura’s introversion. In songs like “2Shy”, Shura channels the spirit of Molly Ringwald in 16 Candles, right before Michael Schoeffling is about to kiss her over the cake. Shura is hesitant, whispering over a powdery synthetic build about her desire — maybe? — for a sort of relationship with this person she might just like.

Despite this uncertainty, Shura doesn’t stray from being articulate in “2Shy”. Each note is perfectly in place, never straying from the heartbeat of the song. She might be murmuring, caressing the lyrics, but the phrasing is too deliberate to ignore: Headphones on, got a cigarette rolled, I know / I shouldn’t light it ‘cause I haven’t had one for weeks.

Shura’s shy and sweet, but she’s also deliberate and aware of everything happening around her. It’s this deliberation that drives her individuality and really matches her to the early ’80s greats. “Nothing’s Real” shows off her power more so than any other track off the album. Instead of the soft thrum of a heartbeat, the album’s title track epitomizes the throb of restlessness, ticking through the dragging hours of dissociation and panic. There’s nothing soft or playful about “Nothing’s Real,” though the hesitation and uncertainty remains

Other songs are harder to categorize. “What’s It Gonna Be”, a track with a video you should have already fallen in love with, balances indecision (incidentally, the name of another song off the album) with a defined, upbeat assuredness. Nothing’s Real is all about going boldly forward into the unknown, and suddenly the sounds of the rocket in “(i)” make a lot more sense.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the final two tracks off Nothing Is Real. Each over nine minutes long, “White Light” and “The Space Tapes” feel unfinished and uncensored. “The Space Tapes” relies on instrumentation and has the vibe of an R&B song, so much so as to be tonally distinct from the rest of the album. Both pieces include slow fades to silence, only to pick back up again with an entirely new theme. It’s almost as if Shura were piecing together a few incomplete bits of her brain, unsure what to do with them — so she just stuck them to the end of the album. “White Light” and “The Space Tapes” share a refreshing distinction from the power and precision of the rest of the album, and they add yet another layer of humanity to Nothing’s Real.

Shura’s debut album didn’t strike a chord with me because her music sounds exactly like the theme to a John Hughes movie. It didn’t strike a chord because she’s a British pop princess, or because she made a cute LGBT music video (although that certainly didn’t hurt). It resonated with me because Shura leans heavily into teasing out different aspects of what we, the audience, are led to believe make her a person with doubts and fears. Making music in itself is a scary thing, but deliberately making your art reflect a deep, true part of yourself is even scarier. So here Shura goes, boldly forward into the unknown.

Carson is a 23-year-old who discovered the joys of the Backstreet Boys two years ago, when she fell down a pink fur-lined rabbit hole into the world of pop. She has since taken it upon herself to make an exodus into the underbelly of the glitter-covered beast. You can find her Spotify account here and you can also find her on Tumblr

Teen Dreams with The 1975

It has been so long since I felt like this. Ricocheting against myself with the force of a slammed door traveling up a wrist, howling inside the closed room of my body but still somehow wide open to the mess of things, a sea spread flat and waiting for rain, waiting for sunshine, my surface dappled and troubled and permeable, a shivering mess of light and shadow: this is where I am these days, most hours awake and some sleeping too. I tremble a lot. Sometimes I catch a smell rising off my skin, hot and sharp, floral like the magnolia petals falling off the tree at the end of the block — ground into the pavement by someone’s careless heel, firm pearl pink cut through with rot.

It’s been three years since The 1975 released a full-length album and in that time I have mostly been getting to my desk job on time and remembering to pack a salad for lunch and hanging up my silk blouses when I get home. I’ve been steady. My skin has been okay. I’m grown, is what I’m saying, but lucky for me, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it dropped two months into the first time I’ve been off the birth control pill since I was sixteen, and this shitstorm of hormones leaves me in exactly the right emotional space to experience it for what it is. I’m a teenager again, utterly defenseless against the way the world moves into and through me, a conduit, bathed in my own electricity, jittering and dripping. I start splashing and sloshing and sparking hot when a wire touches me and there is a wire touching me almost all the time.

What I’m saying is, I was ready for this because I wasn’t ready for this.

This is music for teenagers, maybe even more than The 1975 was. This is sloppy and atmospheric and posturing. These are songs with brash dumb lyrics that are trying too hard, fake-cynical lyrics that don’t manage to disguise the emotion that brims and breaks and swells beneath them. Matty Healy chooses words like a stoned college sophomore whose midterm paper is due at noon, meaning mostly it’s a mishmash of messy diction masking ideas uncomplicated enough to shine through despite that, but sometimes he gets the glitter of something genuinely great. It’s fucked up to think that the same person who wrote “If I Believe You” — which muses on religious belief and atheism with all the nuance of a pretentious seventh grader who once read Richard Dawkins’ Twitter — can turn around and put out lines as biting and clean as I don’t want your body but I hate to think about you with somebody else.

A lot of these songs revolve around romance but rarely do the women in his songs function like traditional love objects; my favorite game is flipping the characters and marveling at how easy it is to imagine lines like you used to have a face straight out a magazine / now you just look like anyone as being sung at him instead of by him. The criticisms he levels at girl after girl become, in aggregate, a story more about him than about them, and meanwhile those criticisms are things like you took a picture of your salad and put it on the internet, which rotate their subjects from reductive intellectual-bro stereotypes into tiny narratives so perfectly relatable and nuanced that I kick the air with delight every time I hear them. Does he know he’s doing that? Is he trying to be mean, or has he been dedicating himself to ensuring each person who appears in his songs seems three-dimensional enough to sustain a full-length novel? I honestly can’t tell, but if I had to bet money, I’d say he has no fucking clue.

What is infuriating about Matty Healy is that he thinks he’s so smart, but even more infuriating is that he actually is smart, just not in the ways he seems to think he is. He loves to talk in interviews about what he writes about — fame, philosophy, the bitterness of love, questioning God — but, frankly, he’s not giving us anything new on those fronts. What happens in these songs that pushes them from the trash your local litbro writes to actual fucking poetry is the way he fails over and over to be convincing, the way he demonstrates that a self is most purely beautiful in the places where it is unable to disguise its vulnerability, and he owes almost all of that to how fucking good he is at writing and producing music. It all happens in the sound.

If these were really rock songs, they’d be all wrong, but they’re all as pop as pop can be. Pick and choose any and all of the usual adjectives — lush, glittering, soaring, sugary, thumping, tremulous — they’re all there, but they’re new somehow, and that’s where the genius is. I mean, can you believe synths can still sound revelatory? Every third radio station is playing something that sounds like a Kygo remix (and don’t get me wrong, I love that), but this album is beyond that. “A Change Of Heart” starts out with a canned eighties-prom-slow-dance Casio beat and floats like a silver Mylar balloon into a theremin break which wavers gently through a sea of iridescent bubbly echoes that genuinely would not be out of place in an Enya song, and you guys, my heart! When I listen to this I forget I’m on the train, I forget I’m anxious, I forget I’m anywhere other than floating in a starry mist. I put myself at risk of stepping in dog shit every day because I can’t listen to “Somebody Else” without my chin tipping skyward while my feet move me forward over all those filthy streets that Matty Healy is pretending to talk about. This isn’t music for looking at the world clear-eyed and pointing out faults and spitting truth. This is music for feeling.

My favorite song on this album is “Paris.” I have a rule for myself that I’m not allowed to put repeat on for the songs I love, so their magic doesn’t wear thin, but I’ve broken it with this one. I think it will take me hundreds of listens more to find out why it makes my whole body sing with certainty and understanding, but for now I am preoccupied with how it sounds like acknowledging past selves — not any specific self, only those that once existed and are now gone, whether by accidental change or conscious growth. I never felt much heartache from Casablanca‘s classic “We’ll always have Paris,” and for me the buoyant refrain of how I’d love to go to Paris again, and again, and again and again, and— is its antithesis: you can choose to acknowledge an ending by glossing over your hurt with a certainty and finality you do not feel, or you can allow yourself to linger in how beautiful it would be to have it one more time. I always prefer to sink myself in the wanting. Besides, these days, walking past jasmine vines with a pink buzz of chemicals flooding my blood, it seems that sometimes it isn’t up to you anyway. No matter how much you believe a part of your life to be finished, it can always split you right back open.

In (a Kind of) Memoriam: School of Seven Bells’ “SVIIB”

“Confusion” is the name of the penultimate track on School of Seven Bells’ SVIIB, and although it comes near the end of the album, it is the clearest encapsulation of SVIIB as a whole — a delicate, emotional paean. This album is the two-member group’s final record: guitarist and co-writer Benjamin Curtis died of lymphoma in 2013, halfway through the creation of SVIIB.

Now that you’ve been armed with this knowledge, you’re going to read this album in a certain way, picking it apart and finding the death in it, hidden beneath gentle ethereality. You’re going to find the sadness in its beauty, to notice how so many of its songs end on a single, poignant note. And once you know, is it possible to divorce yourself from that knowledge, to keep from applying it where it doesn’t belong? It’s hard to say. Some tracks, like “On My Heart”, seem to be more a reaction to ending a romantic relationship. The sharp sting of jealousy in lines like You won’t give her the ground, just forget her puts it clearly in context. This song isn’t about dying at all! It’s upbeat, but biting and confused. What are we now? At the same time, you get a sense of the unending in the repetition at the end of the song: With me, your love’s safe. It’s not a stretch to say that What are we now? is a question in two contexts — what are we now that you’re gone? What do we mean by gone?

Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin began their musical relationship in tandem with a romantic one. That romance ended before Benjamin was diagnosed with cancer, developing into a more platonic partnership — best friends and c0-creators. While “On My Heart” reigns as one of the most upbeat, enigmatic tracks on the album, others read like melancholic odes — “Elias” and “Confusion” are some of the more mournful of the bunch. “Elias” is nostalgic, focusing on specific moments and memories, and “Confusion” is a sweeping representation of SVIIB’s (theorized) thesis.

“Confusion” washes over you, bathing you in somber synths. It’s a lullaby, singing you to sleep — whatever that sleep may be. Assuming an assured tone, breathing in and out with every change of a note, Alejandra sings, over and over — again, finding the unending in these repetitions — Confusion weighs heavy/And I understand/Nothing of these changes/Changes, these changes. She reverbs and repeats so much that you don’t know what’s real and what’s just an echo.

The song takes forever to fade out, the instrumentals persisting long after Alejandra’s vocals end. You know that she’s playing you to sleep, but she’s waiting for that explanation — waiting for the confusion to clear. She’s not demanding or sad, but she seems almost haunted as she comforts you, watching you drift off into the ether.

While you should listen to “Confusion” last, if you can, “Music Takes Me” provides a good follow-up — a middle ground between School of Seven Bells’ most somber and most optimistic pieces. The steady, solid synths feel, to me, like they are attempting to discover the unknowable. I feel you as I breathe, sing the songs you sang to me/I hear you in my sleep/Seeing you with me as I dream. Magic and mystery prevail, the song showcasing psychedelics and 80’s new wave at the same time. And just when you think it’s all over, the synths melt into elongated, distorted guitar notes, a smoother hum emerges, and the song’s meter shifts, almost imperceptibly, into an uncomfortable 2/6. But soon the idyllic 4/4 returns to soothe us, and Alejandra’s voice fades out with her background music.

The greatest aspect of this album — and when I say great, I mean the largest, grandest, most all-encompassing aspect — is that it’s not sad, exactly, or angry, or even understandable, all reasonable things to expect from an album assumed to be about a loss. It’s tinged with so many different things, sadness and yearning — hints here and there — but ultimately it is a eulogy for something we can’t quite grasp. The greatest aspect of this album is its explanation of death, which is an enigma, neither positive nor negative. It just is.

You can listen to SVIIB in full on NPR’s First Listen, found here.

Carson is a 23-year-old who discovered the joys of the Backstreet Boys two years ago, when she fell down a pink fur-lined rabbit hole into the world of pop. She has since taken it upon herself to make an exodus into the underbelly of the glitter-covered beast. You can find her Spotify account here and you can also find her on Tumblr

Just Moving in Slow Motion: Daughter’s “Not to Disappear”

Not to Disappear is an apt title for Daughter’s latest album, which sounds like it’s always just on the edge of fading completely into nonexistence. That’s not to say the songs are insubstantial, just that they float very delicately in and out of silence. Daughter has always had a gentle, melancholy sound, and on their latest effort, there’s a subtle undercurrent of anger underneath all the surface beauty of the music. Where their earlier EPs and albums relied on Elena Tonra’s soft, soaring vocal delivery to ground the songs, Not to Disappear uses an electric guitar to construct the central hooks and melodies. Each song starts off simple and ambient, with a few plucked guitar or piano notes behind Tonra’s hushed voice, but builds to a rousing finish, adding one instrument at a time.

Moving on/Just moving in slow motion/To keep the pain to a minimum, she sings on “How”. It’s this lyric that really underscores the emotional truth of this album: loss takes time to overcome, and loneliness can feel endless and brutal. I don’t know you now/But I’m lying here somehow, Tonra says on “Fossa”, her voice simultaneously lifting and blurring the words together. She whispers over and over to herself, I can’t be what you want/I can be what you want. But it doesn’t matter either way, no matter which is the truth, because Not to Disappear takes place in the aftermath, after the dust has long since settled.

The instrumentation is what really shines here, like the driving drums on “Numbers” that could belong easily to a U2 or Muse song: heavy, stomping, and clearly written for an arena show. After a sprawling, sparkling opening on “Doing the Right Thing” that loses the vocals in the shuffle, the songs stops in its tracks as a lone acoustic guitar matches Tonra’s vocal melody while she sings Then I’ll lose my children/Then I’ll lose my love/Then I’ll sit in silence. It’s a rare moment where the lyrics are sung directly into the listener’s ear, with no filter, no layers of atmosphere between the bass notes. The electric guitar (with enough reverb over it to make the National jealous) is the album’s star, particularly on “How”, where it takes over the chorus in a little riff that’s equal parts messy and glorious and melodramatic. It’s one of the best moments on an album filled with great ones.

The songs bleed into each other, with the echoing guitar that opens and closes each track, the tone and tempo that rarely diverges from the simmering, quietly angry melancholy. The only outlier is “No Care”, which is about a minute shorter and at least twice as fast as all the others. Oh, I’m too drunk to fight/hurling curses at your surface, Tonra sings over a frantic dance beat. No care, no care in the world/I don’t care, I don’t care anymore, she says, and you barely believe her.

If I had one complaint, it’s that the simple beauty of the music makes it hard to connect to the emotional weight of the words. Tonra seems to sing the entire album in a light falsetto, never placing any pressure on her voice. The result is that she sounds detached from her lyrics, somewhat hidden in the ambiance, the lush instrumentation. I feel numb/I feel numb in this kingdom, she sings deadpan, and I’d tend to agree. In the kingdom that is Not to Disappear, she sounds numb and exhausted, especially in comparison to that electric guitar, which carries most of the emotional energy of each song.

A thorough listen reminds me of light filtering through a thin, translucent fabric, as if each song’s core is caught between layers of gauze. Beautiful, yes, but almost hidden in the haze, the carefully constructed bleakness of its atmosphere. But a daze of an album isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can lose yourself in its gossamer beauty, in the expansive, drifting sonic world it creates. If you’re lucky, you might even get to disappear.

Asif Becher is a 16 year old recently discovered cat lady who lives in the desert. She is often asked to “chill” about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Taylor Swift, a suggestion she finds absolutely ridiculous. You can find her on Twitter and on tumblr.

lonelier and more in love: “death of a bachelor”

Death of a Bachelor is maybe the best Panic! at the Disco album. It is definitely at the top of my list, at least, and I am still trying to pin down exactly why. There is something about it that none of their albums have had for me since 2005, a magnetic pull that defies explanation. I think – what I have settled on so far – is that it is Fever You Can’t Sweat Out for grown-ups, or people who think they’re grown-ups, or people who want to be grown-ups. For me.

Fever was what I needed when I was fourteen and bleak, neverbeenkissed cutting my eyes across a high school auditorium at a boy who broke my heart three years later, and I still think I’ve got more wit a better kiss a hotter touch a better fuck is the sexiest thing but it’s not what I need anymore. I still love it and I always will, but it’s not a mirror the way it used to be; I have moved further through the funhouse and now it is a reflection of a reflection, a shade of my younger self.

Lush is the best word, I think, to describe the difference – Fever had this urgency, this heat, this darkness, and Death of a Bachelor has these things too, but so lushly. It is bigger, softer, more alive, it is rich dark earth in which many things have decayed so that new things might grow. It is nightshade plants blooming beneath a velvet sky. The almost orchestral quality of this album, the harmonies, the horns, the vast spiralingness of it all – it is melancholy. But it is melancholy in a way that makes me indefinably happy, in a way that suggests that getting older isn’t a bad thing. It is growth, real growth, and it is beautiful. This is Brendon Urie’s first album on his own, without any of the other original members of Panic!, and it feels like it.

Death of a Bachelor opens with “Victorious”, a love song to success on your own terms – about defining success as what you have achieved rather than what you strive for. Brendon Urie described it as “giving ’em hell to get a taste of heaven”. You don’t have to win to be a winner; you don’t have to knock the other guy out to feel victorious. This is a song about the stupid wild nights of your life that you feel alive, drunk running down the middle of the street with a sparkler, proud of yourself for the simple fact of your survival. As I get older I have fewer of these nights, but I feel like I have more of them metaphorically, if that makes sense. There’s a part in the video where he doesn’t call his ex and they give him one of those gigantic novelty checks; there’s another scene where he walks an old lady across the street and gets the keys to the city. Your victories are what you decide they are – when you celebrate something, it’s an achievement. I drive work listening to “Victorious” and I’m like hell yeah I got out of bed, hell yeah I’m driving the heck out of this little red Hyundai. You take your wins where you get them, but you get to decide where you get them.

“Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time” starts with a sample of “Rock Lobster”, which is my favorite fact of 2016 so far. It’s driving and ominous and sexy – Urie does menace well. This is the morning after, pounding hangover and hazy memory, but there’s not a trace of regret in it. Sayin’ “if you go out you might pass out in a drainpipe” / oh yeah? Don’t threaten me with a good time, and that’s really all there is to it. Raise hell and turn it up.

(We talked about “Hallelujah” when it was released.)

The first time on the album that we really see Brendon coming to terms with essentially being Panic! at the Disco now is “Emperor’s New Clothes”, and what a time it is. Welcome to the end of eras he lilts, an assertion of his power, of his rightness. If it feels good, tastes good, it must be mine. It is a very vulnerable song for containing the line I’m taking back the crown, for being essentially a declaration of independence. I’m all dressed up and naked is the crux, the fear – here I am as Brendon Urie as Panic! at the Disco as a new and singular entity, take it or leave it (but please take it). The video starts at the end of “This is Gospel”, which is important – if you love me let me go.

“Death of a Bachelor” makes me want to peel off all my skin, in the best way possible. Like, we know Brendon Urie has a great voice, we’re all aware of this. And yet somehow I forgot? Or I didn’t really know, or something? It doesn’t matter – the point is this. “Death of a Bachelor” is an incredible ballad, a sweeping Sinatra-esque song that has just enough of a dubsteppy vibe to keep it interesting. And that voice! His fucking voice! There was a Chuck Klosterman essay once that was like, I don’t remember what the Would You Rather question was precisely but one of the choices was “Everything you hear for the rest of your life will sound like the lead singer of Alice in Chains”, and it was still better than the alternative, I think, if I recall, but what I am saying here is that if I could only hear one voice ever again it might very well be Brendon Urie’s. This is also a really beautiful song about love and what you give up for it, the way it changes you, the way it makes you better and worse and different and utterly the same. The lace in your dress tangles my neck / how do I live? / the death of a bachelor, but then – how could I ask for more? / a lifetime of laughter / at the expense of the death of a bachelor. 

There’s a lot of fun wordplay going on in “Crazy=Genius”, but the really important thing about this album’s “These Tables are Numbered” (it is, trust me on this) is that it is about Brendon Urie’s imaginary girlfriend telling him that you’re just like Mike Love but you wanna be Brian Wilson / said you’re just like Mike Love but you’ll never be Brian Wilson. No matter where it comes from, it’s something that you either have or you don’t. You can’t make yourself a Brian Wilson. You can set yourself on fire / but you’re never gonna burn, burn, burn.

“LA Devotee” is currently my favorite song off the album, although I do reserve the right to fall more in love with something else. It is so sly and cruel and perfect; it yanks you off your feet into the passenger seat of a Mustang convertible, watching the lights flash past in the middle of the hot dark night. This is the only song I’ve ever heard about LA that makes me want to move there, makes me want to be a girl in a swimming pool under the desert sky, makes me want a life so fast I feel like there’s never time even while I’m standing still. It’s got a very retro feel, sort of sock-hoppy in the way it uh-ohs, that simple drumbeat that I know there’s a name for, the horns! It’s almost Britpoppy, the way it bounces forward. It is maybe a perfect song, and the phrase the black magic on Mulholland Drive isn’t not an entire lifestyle waiting to happen.

Oh don’t you wonder when the light begins to fade? And the clock just makes the colors turn to grey? Nothing stays, not even your memories, and here again we see Brendon negotiating the idea of moving forward into the future, moving by definition away from the past. “Golden Days” is a promise not to forget even while it admits that remembering is impossible. Forever young but growing older just the same, as he looks at a Polaroid – you are young in your photos, your memories, and that is a reality but so is the reality of your physical body aging. You are forever twenty, tan, sipping champagne on a yacht inside a tiny flat square (shake it til you see it), and you are thirty, sitting in a record shop looking at a picture of yourself, you are always becoming something different but you are always the same. These things can exist simultaneously if you are strong enough to let them. Let the love remain and I swear that I’ll always paint you / golden days.

“The Good, the Bad and the Dirty” is mostly just fun to listen to, a door-slamming fight song in its most literal sense. If you wanna start a fight you better throw the first punch / make it a good one. Like, this is a fact – if you want to start the fight you have to… start the fight. But in this aggressive cadence it has more meaning somehow, more threat, more swagger. Come at me with everything you’ve got – if you wanna make it through the night you better say my name. All of the good girls act so good til one of them doesn’t wait their turn and you’re nodding yes, yes, ready to swing. I’m gonna keep getting underneath you is this album’s more wit a better kiss and it is just as sexy, just as dangerous. Even here, as in-your-face as it gets, there is melancholy – truth is that it was always going to end.

The album winds to a close with two really stunning slow songs. “House of Memories” is this grand, gothic number, a love song in sweeping minor chords, a love song that is about being alone. If you’re a lover, you should know / the lonely moments just get lonelier / the longer you’re in love / than if you were alone. There is the large formless ache of loneliness that comes from missing no one in particular, and there is the sharp twisting knife of loneliness that comes from missing your other half. Heart to heart and eyes to eyesbaby we built this house on memories. Memory isn’t a strong foundation; it’s mutable and fickle, and it’s certainly not permanent. But that’s all Urie wants here, a place in your house of memories. Put me on a shelf, as long as I can stay there; don’t forget me. It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all but it is also harder. Take my picture now, shake it til you see it. 

“Impossible Year” is almost cruel in its accuracy, its visceral realness. What a note to end an album on; what a way to make an entrance out of an exit. There’s never air to breathe / there’s never in-betweens / these nightmares always hang on past the dream. This, then, is what Death of a Bachelor is about, underneath it all, twining through it like blood in water. Loss, the kind that leaves you alone and breathless and waiting for the punchline only to realize that there is none. Urie can swagger and posture all he wants and we know he will be okay in the way that all of us will be okay, but that doesn’t mean it is easy and it doesn’t mean it will be the same.

Panic! at the Disco has become something entirely new and yet it is haunted by the ghost of what it was, and Brendon Urie lives with those ghosts every day. This album is his re-introduction to the world, his soul laid bare before the eyes of everyone who watched this band disintegrate over the past ten years. It is not an apology, but it is an acknowledgement of the part he’s played. There is bravado and vindication and bleeding rawness, and the brilliance of this album comes from letting all of them exist together. It is a very painful kind of growth, the cracking-open kind, the kind that leads to beauty and greatness and nothing but sky. It is the death of a bachelor, the birth of something new and incredible. It is lonelier and more in love than ever before.

New Music Friday: FOXTROTT

I knew FOXTROTT (the moniker for Canadian musician Marie-Helene Delorme) wasn’t necessarily very well known, but the extent of her obscurity was a shock to me. I googled “Untake Me” to see what the lyrics were, and the first few results were for the Maroon Five song, “Unkiss Me”. (Just what I needed. More Adam Levine.) This is simultaneously surprising and unsurprising — FOXTROTT’s A Taller Us is a debut album and she’s not exactly a superstar — but on the other hand, it’s full of really interesting songs that deserve recognition. It’s a shame she’s so little known.

The instrumentation on this album is so eerie and weird! The electronic beats in the background are dark and heavy, and the simple melody they provide give a solid, strange base to the extra things building up around them. They’re really excellent, too — no surprise, seeing as Delorme used to make beats for other artists. The vocals are great, too; she has a very clear voice with a fantastic range, which adds to the strange power of the music.

And the music is powerful, make no mistake. There is a deep and punchy backbone to each song, so although each one is independent of each other, they all have a similar weight. One song in particular, “Untake Me”, is full of anger and sarcasm. I dare you / Why can’t you just let it pour, let it pour. She sings, but she could be spitting.

The style of the album is eclectic, unique, but it draws from similarly-minded artists. I’m hearing FKA twigs influences, certainly, especially in the beats and the colours created by the sound. Björk gets a nod too.

I’ve been listening to this album on my way into school on the bus, and it’s the perfect soundtrack to the winter field we drive through last. It’s a bit bleak – certainly not very bright or poppy, but it’s beautiful. It is hopeful, and I know I, for one, am very excited to see what’s coming next from FOXTROTT.

Claire Cullen is an 18-year-old who lives in Ireland. Recently she has been dealing with Hamilton-related problems, and it’s probably best not to get her started on why. Dedicated to furthering the Liberal Agenda. You can find her on Twitter.

New Music Friday: Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighbourhood

This is one of those start-to-finish albums. You don’t just pick and choose your favorite songs, because it is – most certainly – a living, breathing entity. Maybe not a person-entity. Something in its etherealness is more like a cloud. Which isn’t technically living or breathing, but if you remember correctly, I also called an album living and breathing.

Embrace the heavy-handed metaphor as I say this: You can’t pick apart all the pieces of a cloud. It’s too amorphous and undefined, much the way this album swirls and breathes around synths and strings.

So it’s a peaceful cloud, unperturbed by interaction with birds, or planes, or other things in the sky that aren’t precipitation-related. Only the weather affects this cloud, winds altering its course, its tone.

All this being said, an album isn’t a cloud, actually, and I have a review to write. Let’s look at some songs from Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighborhood.

The eighth track off the album, “Cool,” seems to be a dark fantasy letter written to a person who may or may not be Harry Styles. I’ve got that cigarette smoke/and Saint Laurent coat, but nothing is feeling right/I drink but I choke/I love but I don’t.

So here’s a theory for you: Troye in this song wants, more than anything, to live a life of inauthentic glory. And there’s this guide he knows intimately, or desires to know intimately, who lives such a life already. Of course – typical narrative – Troye becomes disillusioned as the song turns past the first chorus. The gentle thrum of the picked guitar adds to the image of this damp club, nearly empty at 3 a.m. but the smoky haze of the flashing lights are still playing a lullaby for Troye’s guide. Can’t you just see Harry Styles in the middle of the dance floor, swaying to music that stopped hours ago? Another figure standing sullenly in the background, a plastic cup of alcohol-soaked ice in hand, acknowledging that yes – this is fucked up, he’s a ruinous shell – but at the same time, I’m a spark, and you’re a boom.

As we sift through the cloud from “Cool” to “Heaven”, featuring Betty Who, we may be looking at the morning after the dark of the night. It’s given way to a cold, grey morning thrown into the harsh light of reality. Reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s “Clean,” its sobriety makes the muddled desire and longing of “Cool” seem irrelevant. “Heaven” should be sober, and frank – it tells Troye’s coming out story. It’s about authenticity, and belonging, and faith.

Without losing a piece of me/How do I get to heaven? And I’m screaming at me/Trying to keep faith and picture his face/Staring up at me. Knowing at least a part of your authentic self, contrasted with the lack of acceptance surrounding it. You’ve been forced to view yourself as a sin, and how do you even come to terms with that?

As Betty Who adds delicate wisps of air, the song reaches its uplifting conclusion: So if I’m losing a piece of myself/Maybe I don’t want heaven? Troye finally opts for authenticity over embracing a false identity. The stakes are higher, but the stakes shouldn’t exist in the first place. So Troye throws them out of his cloud.

The beauty of all these songs is their simple lyricism floating over technically complex structures. Troye wants you to know what’s happening. He’s a storyteller and won’t deny his audience a straightforward metaphor, so he lets his complications come out in what’s buzzing underneath his words. Sampling from its contemporaries and adding its own stories, Blue Neighbourhood becomes its own shapeless cloud in a sky full of definition.

You can stream Blue Neighborhood on Spotify, or download it on iTunes.

Carson is a 23-year-old who discovered the joys of the Backstreet Boys two years ago, when she fell down a pink fur-lined rabbit hole into the world of pop. She has since taken it upon herself to make an exodus into the underbelly of the glitter-covered beast. You can find her Spotify account here and you can also find her on Tumblr

The Sound of Now: Like You Want To

There’s a certain pleasure to be found in music that will date terribly. It’s no bad thing to be the most current thing going, especially if you can keep it up over several years. Kita Alexander’s new EP Like You Want To is the most 2015 thing I’ve heard all year. It’s all so now –– from the retro synths to the production to the lyrics… I mean, I love it.

The best song on the EP is “Wild Heart” and I can’t stop myself from dancing to it. It’s so cheesy, and maybe that would grate, but it’s rescued by Kita’s voice. It’s a glorious, powerful sound and adds hugely to the EP, even with the level of production on the record. Everyone will love this song. Your mom, your brother, your best friend.

Now I need my freedom
And you know it’s true
Don’t make it personal,
Let me do what I gotta do
Let me do what I gotta do

“My Own Way” was actually featured on Asos’ website earlier this year (again, has there ever been a more 2015 EP?) and it looks and sounds like a beautiful #aesthetic instagram account. The fact that she’s Australian is made clear to us by the fact that she surfs quite a lot throughout the video. (Side note: if there were ever to be an Australian indie-pop artist that didn’t surf, how would that go down?) The song is calming — not very insightful, but the production is super. It sounds like the soundtrack to a good teen movie. It’s a soft, shallow song, but that’s a good thing.

The title track “Like You Want To” is nice and all (and horribly catchy – treat this as a warning), but I feel like, to some extent, it’s been done before. Even within this EP it’s been done! But it also echoes artists like Sky Ferreira and Charli XCX. Still, the elements that make this such a good EP are still here: amazing voice, clever instrumentation, and strong production values.

“Wild Heart”, though, guys. If I had to pick just one track. Seriously, that’s where it’s at. It’s so chill, but at the same time, I dare you not to move your body to this song.

Like You Want To combines a lot of retro elements that somehow create an unmistakably 2015 sound, and it’s a perfect snapshot of where we are. You can play it for your grandchildren to explain to them what your youth was.

Claire Cullen is an 18-year-old who lives in Ireland. Recently she has been dealing with Hamilton-related problems, and it’s probably best not to get her started on why. Dedicated to furthering the Liberal Agenda. You can find her on Twitter.

Aggressively Optimistic 17-Year-Old at Heart: Alessia Cara’s Know-It-All

When I was 17, I – much like newish pop star Alessia Cara – had a penchant for creating silly, more or less content-less YouTube videos. The videos showcase my room, a trip to Target, a dramatic retelling of a dog bite with sock puppets. If you watch the audio for “Seventeen” on her Vevo, you’ll experience the same innocence and childishness.

In fact, if you look at the audio tracks for all of the songs she’s thrown up on her YouTube channel, you’ll see the same thing. A fishbowl lens here, a selfie stick there. She’s all big eyes and moustaches and Quirky with a capital Q. And then! If you travel, as I did, into the depths of her original YouTube channel, you’ll see a vlogger girl who just wants to be famous, doing impressions of her favorite popstars, covering The Neighborhood. And her videos and mine are of the same stock! This is no Tyler Oakley: suddenly, the relatively polished style of “Seventeen” means more than a two-year age difference.

Because Alessia isn’t just a 19-year-old reflecting on the good old days of 17, of course. She’s reflecting on the age-old transition of unknown to blown-up, signed by Def Jam – not overnight, but for all intents and purposes, overnight. But “Seventeen” is bubblegum, and so is its video. A cheeky way of saying that she knows change continues to be in store as she grows in age and in popularity, Though the seasons change so quickly/Keep them buried in my heart/And never fought. It’s the age-old adage of the pop star, you know. Which brings us to “Here”, the critically-acclaimed “anti-social party-goer anthem.” But “Here” too, is once again about transitions.

So experience, obviously, is all about perception, and mine comes from being a university student on a dry campus, where frats controlled the alcohol intake of the freshmen population. And, despite my extroverted qualities, I’ve been “Here.” And so have my friends, and (probably) so have you. If “Here” is for the anti-social, we’re all the anti-social. Because even the most magical party loses some magic when you realize that you’re no longer 17 in your best friend’s bedroom, eating popcorn and watching Gossip Girl at 2 a.m. You’re underage at a party in a room covered in sticky beer, where you know five out of 50 people. And maybe in time you’ll reminisce about the wild nights, and keep pretending that you weren’t scared, existentially-speaking, of what you were doing there, but just for a moment.

Existential crisis never truly over, Alessia’s fear of the future duels with her ambition, both past and present. She steps back from wishing for the days of 17 and the fear of the college party and turns to dreams of unending childhood, dreams that still persist.

Apparently, her walls were actually pink, but she painted over them! (Literally. According to Genius.) And she misses them now, not even to her surprise. The ephemeral choice, Went from ‘when boredom strikes’ to ‘Miss Star on the rise,’ and God, does she know it. She misses the walls, her pink walls, symbol of girlhood and girlishness. Now, those walls are shiny and alien. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, here. With remarkable clarity and self-knowledge that maybe really isn’t so remarkable, Alessia starts out in love with a fantasy of a room beyond her four pink walls. It’s the allegory of the cave, but in a pop song! And then there’s the tension of being out of the cave, she’s in the unreality of the clouds – all with a punchy beat and a shimmering joy in the chorus.

“Scars to Your Beautiful” is that Mary Lambert song (all those Mary Lambert songs), set to an R&B beat and backed by the angry, youthful optimism of the rest of the album. It’s certainly more polished in tone, but its lyrics are raw. This isn’t poetry, people. But the uniqueness of “Scars to Your Beautiful” doesn’t come from a uniquely beautiful nature, somehow. Or even of a uniquely feminist, body-positive perspective.

Still, the subject of the anthem, for this ambitious dreamer of a young pop star, is unique. Not an element of shame taints this song. She’s singing to the models and to you, the consumer of this album, telling you to let me be your mirror, help you see a little bit clearer/The light that shines within. And that’s it! That’s the climax of the album, where it was heading to. All this talk of time passing, of feeling uncomfortable and anxious, has led to a sweet, simple self-love anthem. This is where a 19-year-old girl wanted her album to go.

All that heavy praise aside, I felt so sad when I finished this album. Because, frankly, it sucks. It sucks that a 19-year-old had to write this album about needing to grow up, about having the maturity and foresight to cherish her “long-gone” youth. That she had to be the one to tell other young girls to love themselves, because the world doesn’t love them back. This responsibility falls on the back of a 19-year-old girl who wishes she could go back to 17, and she handles it beautifully. She handles it with a determined, deliberate naiveté; a refusal to grow up, truly. Embracing her youth passionately. And we could all learn a thing or two from Alessia Cara, but we could also, as always, learn from her “Wild Things”.

Carson is a 23-year-old who discovered the joys of the Backstreet Boys two years ago, when she fell down a pink fur-lined rabbit hole into the world of pop. She has since taken it upon herself to make an exodus into the underbelly of the glitter-covered beast. You can find her Spotify account here and you can also find her on Tumblr

The Fire Hurts So Right: Grimes’ Art Angels

[Editor’s note. All of the art in this piece that isn’t Grimes’ – it’s Cathi’s. She is mad talented and I am so excited to have her words and her artwork here.  -A]


Talking about Grimes is fucking intimidating, you guys.

Her new album is stupid good. Like, stupid good.

It’s addled with a cheerful aggression and a confidence that’s feminine and coarse. It’s poppy and spooky and bloody and powerful. This is the kind of music that makes me want to stand on a rooftop and screech about how we need to show our female producers more love. There’s beauty in the technical.

Art Angels album cover, Claire Boucher

Art Angels is three days old now, opening with a swell of baroque-inspired strings backed by a heavy beat before evolving into the operatic tones that Grimes, the goddess that she is, makes with her lungs through some sort of magic that I’ll never fully understand. It becomes spooky. It growls. There’s a whirring that builds and builds before transitioning into a poppy number while she croons, this – this music makes me cry.

Me too, Grimes. Me too. The first time I listened to Art Angels I was exhausted, hungover just enough to feel it and riding a bumpy bus to work. You know those songs that double as a jolt or a burst, a collection of sounds that ripple and roll in just the right way, giving you a burst of energy and joy, no matter how you’re feeling? The second I heard her wailing the word ‘California’ I couldn’t help but let my whole head get swallowed up in a smile. The things they see in me, I cannot see myself. When you get bored of me I’ll be back on the shelf.  And when the ocean rises up above the ground, baby – I’ll drown.

If I’m being honest, the single “SCREAM” (our lord and savior Boucher’s first track producing for another artist as the primary vocalist, a Taiwanese rapper named Aristophanes with a really, really good soundcloud) did a better job of tiding me over than the fucking incredible video made for “Flesh without Blood” and “Life in the Vivid Dream”. Aristophanes’ vocals are sharp. They snarl and bite. They have claws that aren’t afraid to draw blood.  There’s something that I find beautiful about language barriers in music. It’s like, when I don’t understand the words being sung it turns the human voice into even more of an instrument than it was before. It’s abstracted. In the case of “SCREAM”, I had no fucking idea what Aristophanes was singing about until Grimes posted an English translation to her tumblr. As someone who doesn’t speak Mandarin, all I had to connect to was the venom and bile that fueled her words. There’s a sharp femininity to the track – one that takes no shit and is in control. It’s an anthem for a vengeful swamp witch, and reading the English equivalent of what she was singing while listening only made it better. If you can’t scream then swallow it down.

Can we just talk about how fucking amazing it is that Boucher does basically everything in her work herself? She didn’t just star in this masterpiece of a video – she wrote, directed, edited, art-directed and even color-corrected the entire thing to give it its hyperreal, neon glow. She produces, engineers, writes and performs all of her music. She drew something for each track on the album. It’s pure Boucher, and Grimes is the vehicle she uses to drive it forward.

I’ll never be your dream girl.

There’s something very pop about Art Angels that wasn’t as present on Visions. There were moments there where it felt like Boucher was toying with pop and testing its waters, but Art Angels is full-blown, poppy madness. It isn’t something to pigeon-hole, though – each track is as experimental and genre-bending as works produced by legends like Björk and Beck. Boucher isn’t afraid to experiment in her work, and is clearly comfortable in the role of a producer-engineer. Grimes is the alter ego she slung together to hold it all into place, creating a cohesive whole of avant-garde experimental pop.

VenusFly ft janelle monae
illustration for Venus Fly ft. Janelle Monae, Claire Boucher

Each track on Art Angels is very much its own, standing out while forming connections with the others – they are bold and bright, unforgiving and loving. They’re all delicious in their own right, coming together to create something beautiful and cohesive in its strangeness and curiosity. Give it a listen.

Just listen.


Cathi Beckstrand is not a writer, but she does feel comfortable self-identifying as a visual artist. She is based in San Francisco, posts a lot of drawings on instagram and sometimes remembers to put them on tumblr.