Connect with us

Music

Review: Katy Perry, Prism

Prism is another collection of three-and-half-minute potential hits that even cynics will find hard to resist.

 

3.0

Published

on

Katy Perry, Prism

Estimates vary (some less serious than others), but the archetypical pop single runs approximately three minutes long, the ideal length for radio programmers to maximize both advertising dollars and the number of songs a station can broadcast per hour. While radio edits can render even the most garrulous pop stars airwave-ready, others, like Katy Perry, are an A&R exec’s wet dream. Only one song on the standard edition of the singer’s fourth album, Prism, exceeds four minutes, and it’s an indulgence Perry and company don’t even allow themselves until the closing track.

That song, “By the Grace of God,” is also, tellingly, the album’s sole traditional ballad, a sappy Paula Cole-style statement of self-actualization that harks back to the days when a wholesome Katie Holmes and James Van Der Beek were still frolicking innocently on a beach. Prism has been billed as a darker, more serious effort, but while Perry might not be bragging about her pseudo-homosexual exploits or smelling like a minibar anymore, she largely sticks to her tried-and-true pop template, each song tailor-made for mass consumption with mixed results. The bouncy, mildly rock-inflected lead single, “Roar,” is ultimately more of a yelp than a roar, but it’s proved to be a bona fide grower, while “This Is How We Do” is a Ke$ha-grade throwdown that features possibly the dumbest lyric of the year: “Now we’re talkin’ astrology, getting’ our nails did all Japanese-y/Day-drinkin’ at the Wild Cat, suckin’ real bad at Mariah Carey-oke.”

The difference is that while the pop confections of 2010’s Teenage Dream could practically rot your teeth, songs like “Birthday,” a sexy and playful disco nugget reminiscent of early Prince, are offset by slightly more brackish fare. The standout “Dark Horse” picks up where “E.T.” left off, an inventive trap/grime/EDM mash-up that makes sly nods to Art of Noise’s “Moments In Love.” Prism is a predominantly Scandinavian affair, with Max Martin, Bloodshy, Klaus Åhlund, and Stargate at the helm for much of the album, and Perry occasionally employs her collaborators in unexpected ways: Åhlund’s contribution, “Walking on Air,” isn’t the patently Euro electro-pop he concocted for Robyn’s Body Talk, but rather, a surprising, and surprisingly soulful, throwback to ‘90s deep-house, while Bloodshy’s understated “Love Me” is a far cry from the squelchy dance tunes he and frequent partner Avant crafted for, most famously, Britney Spears.

So-called maturity, of course, has its downsides, and can easily be confused with banality. The slew of midtempo pop songs that line the back half of Prism are certainly preferable to phenomenal trash like Teenage Dream’s “Peacock” and One of the Boys’s “I Kissed a Girl,” but they’re also much less fun to balk at. The pretty “Double Rainbow,” co-penned by Sia, would be easier to appreciate if it wasn’t surrounded by even more saccharine material, and even the percolating synth bassline of “This Moment,” a song that wants badly to be Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” is nearly rendered null by the track’s rather pedestrian songwriting.

Once poised to join a long list of novelty one-hitters, however, Perry has managed to stretch her legs in ways “Ur So Gay” couldn’t have predicted, flexing creative—or at least professional—instincts that have resulted in another collection of three-and-half-minute potential pop hits that even cynics like this one will find hard to resist. Just remember to brush and floss.

Label: Capitol Release Date: October 22, 2013 Buy: Amazon

Advertisement
Comments

Music

Review: Lily & Madeleine’s Canterbury Girls Mines Nostalgia with Mixed Results

The album is the duo’s most personal work to date, but they seem reluctant to let loose and lean into the music.

3

Published

on

Lily & Madeleine
Photo: New West Records

Having already taken a detour from their Americana roots on 2016’s Keep It Together, pop-folk duo Lily & Madeleine’s explore more soul-flavored dream-pop on their fourth studio album, Canterbury Girls. Accordingly, a sense of fantasy suffuses the soundscapes throughout, assisted by producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who co-produced Kacey Musgrave’s Grammy-winning Golden Hour.

The album’s title is a reference to an Indianapolis park Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz frequented as adolescents, suggesting a longing for teenage pipe dreams and a bygone time. Over the course of 10 songs, the pair mines memories in search of a semblance of permanence, grasping at the slippery ambiguities that surface from the fog of regrets and unrequited love.

On Canterbury Girls, the Jurkiewicz sisters are most concerned with locating and exaggerating hints of magic in the painful and the mundane. As tender guitar arpeggios crystallize into a beatific waltz on “Circles,” the siblings are wonderstruck by the rush of falling in love again, even though it may be with someone who’s no good: “Got my body in a trance/Holding on to things I can’t stand.” On the more optimistic “Supernatural Sadness,” they emerge from a haze of confusion and despondency amid sweeping piano and synths, shrugging off the burdens of “supernatural sadness” and “magnetic madness.”

Since their high school days performing covers on YouTube, Lily and Madeleine’s most distinctive trait has been their seamless vocal harmonies, which are on full display on “Can’t Help the Way I Feel,” a love song that takes cues from 1960s pop. The track operates on a latticework of honeyed synths, stirring piano chords, and a rambling organ theme, making it one of the album’s most musically compelling. Lovelorn lines like “Sitting pretty, but I’m all alone” bring to mind the giddy musings of vintage girl groups like the Shangri-Las.

Yet, Lily & Madeleine’s vocals are so placid that they can sometimes scan as sedated, clashing with the dynamic musical arrangements and failing to evoke the emotion of the lyrics. “Pachinko Song” ramps up the tension with its brisk tempo, but the song’s chorus feels unsatisfyingly predictable, like a balloon deflating. Elsewhere, the title track is a leaden ballad with a vocal performance that’s so low energy it has a soporific effect. Canterbury Girls still succeeds at being Lily & Madeleine’s most personal and cohesive work to date, but the siblings too often seem as if they’re reluctant to let loose and lean into the music.

Label: New West Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading

Music

Review: Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980 – 1990

The album collects ambient music crafted expressly to fit and reflect spaces both natural and manmade.

4.5

Published

on

Kankyo Ongaku

Having already worked to rehabilitate new age music with compilations of North American and European ambient tracks, boutique record label Light in the Attic turns its sights to the Far East with Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990. Compiled by Spencer Doran, whose mixtapes helped to bring this Japanese “environmental music” to the West, the album collects ambient music crafted expressly to fit and reflect spaces both natural and manmade. Using music to capture the natural splendor of Japan is nothing new in the nation’s history, and tracks like Takashi Toyoda’s “Snow,” with its elegant loops of dripping synths and whirring pulses, update the tradition of composing for specific locations with emergent technology.

Yet, it’s in the composition of music for urban areas that Japan truly set itself apart in the early days of ambient music, and this is the dominant focus of Kankyō Ongaku. A reaction to the country’s rapid urban development and concentrated population density, the music here manages to soothe while also giving an impression of the buildings that inspired it. “Blink,” one of the pieces Hiroshi Yoshimura composed for the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, starts as plinking lobby muzak before its chirps of noise begin to duplicate and diverge, complicating the arrangement even as it remains tranquil and inviting. Curiously, several tracks are the result of corporate patronage as companies enjoying the rapid expansion of Japan’s 1980s economic boom commissioned composers to create music for their products. Yasuaki Shimizu’s “Seiko 3” was used for a watch advertisement, its kaleidoscopic shimmer a bold attempt to capture the circular motions of time embodied by a portable watch.

Some of the artists featured on Kankyō Ongaku are central figures of contemporary Japanese music. Composer extraordinaire (and regular Hayao Miyazaki collaborator) Joe Hisaishi contributes “Islander,” which introduces a wafting synthesizer riff that’s gradually fleshed out into an almost psychedelic swirl of noise as looping, Philip Glass-esque organs build around the skeletal outline. The track’s dizzying complexity stretches the boundaries of ambient even as the music maintains its sense of relaxing bliss. Elsewhere, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono contribute the lyrics to Yellow Magic Orchestra’s moaning “Loom,” which recasts the THX speaker test as background music, and each musician provides a solo work to the compilation: Sakamoto’s vinyl-only cut “Dolphins,” which eerily prefigures the sound on Panda Bear’s aqueous Buoys, and Hosono’s “Original BGM,” 16-minute wash of bleary tone clusters that was written for use in Muji department stores.

Muzak and new age’s reputations for bland, formless schmaltz aren’t unearned, but even amid the more stereotypically ambient tracks on Kankyō Ongaku, the bright synths and tonal pulses never blur together into a homogenous collection of sounds, revealing the innovation behind the music here. Some tracks even anticipate ambitious strides that Japanese composers would make in the realm of early video game music. The shimmering busyness of Inoyama Land’s “Apple Star,” for example, sounds like start-screen music for a Sega platformer, while the rich overlap of mallet percussion, chimes, and digital embellishment on Yoshiaki Ochi’s “Ear Dreamin’” could easily fit on the soundtrack to a 16-bit JRPG like Chrono Trigger.

Above all, Kankyō Ongaku presents music in architectural and civil engineering terms, suggesting that compositions can take on structural forms and even offer a means of understanding and navigating urban growth. As cities grow ever denser and climate change necessitates a critical rethinking of environmental impact and the possibility of reintegrating human spaces with nature, art can likewise change to reflect this new state of being. By showcasing an artistic fusion of the tranquil with the bustling, the primal with the technologically advanced, the compilation shows how much work has already been done to find ways of summarizing and celebrating the potential of this new reality.

Label: Light in the Attic Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading

Music

Review: Chaka Khan’s Hello Happiness Runs on Good Vibes

As its titles suggests, the R&B singer’s first album in 12 years radiates positivity.

3.5

Published

on

Chaka Khan
Photo: Island Records

“I’m tired of hearing bad news,” Chaka Khan sings on the title track of her 13th solo album, Hello Happiness. The last time the singer was in the news, in 2016, she was entering rehab to treat an addiction to fentanyl, the same drug that killed Prince. Given the general sense of ennui that’s endemic to life in the 21st century, you’d be forgiven for expecting a more morose Chaka Khan in 2019. But as its title suggests, her first album in 12 years radiates positivity.

Hello Happiness’s breezy sensibility is intrinsic to its design. The 27-minute-long album’s opening track begins with a kind of mantra: “Music makes me sing/Goodbye sadness/Hello happiness.” The ebullient “Like a Lady” is punctuated with serotonin-spiking disco string stabs, while the chorus—“Ooh, you make me feel like a lady, baby/Ooh, I think I’m falling in love”—feels timeless and nostalgic. If it isn’t enough to put a smile on your face the first time around, Khan repackages the whole song again on the closing track “Ladylike,” pairing the same verses and chorus with a more up-front melody and a sparkling acoustic guitar hook.

Much of the credit for Hello Happiness’s relentlessly good vibes goes to co-producers Switch (formerly of Major Lazer) and singer-songwriter Sarah Ruba Taylor, who plunder the sounds of Khan’s 1970s and ‘80s output for a mélange of styles and textures, from the fat Bernie Worrell-like synthesizers and fuzz-laced guitars of “Don’t Cha Know” to the echoing dub effects of “Isn’t That Enough.” Sometimes the production steals the spotlight a little too much: With its infectious Fatback Band-interpolating bassline, lead single “Like Sugar” barely needs Khan’s vocals to make you groove. Her placement in the tracks, often deep in the mix and drenched in reverb, can give the impression that she’s a guest on another artist’s remix.

Yet, it’s worth applauding Khan, who turns 66 next month, for continuing to make an album as vital and contemporary-sounding as Hello Happiness. Few artists still releasing new music as they approach their fifth decade in the business are producing work like this, with an ear to dance floors rather than the Grammys and NPR. One need only hear the sizzling man-eater’s blues of “Too Hot” to know that Khan is still in fine voice. On Hello Happiness, she pairs those ageless pipes with some of the most danceable music in her career.

Label: Island Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Donate

Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:

Patreon

You can also make a donation via PayPal.

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending