Nikki Lerner’s entire album Longings is well worth your listen, but if you’ve only got time for one song, try the subtle building “Plea,” which showcases her pop-meets-jazz leanings in full-on glory. This is an example of a song taking its time to earn a listener’s respect, building layer upon layer of melody as Lerner’s vocals swim among the notes, elevating them from mere pop to something significantly more. This is mournful blues, soaring pop and multi-textured jazz all rolled into one five minute track, something you have to hear again and again to fully absorb. From the pizzicato strings at the first chorus, which immediately make the hairs on the neck stand alert, to the background vocals which add depth and clarity to the melody, this is a song built upon attention to detail. Every detail brings you back. By the time the song builds to its apex — “Please forgive me!” lingering in the air over thundering toms and an epic string instrumental provided by jazz violinist Zach Brock, there’s no going back.
You can buy the album via her Bandcamp page.
Is it crazy that it only took one listen to this song and I fell in love?
Is it crazy that I know all the words and I can’t help but sing along?
Fuck no it’s not crazy ….
One listen and you’ll understand. Kat Dahlia is for real, and she’s coming to take control of your earphones.
“I’ll fly like a cannonball,” Glee-alum Lea Michele sings on her first original single, but what goes up eventually must also come down in a gory explosion of pyrotechnic overkill. At least that’s what happens here in a single which explodes in all the wrong ways, something only Michael Bay could fully appreciate.
Akin to something from a bad Broadway rock musical, Michele overacts her way through the video, backed by her own overwrought vocals, verses and chorus merging into one dense morass of pop miscalculation. The basic message is this: I’m lonely inside, but I’m going to get out there once I light this fuse and live my life, today … today … today …” Michele repeats words and phrases as though beating us with a blunt rhetorical instrument will make us like this song even in the slightest.
I in turn will start living today, and my first step will be vowing never to play this song again. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you can press play on the video below and then make the same vow never to do so again. But don’t say I didn’t warn you!
On this episode of the “Hear! Hear!” and Now Podcast, I have the opportunity to speak with Kat Dahlia, a 22-year-old pop / hip-hop songwriter who’s already made waves with last year’s viral hit “Gangsta.”
Dig beneath the surface and it’s easy to hear her disappointment with those in her generation who remain content bragging about accomplishments which in the end mean little. This, juxtaposed against her own family struggles as a first-generation Cuban-American growing up in Miami, sets her apart from most in the genre.
With a mix of fun party songs and more serious looks at the world in which she lives,one thing is clear: Kat Dahlia has something to say coupled with the drive to take over your pop landscape. Listen up, she’s coming to a city near you and there’s the chance to get in on this thing from the ground floor!
For a list of upcoming tour dates and to get a copy of her Seeds Mixtape, you can visit katdahlia.com
From a pure pop standpoint, Kat Dahlia’s new single “The High” is both invigorating and unabashedly ear-catching. The video she’s crafted for the song, a five-minute intense look at a violent relationship come to a brutal conclusion, is as visually arresting as the song is undeniably a hit in the making.
The single, off the 22-year-old’s latest mix-tape Seeds, is one of those graphic and brutally honest videos you have to see to believe. Even when the video at times seems on the verge of falling into Twilight territory, the song remains there in all its intense, stutter-pop glory to keep drawing you in.
“You say you’re gonna love me better,” she sings mournfully, but there’s no glossing over it. “But for now and for forever it’s a lie.” This is love in vain, even when it does make for visually and aurally invigorating art. The underlying pain of her experience is brutally evident. Consider this 2014′s first monster hit in the making and a must-hear.
This week on the “Hear! Hear!” And Now Podcast, we take a trip Down Under to hear what’s what among inspired Australian pop artists. Our featured songs include some kalimba-pop from Phia, an Australian-born Berlin-based songwriter, and The Griswolds, a band from Sydney with the hooks of Vampire Weekend by way of The Wombats. Enjoy!
Delta Rae returns with a new single, “Run,” off the band’s latest EP Chasing Twisters, and we’re here to preview the song which is this week’s iTunes “Free Song of the Week” feature. In addition, we’ll introduce you to Midnite on Pearl Beach, a Chicago band blending elements of psychedelic, folk, rock and blues to create a sound you’ll have to soak in to believe. We feature a clip of single “One Foot Left,” in addition to the entirety of album track “Modern Gods,” off their upcoming album Lamplighter — get it on January 14th!
If you like what you hear on this edition of The “Hear! Hear!” and Now Podcast, you have several options: subscribe by following this blog on WordPress, or follow our Feedburner feed. We’ve been approved for iTunes as well, and should be listed in the store under Podcasts shortly.
Australian hip-hopper Dialekt has a lot going for him, particularly on his solid single “Fortress.” First off there’s the hook, which echoes but doesn’t carbon-copy the piano-tinged flair of “Love The Way You Lie” by Eminem and Rihanna. Then there’s the chorus, sung ably by Xy Latu, which is as memorable as anything you’ll hear from Mikky Ekko or Gotye, a perfect ear-worm which does as much to demand repeat plays as does Dialekt’s rapping. That’s the clincher, though, is that this kid has serious flow. At first I wasn’t convinced — the first verse sounded a bit too much like B.o.B.’s work on “Airplanes” — but when he really gets going during the second verse, it is immediately clear there’s more here in the vein of Macklemore than anything else in pop-versed hip-hop.
No guarantee he’ll hook our ears with anything else, but “Fortress” is a solid first swing toward the fences. I could hear this song getting plenty of top 40 radio-play, and the video’s professionally produced, with a distinctive look. Start it at the two-minute mark if you’re not interested in the pseudo-story presented by the video, which in the end is just a chance to get Dialekt to light a few giant flares and let a helicopter spread color around him as he raps. What matters is that the quality of the song speaks for itself. This is everything pop programmers salivate over. Will it be enough to break Dialekt here in America? I’m going to bet yes.
ALL YOU EVER DID WAS WRECK ME: Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” as an examination of teenage hypersexuality
So, in the wake of the VMAs and Miley Cyrus’s unfortunate Twitter-bait bomb which was Twerking It 2013, you think she’s undeserving of any pop respect. And on first glance the video for “Wrecking Ball” stands to reiterate that. But give it a second look / listen. What, I have to wonder, is wrong with a teen sensation growing up and taking creative and artistic risks, even if it means perhaps alienating her from today’s crop of tween pop followers? Bear in mind Cyrus came to instant fame years ago and has aged alongside her audience — is there not room for a young woman to make her own moves in a male-dominated industry?
Here Miley pushes to take control of her own body, claiming her sexuality as her own as a backdrop to a song which, lyrically, crushes her beneath the memories of a relationship left in ruin. And while you may object to the video’s seemingly casual nudity and the often awkward sexual juxtapositions as Miley sings of taking to love like a wrecking ball only to be wrecked by the very love she so desires, bear in mind — she doesn’t owe you anything. Beyond giving pop fans a hook-filled melody, which this song does repeatedly and with gusto, her job as an artist in this pop era is to produce hits. And “Wrecking Ball” is a hit to anyone with ears. Whether her personal life is a mess, or her decisions as a young woman violate your personal sense of “shame,” I say resoundingly: “So what?” In that case she’s probably not singing this song in your direction anyway.
All that should and does matter is the song itself. Imagine getting this single sent to your inbox without a name attached, without the baggage of the video, and listen. Better yet, load the video and then turn your screen off, then press play.
Walk around the room and listen to that plaintive opening verse, a hook unto itself. Then the chorus hits, taking the song from plaintive pop to full-on anthem. “I came in like a wrecking ball / I never hit so hard in love / all I wanted was to break your walls / all you ever did was wre-eh-ehck me! You wre-eh-ehck me!” This is everything Lady Gaga still wishes she could put out there, every inch of what Katy Perry’s “Roar” can’t reach.
Love really is war, and when you lose you spend so much wasted time blaming yourself for the failings, to the point of self-destruction. That’s where the twisted sexual imagery of the video comes to bear. Yes it’s disjointed, creepy, desperate and disturbing, but it’s a view into what many of our young teenage women grow up thinking they have to do to win in love. Robin Thicke can put out a song like “Blurred Lines” which all but endorses the “I can treat you like an object because deep down you really like it” mentality, and yet we publicly scorn only the women who take part in the video, not the men who take credit for the song itself. Miley is a slut for twerking it onstage while Robin Thick plays the role of R&B referree.
And when our sisters, our daughters, fall in love and have their hearts broken, they’re left reeling, wondering what they didn’t do that could have kept the man in their life from wrecking them. Far from glorifying young women and open sexuality, as the Guardian obliquely opines, the video implies the opposite. The whole world tells me I should be this way, how could I be the only one who’s wrong?
I never meant to start a war
I just wanted you to let me in
And instead of using force
I guess I should have let you win
What message do we send when we trash the messenger — in this case an overly sexualized music video — when the message within is that in a world where everything’s hyper-sexualized, it’s okay coming from a man but when a woman claims even a touch of that sexual power, it’s off limits? I’m sure Miley Cyrus isn’t worried too deeply about this debate as she pushes “Wrecking Ball” toward what’s almost certain to be mega-hit status. But while she didn’t write the song, she uses the video to hint at the pain and hurt which lies below both the lyrics and the nudity in her video.
All of which warrants a second listen if you’ve chosen already to write the song off as meaningless … or worse, mere filth.
Ask yourself for a minute just what makes for a full-throttle pop stunner, and “What If” by Five For Fighting masterfully answers. Start with a memorable piano hook, then layer on thundering percussion and staccato vocals over an eventual guitar hook at the chorus which simply can’t be expunged from your mind. Draw listeners in with the music, then hit them with a deceptively simple line of questions which stand to probe the deepest failings of a relationship, putting us in the unenviable position of seeing things through another’s eyes.
“What If” proves itself to be up to the challenge of throwing 2013′s pop fans a lifeline, an instantly repeatable song which reveals more on each listen as we dig deeper into what first seemed simple but later becomes far more complex. “What if you told my lies? What if I cried with your eyes?” Ondrasik asks, emotion brimming over from every falsetto note left ringing in our ears. “Could anyone keep us down?” Here, he sings to an unseen second person of a relationship on the rocks, questioning both himself and her about where the failings lie. Is it me? Is it you? Are we both equally to blame, for simply never considering the other’s point of view? What if all that’s needed to save the relationship would be for both to “rise up” and admit that no one’s right?
It fits perfectly in line with Lucas Jack’s “Paralyzed” off Sun City, another song which dared to pick apart a broken relationship knowing as he did that there might not be a way to put the shards of shattered glass back together. “What If” does this with a hook aimed more for mass consumption than deep-thoughts contemplation, but it is refreshing to hear such nuanced lyricism on such a dead-on-arrival format as pop top 40 radio. If Five For Fighting has a hit with this, there’s evermore potential for songs like Lucas Jack’s to push the boundary of pop introspection even further.
Take a chance for a minute and give this a listen. He’s thrown us a lifeline, but if we don’t take it …
“These Diamonds In Our Hands” — Cris Cab’s “When We Were Young” melds Dave Matthews, Rob Thomas for robust single
This single by Miami-based singer-songwriter Cris Cab caught me by surprise this afternoon, a refreshing blend of Dave Matthews instrumentation with vocals which blend echoes of Rob Thomas with hints of reggae in the hook. The overall backdrop, when played on repeat, keeps drawing me back to Paul Simon’s Graceland, particularly when the horns come in strong at the 2:35 mark. This is a sunshine-soaked pop hit-in-the-making which should easily warrant proper headphone treatment followed by a proper blasting from your car’s speakers as you cruise down the highway.
If you dig the single as much as I have, check out his Red Road mix-tape, which arrives ahead of Cab’s upcoming debut album due this fall. The mix features collaborations with Hip Hop artists Mike Posner and Wyclef Jean, and can be streamed via SoundCloud.
Blindly soldiering on, Josh Krajcik produces a solid post X-Factor album with Blindly, Lonely, Lovely
He finished second in a reality show, but let’s face the facts: Josh Krajcik has talent which didn’t need a Simon Cowell-led talent show to showcase it. So it doesn’t come as a surprise to hear Blindly, Lonely, Lovely showcasing his blues-tinged growl over larger-than-life arrangements which accentuate his ability to merge blues, rock and pop, all within a slick package.
“Back Where We Belong” brings “big” to the forefront, with its massive arrangement of piano, thundering drums and Krajcik’s lung-deflating vocals, and at times the song itself becomes overwhelmed by that top-heavy heft. Sometimes less is more, which “Nothing” illustrates as the album’s opener. That’s the song which needs to be spread around the internet as the reason this guy needs to be heard. That or the southern-blues keeper “The Remedy,” which could have fitted itself nicely into any Ray Lamontagne album yet released, or at the least as a John Mayer Continuum b-side. Steep yourself in those vocals at the chorus, along with that rising tide of horns, and try not to get swept up in the mood.
This isn’t an album he’ll be able to build a whole career on, but clearly reality success didn’t spoil him — he’s used the time in the Fox spotlight to build an audience and then released an album perfectly in line with what those fans wanted to hear, free from obsessive studio interference. With album tracks like “Don’t Make Me Hopeful” and the album-closing stunner “Let Me Hold You” anchoring this mix, there’s plenty to hope for in this songwriter’s future. If you weren’t already sucked in by the solid craft illuminated by his first two independent albums (try “Atavistic” on for size if you don’t believe me), I can’t think of a better mainstream introduction to his sound than what Blindly, Lonely, Lovely delivers.
The 184.108.40.206′s subvert pop, punk, surf and rockabilly expectations with Bomb The Twist, the best EP of 2012 you didn’t hear
Play this EP straight through and you’ll feel like you’ve just taken a time-warp back into the classic era of pop singles. “Three Coolchicks” may be the best mock-Beatles track I’ve heard to really hit on the sound the band made famous, while distilling how that sound must have sounded to these three Japanese women coming up in the era of Quentin Tarantino “aural re-evaluation.”
Yoshiko “Ronnie” Fujiyama, Sachiko Fujii and Akiko Omo formed the 220.127.116.11′s in Tokyo back in 1992, achieving a modicum of underground fame when they briefly appeared in Kill Bill Volume 1 performing “Woo Hoo” by the Rock-A-Teens, but their music has yet to catch fire. That boggles my mind in this era of retro-pop nostalgia — the EP’s title track sounds like a long-lost Bill Haley smash as though filtered through the Ramones with a touch of surf-rock Beach Party mix thrown in for good measure. This is the essence of “fun” and “rock” distilled into 18 minutes of furiously twisted pop. Like Tarantino the music ably steals from an era long past, but the key is that filter which is applied liberally to the music to make it distinctly theirs. That alone makes this worth a listen. I dare you not to start singing along with “Dream Boy” as though it truly was the logical follow-up to the Chordettes or Leslie Gore.
Casey Abrams’ new “Get Out!” video puts a humorous spin on obsessive crushes with an unforgettable hook
Memo to Casey Abrams. As much as we all love your songs and want you to succeed, it’s dangerous to film a video where you’re seen stalking a hot chick wearing her best “I Love NY” t-shirt, leering behind her like Seattle’s latest serial-killer-in-waiting. That, and telling a girl “you got me like a bug bite and now you’re under my skin” while your eyes bug out eerily might not quite come off as “sexy” as you’re hoping. This time it gets you punched in the face. Next time she might cut you, and we’d hate to see you get hurt, with so much great pop songwriting yet for you to do!
All kidding aside, this video perfectly sums up what made Casey so damned likeable when he was on American Idol back in 2010. If this hook doesn’t win you over, and you don’t find something to champion via this interview I conducted with him for PopMatters, I then officially excuse you. Please now safely give up pop music for life, you’re just not going to be in the right frame of mind for music which doesn’t take itself so seriously.
Lately I’ve been going crazy looking for a juicy pop hit to champion as we head toward spring. Well, folks, this is the one … roll those windows down and crank it full-volume, make sure the whole neighborhood hears. Represent for happy-go-lucky bearded weirdos everywhere, because with a hook this good, if this can’t be a hit I don’t want to listen anymore.
Fall Out Boy knows what we did in the dark but hasn’t figured out it’s been six years since their relevance expired
I wish Fall Out Boy could see just how far they’ve fallen since their career crashed and burned with the collapse of Folie a Deux. Unfortunately they think that a dash of Maroon 5 mock-swagger plus Bruno Mars-esque backdrop hooks equals a whole lot of Fun. And it’s not. Not by a long shot. “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light ‘Em Up)” merely showcases a band whose career long ago went up in smoke attempting to create a pop juggernaut while playing by the old rules, figuring we’re all so desperate for a radio earworm we’ll gladly submit our brains for their control.
While once a powerful fixture in the world of top 40 hitmaking, Infinity On High marked their peak, and the five-year absence after “hits” like “America’s Suiteheart” failed to exceed trainwreck status suggests a total lack of direction. It’s been a long slow slide, and worse yet, they think they can Save Rock and Roll with their absurdly titled sixth studio album, due out in April. If this single is the best they can do, I think rock and roll would rather die a slow painful death than to submit to Patrick Stump and Co. as its savior. Sorry boys … the fall-out shall be swift: This critic knows what your songs did during the hiatus, and he’s not buying. Here’s hoping the rest of America follows suit.
She may not want to go back to the 90′s, but on No Fairy Tale Lisa Loeb fits right in with her hits.
Lisa Loeb states early on her latest album that she’s not particularly eager to go back to the 90′s, while managing to straddle the line between Fountains of Wayne-esque eighties nostalgia and Mike Doughty’s longing to put the past behind him and get ears to focus on his latest output. Funny thing is, No Fairy Tale may not pick up right where we heard her on the Reality Bites soundtrack, but these songs still have the crisp fly-on-the-wall hooks that brought fans in the first place, proving that when a singer has pop smarts, they don’t necessarily fade with age.
The title track in particular could be a long-lost Rilo Kiley out-take, daring fans to hit repeat and “share” on Facebook:
It’s no fairy tale
There’s no bread-crumb trail
To lead you back but it’s just as well
You can close the book
And curse the turn it took
It told the true story of how you fell
And that’s a better one to tell
This is one of those brisk pop albums which plays it straight, casting just the right spell to keep you listening from start to finish. I’m not going to say there’s a ton of potential hits here, because what constitutes a “hit” is such an oblique term these days. But when a songwriter can follow something as poppy as “The 90s” with the equally impressive “A Hot Minute,” it becomes clear why she’s continued to put out singable pop nuggets for twenty years while we’ve yet to hear anything new from a flash-in-the-pan like Anna Nalick.
Nothing on No Fairy Tale suggests Loeb needs to take as long between albums as she has since 2004′s The Way It Really Is, her last album aimed at adult pop audiences. No, it’s not as relentlessly catchy as her ubiquitous hit, “Stay,” but you’ll only require a few listens to the new album to prove we really don’t miss that slick sound. Resist the urge to live in the past, relying on false nostalgia to suggest there’s nothing worth hearing in today’s pop world. These dozen tracks prove Loeb still has pop smarts and hook-filled songs written in the now which capably fill the space between our headphones, just waiting for that moment when the chorus leaves our lips.
That’s more than enough for me.
Dawn Richard gets to the heart of contemporary R&B on Goldenheart while proving her mettle as a pop songwriter
Dawn Richard, formerly the lead singer of Danity Kane and one-time collaborator with Sean Combs’ Diddy-Dirty Money, jump-starts 2013 with her latest solo LP Goldenheart, which stands out as an affirmation of what good modern pop R&B can do when it gives real music a fighting chance. “Return of a Queen,” “Golliath” and “Riot” launch this album with a sense that everyone involved simply wanted to make a great pop album, letting the music speak more than the usually requisite hype. The result is a song-cycle which showcases the depth of Richard’s craft, filled with hooks which should lure people onto the dance-floor and then back home to those headphones, where they can pore over the intricate details.
“I’m searching to find my way back to the throne, and I know if I could climb back through these walls maybe I’d get home,” Richard sings as “Return of a Queen,” and she sounds perfectly within her element as she lifts the track far beyond easy comparisons. As the album progresses, we get drawn into the tempos and movements she requires for us to fully let our guard down, and the reward is an album of contemporary pop R&B which transcends the triple-filtered sludge radio wants to force down all our throats.
She even saves the best for last, with “Goldenheart” tying everything together via a beautifully evocative piano melody coupled with her fluid vocals to form a hybrid of classical pop. The result forces you to hit repeat to hear how everything fits into the whole of the album’s concept, making this album ultimately a rewarding listening experience beyond what anyone would expect from a mere pop showpiece. From start to finish Goldenheart is sequenced to be a memorable listening experience which changes minds as to what R&B can accomplish.
Timberlake 2K13: JT set to bring new music, on his own terms, following up FutureSex LoveSounds after six year hiatus
I’m the one who sits and is obsessive about it before you even get to hear it. As close as I get to it , I don’t know that I can physically torture myself year in and year out and expect it to fulfill me that way that it does, and the way that it is right now. I don’t want to put anything out that I think is something I don’t love. You just don’t get that everyday, you have to wait for it.
The mighty Timberlake somewhat obliquely announced Thursday that new music is on the way, at long last, to follow up the wonder which was FutureSex LoveSounds, an album I still put on my turntable regularly as an example of what pop music can do when pushing on all cylinders. And let’s just be honest here: Justin Timberlake is one of those rare pop icons who doesn’t care what you think — if the music’s not up to his standards, it won’t come out. He knows what he’s capable of producing, and he needs to meet those standards.
What has me excited is that this could be the opportunity to put the new music industry “singles first” paradigm to the test. If JT is smart, he’s not going to push the concept of another album-length juggernaut at audiences looking for singles so catchy you need antibiotics to battle their virality. If the countdown on his website can be trusted, we’re a bit more than a day away from the first big announcement. Here’s hoping Timberlake brings a single ready to dominate the airwaves, and then has enough tricks up his sleeve for the remainder of the new year, so he can show the young crop of up-and-comers how pop music needs to be done in 2013.
Outasight doubles down on the high energy of Fun’s “We Are Young” via his latest single “I’ll Drink To That,” an ode to clearing one’s head in the city that never sleeps. “Times are hard so let’s drink to what we’ve got,” he sings on the instantly joinable chorus, more than earning the praise he’s already received for Nights Like These since its release November 27. The Yonkers native has more than a single hit up his sleeve, however, blending rap, pop and rock on “Tonight’s The Night” as well, an equally ear-bending twist of pop refreshment which already has achieved platinum status. For a casual pop listen with enough emphasis on solid hooks to keep you grooving through the entire listen, it’s worth considering Outasight as we head toward the new year.
Breakbot’s “Baby I’m Yours” proves French DJ’s hooks have mainstream appeal — full album out today in US
Breakbot, already well regarded among DJs in France, is a multi-instrumentalist with talent and hooks to spare, something made immediately clear when listening to By Your Side. Out today in the US on Because Music / SIre, the LP features “Baby I’m Yours,” an ear-catching blend of pop, eurodisco and funk, eerily reminiscent of Jamiroquai. Breakbot (a.k.a. Thibault Berland) explains his musical intentions: “I guess you could say my album is more a pop songs album than a Berlin techno record with water drops sounds in it – I wanted to make a pop journey that would have all my influences, without being a reference catalog.”
The result, an album which features guest appearances from Irfane, Ruckazoid and Bjorn Synneby, showcases Berland’s ability to craft ear-catching dance pop without sacrificing his instrumental integrity. “By Your Side” (Parts I and II) and “Programme” establish both sides of Breakbot’s effective style — and if he continues in this direction, he’s liable to establish as much of a name for himself here in the States as he has in Europe.
It’s not just all physical
I’m the type who will get oh so critical
So let’s make things physical
I won’t treat you like you’re oh so typical
Forget everything you think you know about Tegan and Sara. Based on the thumping single “Closer,” the first hint of what their upcoming album Heartthrob will deliver upon its January 29 release, expect the duo to bring the hooks in quantities even pop radio programmers can only ignore at their peril. These two have always brought a flair for powerful, memorable hooks when the right song demanded it (“Walking With A Ghost” anyone?) but never before have I heard anything from these two with such an undeniable sense of accessible fun. In a world overrun with Mumford clones and Adele wannabes, Tegan and Sara could finally have a breakthrough with songs that simply turn their already top-notch indie-pop up to “11.” Expect this to be the first pop album of 2013 worth getting excited about!
The brightest spot in New Orleans’ pop music scene has to be The Winter Sounds, a band which brings the best of Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons and Snow Patrol together into one meaty sound worthy of repeat listens. The band’s latest, Runner, comes out November 27. Today we have an exclusive on their brand new video for single “The Sun Also Rises,” a shiny pop nugget with the pop hooks of Snow Patrol merged with the sonic heft of “Intervention”-era Arcade Fire. You can watch the video below, and download the mp3 for free here!
- – - – -
Though I aim for this site to cover all forms of pop music, sometimes I let real guilty-pleasure bubblegum too easily slip through the cracks. Mandy Barry’s music clearly aims for the top 40 radio aesthetic, with a sound akin to early Rihanna, before “Umbrella” made her a household name. Having heard two of Barry’s songs (the other being the four-to-the-floor Britney-esque club track “Girl Break Up”) it’s clear she’s got an ear for hooks.
What she doesn’t have is a producer with a deft touch. It’s a shame “Second to Breathe,” which overall is her strongest single, doesn’t take its own title’s advice. The overwhelming mix drowns a hook-laden, keyboard-heavy hook in tribal percussion and broadly-defined synth touches — the song, though solid, can’t completely shine through the mess. There’s a great deal of pop potential here if she takes the time to focus on stripping these pop tracks down to their strongest elements. Each track is worth a listen to hear what pop hit-makers sound like before they get their big break and the studio opportunities and advice which frequently come with such. Mandy Barry’s not all the way there yet, but I like her chances.
Casey Abrams didn’t win American Idol during the show’s tenth-season run, but he revived the idea that the show could be more than simply a staging-ground for cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers pop drivel.
This article is reprinted from PopMatters, where it ran on August 9, 2012.
- – - – -
Casey Abrams didn’t win American Idol during the show’s tenth-season run, but he revived the idea that the show could be more than simply a staging-ground for cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers pop drivel. From the moment he showed up on America’s televisions, grinningly playing his melodica, eventually breaking out the upright bass to blow the judges away with his performance of “Georgia on My Mind” in Hollywood, we knew this guy was keeping things real.
But this was no fluke. Abrams was classically trained as a student of jazz bass while a student at Idyllwild Arts Academy, and his reputation is that of a pop performer who prefers to improvise, shifting our attitudes of what makes music “pop” in the first place. The real surprise during that season of American Idol was how willing Abrams was to step out of the way of Idol convention, emerging from the experience as the same person he was during those early auditions.
Abrams’ self-titled studio debut has been out since June, and he’s already plotting out how he can continue to subvert pop conventions when he finally gets to take these songs out on the road. He took the time to sit down with PopMatters to discuss the new album and the others floating around in hs head, his experience being mentored on American Idol, and why it’s critical to stay true to your vision as an artist.
- – - – -
I know you play a whole bunch of instruments. But I’m interested – how many do you actually play now?
I feel comfortable playing guitar, bass, piano, drums, sitar, maybe some bongos and the melodica and cello. I feel comfortable playing these, but there are other instruments I dabble with.
How did you end up discovering you could play so many different instruments? Did you start out with anything specific?
Yeah, I remember I was listening to Pokemon, and there’s a character, Jigglypuff, and Jigglypuff had a song. [Casey attempts to sing the “Jigglypuff song.”] And I remember I was like “I love that song!” So I tried it on piano, and my parents said they could tell I had an ear for music. So from there I went to clarinet and then to the bass.
You went to art school, didn’t you?
Yes, for for years.
Did you develop your style there, your jazz influences?
Most definitely. Before then I remember in sixth grade I got an electric bass. And I was listening to AC/DC and Blink 182, Tenacious D. Even Eminem – I was playing basslines to all that stuff. But then as soon as I got to Idyllwild Arts, I remember I met Marshall Hawkins, this great jazz teacher, who introduced me to the upright bass and jazz. So from there the next four years of my life were spent learning how to play some jazz bass, listening to jazz music, even learrning some jazz piano too.
As far as your influences go, who inspires you as a musician currently?
Esperanza Spaulding does, and Alvishai Cohen, who is this crazy bass player – the whole instrument, not just the strings – percussion stuff. And also, Jack Black. He’s where I’d love to be in five years or something. He’s acting, he’s singing, he’s in comedy – he’s just one of the artists who’s everywhere.
I was interested, while watching you on American Idol – what inspired you to actually audition? Your style’s not exactly what they’d ever showcased before.
Exactly. But I wanted to see if my style could fit into the pop genre. It was really my mom’s idea. Me and my dad were kind of against the whole Idol thing, and my mom showed me some videos, and I knew I could do that. She says, “alright, then try it!” She really encouraged me to do it.
Were you surprised when you started pushing through the whole process and everyone was really enjoying the music?
I was shaking as I made it past the very first round. There were like ten thousand of us. I almost had a heart attack, but I decided I was going to try this, we’d see what happens. And then it’s just: “My God! This is my ticket to the next step!” And then from there I got a lot less nervous. I felt like I could stand out from those ten thousand people.
I was also interested in the mentor process. I know on TV they only show you a few minutes of every week’s mentoring time. But we know you have to spend a lot more time with guys like Jimmy Iovine than they show. But that night you decided to do “Nature Boy”, Jimmy Iovine came on the screen and was saying he thought you should have taken the advice and done Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”. The next night he came out and apologized, saying you obviously made the right choice. Was it really so dramatic that night?
Yes. I honestly got emotional that night, because I really wanted to do that song. And no offense to Phil Collins, but that’s one of those songs everyone could have done. With “Nature Boy”, I had already worked out an arrangement with the bass, and then my mom calls me and says “Why don’t do do that?” I knew she was right. So I recorded the Phil Collins song and was just “I don’t feel it!” So at the last second I tried it [“Nature Boy”] and Jimmy was not too happy. And you know what? I don’t hate Jimmy at all. I think the advice he’s been giving this season has been really accurate. I think he really looks out for people. It’s just he’s got that power that he always thinks he’s right.
I found it interesting, because a lot of people would be afraid in that situation. “He’s telling me that I should do this thing, and he’s my mentor!” But the whole idea of a mentor is to push you in the right direction, even if it means eventually you have to tell the mentor that maybe you’ve got a different idea. And I don’t know that there were a lot of people who would have stood up and said “I’d really rather do this song.”
Right, but I have to pay attention to my gut. And my gut knew the song. No one on Idol had heard the song done like that. And I tried hard. I listened to him, and I said we’d record the Phil Collins and see how it goes. And in the end I could say “I tried it but I don’t like it! I’m sorry, but I’m the artist and I think I should do what I want to do.” And he says, “Alright …”
But if you’d fallen, it would have been on you.
I’ve been listening to the new album. And I was impressed, you’ve got a sense of style which shows through the whole album, even as you’re jumping around from genre to genre.
Right, I’d say we stuck to the same color pallette even as we played with different styles.
I was wondering about the songwriting process on that. Did you write the songs, or was it a group-writing process?
It was a group-writing process. Sometimes I’d walk into a room with one or two writers and they’d have ideas for me, but sometimes I’d come in with ideas to bounce off them. I think music is collaboration and compromise. And I think without another person – there can be that singer-songwriter vibe, but without the collaborative process, I don’t think music would be much fun.
I really enjoyed “Ghosts”. I’d heard the acoustic version online, but hearing the fully fleshed-out recording, I couldn’t imagine that not being a single. But the one which really stood out was “Blame It on Me” – I kept hearing Michael Jackson.
[Laughs.] Really? I’d like to call the genre of the album “organic focal.” The focal point is the melodies and the harmonies, but we’re using organic instruments. There’s acoustic guitar, upright piano, the double bass …
Does using those organic instruments have more heft than, say, using a pre-produced beat?
Most definitely. There are electric basses, but the upright bass adds a different element. It adds depth, changing frequencies you wouldn’t hear on an electric bass.
Have you listened to anyone recently whose music has you really wanting to work with them?
I think working with Mumford and Sons would be interesting. That would be really fun. I also really like this band Tinariwen, a buddy turned me on to them – they’re traditional mixed with modern African instruments. These dudes are hairy and they’re usually playing in a desert or somewhere like that. [Laughs.]
I’d heard rumors that you have two albums planned – this one’s going to be your pop album and then eventually you’ll be doing something more “straight jazz”. Is this actually true?
I don’t know at this point. I’m actually sitting with several albums brewing in my head. I’ve discussed it with everyone what I’d like to do. I do think it would be cool to do a jazz album in the future, something like this album I’m putting out, but change up the time-signatures, add some saxophone and I could really sing, and we’d do some jazz covers.
It’s great that you brought Haley Reinhart in to sing with you on “Hit the Road Jack”. You both have so much vocal chemistry and, on American Idol, were pushing your boundaries constantly. Neither of you won, but at least you were out there taking risks.
You know what? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Music is exploration. Everything should be exploration. I’ve tried it, and it’s fun to see what comes from taking chances – what better place to try that out than on American Idol? The audience will go along for the ride. I really don’t care if people like everything I do, or everything I did on the show. I’m just experimenting, and I want to be able to have fun making music. Wait … to a certain extent I do care. I hope at least some people liked it.
We could tell you cared. The night they used the Judges’ Save, I thought you were going to have a heart attack. Everyone talks about “Reality TV” being staged, but that wasw the least-staged moment you’ll ever see.
Oh God, dude … that moment on Idol changed my life. I think that was a life-saving moment. I really didn’t know what to do. I was running around the stage; I didn’t know who to hug or what was supposed to happen. It was crazy. But it basically worked out perfectly. I knew as soon as I tried out for the show that I wouldn’t win it. I’m sure there was the possibility in my mind, but I knew it wasn’t going to get that far. But I couldn’t be happier where I am right now. Now that I’ve had that exposure, I can go on the road and try things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to try if no one knew who I was.