Alt-J’s “All This is Yours”

The origin of Alt-J’s name derives from two unique sources: a Mac keystroke and the mathematical definition of change. Integrating these concepts of technology and arithmetical variation into their music, Alt-J redefined the boundaries of rock music in 2012 with their outstanding debut, An Awesome Wave. By combining a diverse set of genres and blending them into a smoothie of colorful and ethereal melodies, An Awesome Wave became one of the most beguiling rock albums in recent memory. Not only did Alt-J gain success by receiving the coveted Mercury Prize Award, but their hit singles “Breezeblocks” and “Tessellate” also helped the group rise into mainstream prominence as one of the coolest and most mysterious new bands.
Utilizing electronic synths, hypnotic folk, and psychedelic pop, the experimental UK group quenched the thirst of eager music listeners and garnered a positive reputation among critics, some even comparing them to Radiohead. However, with all that in mind, some critics note bits of chunkiness in Alt-J’s music, such as their outlandish lyrics, lack of direction, and uneven tones. Unfortunately, these tiny, harrowing factors continue to resonate, especially on the band’s follow-up album, This Is All Yours.
Like its predecessor, This is All Yours is ambitious, but it’s also artistically messy and overstuffed. The record’s haphazard set of droopy, dreamlike hymns and raucous, raunchy jams make it seem as though Alt-J made This is All Yours with a halfhearted effort. Essentially, the group’s follow-up record lacks what madeAn Awesome Wave so deliciously marvelous. It’s almost ironic, as Alt-J spent at least five years developing their first album and only five months making this one.
Within the first eight minutes of the album, you can already tell that This is All Yours is not only unexciting, but that the English trio also seem rather uninterested in what they are playing. Beginning with the trippy but repetitive “Intro,” the band isn’t off to a strong start. Lead vocalist Joe Newman’s muffled noises make his signature slurred warble sound even more incoherent than before, while a string of la-las and disorienting percussion play incongruously in the background. The record continues to drag onto track two, “Arrival in Nara.” Though the serenity of the instrumental is enjoyably atmospheric, it’s too gentle and frail to carry its own weight through its strenuous four minutes.
We finally get a pulse out of Alt-J on the album’s third track “Nara.” Its snarling synths, woozy bass, and twinkly piano riffs pound furiously against Newman’s tender voice. However, Newman makes a few questionable choices with the lyrics (For example: “Love is a pharaoh and he’s boning me”). It’s almost if Alt-J is trying to paint a beautiful picture, but it just comes out fuzzy, weird, and mish-mashed, much like their Jackson Pollock-inspired album art. On the album’s most overtly carnal song, “Every Other Freckle,” Newman tries to be romantic but comes off creepy, strange, and downright laughable with pickup lines such as “I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a bean bag” and “Let me be the wallpaper that papers up your room.” Things get even weirder with the generic lo-fi jingle “Left Hand Free,” which is so musically and structurally conventional that it could be mistaken for a song from another indie-alt rock group.
However, Alt-J makes a decent attempt at being avant-garde with the bizarrely beautiful “Hunger of the Pine.” The album’s five minute centerpiece features electronic bleeps and enigmatic violins that shift into a sample from Miley Cyrus’ “4×4,” in which the pop singer proclaims, “I’m a female rebel.” Though Cyrus’ snippet has absolutely nothing to do with the actual song, it’s oddly entrancing and weaves directly back into the innovative sound that made Alt-J so unprecedented to begin with.
Although the latter half of This is All Yours isn’t all that remarkable, it is more cohesive. Instead of resorting to another round of experimental pop and confusing lyrics, the album becomes more folk-oriented and traditional, which Alt-J fortunately pulls off. The chilling “Warm Foothills” and euphoric “The Gospel of John Hurt” provide some nice ambience for listeners. Although the Jack Johnson-esque “Pusher” pulls the band briefly back into formulaic territory, Alt-J jumps in again with the sensuous “Bloodflood Pt. II.” It isn’t until the way end of This is All Yours that Alt-J brings their A-game, with the post-apocalyptic jam “Leaving Nara” and a surprisingly wondrous cover of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.”
Experimentation seems to be both a strength and a weakness for Alt-J. Their mastery of music software and various instruments allows them to constantly tinker with sounds and sound effects. But it’s all a matter of what it will end up sounding like, which unfortunately hasn’t worked on This is All Yours. It’s obvious that Alt-J is still trying to figure where they stand in terms of rock music. Though they may be lucrative and favored among many listeners now, they still have a lot of learning to do before they run out of steam.
Grade: B-
*(Original date of article: October 1st, 2014)

Ariana Grande’s “My Everything”

Everyone takes a different path as they grow up, especially for child TV stars. Most lead a successful life of fame and fortune, while some get left behind in the dust and others derail into publicized self-destruction. In 2014, beloved Nickelodeon and Disney stars, such as Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, are gradually shedding their innocent tween images for more adult (and rather provocative) personas, using the ever-growing industries of film and music as outlets. Usually, these stars attempt to evoke a powerful statement about independence and responsibility, but for the most part, it’s self-delusion. However, among the throng of child actors, 21-year-old Ariana Grande, who played the adorkably dim-witted Cat in Nickelodeon’sVictorious, seems to be showing her independence in the right way.
Ever since her music debut, last year’s “Yours Truly,” Grande has not only attracted a devout fanbase and thousands of Youtube views, but she’s also managed to surprise almost every doubtful music critic. Although Grande’s debut was rather a safe and unadventurous record, its ‘90s throwback R&B grooves and funky contemporary pop jams made the album sparkle. Most importantly, what made “Yours Truly” so special to Grande’s beginning as an up-and-coming musician was her astonishingly unwavering vocal range. The obvious comparisons to Mariah Carey aside, Grande’s ear-piercing voice proved that she’s got star power and that’s definitely evident on her newest album, “My Everything.”
Ditching her manic-pixie-girl persona, Grande has polished her image to look more mature, courageous, and self-aware this time around. Although R&B and pop is still apparent in her repertoire, Grande brings forth a breathtaking palette of funky hip hop, steamy club bangers, and hyperactive EDM on her new record. Although the tunes on “My Everything” are not as consistent as the ones on “Yours Truly,” they are nevertheless more sonically and thematically daring.
Grande starts off “My Everything” rather strangely, with an angelic intro that abruptly shifts into the already recognizable saxophone loop of the ubiquitous pop anthem “Problem.” With the help of Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, who has also proven herself to be a newfound success with chart-topper “Fancy,” Grande exudes a Britney Spears-type prowess that’s both exciting and empowering. It’s no surprise that “Problem” has already become a critical and commercial achievement, as the song’s producer, Max Martin, was responsible for hits like “…Baby One More Time” and “Oops I Did It Again!”
Listening to the rest of Grande’s “My Everything,” the 21-year-old Floridian singer’s musical choices continue to vary from pop ballads (the passionate “One Last Time” and the soapy “Why Try”) to moody piano pieces (the dreary, Big Sean-featuring “Best Mistake,” the somber “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart,” and the hearty title track closer). While each track does show immense aesthetic growth in Grande, the transitions from song to song are somewhat disorganized. Grande fluctuates from feeling empowered to being lovesick to downright dirty.
Despite this, she remains fearless and unafraid in tracks such as the cheeky hip-shaker “Hands on Me,” where she incorporates Christina Aguilera-esque swagger and an unexpectedly impressive feature from indie rapper A$AP Ferg. While Grande exhibits a newfound risuqé vibe on “Hands on Me,” she continues to expand on themes of love and rocky relationships, such as on the bubbly, Cashmere Cat-produced “Be My Baby” and the trippy, lust-filled “Love Me Harder,” which comprises of a surprisingly apt cameo from hip hop romantic The Weeknd. But the most we get out of Grande personally is on the brazen club thumper “Break Free.” Produced by Russian-German electronic artist Zedd, “Break Free” is not only a perfect song to pump up parties, but it also demonstrates Grande’s unique artistic tastes and melodious vocals.
For the most part, “My Everything” is a huge improvement on “Yours Truly.” The record gives Grande the musical tools and creative freedom to construct a commendable modern pop album rather than another set of formulaic and conventional songs. However, “My Everything” is not without its faults; the sentimentality of “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” screams trivial teen pop. In addition, the lackluster, Notorious B.I.G.-sampling “Break Your Heart Right Back” is unbecoming, especially with a tedious feature from rapper Childish Gambino (who ironically also used to be a TV star). Nonetheless, the rest of “My Everything” showcases Grande’s undeniable talent and that’s something to look out for. On “Yours Truly,” Grande was basking in the spotlight, timid but optimistic; On “My Everything,” Grande is center stage, sitting confidently on a pedestal of promise.
Grade: B+
*(Original date of article: September 5th, 2014)

Lily Allen’s “Sheezus”

In 2006, Lily Allen became one of pop music’s most intriguing newcomers. Unlike most female pop artists at the time, Allen became universally known for her explicit lyricism, use of female self-empowerment, and cheeky demeanor in her music. The effect of the 29-year-old British singer’s marveling debut album Alright, Still ignited an upsurge of female music artists, who began to utilize more musical influences and address more topics regarding women in modern society. However, after five years on musical hiatus, Allen has come back into the music world a little too late. Nowadays, pop music is practically dominated by female artists, such as Lorde, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. So it wouldn’t make much sense that Allen named her comeback album Sheezus, considering the fact that she isn’t a frontrunner in female pop anymore.

It is strange to see such ego from a musician who last released an album in 2009. However, Allen’s previous efforts, such as her mega hit “F**k You” and her charming debut single “Smile,” prove that she’s made a huge mark on modern pop music.
Opening Allen’s record is the trippy title track. Infused with a hip-hop beat and electronic synths, the title track’s production is promising and mesmerizing. The lyrics express several of Allen’s aspirations, fears, and hopes about her success as an artist. But, the song does drift into confusing territory when she name-checks several current female pop stars (Rihanna, Beyoncé, Lorde, Gaga). It’s hard to tell whether she’s dissing them or praising them, but either way, the last line of the chorus (“Give me that crown b**ch/I wanna be Sheezus) makes the song’s intention look clumsy and ambiguous.
Unfortunately, the rest of Sheezus continues to be a mixed bag. While the electro-pop sound and brazen lyrics work with some tracks, such as the gleefully irreverent “Hard Out Here,” there are a few disappointments. The bubbly “Air Balloon” has an undoubtedly infectious rhythm, but the lyrics are lazily written. The poppy but overtly sexual “L8 CMMR” is also a mediocre effort, even for a witty songwriter like Allen. “Insincerely Yours” reverts back to Allen’s reggae-influenced roots, but it’s an easily forgettable track. Additionally, “Life for Me” is probably the worst track off Sheezus, with its formulaic lyrics and drab beat.
One of Sheezus’ promotional singles, “Our Time,” may be one of Allen’s weakest in her career. A starry-eyed jam about living in the moment, “Our Time” sounds like it has potential, but it’s surprisingly simplistic and clichéd. It contains bland pop culture references and a hackneyed chorus, which is rare for Allen. Although its sparkly beat is appealing, “Our Time’”s overly sentimental vibe and themes about being young are slightly unsettling. Even Allen called it one of her “rubbish” tracks off of Sheezus, which says a lot. This could either be Allen attempting to satirize popular teenage anthems or a weak attempt at making the next “YOLO” song. Either way, “Our Time” feels like the latter.
Despite Allen’s best efforts, Sheezus sounds uninspired and lackluster, although the music videos for some of the album’s singles are way more entertaining and creative. The only real bright spot in Sheezus is the album’s first single “Hard Out Here.” An equally funny and socially relevant song, Allen brings back the biting satire, irreverent lyrics, and feminist undertones that made her a star. If only for a moment Allen continued to make the kind of music presented in “Hard Out Here,” Sheezus would’ve been a great record. But sadly, it isn’t and Allen could do better. Allen may still be one of music’s most prominent female pop singers, but you can tell that she’s out of the game for now.
Grade: C+
*(Original date of this article: May 8th, 2014).