Posts Tagged ‘auto-tune’

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Sugababes – Sweet 7. (album review)

February 7, 2010

Sweet 7 marks the 7th album from the Sugababes, and the first album from the newest incarnation of the group, consisting now of Heidi Range, Amelle Berrabah and Jade Ewen.  Furore of no original members remaining aside, Sweet 7 evidences a complete glossy polishing of the group’s sound that started upon Mutya’s departure after Taller In More Ways, one of the group’s best albums.  Sweet 7 is full of pounding clubby pop uptempos, with a couple of ballads at the end to slow down the pace.  For the most part (the piece-of-trash “Thank You For The Heartbreak” aside), these are well-written, catchy pop songs with a couple of pleasant surprises along the way.  “Wear My Kiss” and “About A Girl” are smashes-in-waiting that don’t deserve to fare badly on the charts just because of bad feeling towards the group’s revolving-door lineup.  “No More You” sounds like a Stargate production in the vein of Beyoncé’s smash “Irreplaceable”, and standout “She’s A Mess” has some hilarious lyrics (“drinking bottle after bottle after bottle…” / “Everybody go mad, everybody go psycho!”) and multiple hooks, plus an irresistible instrumental coda that keeps you dancing and pressing repeat.  This track sounds as if it could be addressed to Ke$ha, dissing trashtastic, classless girls everywhere (perhaps Amelle has reformed her drunken antics and girl-bashing self?) who just live to party and get drunk.

The ballads that close the album feel a bit tacked-on, and could have been better incorporated into the sequence of the album as a whole, but “Crash & Burn” and particularly “Little Miss Perfect” are well-sung efforts that offer a nice change of pace from the mostly relentless 4/4 beats of the disc.  Sunny acoustic-led track “Sweet & Amazing” offers a lyrical insight on optimism and getting what you want out of life; the message is nice and appreciated, but the lyrics themselves come across as trite and banal.  Still, the overall vibe of the song is endearing. Perhaps “Sweet & Amazing” and “Little Miss Perfect” are also answers to those who have criticised the group for ousting last founding member Keisha Buchanan, stating in not so many words that the group had to do what it had to do to survive and to maintain a healthy inter-member relationship.  Who knows – but these songs at least give a little bit of meat for fans and listeners to bite into.

However, Keisha’s absence is gaping for two major reasons.  One: anyone who has heard the original Sweet 7 sampler with Keisha’s vocals knows just how much better “Get Sexy” and “Miss Everything” sounded before.  This is largely a production error: the intro on “Get Sexy” no longer grabs the listener with any vocals; Jade Ewen’s voice on “Miss Everything” is unnecessarily auto-tuned within an inch of its life, and the modulations on her voice are at least double that of Heidi’s and Amelle’s, which seems illogical considering that Jade Ewen is far and away the best vocalist in the new incarnation of the group.  Indeed, the new rendition of “Wait For You” places Jade front and centre, and her vocals particularly in the second verse are nothing short of thrilling. Technically, she might be the best vocalist the Sugababes have ever had, and it is almost a shame that she sacrificed her solo career to be part of the group; especially when the re-produced songs make little effort to blend her vocals with Heidi and Amelle’s.  Through no fault of Jade’s own, at times her vocals stick out like a sore thumb, not just because she outclasses her fellow members at nearly every turn, but because the vocal mixing appears to have been carried out by an orang-utan.  This seems to be a running theme with the Sugababes, as Amelle’s vocals on tracks such as “Red Dress” sounded nothing short of harsh, but with newer songs came a more subtle, blended approach to the production.  Hopefully future albums will exhibit the same approach.

Two: as hinted at in the introduction to this review, the Sugababes’ new music is extremely polished, but it has lost nearly all semblance of any originality the group had.  Songs such as “Overload”, “New Year”, “Round Round” and “Situations Heavy” sounded unique to the group, as if they could be sung by nobody else.  The shout-out of “RedOne!” at the start of “About A Girl” might as well be changed to “We’ve used Lady GaGa’s producer, please love our single too!”; “Thank You For The Heartbreak” could be sung just as easily (and probably better) by the Sugababes’ biggest rivals Girls Aloud; “Miss Everything”, while a ridiculously catchy song, features Sean Kingston in an unnecessary attempt to pander to the American market.  “Crash & Burn” sounds like something Chris Brown could sing and in fact did sing on his mediocre Graffiti track “Crawl”.  Only towards the end of the album on quirky tracks such as “Give It To Me Now” does a shade of the Sugababes’ original spunky personality creep in. I’m a believer that when the group lost Mutya Buena, they lost what made the Sugababes that irresistible combination of street, edge and class.  Even looking at the album and single covers from Sweet 7 (not to mention the horrendous video for “About A Girl”), the Sugababes are posing in skimpy outfits and pouting like their lives depend on it.  In the old days, their individuality stood out; perhaps in a loss of confidence, the group now looks and sounds desperate to fit in, which is a shame as they used to lead the pack, and with a strong set of well-written tracks on Sweet 7, they don’t need to resort to such pedestrian tactics.  In trying to be edgy and stand out, the Sugababes have lost their sense of individuality and ironically end up blending in with your average girl group or classless female singer.

So, what to make of Sweet 7?  It’s balanced heavily towards the uptempo, but most of its songs do succeed and the album is a fun listen with a few standout cuts.  Jade Ewen is a thrilling addition to the group, and were the vocal production a little better, her voice would elevate the material to stellar status.  The ballads are serviceable for the most part, and in my opinion there is only one unlistenable song on the disc (putting the album ahead of Change and Catfights And Spotlights).  However, it’s a shame that the Sugababes have lost that spark and class that set them apart from the rest of the pack.  In trying to compete with the rest of the shallow, faceless current pop music scene – regardless of who now comprises the group – the Sugababes have automatically lowered themselves to the level of their peers, and that is sad because they could have made a great album instead of a solid but unexceptional one.

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Mariah Carey – Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel review.

September 27, 2009

Finally, it’s here (unless, like me you live in the UK in which case you are expected to wait until NOVEMBER 16TH!!!!  I will be buying the import collector’s version on Amazon, which drops on Tuesday.) – Mariah Carey’s new album, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel.  Preceded by the lead single “Obsessed”, which has done very well but not shot to number one (leading certain people to brand it a ‘flop’ all the same), several questions were being asked of this CD: “Is Mariah’s voice really shot?” (No.) “Is it better than Whitney’s album?” (Yes.) “Does the fact that The-Dream and Tricky Stewart produced the whole album make it a bit monotonous?” (No… not really.  A couple of the songs are somewhat repetitive and reminiscent of other The-Dream tracks, but Mariah’s input and The-Dream’s variety are pleasantly surprising.) “Why did Mariah push her CD back? Was she running scared?” (No; she was making a cohesive R&B album and taking the time to make it perfect.)  Listening to the finished product makes this clear – where The Emancipation of Mimi (Mariah’s “comeback” “classic” album, which is possibly her least cohesive effort and contains some fantastic tracks surrounded by the most filler in any of her albums this decade) and E=MC² were literally a collection of songs, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel takes you on a unified journey the way that Mariah’s best 90s efforts, the seminal Butterfly and Rainbow, and yes, even 2002’s Charmbracelet did.

Mariah’s vocals are stronger now than they were on Charmbracelet, though she often employs her whisper voice in place of full belting.  As it did on Butterfly, this gives the songs an intimate feel which brings out the intricate emotions inherent in her lyrics.  Standout “H.A.T.E.U.”, which means “Having A Typical Emotional Upset”, at first sounds like an angry-woman-scorned missive thematically similar to other songs on the album, but it is emotionally vulnerable as Mariah finds herself in a place where she misses her lover, but doesn’t know what to do with herself other than “change her number” and “move away” in an attempt to get over him and begin to move on.  The emotional limbo echoes in the production, which employs a hard-hitting slow beat and a baby’s cries along with Mariah’s whistle register.  Her high-pitched wails are a massive feature of this album, and are present on many of the songs – according to various tweets, Mariah wanted to explore using her upper range as a texture in homage to Minnie Riperton.  Just as on Rainbow‘s “Bliss”, on tracks such as “H.A.T.E.U.”, “Ribbon” and “Angel (Prelude)”, Mariah’s stratospheric notes come across less as an opportunity to showboat than as a genuine part of the song’s instrumentation and setting the mood.  At the album’s climax, a tasteful cover of Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”, Mariah lets loose with gospel melisma and ecstatic squeaking to emphasise her joy and rapture in finally finding true love and encountering happiness after the ups and downs and broken relationships explored throughout the course of the album.  The only criticism of this song is that it ends far too quickly, robbing the listener of the climax – as soon as the vocal and musical apex is reached, the track is fading out!!! Here’s hoping that a longer edit of the song will surface.  But the point is that Mariah Carey is using all the ranges of her impressive voice for legitimate reasons – to serve the song and its mood, musical instrumentation, lyrical punctuation and emotional expression.  If there is any proof required that Mariah has grown as a singer, this album is it – even if she doesn’t belt as happily as she used to, her voice serves the songs more.

Having said that, Mariah also embraces radio trends on some of the more uptempo numbers.  Lead single “Obsessed” is one of a few tracks to use auto-tune.  Another question: “Why does someone with Mariah Carey’s voice need to use auto-tune?”  This is a somewhat valid question, but I think that Mariah is just trying to stay current and have fun.  Although some of the album’s slower material is more weighty and emotionally deep, songs like “Obsessed”, “Up Out My Face” and “More Than Just Friends” (which contains some fantastic lyrics such as “Secretly I know you wanna hit it like the lotto / And after that we can ketchup like tomato / We can make love in Italy in the grotto / Fresh off the jet at the Met they screamin’ bravo”) are designed to keep the BPMs up, keep things light and moving briskly, and create songs which have sharper lyrics and fun, bouncy melodies.  The marching band “reprise” of “Up Out My Face” is a fantastic, creative interlude that really knocks, and would have been great as an extended song – it harks back to one of Mariah’s performances of “Shake It Off” (perhaps the Thanksgiving Parade performance? I don’t remember… if anyone knows, feel free to comment!).  “Standing O” is another hard-hitting uptempo track that gathers its intensity as Mariah applauds an ex-lover for breaking her heart – “All you did was pound on it”.  The beats accumulate towards the end of the song, as Mariah’s voice gets more insistent and an almost operatic soprano punctuates her despair.  Although it had to grow on me somewhat, I am really enjoying the track.

There are a couple of tracks where I differ from what I understand to be the general consensus, according to other forum and blog comments, as well as video reviews of the album I’ve seen on Youtube.  “Ribbon” has been garnering comments such as being ‘overproduced’ with its distorted hooks forming part of the music, and more of a crunk beat than other tracks, really hitting hard.  From what I understand, people are saying the track is a bit overcooked and Mariah gets lost in it – I disagree! I love the song, its music is dark and percussive, but Mariah’s syrupy vocals and lyrics “Wrapped up, wrapped up, ribbon with a bow on it” sit on top of all that like the icing on a cake.  It’s actually one of my favourite tracks on the album, and although it is a typical The-Dream track that could have easily fit on his Love vs. Money album, I don’t think that it suffers for that – there’s not another track like it on the album, so it stands out.

Whereas my only weak track, which other people seem to love, is “It’s A Wrap”.  Mariah pours wine at the beginning of the track, so I guess we are supposed to relax into it, but the doo-wop beat and sparse piano forces the song to melt away and become unmemorable.  The lyrics are somewhat lackluster compared to the zingers on other songs such as “Up Out My Face” (“If we were two Lego blocks, even the Harvard University Graduating Class of 2010 couldn’t put us back together again” !!!!!!) and “More Than Just Friends”, or to the emotional heft of ballads such as “H.A.T.E.U.”, “The Impossible” and “Angels Cry”.  The only line that “It’s A Wrap” has going for it, IMO, is “It’s going down like a denominator” – and you have to wait for the end of the song to get to that bit.  Just a bit lackluster for me – but other people love it, so you may love it too and we’ll agree to disagree.

Earlier I compared Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel to classic Mariah albums Butterfly and Rainbow.  This becomes apparent during the album’s closing stretch – though on “Candy Bling” and “Inseparable” Mariah offers a relaxed yet absorbing throwback vibe (to former Mariah tracks “Yours” and “We Belong Together”, respectively), and on opening ‘prologue’ “Betcha Gon’ Know” Mariah masterfully weaves an absorbing tale of heartbreak and infidelity just as she wrote spellbinding descriptive lyrics on classic “The Roof” – it’s not until “The Impossible” that we really seem to penetrate into Mariah’s heart.  The sexy R&B feel gives nods to Jodeci and provides a classic texture that once more exemplifies just how much is missing from 2009-typical R&B. Hopefully this is a sign that older R&B values are coming back around – although Mariah popularised the trend of female singers working with rappers, Memoirs does not boast a single collaboration and is all the better for it.  “Angels Cry” is a heartfelt ode to love lost that sounds like classic Mariah, and of course there is the closer “I Want To Know What Love Is”.  These last two tracks really ratchet up the emotional impact of Mariah’s album, where other tracks are lighter and more fun, or restrained slower material – and make sure that it goes out on a high.

Okay, so I am a big Mariah Carey fan, and I am bound to say that I love the album.  For me, it’s a real album that flows (hence the various reprises and little flourishes that help the songs segue together sonically as well as thematically) rather than just a collection of songs.  The lyrics and vocals work together to compliment each song’s mood, content and impact.  And apart from “It’s A Wrap”, I really enjoy every track on the album.  So for me, taking the songs individually, they are winners, but the album as a whole is elevated beyond the sum of its parts to something quite special.  In my opinion, this is why it stands head and shoulders above Whitney Houston’s I Look To You (certainly not an album which has a cohesive feel, and I only like half of the songs anyway) as well as nearly every other album I’ve heard released in 2009.  This is where Mariah Carey is not only a gifted singer and vocalist, but an artist who keeps working at and developing her craft as a writer, producer and someone who envisions how her project should sound from start to finish.  Check the credits: Mariah Carey is Executive Producer, Album Producer, and a producer and writer on every single song (apart from the cover version).  As a singer, a songwriter and an artist, she is what I aspire to be, and Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel is, like Butterfly and Rainbow, an example of her at her very best.

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90s baby.

August 27, 2009

Okay, I confess, I was born in the 1980s.  But apart from a few songs, the majority of what I grew up with was 90s music.  As you know, Mariah Carey is a massive influence on me, and my mother bought her very first single, “Vision Of Love”, on vinyl back in 1990.  Right through “Dreamlover”, “Without You” and “Fantasy” to the  Butterfly and Rainbow albums which closed the 90s, she was an epic atom bomb dropped on my life.  But if you know me, or you’ve read certain previous entries, you already know that and I’m not going to delve into it further here.

As a preteen and young teenager bearing the combined musical influence of my mother and my school friends, I would listen to songs by the Honeyz, En Vogue, Shola Ama, Backstreet Boys, No Doubt, Solid Harmonie, Peter Andre, Blur *shudder*, Aqua *cringe*, Aaliyah, Monica, Brandy and Usher, to name but a very select few.  The magazines I read (Smash Hits, TVHits, Top Of The Pops) were aimed squarely at teenagers who were of a sunny pop disposition, and although I was much more aware of the charts then than I am now, I still felt a little bit like there had to be something more.  Beyond straightforward manufactured pop (however good a product it may be), I started to lean towards more urban music.  I discovered garage (2-step) music, R&B, rap and hip hop.  Ms. Dynamite, Shola Ama (and the remixes), Honeyz and Kele Le Roc represented British R&B to me, while the American singers such as Toni Braxton, Aaliyah, Brandy, Usher, Monica, TLC and Jennifer Lopez were an emblem of something smoother, sexier and edgier.  Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope opened my eyes to how well an album could be constructed, seguing effortlessly between different moods, concepts and tempos.  Missy Elliott’s Da Real World smacked me upside the head with a combination of weird bassy dark production and super-explicit lyrics that I wasn’t familiar with.  Jennifer Lopez’s video for “If You Had My Love” left me with the undeniable impression that a star was born, from her ridiculous beautiful looks to her insanely polished and expressive dancing.  Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” ended up on my cd player before it dawned on me just how much of a classic that song was going to be.  TLC’s Fanmail sounded like the future.  Aaliyah’s One In A Million album sounded like effortless sexuality, and sounded like nothing and nobody else.

All the aforementioned artists, albums and songs still hold that exact same resonance for me.  Perhaps it’s just the fact that I was growing up and those singers played an integral part in my adolescence, but music just isn’t the same anymore.  Show me a singer as effortlessly sexy and sophisticated as Aaliyah.  Show me a group as fiercely cool as TLC.  Find me a singer with a voice, body and songwriting skills like Mariah’s.  A rapper as off the wall as Busta Rhymes, as influential as 2pac or Notorious BIG.  I mean no disrespect to all the musicians and artists in the game today, because they have a hard job living up to these stars, who to me represent the golden age of urban music.  Ciara, Beyoncé, The-Dream, Electrik Red, Robin Thicke, Pitbull, Lil’ Wayne, Black Eyed Peas all hold down the front line.  Perhaps it’s just that I’m older, but despite their best efforts, I can’t help reminiscing.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because I’ve found music in the last 3-4 years to be somewhat dry, I’ve discovered music from that golden age that passed me by the first time round.  Unbelievably, until 2 years ago, I had never listened to a Jodeci song.  Obviously I’d heard of them and their songs must have played very occasionally on the radio or tv, but I’d never really listened. Now I know where Dru Hill got their ideas from!  R. Kelly and his protégée Sparkle crafted some classic 90s R&B.  SWV and Total were some bad-ass girl groups!  Listening to the Notorious BIG’s albums and Puff Daddy’s older output allows me to see where Diddy, Lil’ Kim and Bad Boy Entertainment stand today and plot the journey and progress in between.  The joy of this has been that it is an entirely personal quest, because nobody else, in my past or present, is into the exact same music as me.  I’ve managed to convert some of my friends to some urban music, but I don’t really know anyone in person who’s into in the same depth.  The people who seem to understand most where I come from musically are on the internet, in forums and on urban music blogs.  Quite often, different posts educate me.

And that’s why I get so frustrated at the state of music today.  For one, every song seems to be a recycle of something else.  Beyoncé’s “Halo” = Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” = Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” = Jordin Sparks’ “Battlefield”.  Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” = Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” = Eva Simons’ “Silly Boy” = Rihanna’s “Shut Up And Drive” + “Umbrella” = a large part of The-Dream’s subsequent output = Electrik Red.  LeToya’s “Not Anymore” = Ciara’s “Never Ever” = Monica’s “Still Standing” = Nicole Scherzinger’s “Happily Never After” = Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” = Rihanna & Ne-Yo’s “Hate That I Love You” = Ne-Yo’s “Because Of You” = Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love” = Ne-Yo’s “Mad”.  So damn formulaic.  And as Jay-Z has finally noticed, auto-tune is everywhere.

Another thing: why does music being released right now sound like it is 20 years old?  Aaliyah’s self-titled album sounds like an edgy, modern masterclass nearly 10 years on.  TLC’s Fanmail sounds more futuristic than Keri Hilson’s In A Perfect World…despite the former being released in 1999 and the latter released in 2009.  Whitney Houston’s latest “greatest” “comeback” album I Look To You is an utter mess, because instead of a graceful attempt to keep up with the times as on My Love Is Your Love (a burnished masterpiece) and even Just Whitney (which has held up surprisingly well), she decides to go time-travelling.  The ballads fare well, with “Call You Tonight” a classy modern song, while “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and “I Look To You” are classic ballads which are strong, even without the power of Whitney’s old voice.  “Salute” is the best song on the album for me, because it is pure timeless R&B.  But the uptempos…. oh no.  “Million Dollar Bill” revisits old-school R&B and falls asleep, “Nothin’ But Love” presses the 90s synth button repeatedly, “Like I Never Left” should be titled “Like I Never Left The 80s”.  The major disaster is “A Song For You”, which was performed sublimely by Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera a couple of years ago.  Here, the first half of the song is typically piano led, but Whitney seems to jump through the hoops a little bit.  No matter, it’s not a problem compared to what happens at 1:30.  Hex Hector and Peter Rauhofer must have cried a river when they heard this tepid 90s-dance mess. I listened to this and had to skip to the next track, because Whitney was done a pure disservice with this song.  Words fail me…

Whitney Houston is not the only victim of this dated-modern fad… even on Trey Songz’ fantastic third album Ready, the melodically lovely “Love Lost” boasts a musical backing that sounds like it was created in 1987.  And Monica’s latest leaked song “Betcha She Don’t Love You” sounds like Missy Elliott vomited up an old record and told Monica to sing over it.  (Aaliyah would never have stood for it, I’m sure.) I have no problem with being inspired by the past and appreciating heritage and history.  You can honour the classics in a tasteful way. But when it seems that it’s so difficult for artists to be forward thinking that they recycle old songs and pass them off as ‘new’ or ‘retro-cool’ when in reality they are just lazy, that really pisses me off and makes me rifle through my older CDs, listening to music that is forward thinking, doesn’t sound at all dated, but is timeless.  There’s a big difference between the two that a lot of today’s music industry (both A&R honchos and artists alike) would do very well to learn.