Posts Tagged ‘melody’

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2526: track by track

November 26, 2012

As stated in my previous post, my latest album 2526 is a loose diary of the last 2 years of my life, and focuses on love, and a range of facets of that emotion. I’m now going to take you through each track and tell you a little bit more about them all.

1. My Way / Sincerity

As one might surmise, these were originally two separate songs. “My Way” was a response to the burdens of parental love and pressure from those around you who know you best and suffocate you in their desire for you to achieve the best – at the same time as you love them for wanting the best for you, you can’t help but know that ultimately you’ll end up disappointing them. Try as I might, I could write a bridge for this song, and it was unfinished for ages. “Sincerity” came from wanting to write a song called “Sincerity”, and wanting to use the classic, hard-hitting beat from the remix to “It’s All About The Benjamins”; there seemed to be a real contrast between hard and soft.  But I couldn’t write a bridge for this song either, and it went unfinished for ages as well. One day, it dawned on me to just put the two together – the subject matter of the songs went well together, and while the overall tone of the songs is one of defiance and determination, there is also love and vulnerability. And most importantly, no bitterness.

2. Distance

This is one of my two favourite songs on the album. I was heavily into the song “I Miss You” by Beyoncé (from her masterpiece 4), and the night that I received the instrumental from Citizens of the World, I had been looking forward to Toby coming down to Bristol for the weekend (this was before I had moved to London) – we hadn’t seen each other for a while and I really missed him. Except that same night, he had called me to say that he probably wouldn’t be able to make it (in the end, he did). I was feeling melancholy and yet selfish as well, and the lyrics and melody to this song subsequently came in about 15 minutes. The lyrics so vividly capture the emotions I was feeling, and the vocal delivery is something that is supposed to be downbeat and yet sincere and heartfelt. The production is perfect. I am so grateful to have recorded this song.

3. Delete U

This song was written not long after Quiet Storm was done, and the piano intro is supposed to be reminiscent of Prince / The-Dream. I remember breaking up with one of my previous dalliances and just removing all trace of him from my life. It was intriguing that rather than tangible memories, we store a lot of initial information about friends and relationships digitally and so it’s all about “pressing delete” rather than throwing things in the trash. The use of terms such as “Facebook” and “Twitter” automatically date this song (probably to its detriment, although I personally don’t think it rings as unnaturally as the lyrics about getting off the Macbook and Facebook from Brandy and Monica’s otherwise-very-good “It All Belongs To Me”), but when I’ve dated my entire album through its title, it doesn’t really matter!

4. Important

I am well aware that this song sounds really similar to “Broken-Hearted Girl” by Beyoncé, but it’s not a bad song to use as a template and I really wanted the piano and drums to be straightforward – the vocals and lyrics are supposed to occupy centre stage in this song. I wanted to talk in an honest way about how it feels when you don’t know what is going on in a relationship, and whether your priorities and feelings really mesh with those of your partner’s. Are you on the same page? I left the song open-ended – we don’t know if the couple in the song stay together or break up, because although I personally tend towards the latter, the whole point is that life and love is not clear cut and the things we think we should do, we don’t always do.  Love is complicated.

5. Unforgettable

This song is a remix of / my spin on Drake’s “Unforgettable” from his first album Thank Me Later, and I loved the melancholy production. The chorus of my track I guess is a bit more reminiscent of the Nat King Cole classic; I wanted to have a rap song on my album, like “Armani Earrings” on Quiet Storm, but less incendiary and more vulnerable. The sample of Aaliyah just made Drake’s song so perfect. Mike has played such a big part in the last 3 years of my life that I didn’t know how to feel about it when he moved out of Bristol. Even though we worked together, it felt like we were drifting apart and I was sad about it. I wrote this song to encapsulate all of my emotions about the relationship with one of my best friends developing and evolving. Ultimately, I ended up moving a lot further away! I have grown up so much over the last 3 years, and I wanted to pay tribute to someone who had a considerable role to play in the man I am today. Friendship is love too, after all.

6. Phoenix Rising

This song evokes love as empowerment. This was the first track from Citizens of the World that I wrote to, and I had Nicole Scherzinger’s Killer Love album on repeat at the time, hence the namecheck in the first line. The production was ethereal, and I wanted a melody that really soared on the wings of the track. It was a challenging vocal to sing – particularly the end note! – but recording this track was really enjoyable because I got to do different and interesting things with my voice.

7. U Gotta Go

This song was much more fun and more upbeat – when I received the instrumental, it sounded so happy and pop! I immediately thought of “I Wanna Go” by Britney Spears – but I didn’t want to do something completely featherweight, so I flipped the song to make it a breakup anthem with some sassy lyrics about dumping a car in a lake that I cribbed from Tamia’s “Go” (aside: she is such a ridiculously talented singer!). I also wanted to make a poppy track that had some good vocal riffs in it – so I did that.

8. Sabo

This is my other favourite song on the album, because it is very personal and meaningful. Obviously, it’s addressed to Toby and it’s about him and us. I am so deeply, romantically and truly in love with him. He bought me a ring from Thomas Sabo for our 6-month anniversary, and I still wear it every day – I love it (black and silver are my favourite fashion colours, after all!) and I am so proud of it. I wanted to write a piano ballad the old fashioned way – chords and lyrics on top, no digital production – so that’s me playing the piano (the microphone isn’t great for recording the piano, so that’s why it sounds a bit honky-tonk). I was also in love with Beyonce’s “1+1” so I wanted to have some powerful vocals in the bridge, that really pulled out the soul that I wanted to express. The song turned out exactly how I wanted it to (honky-tonk aside), and I always knew it would be the end song / finale to my album.

Once again, I hope you enjoy the album!

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Madonna – MDNA (album review.)

March 28, 2012

MDNA is Madonna’s 12th studio album (depending on what you include / exclude) and it’s an improvement on her last effort, Hard Candy, simply because there’s a higher strike rate of really good tracks. It’s no Ray of Light, Bedtime Stories or American Life (her most introspective albums and not coincidentally, her best – let the debate begin!), but we get more of an insight into Madonna the Human Being than we have in possibly 10 years.

Not that you’d know it from the two singles that have been released: “Give Me All Your Luvin'” is a straightforward ‘fun’ track which has had a lot of the fun ironed out of it. Madonna’s vocal sounds flat, the production sounds a little lacklustre, and while Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. acquit themselves well during their verses, their presence is unnecessary. The melody is perky but calculated, the cheerleader chants are hooky but calculated – the whole thing is a perfectly acceptable pop song, but it sounds so desperate to be joyful that it ends up losing a lot of charm. “Girl Gone Wild” serves well as an album opener, but again it sounds dated for Madonna – which means bang-on-trend with what’s in the charts – and unimaginative. The lyrics are uninspired, the melody is catchy and you will be humming it after a couple of listens. In this sense, the singles both do their job, but there’s much more exciting stuff on the album.

Which, take my advice, should be sequenced thus:

01. Girl Gone Wild
02. Gang Bang
03. I’m Addicted
04. Some Girls
05. Turn Up The Radio
06. I Don’t Give A (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
07. Give Me All Your Luvin’ (Feat. Nicki Minaj & M.I.A.)
08. B-Day Song (Feat. M.I.A.)
09. Superstar
10. I’m A Sinner
11. Love Spent
12. Beautiful Killer
13. Best Friend
14. I Fucked Up
15. Masterpiece
16. Falling Free

I am never usually one to mess with how an artist envisions their album by cherry-picking individual songse, or by listening to things on shuffle. I am very in favour of the idea of an album being treated and listened to as a body of work. However, I gave this track list (which I found on the Popjustice forums) a go and it seems to flow so much better. It stacks the harder-edged songs at the front of the album, followed by a sunny middle section and winding down towards the slower songs at the end.

“Gang Bang” is my favourite song on the album. A revenge anthem featuring menacingly-spoken vocals (reminiscent of Dita from Erotica) atop a minimal beat, a dubstep breakdown (again, bang on trend / a little passé, but it works well in this instance) and screams of “DRIVE BITCH! AND WHILE YOU’RE AT IT DIE BITCH!”, it’s irresistible, edgy, a little silly (Madonna does not need to prove she is edgy and ‘down with the kids’ by swearing, but never mind), and it totally works. I can’t help but think of The Bride from Kill Bill when I listen to this song. Even though it would be an extremely weird choice for a single, this song is so cinematic that it deserves a video. “I’m Addicted” is the “Impressive Instant” of the album – swirling synths and insistent beats piling on top of each other to provide a climactic finish, while Madonna abandons insightful lyrics such as “all of the letters push to the front of my mouth, and saying your name is somewhere between a prayer and a shout” in favour of hedonistically chanting “M D N A M D N A” over and over.

And so we come to the album title. It’s a cool way of writing “Madonna”. Madonna has also said that the songs on this album display her musical DNA, so that also makes sense. And then, it also sounds like MDMA – which is a drug (hence the aforementioned refrain) and implies that Madonna’s new music is addictive. It’s a well-chosen title that has layers of meaning – well done to all concerned! The album cover (I am talking about the deluxe cover, above – the standard is pretty but doesn’t really go beyond that) shows Madonna posing behind a ridged glass screen which slices up the picture into discordant segments and perhaps represents an impenetrable layer between us, the listeners, and her, the performer / musical icon. The super-bright colours then pack a punch to the eye, and also reference a psychedelic, drugged-up state. Drugs like MDMA! I am spelling this out. The most intense colour comes from Madonna’s lips however, which is also important – she always takes centre stage. And her lips are where her voice comes from (sort of – you know what I mean) and Madonna is a Singer. Yes.

Back to the music then. “I Don’t Give A” is another standout track which has an urban quality to the beat. It discusses the hectic schedule of a star on Madonna’s level, and how she does ten things at once without feeling the pressure, because she doesn’t give a. It’s a defiant moment that’s further strengthened by another strong rap from Nicki Minaj, and tops out with an operatic choir repeating “I don’t give a”. As we’ll learn later on in the album however, Madonna does give a. “Love Spent”, “Best Friend” and “I Fucked Up” are introspection done right (unlike “Falling Free”, which is an epic ballad marred by Madonna’s incredibly mannered delivery and too little momentum too late). “Love Spent” switches up halfway through from practically one song to another with little more than a hook in common, but the same theme pervades throughout – if love were money, would you spend it on me? Would you care about me as much as your money? It sounds ironic for Madonna (who is not poor) to be discussing this, but then again, why can’t she? Everyone can relate to the feeling of coming second best in a relationship, regardless of whether either member of the couple is wealthy or not. It’s an emotional moment that is buoyed by a strong melody and interesting musical touches (such as the opening guitar and the Nintendo bleeps). “Best Friend” and “I Fucked Up” are apparently about her divorce from Guy Ritchie, and the demise of their relationship. Now, I know that it is easy to attribute these lyrics to that experience which the whole public knows about- and Madonna has had a couple of relationships since then (one of which was with Jesus!) – but it sounds pretty convincingly like Guy was on her mind when she wrote these tracks.  “Best Friend” talks about losing someone Madonna was very close to, and reflecting upon the time they shared together – “It wasn’t always good but it wasn’t always bad”. The fact that time has passed between the divorce and the album has allowed Madonna to apportion the blame where it lies on both sides – as well as Guy being the subject of her vitriol on other tracks, “I Fucked Up” sees her take some responsibility for the relationship’s demise. “I blamed you when things didn’t go my way… In front of you, I was cold.” Listing a number of the things that the couple could have done makes for some heart-wrenching listening, even as the production picks up speed. Although parts of the album sound manufactured for radio (like the singles) and others see her aim blindly for the craziest dancefloors, these tracks are where Madonna is open and sounds honest, rather than pre-meditated.

Other songs that deserve a mention are “Some Girls” and its basic but essential proclamation: “Some girls are not like me”; “Superstar” and its sugar-sweet hook of “Ooh la la, you’re my superstar”  (I imagine this song as being great for driving along to); the romantic “Masterpiece” which is somewhat cliché but manages to remain elegant and understated. On the other hand, weaker points of the album include “I’m A Sinner” which sounds like “Beautiful Stranger” (and I didn’t like that song either), and the ridiculous “B-Day Song” which wastes M.I.A.’s talents and doesn’t match up to the quality of the rest of the album. However, it’s relaxed nature reveals that Madonna probably had genuine fun recording this track, and it’s nice to hear a song that’s so unguarded. Perhaps it should have remained a b-side.

Overall, MDNA is a good album. It’s not outstanding as a whole, but it contains a fair few excellent moments. The songs are cohesive enough to feel like they belong (with a couple of exceptions), while varied enough to retain interest. There’s genuine introspection, braggadocio and hedonism – which is what we want from Madonna. It’s a shame that some of the album feels so calculated that it detracts from our enjoyment of the material. But once you can look past that, MDNA provides a trip well worth taking.

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Kylie Minogue – Aphrodite. (album review)

June 27, 2010

Aphrodite marks Kylie Minogue’s 11th studio album, and the general attitude is that this is the Australian star’s comeback album following her battle with breast cancer, after the scattershot effort of previous project X. Not only did X not allude to her personal life and struggles (to many fans’ dismay), it seemed determined to overlook them; however, the genre-hopping and quality rollercoaster displeased many listeners.  This is not to take away from the album’s strongpoints; for the gigantic misses of glam-rock lead single “2 Hearts” and the tepid, forgettable “No More Rain”, there were hits such as the excellently addictive “In My Arms” and the sensuous “Sensitized”, not to mention the beautiful closing lightweight ballad “Cosmic”.  X was a frustrating listen not because it ignored Kylie’s personal foibles but because it didn’t know where its head was at, and fired off moments of sheer brilliance and then of complete twaddle seemingly at will.  It’s true that in contrast to that album, Aphrodite is cohesive, focused and honed to target the fibrillating emotional dance-pop that so pleases the radio and Kylie’s gay fanbase.

Aphrodite bears much in common with that other Kylie comeback record, Fever.  Both are love letters to the dance floor, where the tempo and beats are relentless, while Kylie purrs over the top at once calculated and lascivious.  Both are pure pop, and neither of them take enough risks to stand with Kylie’s best albums: the daring, creative zenith of Impossible Princess or the seductive Body Language that was comprised of songs that were so off-kilter and curious that it was a pleasant surprise just how well the songs worked both individually and as a whole.  Nevertheless, Aphrodite aims to please, and on lead single “All The Lovers”, Kylie does just that with a lyric that pleads simultaneously for love and for the dancefloor.  Primed for the radio and for the gays with its pop-dance leanings, Kylie seems to have struck a home run.  However, this song epitomises much of one of my criticisms of Aphrodite as a whole: the sentiments of the lyrics (which are well-written) and the beauty in the melodies (which are often evocative and well-structured) get swallowed up by the uniform pop production of the album.  It at once unifies the record and smooths out most of its interesting quirks: if X was too schizophrenic, Kylie has gone too far the other way with Aphrodite to create a record that is too homogenous.  Like Madonna’s Confessions On A Dance Floor, Stuart Price oversees production duties here to melt the songs together into one continuous blur, making the decent songs fight to announce themselves as individuals to the listener’s ear.

With songs such as “All The Lovers”, “Closer” and “Everything Is Beautiful”, this is a problem: for example, “Closer” is structurally and melodically a ballad, fighting against production that wants to make it a bitter dance song.  “Everything Is Beautiful” should be a gentle, sweet ode to the joys of love, but the insistent drum beat transforms the song into an anthemic but ill-fitting upbeat pop song. These identity crises give much of Aphrodite the sense that it is trying too hard to be something it’s not, or that the tracks are not allowed to be themselves.  There are a couple of plain weak tracks: “Better Than Today” sounds entirely like a Scissor Sisters track and Kylie Minogue (who is not credited enough for her vocal and interpretative abilities) sings it in just that way; “Looking For An Angel” is listless filler which once again seems to have earned its spot on the record because it fits in with the overarching feel of the album as a whole.  It’s a shame that unlike on the quirky Body Language where the album’s moments of strangeness worked, a large part of Aphrodite feels like it is a square peg forced into a round hole.

This is especially highlighted when one listens to the songs that do work.  “Get Outta My Way” is a focused, upstanding anthem that takes its 4-to-the-floor beat and runs, creating an exhilarating standout; “Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)” bears the essence of Fever‘s infectious “Love At First Sight” and is similarly lovely; the title track “Aphrodite” is a statement of self-worth and determination to triumph that totally suits its marching-band beat and lyrics that declare “Did you think I wasn’t real?… I’m fierce and I’m feeling mighty / I’m a golden girl, I’m an Aphrodite / Alright?” Its confidence and zest spearhead Aphrodite’s most successful moments.  However, “Cupid Boy” is the antithesis of this and still shines; a moody guitar-driven mid-tempo that proves that (unlike the aforementioned “Closer”) it certainly is possible to successfully deliver an emotionally-charged ballad-esque track while still keeping the overarching dance feel of the album intact.  Closer “Can’t Beat The Feeling” is one of the album’s poppiest moments, but its embrace of its own cheesiness is almost delightful, with Kylie’s vocal delivery transforming throwaway candy-floss lyrics such as “Feel the force of the reaction / Let it take you on a ride /… I can’t beat the feeling that I get when I’m with you” into a delirious proclamation of love.

Overall, Aphrodite caters to its target group, but a little too efficiently.  Some songs feel like they’ve been forced to be what they’re not, a couple seem to be present only by dint of the fact that they musically sound like Kylie Minogue tracks – facsimiles of songs rather than songs in their own right.  But at least half of the album works, and when the individual elements of Aphrodite react successfully and the songs stand up with the help of the production rather than being strapped down by it, the results are impressive.  I enjoyed this album more than I expected to, and it marks one step closer to a return to form for Minogue… even if she’s not quite at her peak.

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Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid (album review.)

May 23, 2010

I literally don’t know where to start with this review.  Comparisons have been made to James Brown (the lead single “Tightrope” has a funky, dirty bass and backchat with Monáe’s band), Judy Garland (“Oh, Maker” features a stately purity of voice in its verses, only to give way to a joyful exaltation of a chorus, and is one of the album’s highlights) and even Erykah Badu (Monáe sings with a knowing voice, sometimes sounding wise well beyond her years while not even connected to this cosmos).  But Janelle Monáe is undeniably her own woman: crazy hairstyles, performing in black-tie tuxedos, employing ethereal instruments coupled with double-time beats, composing her material in suites… It would be audacious enough if it didn’t succeed, if Monáe were above her station with this Metropolis, 28th century high-concept shit.  But she’s not.  Although at times The ArchAndroid feels a bit like it’s overreaching, the vast majority of it is exciting, mindblowing and more than a little bizarre.  This makes it one of the boldest releases to come out in quite a while.

I’m not going to attempt any detail of the story behind this album; it’s only vaguely important to the running order of the songs.  In very brief, Cindi Mayweather was an android who fell in love; the cyber-hunters were invited to hunt her down; she has since discovered the ArchAndroid helmet which displays the city of Metropolis on the top – yep, that’s the album cover above! – and has transformed from pariah to messiah for the robot population of Metropolis.  Monáe creates a textured evocation of this hyper-space reality within her music, and it’s appropriate that The ArchAndroid sounds nothing like anything else in current popular music.  However, its melodies are still catchy, its production tricks are still appreciable (although the music sounds far removed from anything Sean “Diddy” Combs would touch, Monáe is signed to his BadBoy imprint, whose releases normally display impeccable production values – if, at times, little else), and the meanings behind the inventive, often poetic lyrics (from “Say You’ll Go” – “Love is not a fantasy / A haiku written in Japanese”) go beyond the specifics of the Metropolis concept to speak more generally of love, society, and human emotions and situations.  In other words, Monáe hasn’t concept-ed herself into oblivion; the songs can still have meanings to each individual listener, which is important because we still need to relate in order to truly engage with the music.

Moving to the specifics of the music on The ArchAndroid, it’s a hefty album, comprising two suites that are much weightier then Monáe’s The Chase EP; that disc had three songs which were swift, exciting and irresistible.  The special edition had two extra non-concept tracks; a plea to the President for social consideration, and a beautiful, restrained cover of Nat King Cole’s “Smile”. Monáe may not be a vocalist in the same way as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera, but she has an extraordinary control of her instrument, and displays its versatility when songs require it (similar, in a way, to Toni Braxton or Sade).  On The ArchAndroid, Monáe alternately displays grace (“Oh, Maker”), subtlety (“Sir Greendown”), uninhibited release (“Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)”) and an old-school sensibility that fuses scat, Broadway and Latin rhythms (epic closer “BaBopByeYa”).  Suite II (the first suite of The ArchAndroid) is generally more immediate and accessible to the uninitiated listener: after a classical intro (although its concept hangs together flawlessly for most of the album, the instrumental interludes may be slick but they are still unnecessary filler!), Monáe gets straight down to business with the help of spoken word artist Saul Williams for “Dance Or Die”.  Beats fibrillate below Monáe’s haughty poetry, and before the listener knows it, the song segues into “Faster”, into “Locked Inside”…; before you know it, you’ve reached subdued ballad “Mushrooms & Roses” and Suite II is nearly over.

The seamless melting of one song into the next is a neat production trick, but one that we have seen before.  It has its risks, since the listener has to pay attention to his iPod, CD player or media player of choice in order to determine where one track ends and the next begins.  If the songs are dull, they risk totally going over the listener’s head.  Luckily, the majority of The ArchAndroid has enough memorable hooks, production tricks and bizarre sections to stick in the mind and merit repeat listens.  Suite II is far stronger than Suite III for this however; Suite III, although shorter, is much denser and ethereal. Although Suite II had some lovely slower material (“Oh, Maker” and “Sir Greendown”), Suite III seems weighed down by the lack of upbeat or midtempo songs.  “Make The Bus” is an ok effort but hardly lives up to the breathtaking pace of Suite II; “Wondaland” seems altogether too precious.  However, Suite III comes into its own as it reaches its conclusion: “57821” (the serial number of the robot Cindi Mayweather) begins to engage the listener with its subtle, undulating backing, before the majesty of closing tracks “Say You’ll Go” and “BaBopByeYa” unfurls.  In all, Suite II is stronger and more addictive listening, but Suite III has its moments despite its more downbeat demeanour.

Why does it all work? It’s beyond me, as Janelle Monáe seems to have thrown everything and the kitchen sink into this album – in terms of lyrics, vocal approaches, production tricks, musical genres, concept… It’s a miracle that it doesn’t sound overblown, desperate or self-important, but for the most part – it doesn’t.  Only on “Wondaland”, “Mushrooms & Roses” and “Neon Valley Street” does Monáe sound a tiny bit like she’s faking, stalling while she scrabbles for a new idea with which to blindside us.  The vast majority of The ArchAndroid is not only severely impressive, but sounds genuine.  Which makes Janelle Monáe a hugely talented, innovative young woman, and one of the best new artists to emerge in recent years.  Take a listen to The ArchAndroid and prepare to be both mentally and aurally stimulated.

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Monica – Still Standing. (album review)

March 21, 2010

Still Standing is Monica’s first album since The Makings Of Me 4 years ago.  Like that album, Still Standing stands at a brief ten tracks (bonuses excluded), and the font on the album cover is the same.  Missy Elliott has a strong presence in the album’s production, and in case you forget this fact, she grunts and shouts at the beginning of some of the tracks to announce “New Monica! Hot shit!” This annoying tic disrupts the flow of an album that is largely slow to mid-tempo, and is unnecessary since we know we’re listening to Monica and we don’t need Missy Elliott to bludgeon us over the head with her opinion of her own track.

Unlike The Makings Of Me however, Still Standing is “hot shit” from beginning to end.  Representing the strongest album Monica has released since The Boy Is Mine (or possibly  All Eyez On Me), Still Standing contains one uptempo track, “If You Were My Man”, which is tellingly the album’s only weak point, riding an 80s groove that sounds genuine and laid back even as the bass knocks hard.  Apart from this song, the album runs at a slow, leisurely pace that really invites the listener to sink into the songs and contemplate the alternately loving and lovelorn lyrics accompanying the tracks.  Despite the album’s slow tempo, the 10 tracks seem to be over too soon, and when an album makes you want to press repeat immediately, that’s a good sign that it’s a decent effort.  What’s more, although there was a real danger that with so many slow songs, they might melt into one another to become a big treacly mess, the lyrics, melodies and production are all immaculate throughout and each song is distinguished from the next.  “Still Standing” (the first song we heard from this project way back in 2008, which opens the album with a declaration of strength and resilient and deserves to be the title track) and “Mirror” employ persistent, menacing synths and underlying piano to emphasise the empowering nature of their lyrics, and are two highlights from the album.

“Everything To Me”, the album’s first proper single, has been an unlikely hit considering its radio-unfriendliness (a 3/4 time signature? How refreshing!).  However, its soaring declaration of love is elevated by Monica’s stellar vocal delivery, and while sonically she sounds more and more like a young Mary J. Blige (Still Standing is the album Stronger With Each Tear should have been), it is becoming more and more apparent that Clive Davis was right all along and Monica is truly the vocal heir to Whitney Houston.  “One In A Lifetime” (which couldn’t sound more like a Mary J. Blige track if it tried, robbing liberally from her mega-hit “Be Without You”) is radio-ready but still sincere, while “Superman” employs a plethora of hero metaphors over a slow-jam beat.

In contrast to these romantic songs stands “Stay Or Go”, another album highlight which takes the flowing piano from Chris Brown’s “So Cold” (the best song from his mediocre Graffiti), slows it down and adds more mature lyrics and beautiful vocal stylings to the mix to serve up an effective ultimatum to Monica’s love interest.  Album closer “Believing In Me” sees Monica heartbroken, defiant and finding her strength of heart and soul all over again in the wake of a broken relationship.  Just as “Getaway” was a declaration of vulnerability at the end of The Makings Of Me, so is “Believing In Me” a declaration of vulnerability but also independence, which one might relate to Monica’s recent split from her long-time partner Rocko.  It closes the album well, with Monica’s vocals on the edge of tears close to the song’s climax.

Still Standing succeeds because while it sounds current, it doesn’t pander to radio’s demands for disposable fluff and instead hews close to Monica’s strengths as a supreme R&B vocalist, giving her solid melodies to express heartfelt lyrics.  Every song is strong and uncompromising, standing on its own merits and together these songs form a cohesive whole.  Annoying grunts aside, Missy Elliott handles production duties well, as do the other producers (particularly Bryan-Michael Cox), and if the album is brief at 10 tracks, at least it serves up excellent quality and is markedly better than The Makings Of Me which contained the same number of songs.  It feels like Monica has really hit her stride after previous album wobbles, and it’s so refreshing in 2010 to find some artists making true R&B still enjoying commercial and critical success.

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Alicia Keys – The Element Of Freedom (album review).

December 6, 2009

Alicia Keys’ new album The Element Of Freedom comes after her biggest success so far, As I Am, in a career which hasn’t had any troughs or lows to date.  Every album she’s released, from Songs In A Minor to the present has explored depth and soul, has combined traditional elements of R&B with current, up to date production and lyrical exploration of love, loss and self-esteem in a genuinely mature fashion that is beyond Keys’ years.  She’s consistently walked the fine line between critical and commercial success, effectively having her cake and eating it since 2002.  Alicia Keys plays the piano like a professional, but is not an entertainer who hides behind her instrument – she takes risks, sings and dances on stage, and has always commanded respect with an element of political and social awareness to boot.  So what does her new album bring to the table?

Like Rihanna’s Rated R, The Element Of Freedom is impossible to divorce from the singer’s personal life context. Keys has suffered some backlash for her love affair with separated-but-not-divorced super-producer Swizz Beatz.  Fans have turned away from Keys’ maturity and moral standpoints expressed in her material to date, saying that she was phony, that she was no better than the singers who dressed and acted like hos, and the lackluster success (i.e. it didn’t shoot straight to #1 as people presumed it would) of first single “Doesn’t Mean Anything” is perhaps because of this.  Despite a simple yet effective video which sticks to the album concept of being free of material things and going beyond all boundaries, the song was solid but seemed like a softer retread of her previous hit “No One”.  Nevertheless, especially since I’m certainly not in a position to judge Keys’ being in love with a man who is attached, the music is far from bad, and second single “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” as well as her collaborations with Jay-Z, “Empire State Of Mind (Parts 1 & 2)” seem to be coming closer to replicating her usual success.

Here’s to hoping that The Element Of Freedom continues Keys’ string of successes.  Alicia said of the album that “”The way that the songs progress are gonna take you on a natural high. I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired, You’re definitely going to be taken on a trip, I know you’re going to be shocked, you’re going to hear things that you probably didn’t think that I would sound like. It’s a journey.”  Some of this I agree with, some of it I don’t hear myself.  “Doesn’t Mean Anything” and “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” both build to exhilarating climaxes, not because the music is especially bombastic (it’s anything but, though “Broken Heart” has a compelling drum loop that comes closer to bringing Kanye West’s 808 fascination into the 21st century than he himself seems to be able to manage).  Standout tracks “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease”, “Distance And Time” and closer “Empire State Of Mind (Part II)” all employ soaring melodies that propel the listener to think and to ride their own emotions; Keys’ production and piano backing compliment each song without ever taking centre stage (as happened on occasion in her first two albums).  Its undeniable that Alicia Keys knows how to write a song, knows how to sing a song and knows how to express a song even with a voice that sometimes is limited – she wrings the emotion out of every syllable be it with a whisper (“Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”) or a throaty, heartfelt plea (“Love Is My Disease”).

So the album is solid – but is it really that different?  As I Am saw Keys taking risks and incorporating traditional pop and even rock elements into her smoky R&B soul with stellar results (as well as a couple of lackluster songs), and that sound continues here, but in places incorporating 80s drums and synths – this sound is definitely in vogue (I still struggle to understand why), but at least Alicia Keys sounds less like she is pandering to fashion than most artists – again, this is tribute to her genuine musicianship.  I find it hard to say that I am “shocked” by anything on this album – ok, for the first time her intro is a spoken-word explanation of the album title and concept rather than a pianist showcase.  Her collaboration with Beyoncé, “Put It In A Love Song”, is fun and the closest Keys has ever come to club-ready, and Beyoncé’s voice and swagger doesn’t dominate the song as I might have feared – the two artists compliment each other perfectly and adeptly ride the compelling bassline. But here is where the surprises end – opening track “Love Is Blind” performs the same function as previous opening tracks “Go Ahead”, “Karma” and “Girlfriend”, in that they are uptempo, loop-driven productions that display the singer’s confidence before she delves into her vulnerability later in the album.  “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” sounds almost too similar to The Diary Of Alicia Keys‘ “Slow Down”, and while “This Bed” provides an interesting diversion on Freedom, its The-Dream-esque synths and piano are really echoing Prince (which is 80% of what The-Dream does anyway) – and Alicia Keys already covered Prince at the start of her career (“How Come U Don’t Call Me”).  The album ends on a legitimate high with “How It Feels To Fly” and “Empire State Of Mind” exploring her ideals of freedom, exhilaration and expressing her love for New York – but she’s even played those cards before, at the end of As I Am (“Sure Looks Good To Me”) and The Diary (“Streets Of New York”).

As stated earlier, the most interesting aspect of the album, lyrically speaking, is matching the songs to Alicia Keys’ newly revealed love for Swizz Beatz, never mind his marriage.  Her feelings about it resonate through the titles – “Love Is Blind”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease” and particularly “Unthinkable”.  Lyrics such as “Some people might call me crazy for falling in love with you” (“That’s How Strong My Love Is”) and “I’m wondering maybe could I make you my baby / If we do the unthinkable, would it make us go crazy? / If you ask me, I’m ready” (“Unthinkable”) speak for themselves.  Obviously, as members of the public there’s only so much we know about the situation, and only a certain percentage of that is remotely true – but the artists put their souls on a record and we can’t help but speculate, at the same time as we feel the songs and apply them to our own lives and emotions.

So The Element Of Freedom is, generally, more of the same from Alicia Keys.  It’s not nearly as risky as Keys herself might proclaim, and it’s not the best album of 2009, but it does provide some moments of genuine exhilaration, and there are plenty of strong tracks to make the weaker ones (“Like The Sea”, “Wait Til You See My Smile”) nothing to gripe about.  What’s more, Keys has found some freedom in being brave enough to write about her love and experiences in a new way – and if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past three months, it’s that love is stronger than anything and I can feel most of what she’s singing about.  Her piano playing compliments the songs without ever becoming a gimmick.  And anyway, after all, if Alicia Keys is providing more of the same, she’s still doing a damn sight better than your average R&B chick.  The lyrics are still simple but deep, the music is still soulful yet current, the songs are still well-written and hooky.  I believe Keys has a better album in her yet (The Diary Of Alicia Keys is still my personal favourite), but I thoroughly commend her for not dipping in quality throughout the past 7 years.

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quiet storm track walkthrough (part i).

October 27, 2009

Hi there everyone! Thanks for the love you’ve shown my new album Quiet Storm.  I really appreciate it, from the bottom of my heart. ♥ If you have yet to download it, then you can get it here… –

(clicky) Quiet Storm (album download) (clicky)

This is gonna be the first instalment of a track-by-track rundown, so you can learn a little bit about each of the songs!  I’ll cover the first ‘arc’ of the album today, which are tracks 1-6! 🙂

1. Open

This is the album intro!  I wanted the title to have two meanings, one which was obviously the album intro being the ‘opening’ of the story / journey, but also for it to encourage listeners to enter the album with an open mind, open attitude and open heart.  The idea of “open your body / open your mind” was to combine the physical and mental, as some of the album songs are very much about physical sentiments such as sex, money and fashion; others are more to do with thoughts, emotions and relationships and our feelings and beliefs surrounding those situations.  It was also meant to have a somewhat mysterious feel, which is why my voice stutters and distorts at various parts. “I’m coming in” is your sign to get ready!…

2. All Night Long

…as I ask at the beginning of this song, “Are you ready?” The journey is beginning!  I wanted the album’s opening track (i.e. this is the first song proper) to be a slow, sexy song for two reasons: I thought it would be striking to open the album with a slower song, as all too often the temptation is to go in boom! bang! bang! with your uptempo.  I wanted the album to rise and fall in a more genuine way, and not to be front-loaded with club numbers.  I think that interspersing the album with uptempos, midtempos and slower songs throughout makes it more genuine and ultimately more engaging and cohesive.  This song was inspired by two songs: “Discipline” by Janet Jackson – but I hadn’t actually heard the song at this point! I’d read that there was an S&M theme, that it was a dark, slow song and I was inspired by those thoughts to make a song that I thought sounded like the essence of ‘discipline’ (hence its namecheck in the lyrics – “I exhibit discipline”); and “Mary Jane” by Mary J. Blige, from her seminal My Life album.  The hook of the song is a resung version of that song’s hook (which I’m aware is not the original use of that hook anyway, but it’s the version I’m most familiar with), but I slowed down the tempo and tried to do something a little bit different with it.  I also was tempted by the idea of putting this song first as it’s the most explicit, sexual song on the album – it’s the perfect start to the night-time, as Quiet Storm was largely inspired by the nocturnal, both in its soundscape and artwork.  And by getting the sex out of the way, we can focus on deeper things!  This actually being one of the very first songs I completed for the album, I don’t 100% remember how the beat breakdown came about now, but I love it and I felt that it was a really striking way to end the song… The breakdown is picked up by one of the songs at the album’s close, which also makes the album come full circle.

3. If I

Another one of the first songs I wrote for the album, this is probably the most dance-based song on the record, and it has a very nocturnal, dark feel again, as emphasised by the harmonies at the beginning which are nearly-but-not-quite off-key! It gives the song a mysterious introduction, which combined with the dance beat, makes it sound almost menacing.  The subject matter explores the fact that we all go to such lengths to please other people, and what would happen if we were just who we naturally are, rather than striving to meet others’ expectations?  At the end of the day, I’m just a young guy who wants to have fun and be happy and enjoy life!  Isn’t that what everyone wants?  Why should I put myself out for you?  What would happen if I did to you the things you do to me?  How would you feel about that?  That’s the main thematic of the song, and it’s one of the songs main uptempos.  The repetitive hook is actually quite en vogue now, but at the time of writing it, I really thought I was onto something and I felt that it was a little bit fun and kooky (as well as quite hot)!  But I generally liked the combination of the pulsing beats and the quite revealing lyrics: we all feel like a prisoner of other people’s “unrealistic expectations” and pressures at times, and although by living up to them we keep the peace and excel, to what extent do we sacrifice ourselves?  We all need to cut loose sometimes.

4. Hook Boy

I love this song!  It was a song I wrote lyrics to quite early on, but I just could not get right for ages!!!!! Ultimately, it was one of the last songs I completed for the album, as it was in work-in-progress stage for possibly a year!  This song is about swag, and also about songwriting prowess – I am still learning and honing my craft when it comes to singing, writing and producing, and I appreciate that on Garageband there’s only so much I can do. But at least I have total control of my music, and I’m pretty pleased with what I produce at this stage.  I can say, hand on heart, that this album is something I am very proud of!  And to be in charge of all these aspects of my music is very important to me, as it pisses me off to see certain stars who’ve made it big without much talent to speak of.  So I’m bigging myself up on this song, and although you could read it in terms of sexual prowess or swagger, to me, it’s really about being the best singer and songwriter I can be, and trying to offer something fresh.  Being a “hook boy” refers to being able to write a decent, catchy hook!  But as the coda of the song says (where the beat changes and becomes a little more complex – another end-of-song development I love!), sometimes people take your ability for granted, and at the same time as we may be skilled and have swag and talent, we have to make sure that people don’t take us for a ride without appreciating who we are and what we do.  We need to be proud and confident in ourselves, and it’s nice for others to recognise that, but we also need to make sure that people don’t take advantage of us.  So there’s an extra layer in there.

5. Focused (Interlude)

This interlude is thrilling to me because I finally got some harmonies exactly how I wanted them – there are about six layers of vocals in this!  It’s short and sweet, and essentially segues between the three beat-driven songs we’ve had so far (slow, deep sexual beat; mysterious, menacing dance beat; midtempo, stuttering beat) and the next song which will be the album’s first proper ballad.  “I’m too focused on the beat, gotta focus on the melody!”

6. Secret

This song is one where I wanted my voice to stand out, and that’s why it starts off acapella – I wanted it to be a stark contrast to the songs which came before, and to really be melody- and vocal-focused.  A good melody can make or break a song, and I wanted the heartfelt nature of this song, the album’s first romantic track, to really come through in the melody.  I also wanted a song which was vocally-driven, as I want to reinforce that I am a singer and confident vocalist first and foremost.  I was inspired by Delta Goodrem’s “Believe Again” – although that song has a more electronic, dance undertone than this track, I loved how the beats and effects built up through the song, so that was something I sought to replicate here.  After the second verse, the beat chips in, and it’s sorta off-kilter (not a straightforward 2/4 or 4/4).  It drops out again completely for the bridge, leaving my voice to carry the song to its finale.  I wanted to emphasise the vocals and the vocal melody line as the spine of the song, especially as the lyrics are so romantic and heartfelt.  It’s quite possibly the most purely optimistic song on the record – it’s a very positively romantic song not coloured by heartache, and brings the first arc of the album to a satisfying close, while seguing into the next songs…

… which I’ll cover in part 2!  Enjoy and keep it locked, and download Quiet Storm if you haven’t already! 🙂 Thankyou xxx

(clicky) Quiet Storm (album download) (clicky)