TIME Music

REVIEW: Alvvays Make Sunny Guitar-Pop Gold on Self-Titled Debut

Polyvinyl / Transgressive

The Canadian pop band's sunny debut puts lead singer Molly Rankin in fine company

From laconic, wise-cracking slackers like Stephen Malkmus and Bethany Cosentino to starry-eyed romantics like Stuart Murdoch and Tracyanne Campbell, the history of left-field, literate indie pop is littered with idiosyncratic, effortlessly charming vocalists. Molly Rankin, the woman who leads Canadian five-piece Alvvays, is a descendent of both lines; she’s a madcap schemer and a bleeding heart, equally likely to scamper away after tripping over her own feet and to plead a male pal to reconsider his disdain for the institution of marriage. Her actual genealogy is just as impressive as her musical ancestry: Rankin is a member of the Rankin Family, Canadian folk luminaries who have written and toured across the country for decades. She cut her teeth as part of the family’s band before striking out on her own with a 2010 EP; that solo project gradually picked up friends and nearby musicians and morphed into Alvvays. The band’s eponymous debut full-length is smart, sharp guitar pop, with songs shaped by lyrical playfulness, chiming, melodic leads, and Rankin’s bell-clear, yearning voice.

The band’s songwriting is possessed of both an impressive ear for structure and a remarkable generosity. Songs build in discrete steps to emotional crescendos, then hang there or ascend to an even higher level, rewarding listeners with a new melody or another round of a potent chorus; crisp, clean lines like the ones that mark “Adult Diversion” and “Archie, Marry Me” return for curtain calls, unfurling over top of simple, metronomic rhythms. The high level of execution is a necessity: many bands have written songs like this before, and well, so each new track requires a certain indelibility in order to stand out. The band is also differentiated by lesser peers by the strength of Rankin’s character. She’s immediately familiar and relatable, fully realized in a way that’s quite impressive given this is Alvvays’ debut; she could be the girl sitting across from you in a seminar, speeding with intent down a bike lane, relaxing in a park with a wide-brimmed hat. She spends a lot of time singing about love, and navigates that fraught terrain with an exuberance and palpable anxiety that belies her youth. It’s a perspective that equally suits jangling, up-tempo cuts like “Adult Diversion” and “Atop a Cake” and dreamier, more wistful songs like highlights “Ones Who Love You” and “The Agency Group.” Her voice, pure as spring water and able to easily reach lofty, piercing notes, is best served by the latter pair of tracks; she has a deft hand with heartbreak.

In the moments when listeners are able to tear themselves away from the band’s sticky, simple guitar lines, they’re rewarded with a lyrical wit and intelligence that nicely complements Rankin’s erudite persona. Spend enough time around smart people and you’ll meet characters who clearly derive personal satisfaction from putting together exquisite sentences and dropping ten-dollar words; it’s a precious source of joy, sure, but it’s infectious all the same. The members of Alvvays fit that mold: when Rankin tries to convince a romantic partner to stick around on “Party Police” by telling him that “we can find comfort in debauchery,” it’s easy to imagine the sparkle in her eye and the half-grin plastered on her face. It’s to the band’s credit that their toying with vocabulary and phrasing feels inclusive, rather than smug, and those aforementioned melodies act like gateways into their wordy world. It’s those two strengths, and Rankin’s innate likeability, that separate Alvvays from their peers in a genre that’s always ripe with aspiring stars.

TIME Music

Florrie Drums Up a New Song in “Little White Lies” Video: Watch

The long-bubbling singer's first proper single makes a big impression

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British singer/drummer Florence Arnold, who writes and records as Florrie, leapt to a major label earlier this year after three strong self-released EPs. Her brand of pop music is playful, propulsive, and built around rhythm, bearing the influence of her work as a session drummer for the songwriting/production squad Xenomania. New single “Little White Lies” hasn’t appeared on a larger release yet — though a dub remix by Shadow Child was included on her April EP Sirens — but it’s a neat encapsulation of what makes Florrie’s work so compelling.

The song’s rhythm cribs from the cluttered, quick pace of drum ’n bass, but washes of cool synth tones and an assertive vocal from Florrie lend a more traditional pop feel to the proceedings. The quality that really makes “Little White Lies” stick in your craw is the joy it radiates; when the beat charges in to kick off the chorus, it feels like a necessary piece of release, a burst of energy that can’t be denied.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Miranda Lambert Strikes Gold on Platinum

RCA Nashville

The country superstar delivers more sass, twang and brio on her fifth studio album

With her bright, bold voice and easygoing charm, Miranda Lambert has a way of making everything sound simple: trucks can be fixed with spare parts and a little bit of elbow grease, respect can be earned by taking a stand and firing off a spunky retort, relationships can be healed over a few glasses of hard iced tea on a sunlit porch. She makes selling records look easy, too: starting with 2005’s Kerosene, each of the Texas firebrand’s first four studio albums have soared to No. 1 on the country charts, all eventually going platinum. (Her collaboration with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley as country trio the Pistol Annies scored a chart-topping album with their debut, too, although their sophomore set Annie Up just missed the No. 1 spot.)

So platinum is more than a sales designation to Lambert: it’s also the color of her hair (that’s platinum blonde, of course) and the title of her new record, her fifth full-length. Platinum doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any sense, but it doubles down on the qualities that have helped Lambert become one of country’s most reliable stars: broad, plain-spoken feminism, rousing choruses that split the difference between archetypal country and contemporary pop-rock, and frank, funny, fully realized depictions of the protagonist at the heart of these songs.

Lambert flips between two chief modes of operation on Platinum: smart, strong meditations on women’s lives and problems, and wistful, wise reflection. Like an older sister offering practical advice to a younger sibling, she tackles image and body positivity with good humor (on the sassy, bouncing title track, and honky-tonk laugher “Gravity Is a Bitch”) and lyrical nuance (the moody “Bathroom Sink,” the only solo composition on the record). The raucous “Priscilla,” the title a reference to the former Mrs. Elvis Presley, is a playful but revealing nod to Lambert’s relationship with fellow superstar Blake Shelton; graceful, moonlit waltz “Holding on to You” represents the other side of the coin for the pairing, trading lyrical cheek for blue sincerity and a soft, smoky vocal take that’s one of the finest on the album. The sum of these varied takes on contemporary womanhood is a clear, detailed portrayal of Miranda Lambert, country queen: she’s fiercely independent but empathetic, romantic but unwilling to compromise her values, packing heat and heart in equal measure. It’s an array of qualities that many people wish they could see in themselves, and it makes the songs on Platinum click.

Lambert’s other main lyrical realm is relatively new terrain for her; having newly entered her 30s, she’s spending less time charging forward and more time looking back than ever. It’s the device driving Platinum’s still-sharp lead single, “Automatic,” which finds her yearning for a time when everyone was still “doin’ it all by hand,” and it crops up again several times throughout the album. (Of course, it’s funny to hear such a ringing endorsement of tradition couched within a thoroughly post-Taylor Swift piece of country-pop, but the harmonies are strong enough to slide the contradiction through.) “Babies Makin’ Babies” is a gently tut-tutting, maternal look at young couples accidentally falling into parenthood; hearing Lambert’s bright, chuckling twang, it seems unfathomable that under a decade ago, she could’ve been one of the song’s lead characters. Closer “Another Sunday in the South” is packed with the sort of detail and rich imagery that has to come from someone who’s lived hundreds of such days, roasting in wicked heat and singing along to old folk songs. (It’s one of eight songs on Platinum Lambert co-wrote.)

The best display of reflective lyricism on the album is also its finest musical moment: “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” a collaboration with country group Little Big Town, drifts by like wisps of the very smoke mentioned in the song’s title, thanks to an incredible vocal arrangement. Lambert’s voice, and the voices of Little Big Town, twist and overlap like faded memories from a blurry night around a campfire, and it’s this quality that makes the song’s bittersweet reminiscing feel earned; they know they can’t go back, and they know they shouldn’t, but the part of them that’s stuck in the past is almost impossible to deny. The song fades out on rich pedal steel and impeccably toned guitar, slipping away like experience does — a specific, beautifully rendered moment.

Even when Lambert misfires in a musical sense, her charisma and the sentiment behind her compositions somewhat papers over any errant sonic choices. “Little Red Wagon” and “Somethin’ Bad,” a duet with Carrie Underwood, are closely related: one’s a dusty, uptempo ramble with speedy shredding peppered throughout, the other’s a glammy stomp through some roadside dive. Neither are particularly compelling in terms of melody or arrangement, but they’re essential when it comes to fleshing out Lambert’s character and setting the lyrical tone: they’re both confident, unabashedly sexy, and tightly controlled.

With these songs, Lambert reinforces the principles underlying both Platinum and the rest of her career: feminine strength, force of personality, and command of the situation. Further commercial dominance is sure to follow.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Ed Sheeran Multiplies His Appeal on x

Atlantic Records

On his sophomore set, the singer-songwriter uses his softness to his advantage

Though he doesn’t look the part of an international pop star and sex symbol, it isn’t hard to understand shaggy British troubadour Ed Sheeran’s easy appeal. His chosen genre, the one that anchors all of his slight digressions into other realms of popular music, is broadly popular, easily digestible, and resilient: when the world ends, it’ll be left to cockroaches and male singer-songwriters on acoustic guitars. But like many of the young people that buy his singles and albums, he’s a polyglot, raised on folk, R&B, hip-hop and rock in equal measure and comfortable incorporating each of those genres into his compositions.

Sheeran rose to prominence thanks in part to his rap skills — he occasionally breaks out a verse, when not employing his smooth, woolly tenor — and even when he’s sticking to a more traditional pop vocal mode, rap’s influence on his delivery is clear: he crams syllables into lines where they barely fit thanks to his dexterity, and plays with rhythm and pace like it’s second nature. That versatility, and a bit of Sheeran’s everyman charm, helped to make his 2011 debut full-length +, and singles like “The A Team” and “Lego House,” a slow-burning hit on both sides of the Atlantic. His follow-up, the simply titled x (that’s pronounced “multiply,” by the way), out June 23 on Atlantic Records, finds him taking even more concerted steps into genres other than acoustic pop-rock, and working with a host of distinctive producers who help to bend and shape his sound.

The album’s most prominent collaborator is reigning chart king Pharrell Williams, fresh off a relatively successful solo album of his own and still riding a hot streak that began last year with Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Pharrell co-produced x’s lead single, “Sing,” and one other track on the album (“Runaway”), both of which are obvious descendants of the lusty pop-R&B that launched Justin Timberlake to solo stardom over a decade ago; “Sing,” in particular, is hard to imagine without recalling Timberlake’s “Like I Love You,” itself co-produced by Pharrell as part of the Neptunes. Sheeran does his best with these tracks, and his voice shines as it twists around his own guitar and Pharrell’s beats, but ultimately his sale of the lyrical material at hand falls short. Newly free from the relative tyranny of NSYNC, the young Timberlake couldn’t help but drip sex. Comparatively speaking, Sheeran is tame. The same problem plagues songs like the Rick Rubin and Benny Blanco-produced “Don’t,” a vicious takedown of a cheating lover, and the wine-addled “Bloodstream”: these songs have an edge that Sheeran lacks, and the material falters for it.

Sheeran rounds into form when he uses his softness to his advantage, cocooning himself in layers of warm harmony and setting that slippery, surprisingly agile lyricism against slowly building arrangements. “Photograph,” one of several songs on x written with Snow Patrol member Johnny McDaid, rises from a tender, emotive piano melody and becomes a slowly stomping, lighter-ready stadium ballad; Sheeran helps bring it to life with smart use of detail and powerful imagery, two moves familiar from the work of his friend and tour-mate Taylor Swift. (When he closes the song by mentioning a stolen kiss “under the lamppost, back on 6th Street,” you can almost hear the hearts young and old, beating and melting in a darkened arena.) “I’m a Mess” is another highlight, with Sheeran reaching deep and shredding his voice while soaring over luminous guitar chords. It’s a simple song, mostly reliant on Sheeran’s vocal skills and charisma to get over, but it works: when isolated and not made to press against ostensibly mature lyrical material, he displays a deft touch.

But the album’s greatest moment by a country mile is relegated to its penultimate slot. “Thinking Out Loud” shares a lyrical spirit with One Direction’s “Little Things,” which Sheeran wrote for the boy band’s 2012 record Take Me Home, but with what sounds like a few years’ worth of experience added: it’s an ode to the tiny things that drive love, a celebration of its magic, a fantasy of having grown old with a partner. Musically speaking, it’s pure blue-eyed soul, warm and woodsy in the vein of Van Morrison, unabashedly romantic and built around a vein of richly toned guitar. Sheeran is the core, the starry-eyed dreamer. He sings to within an inch of his life. When the lust, anger, drugs, and drink fade, you hope this kind of love remains. When Sheeran focuses on the latter, his success comes into focus, and it begins to seem wholly justified.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Coldplay Makes Tragic Magic on New Album Ghost Stories

MilaBlueWingF 2
Atlantic Records

It's a smaller, softer Coldplay — for better or for worse

Coldplay became the biggest rock band in the world just as the very concept began to seem antiquated. Like a mass-market retailer nicking fashion trends and looks from high-end designers and runway shows, Chris Martin and company rose to prominence by distilling the sounds of their ancestors and critically feted contemporaries into hyper-melodic, stadium-sized anthems. On their first two albums, Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head, they sanded down the arty, oft-angular rock of U2, David Bowie, and Radiohead, rendering it gentler and more easily listenable; songs like “Yellow” and “The Scientist” found traction amongst the great middle and were assimilated into the pop canon almost immediately. That sound was taken to its logical extent on X&Y, an ambitious but bloated document that found the band sprinkling their compositions with string arrangements and electronic flecks.

So with no room left to expand, Coldplay enlisted legendary producer Brian Eno to help broaden and refine their sound. The result was 2008’s Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, an eclectic, relatively succinct collection of pop songs complete with digressions into shoegaze, Afro-pop, and crunching rock. Three years later, Mylo Xyloto found the band steering even further into pop-friendly terrain, cribbing from kinetic and heartsick indie bands in equal measure for a concept record about love at the end of the world. As their sound evolved, they remained anchors of the music industry, even as more straightforward strains of pop and hip-hop became indisputably dominant in a commercial sense; their sales remained strong, even as many of their peers struggled to keep pace.

It’s good to remember that history when considering the band’s sixth studio album, Ghost Stories, which finds them once again employing the sonic approach they have perfected, albeit with different source material. Much of the album sounds like Coldplay’s take on an acclaimed vein of gentle, emotionally vulnerable music that explores the overlapping realms of rock, R&B, and electronic sounds: the woodsy, warped hymns of Bon Iver, James Blake’s throbbing confessionals, the muted pillow talk of the xx. There is one major outlier, a pounding quasi-EDM collaboration with the popular producer Avicii; it reeks of pandering. (A team-up with Timbaland, “True Love,” fares a little better.) The frosty, meandering “Midnight” bears this influence most heavily, twisting Martin’s signature nimble, soft falsetto through a vocoder and layering it like dead leaves left on a forest floor, but there are lesser signs scattered throughout the album: the simple beat-driven intro that kicks off “Magic,” the skittering percussion that drives the weepy “True Love,” the haunted choir behind “Another’s Arms.” Martin’s vocals mostly pair well with this new, adjusted direction, but the heightened focus on groove and piano-based melody marginalizes the typically dependable contributions of lead guitarist Jonny Buckland; gleaming six-string hooks of the sort that anchored the best songs on the band’s first few albums are few and far between here.

But for all the sonic shifts that take place on Ghost Stories, the album’s greatest break from Coldplay’s tradition is lyrical. Never one to shy away from a platitude or a vague, potentially universal statement about life and love, Martin’s recent “conscious uncoupling” from his wife, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, has inspired his rawest, most personal writing to date. The set of lines that opens “Another’s Arms” neatly encapsulates the album’s pained, stingingly detailed tone: “Late night watching TV, used to be you here beside me / Used to be your arms around me, your body on my body.” Every song on the album seems to pack at least one comparable couplet; Martin can’t help but chronicle his despair and regret, lament their shared failure, or glance fondly at the magic he and Paltrow once shared. The loss of grandeur that seeps through Ghost Stories — the lack of scale, the smallness — begins to make sense in this context: as Martin has shrunk his lyrical universe from the broadly applicable to the cringe-inducingly personal, the band’s compositions have shrunk in turn.

While the dissolution of Martin’s marriage makes for undeniably compelling lyrical fodder, his personal experience may be writing checks his songwriting expertise can’t cash: his veering between cliché and uncomfortable detail never quite hits the mark when it comes to adequately realizing his feelings. It’s only when his voice, and the melodies that make up Ghost Stories, are able to bear the emotional weight, that the album achieves the resonance that made its predecessors world-beating hits.

TIME Music

Say Lou Lou Goes Bittersweet on “Peppermint”: Premiere

The Australian-Swedish duo recall a particular flavor

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Rising dream-pop sister act Say Lou Lou are trying to make 2014 a year to remember by stuffing it with ace releases: a new single, “Everything We Touch,” is due on June 2nd, and the duo are planning to release their debut full-length later this year. In the meantime, they’re keeping the fire burning with “Peppermint,” the B-side to ‘Everything We Touch” and a typically haunted, translucent effort that’s anchored powerfully by the titular bit of gustatory imagery.

TIME has an exclusive look at the accompanying video, which serves as a behind-the-scenes peek at Say Lou Lou in the studio with a few of their collaborators. The song was written alongside Liam Howe and Hannah Robinson, veteran British songwriters who’ve worked with the pair before (on last year’s “Beloved”) and with contemporaries like Lana Del Rey. Now, with a few months remaining before their album is unleashed, Say Lou Lou are making their sound linger with listeners like the mint on their lovers’ breath.

Listen below.

TIME Music

Galantis’ New Single “You” Is a Pop Chemical Reaction: Watch

New pop from Sweden (where else?) is a synth-spangled dream

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Like cooking or chemistry, pop music blurs the lines between art and science: there’s magic in time-tested recipes and formulas, waiting to be amplified by special ingredients or catalysts. In the musical world, producers play the role of chef and chemist: their job is to cobble together discrete parts into a fulfilling, cohesive whole. EDM-pop duo Galantis is made up of two producers by trade — that’s Christian Karlsson, of Miike Snow and Britney Spears collaborators Bloodshy & Avant, and Linus Eklow, who’s worked with Icona Pop and solo as Style of Eye — and it shows in their compositions: their songs are impeccably structured, with titanic build-ups that crash and bloom into relentless choruses. In their hands, pop pleasure feels less like a mysterious connection than an undeniable physical truth: water boils into stream, baking soda and vinegar make for a wicked volcano, and synth hooks lodge themselves in listeners’ brains.

“You” is one of their best efforts yet, in large part because Karlsson and Eklow leave a little room to let their ingredients shine: there’s character in the blocky, bright piano chords that open the song up, and in the jangling rhythm that kicks in after the song’s Death Star chorus makes its first appearance. Those small touches give listeners something to hold onto when the song takes off, and they’re proof that the pros behind Galantis understand that devotion to form and streaks of humanity aren’t mutually exclusive propositions.

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