Tag Archives: pop music

New Music Tuesday: Looking at Lorde – Pure Heroine, One Year Later

Lorde Pure Heroine

By Jon Muchin

For something so many people can so easily identify, pop music is hard to adequately define. It doesn’t conform to any real type of genre; the Beatles (at least in their early days) and Daft Punk could be reasonably described as pop artists and yet – perhaps I’m blowing some minds here – their respective music exists in entirely different sonic strata. Folk, R&B, rock, country, rap, even jazz all can coexist within this manufactured label. The name pop comes from an external definition (technically, pop music is music that is popular, in the same way that fan is short for fanatic), but pop, in its most common construction, belongs to that class of definition through distinction in much the same way as the Supreme Court defined pornography: we know it when we hear it. There is undeniably something “pop” about pop music.

And for most of my life, I haven’t really cared for pop music. Sure, I like early Beatles (and late Beatles and pretty much anything even tangentially related to Beatles) and I like Daft Punk and a lot of pop artists in between, but by and large I don’t like pop music. If you were to ask me what I listen to, I would never answer with pop. I just can’t really explain why.

But pop is genre-amorphous! I like many of the styles it incorporates, and yet I don’t identify as  liking “pop.” Some of my distaste is probably the commoditization built into the music, but I’m aware that’s an inconsistent position. Commoditization has never stopped me from blasting the fuck out of some Hendrix, even though his estate would put his likeness on Electric Ladyland Vibrating Condoms if the abundant jump in safe sex didn’t mean risking the next generation of Jimi fans.

So, in the spirit of new beginnings, I’ve decided to use 2014 to throw myself into pop music present and past to try and see what all the fuss is about. Maybe it will turn out that I’m just not a “pop guy,” but I have a feeling I’ll find that I haven’t been giving it a fair shake. This idea is loosely based on (fine, ripped off from) Nathan Rabin’s year-long series of articles acquainting himself with country music, though I don’t know how often I’ll follow up or where this will take me.

First up: Pure Heroine, the debut album from teenage megastar Lorde.

The things I knew about Lorde before yesterday: she’s 17, she writes her own songs, and “Royals” is catchy as all hell. This would be an early test – could I identify what’s pop about her sound and “Royals” in general?

That track stands out for a few reasons. The beat is monstrous from the get go, a booming bass and clipped snare sound and a simple hooky vocal over the top. On Pure Heroine Lorde spends a lot of time in a mid-alto, a place in her range where her voice sounds relatively bland. It’s in the lowest depths of her register that Lorde really stands out, and that’s where “Royals” lies. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” she struts in her Adele-light voice, kicking off with a burst a song that is both indictment and celebration of the aesthetic pleasures of being alive and a teenager. The song has you from there.

Structurally, “Royals” is pretty similar to almost every track on the album. There’s almost no instrumentation beyond a drum machine heavy on the booming bass and a dub-step-reminiscent synth that pervades nearly every song. The first I remember anything to break up that combination was the on the tenth track, “A World Alone,” which starts off with a mellowed-out Strokesian guitar riff. Otherwise, Lorde and her producers have constricted the Pure Heroine’s instrumental palette in a way that unfortunately begets monotony (the album has some hypnotic qualities, but I found my attention flagging more than falling into reverie).There’s only so much you can do with so few sounds, especially since all the songs lie in roughly the same place in Lorde’s voice (if not in the same key). In lieu of instrumental variety, Lorde offers up stacked harmonic vocals, which propel the chorus of “Royals,” but elsewhere come off sounding like nursery rhyme. Befitting that theme, she is enamored of repeating lyrics, another tactic that occasionally pays off. “White Teeth Teens” turns a repetition of its final few phrases into a beautiful swelling fugue, but also contains cringe-worthy lines like “We got the glow in our mouths. White teeth teens are out.”

The album’s main themes, the alienation-cum-celebration of modern life and consumerism, are well-worn pop tropes; Frank Ocean’s breakthrough Channel Orange returned again and again to these ideas, among other, just last year. There’s a certain sweetness, too, in the childish poetry of Lorde’s songs (and the song titles like “Ribs” and “Swingin Party”). She seems, for one, to have little idea of how to construct imagery. In “400 Lux,” she sings “you drape your wrists over the steering wheel,” though maybe she simply wasn’t old enough to drive when she wrote the track. In the interest of fairness, “Maybe the Internet raised us, or maybe people are jerks” is a great lyric.

Pure Heroine is ultimately a fusion of folky singer-songwriter music – some of these songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jenny Lewis or a Feist record if you swapped in a guitar – with pseudo-dub-step instrumentation. I’m not saying that give her a guitar and she’d run off with Sufjan Stevens to write an album about a rural New Zealand province, but she’s not too far from that world either. Most of it works, and what’s more, she’s 17 and has plenty of time to grow. A solid first effort.

Lorde – Pure Heroine
Motown / Universal, 2013
Rating: A
Listen Now: “A World Alone”, “Ribs”, “Swingin Party”, “400 Lux”

Jon Muchin is a Boston-based musician, blogger, music enthusiast, and self-professed sports junky. He intermittently posts random word associations about athletic goings on at thewhole42minutes.blogspot.com and tweets @allormuchin.


Monday Mixtape: Talkin’ New Years Music Resolutions Blues

the circle of life

Today’s mixtape is going to be a little different. Up until now, Mondays have been for mixtapes and Tuesdays have been for new music reviews, but as we’re closing in on New Year’s Eve and I’ll be ringing it in with some good friends, I thought it would be fitting to combine the two by considering my top 5 new year’s resolutions in music.

By and large new year’s resolutions are hard to keep since they usually don’t have a great enough reward-per-task ratio. To set a new year’s resolution that can be kept all year long requires some ability to get some positive benefit from it. Music-centered new year’s resolutions therefore rate rather highly on that reward-per-task scale.

That said, here are my five resolutions for music exploration and discovery in the new year.

1. Listen to More Hip-Hop

2013 was a great year for Hip-Hop. 1993 was also a great year for Hip-Hop apparently, but between then and now my hip-hop taste buds have only rarely ventured far from the safe and comfortable rhythms and rhymes of the Beastie Boys. An artist and/or song here or there perhaps, but these flash-in-the-pan-type diversions do not a three-course meal of block rockin’ beats make.

It’s not that I’ve ever been cold towards or simply opposed to the genre as I have been with pop music (more on that below), it’s just never been top of mind either. I don’t want to simply listen to the music– I want to understand it too. Last week a friend formally introduced me to the work of Donald Glover (alias Childish Gambino) and suggested I review his most recent full-length LP because the internet for one of my upcoming new music reviews. After just one listen I was awestruck, but even as it captivated me with impressive lyrical breadth of referential sources, dizzying yet controlled speed and delivery, and sheer emotional intensity, I felt my tenuous knowledge of the hip-hop world would not do the album proper justice when reviewed (fully understanding the rich and deeply layered lyrics alone would require days of research). Not yet anyhow.

2. Listen and Appreciate Pop Music

Pop music will often dazzle and sparkle, rarely surprise you, and it will never go away. It’s cloyingly cute, maddeningly repetitive, terribly unoriginal, and yet I can’t honestly deny its catchy if not insipid charm. Since even the most banal and redundant of its offerings has some ounce of endearing quality to it, I resolve to keep an amused eye on the pop music grist mill this new year as opposed to writing it off completely. After all, if it truly is “popular music” and thus something of a zeitgeist of our generation, catering to the whims and preoccupations of the people, then at the very least there’s some value in tracking the socio-political implications and repercussions of the art form, right?

3. Learn to Salsa or Swing Dance

I like to listen to music, and I like to tap my feet to music, so I may as well learn to move with the music. Attempts to this end have been made before, all with mostly unsuccessful results or less-than-stellar outcomes. It turns out it’s one thing to move and sway with a stationary, inanimate object (like, say a guitar), and quite another thing to learn how move in tandem with another human being. Here’s to putting your best foot forward in the new year (and learning a few other steps in the process).

4. Learn to Play the Songs that I Love on Guitar

I’ve played guitar for many years, but recently I’ve found that the only songs I can seem to play all the way through are the same ones I learned in my first few years of playing. Gigging around town and reconnecting with fellow musician friends in the last year has helped me to  pick up new songs as well, but rarely are the songs learned well enough to be committed to muscle memory or even just more than chords and lyrics on a page. This year I want to update that repertoire and really get familiar with the songs I’ve grown attached to.

5. Get Back in Touch With the Music That I Listen To

Even with the consistent, healthy harvest of music passing through my headphones all year, I’ve felt a drought of the deeper connection with the experience. I’m quick to gush about how I love the harmonies on this track, or how enamored I am with the instrumental prowess on that one, but I’ve been slow to consider what the interest of a particular song or artist means about where I’m at during a particular year. Music is for me, as it is for many people, a full-on, three dimensional experience, that gives additional texture and weight to different points in life, reinforcing and recording these moments for all posterity. So now it’s time to return to being a fully active participant in the capturing and recording of those memories.

I’m ready to listen, ready to learn, and ready to reconnect to all of it. I’ve got a starter kit of artists and other helpful referential sources too, as well as a positive outlook. Here’s to 2014. May it be a filled with good times, good vibes, and great memories all around. Let’s rock.

*Artwork courtesy of HappyCreA

Songs About Rain (Part 2): Grand All Over

God willing and the creek didn’t rise. The show went off without a hitch, and neither the one and a half hour drive / crawl down, nor the labyrinthine parking situation, nor the slightly more-than-damp lawn seats and humid night air were enough to deter or detract from the fun that lay before us.

Indeed, just as I wrapped up the writing of my previous post, the rain reduced to a slight, cough-and-sputter-style sprinkling. By the time we arrived at the grounds the rain had all but gone away, leaving patches of setting azure-to-sandstone colored sky behind as it went.

Stepping through the gates at the Comcast Center grounds I was immediately reminded of the entrance to a giant amusement park. Save for relative lack of ambient screeching and screaming of both the human and high-speed mechanical sort and the obvious absence of any large and looming, bobblehead-ish mascots that lumber up and down the main drag of such places, it made for an appropriate comparison (Just add much more Coors Light at Fenway-park-style prices and you’re golden).

If “amusing” was one of the keywords of the evening, then “entertaining” was another, and none of the three acts failed to delight or impress.

Maroon 5 themselves certainly did not disappoint, putting on a show that was enjoyable both on a base entertainment level and on a technical, musically complex level as well. Continue reading Songs About Rain (Part 2): Grand All Over