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This article was published 16/11/2017 (1162 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
POP & ROCK
Reputation (Big Machine)
Even some Taylor Swift diehards had to be cringing after the singer ushered in the publicity push for her latest album with Look What You Made Me Do, a single in which one of the most famous people in the world complained about all her famous rivals — which could be everyone from her ex Calvin Harris to frequent antagonist Kanye West.
The song also proclaimed the demise of the "old Taylor," which really is old news. "Old Taylor" keeps getting dumped with each new Taylor release, and her sixth studio album, Reputation, is no exception.
One of the keys to Swift’s decade-long dominance of the pop universe is her ability to press the reset button with every album. Since 2006, she’s gone from guitar-strumming country act to the expansive pop detours of Red (2012) and the MTV-era retro hooks of 1989(2014).
Reputation arrives with another shift, this time into electronic pop, split between the Swedish production team of Max Martin and Shellback and American pop-rock songwriter Jack Antonoff.
Swift puts her guitar on the shelf in favour of synth-heavy productions that crackle and groove, a kind of electronic dance music lite with a touch of hip hop in service of sleek hooks.
It turns out that Look What You Made Me Do is an outlier on an album of love songs. Swift has a new real-life boyfriend, and her new-found contentment appears to have muted her desire to play tit for tat.
Only I Did Something Bad revels in payback. "This is how the world works," she sings as she tries to justify her narrator’s "he had it coming" cruelty.
Taylor’s penchant for getting in the last word in any dissing match has given her music an extra layer of mildly sleazy allure. Without the subtext, the singer is essentially a pop appropriator, able to absorb whatever sound and producer suits her desire for continual reinvention. She’s a savvy businesswoman who understands the shifting tides of her audience and the pop marketplace more clearly than most music industry executives. And so her albums are as much perfectly executed marketing plans as they are musical statements. They are designed to press buttons and achieve predictable results: four straight No. 1 albums and nearly 30-million album sales at a time of declining profits in recorded music.
Little wonder her music sounds so unruffled, so sure of itself. Her earliest albums boasted a callow, open-hearted charm, her transparency about the awkwardness of teenager-hood striking a chord with her young fans. But in adulthood, calculation and cash have usurped raw diary entries as guiding principles. Now when she’s picking at the carcass of an ex-lover or taking shots at Kanye or Kim, it feeds the churn in the gossipy corners of social media more than upsetting musical convention.
Though Reputation sounds different from any previous Swift release, as pop music it’s in fact relatively conservative, especially when compared with the latest releases of artists such as Lorde, Beyonce or Rihanna. Even an odd-couple pairing on End Game fails to spark. American rapper Future, who sounds bored, and milquetoast singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who tries to rap, sound like they’re trying hard not to upstage each other, let alone outshine Swift.
It’s easy to admire the craft: pulsing synths and rippling drums fuel Getaway Car, which then detours onto a snappy piano-led bridge, and the call-and-response vocal orchestrations, finger snaps and drum accents on King of Hearts conspire to create drama.
But the Swift who used to treat her fans like confidantes instead of a marketing demographic resurfaces only as the album winds down. On Call It What you Want, she sounds quietly liberated as she sings, "Nobody’s heard from me for months" but "I’m better than I ever was." She wears a wan, bleary smile as she paints the mood of a post-holiday bash on New Year’s Day: "There’s glitter on the floor after the party/ Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby." For a brief moment, Swift sounds like one of her fans again.
★★1/2 out of five
— Chicago Tribune
POP / ROCK
The Pack A.D.
Dollhouse (Cadence Music)
Dollhouse is the The Pack A.D.’s second album in less than a year (their sixth since 2008) and it feels more like an extended EP adjunct to last year’s Positive Thinking than a fully realized, standalone project and a running time of just 28 minutes underlines that notion. That said, it’s not unusual for the Vancouver duo of singer/guitarist Becky Black and drummer Maya Miller to go through bursts of creativity — writing and recording quickly, then hitting the road with the results. Which is exactly what they’ve done.
That said, the results here are infectious, an affecting concoction of bluesy garage punk that leaps from the speakers with an immediacy that comes with being a bare-bones two-piece unit. Black’s laconic drawl soars while her echoey fuzz guitar fills all the space afforded her by Miller’s crisp, uncomplicated yet tastefully propulsive backbeats.
The six songs with vocals (March of the Martians is a catchy instrumental riff) are fully realized tales of relationship angst (Not Alright), existential alienation (Woke Up Weird, Dollhouse) and, on Because of You, a deliberately melodramatic blues wail that is the album’s centrepiece. Does it Feel Good even evokes hints of Savages.
★★★1/2 out of five
Stream these: Woke Up Weird, Dollhouse, Does it Feel Good
— John Kendle
ROOTS / COUNTRY
The White Buffalo
Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights(unison Music/Thirty Tigers)
Recording under the name The White Buffalo, hirsute L.A. folk/rocker Jake Smith has expanded his mostly acoustic sound on his latest 10-tracker. The album’s force lies in the way Smith and his band are able to shift from whip-cracking rock to tender ballads without losing any power in their delivery.
The album sets off with a flourish. Opening track Hide and Seek and follow up Avalon both hook you into the energy that these guys can create. Built on Smith’s hard-charging acoustic guitar strumming, the band delivers a kind of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers attack. Robbery is a tale of a bank heist that goes wrong ("An off-duty cop sees everything, races to his car, pistol drawn, radios for backup, buckle up the chase is on") and then somehow goes right ("I vanish in the woods, like a miracle, vamoose, I’m gone, never to be seen again…") and the images that are created by Smith’s lyrics really work.
His ability to generate gloominess in his ballads is brilliant, yet on tracks like If I Lost My Eyes, album closer I Am the Moon and the tender The Observatorythe characters are always left holding a small thread of hope. One of the best tracks, The Heart and Soul of the Night, connects the dots between Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town and Springsteen’s Kitty’s Back perfectly, revisiting the feeling of those liberated Friday nights of one’s youth with the lively passion they deserve. At 34 minutes, the album runs a little on the short side considering Smith has done such a great job with these songs. A solidly entertaining set of tracks that doesn’t disappoint.
★★★★ out of five
Stream these: The Heart and Soul of the Night, Avalon
— Jeff Monk
If it didn’t work so well, this album could be considered overly contrived and too clever. Analytical musicians who take this album apart will discover a neat and fairly complex concept. The rest of us can simply enjoy a wonderful thematic suite of tunes that move from early autumn to mid-December.
Guitarist Scott DuBois has released some excellent thematic albums, but none with this structure. Basically, he has composed 12 tracks moving through each of the 12 tone scale. Then he has combined them with a pattern of adding an instrument on each track — moving from solo guitar on track one to his quartet of Thomas Morgan on bass, Gebhard Ullmann on tenor sax and bass clarinet and Kresten Osgood on drums, and then through two string or woodwind quartets.
It’s fascinating, but not of major interest to those without serious training in musical theory. Feel free therefore to ignore the structure, because the music itself is well worth the listen. It has a wonderful mood, incredible depth, intensity and beauty. Unless you are the aforementioned analytical musician, simply listen to this fine mix of melody that also has some real edge, and always shows sophisticated writing and truly exceptional musicianship.
The suite starts with Mid-September Changing Light, the guitar solo by DuBois, and ends with Mid-December Night Sky and a generic Autumn-named track. This album (as well as DuBois’ earlier thematic albums) is worth exploring.
★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Mid-November Moonlit Forest, Late September Dusk Walk
— Keith Black
Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra
Petr Vronský, Conductor
The Mitten (Navona Records)
This charming adaptation of traditional Ukrainian folktale was composed in 1986 by Minnesota-based Mona Lyn Reese, who also sets up each of its seven descriptive movements with a short narration.
The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Petr Vronský, fleshes out the story’s imaginative animal characters à la Prokofiev’s iconic Peter and the Wolf including a mouse, owl, frog, rabbit, fox, wolf, boar and bear that take turns squeezing into a boy’s lost mitten for woolly shelter. Notably, the album released by Navona Records offers three different versions: English, Spanish, as well as a purely instrumental arrangement that creates a fascinating opportunity to hear the composer’s effective, and often complex orchestrations on their own merit.
Liner notes and even a downloadable colouring page add further to this album’s whimsical appeal. And despite the curious fact that it’s taken more than 30 years to record the popular work premiéred during Minnesota Orchestra’s Kinder Konzerts series — and reputedly now performed hundreds of times — Reese’s sensitive musical storytelling and knack for drawing listeners into the folkloric tale’s narrative web will appeal to both younger music lovers, as well as those proving the perennial adage that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
★★★★ out of five
— Holly Harris