Album Review: Owl City "All Things Bright And Beautiful"

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"Reality is a lovely place, but I wouldn't want to live there," Owl City's Adam Young sings on his new album, clearly outlining the underlying escapist emotion that inspired the record. The aptly-titled "All Things Bright And Beautiful" is the much-anticipated follow up to 2009's "Ocean Eyes" that shot up the album charts after the massive global success of his hit single "Fireflies."

Deeply rooted in hyper-melodic synth pop, Young is a master at crafting pristine and feel-good pop gems. The singer, who is notoriously shy and famously talented, uses his music to paint a whimsical world of butterflies, angels, astronauts, bees and sunny skies that is loaded with an uplifting message of hope and imagination.

On "All Things Bright And Beautiful," this modern-day Christopher Cross challenged himself to divert a little from his signature synth pop sound by successfully exploring a few new sonic textures that may surprise some. Good examples are his gentle experimentations with hip hop on "Alligator Sky" (that features Los Angeles MC Shawn Christopher) and the Euro dance pop stylings of "The Yacht Club" that he recorded with Lights' singer Valerie Poxleitner.

But Owl City truly shines when delivering delicate and romantic pop tracks like "Galaxies," "Angels" and "Hospital Flowers" that should please the same crowd that embraced "Fireflies" in a such a big way.

Very personal is the song "January 28, 1986" that includes a sample of a memorial speech U.S. president Reagan delivered after the space shuttle Challenge disaster. Young was born in 1986 and he wrote the song to convey what it was like to be from the year that was marked by such a big national tragedy.

Regardless of his mild sonic experimentations, Young never strays too far from the sound that resonated with so many. "All Things Bright And Beautiful" delivers exactly the dreamy and joyous sunburst pop that his fans crave for. It may at times be formulaic to some, but endlessly imaginative to most.

Owl City "All Things Bright And Beautiful" will be available on June 14.

June 12, 2011 in Album Reviews, Owl City | Permalink

Hot New Talent Alert: Melanie Fiona

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Fresh off her tour with Kanye West in Europe, emerging new R&B pop singer Melanie Fiona is back in the States this week to start promoting her forthcoming debut album, titled "The Bridge."

Melanie Fiona is a hot new talent you should check out. Listen for example to her single track "Give It To Me Right" that features a stellar vocal performance by a confident Fiona. Her voice glides soulfully over a throwback beat that is backed by a sample of The Zombies’ classic “Time of the Season."

Born to Guyanese immigrant parents and growing up in the inner city of Toronto, Fiona was surrounded and inspired by music ever she was a little kid. She started writing songs and was introduced to her manager in her late teens who helped her start a professional songwriting career. Things changed when she met Andrea Martin who is known for penning hits for En Vogue, Angie Stone and Leona Lewis’ recent hit “Better in Time."

The two struck an immediate connection and started working material for Fiona's own album, which resulted in her forthcoming debut LP. Other collaborators on the album include UK producers Future Cut, Vada Nobles (of Lauryn Hill fame), The Stereotypes, Natasha Bedingfield-collaborator Peter Wade and Salaam Remi, known for his work with Amy Winehouse and Nas.

What grabs me about Fiona's music is that she totally makes you feel the music - all the way,  from your toes up. It's what good soul music is supposed to do. Check out "Give It To Me Right," and let me know what you think.

Download Melanie Fiona "Give It To Me Right"

January 26, 2009 in Album Reviews, Hot New Pop Alert, MP3 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Album Review: Madonna "Hard Candy"

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ArjanWrites.com guest blogger Marc Andrews was invited to an exclusive listening session at Warner Music in Sydney on Friday to hear Madonna's entire new album "Hard Candy." He wrote up a review of the entertainer's much anticipated new album exclusively for ArjanWrites.com. A big thanks to Marc for sharing his candid thoughts about the album. "It’s a bit like sticking your hand blindly into the candy jar and coming up with trick after trick when you keep hoping for a treat," he writes about part of the album. Read on for the entire review.

Invariably expectations for a new Madonna album are always high. More often than not they’ve been judiciously met and quite often surpassed (2003’s "American Life" notwithstanding). 1989’s still radiant "Like A Prayer" finally won over the rock media and nearly a decade later Ray of Light grabbed back a legion of lapsed Madonna admirers, caught up in the intervening downward spiral of Sex, musicals and bad movies.

Now a decade on from that Grammy-winning triumph and Madonna is due another pop-time-capsule-of-an-album. With 2005’s glossy disco-esque "Confessions On A Dance Floor" she cannily plundered the best of the '70s to arrive at something whose unrelenting shimmery beats and dazzling euro-dance hooks rivalled her first two early 80s albums, "Madonna" and "Like A Virgin." It sold well all around the world, with the exception of her birth-home, the US of A.

That’s why her new album, "Hard Candy," released later this month, is so very clearly targeted at righting that regretful wrong and putting Madonna back on top of the pop charts and radio formats from Hollywood to Houston and all stops in between.

In Madonna’s now 25-year, Hall of Fame-awarded, recording career, the album that "Hard Candy" most resembles in context is 1994’s "Bedtime Story." That was Madonna’s sticky valentine to the hot black producers of the time after 1992’s icy house-brewed "Erotica" left her high and, well, dry. This time round though, there’s no trace of Babyface (producer of Bedtime’s 1995’s US #1 "Take A Bow"), or Dallas Austin (Bedtime’s underrated lead single Secret), but in their place Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and posse.

Strangely, album opener "Candy Shop," (almost identical to the version that leaked online a year ago), is one of the album's weaker tracks and doesn’t bode well for the rest of the 12-track set. Still, any song with Madonna making smutty double entendres out of lyrics as knowingly silly as "I got Turkish delights" can’t be taken too seriously.

On track two the big guns (or should that be "gums"?) are wheeled out. While "4 Minutes" is a virtual join-the-dots exercise in how to make an American hit, circa 2008, it’s undoubtedly a grower. With so many busy elements (those blaring horns, the cutesy banter trading with guest star Justin Timberlake – relegated to a "featuring" role in the credits – and Timbaland hovering close by) "4 Minutes" succeeds on a number of levels. It's not Madonna’s greatest single ever, and one that will no doubt age very dis-gracefully, but the best track to right US chart wrongs. Want proof? This week "4 Minutes" soared to #3, handing Madonna the honour of now being the artist with the most top ten hits in the US – edging past Elvis Presley. Tick-tock, tick-tock indeed!

Thankfully, the record's tasty triple selection of tracks 3-5 are all prime examples of what Madonna does best – memorable pop with great choruses that’ll ricochet globally for months to come. If you’re looking for singles #2, #3 and #4, here’s your one-stop Candy shop.

"Give It To Me" is Confession’s "Get Together" cleverly remodeled in the winning electro-funk style of her classic 1983 breakthrough single "Holiday." Pharrell Williams must have been itching for years to upgrade that particular Madonna standard and may well have just managed too. We’re guessing a sure shot heir to "4 Minutes."

That’s followed by "Heartbeat," the most "traditional" Madonna song here. Not only is it yet another ode to getting down – "when I dance I feel free" – in the finest Into The Groove tradition, but boasts a chorus as sweet as, well, candy. Fans have been waiting decades for Madonna to utter a line as club-friendly as ITG’s "only when I'm dancing can I feel this free" and Heartbeat’s "see my booty get down" is a fitting, albeit bootylicious, successor.

Finishing off the delicious trifecta is "Miles Away" – sweet urban pop with an undercurrent of melancholy and unmistakable echoes of Nelly Furtado’s "Say It Right." It’s a poignant tale of being far from the one you love and hints at what might be going on in Madonna’s private life. For someone who’s long crafted her musical art from personal experiences, "Hard Candy" is almost devoid of that usual frankness and "Miles Away" might be the only crack in the façade we’re allowed to view this time around. Or perhaps she left that all for the punchy cover shot?!

Next up is "She’s Not Me" – a snippy, bitchy, catchy disco groover that appears to be the Queen of Pop taking direct aim at her competition. Yet with so much early promise it’s tragically let down with an unfortunately bombastic middle section. From then on it just gets messy as spooky, swirling noises throb relentlessly throughout, giving the impression Pharrell fell asleep on the mixing board while the track was still running.

That’s the biggest complaint for the rest of the album – so many of the songs have great potential, yet end too raw and unfinished. From the middle onwards "Hard Candy" is definitely more miss than hit. It’s a bit like sticking your hand blindly into the candy jar and coming up with trick after trick when you keep hoping for a treat.

Of "Incredible" the less said the better. Suffice to say it in no way lives up to its name. “Sex with you is incredible” is one of the few remarkable lines uttered during this quite unremarkable track.

"Beat Goes On" is significantly different to the version that also leaked last year. It’s yet another tribute to dancing, with more of an early 80s vibe, and at first seems like the perfect blend of old skool Madonna with new skool grooves. After a curt Kanye West rap in which he mentions "doing F," whatever that may be, things once again dissolve into a meandering mess. The chorus is brazenly forgotten about, spoiling what could easily have been another Madonna classic. On and on it does indeed go.

"Hard Candy" is redeemed at this point by "Dance 2night" – with the Timbaland/Timberlake duo close by once more. Harking back to mid-80s Janet Jackson with its jaunty freestyle R&B approach, it sports a brain-hugging chorus that could easily have been stolen from some boy band archive. Hmmm, now who could be responsible for that?

Track ten, "Spanish Lesson," is mercifully short. Guess what? There are more references to the dance floor, a Spanish guitar tossed in, alongside some plodding beats, and it’s all over so quickly it barely rates a mention. Ho hum.

The closest thing to a ballad on the album is "Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You" where Justin once again makes his presence felt double-tracking Madonna. With echoes of JT’s own "Cry Me A River," it proves to be yet again a decent pop song left wanting under the weight of the “everything including the kitchen sink” production approach.

Finally, "Hard Candy" comes to a haunting end with "Voices." Cue Justin uttering the opening line: “who is the master, who is the slave?” Well, that certainly gives us plenty to ponder! Over a moody, mid-tempo beat "Voices" comes on like a veritable act of contrition for what has essentially been a collection of confessions on a urban dance floor.

Overall "Hard Candy" is patchy, but blessed with a handful of great singles (which is what you’d expect from any Madonna album) that stick close to the winning formula of keeping the most recognisable voice in pop uncluttered and out front. It’s when she’s tossed boxing gloves first into the mix, along with all manner of production pots and pans (a case of too many cooks perhaps?) that "Hard Candy" goes a tad sour.

Expectations-wise, file "Hard Candy" alongside 2000’s inconsistent "Music" album – which suffered coming post-Ray Of Light and delivering a truly killer lead single that promised too much. Likewise, beyond the handful of obvious singles, things start to get somewhat sticky on "Hard Candy."

As it is, it’s a sweet enough treat with just enough for longtime Madonna fans to cherish, or (ahem!) get their teeth into. And for those who suspected Madonna was well past her use-by-date in her 50th year, it’s mostly a timely reminder she’s still got a lot more than just "4 Minutes" to save the world’s charts with.

Marc Andrews is a media and entertainment journalist who writes for MEDIAWEEK magazine (www.mediaweek.com.au) and DNA Magazine (dnamagazine.com).

April 5, 2008 in Album Reviews, Guest Blogger: Marc Andrews, Madonna | Permalink | Comments (70)

Album Review: Anouk "Who's Your Momma"

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If there's one thing you should know about Anouk, it's that she tells it like it is. "If you need a servant go find someone else," she lets people know on "If I Go," a track from her new album "Who's Your Momma." 

In her personal and professional life, Anouk has always refused to play the victim or have people take advantage of her. Instead, the singer turns her frustration and disappointment into strength and confidence, which gives her music an assured sense of self that is inherently rock 'n roll.

On her aptly-titled new album, "Who's Your Momma," the Dutch rocker expands her bold and powerful repertoire with an impressive collection of hearty rock stompers and gut-wrenching ballads. In fact, after building a reputation as The Netherlands' most accomplished rock diva, Anouk shows off a sound that is surprisingly milder than her previous work. (Listen to tracks from the album here or get it on iTunes.)

The big question now is if "Who's Your Momma" will finally give Anouk the attention stateside that many believe she deserves. She had a tremendous shot at fame in the U.S. back in 1998, but her headstrong ways got her into a huge argument with Sony Music boss Tommy Mottola. The screaming match between the music mogul and the aspiring international superstar led to the immediate cancellation of Anouk's launch in North America.

With "Who's Your Momma" she opens the door once again for commercial success outside of Europe. It is an album that features a slick sound that is decidedly international. Plus, her powerhouse vocals can easily compete with the voices of the best rock singers in the business. The question remains, however, if she is willing to mold her act to fit the cookie-cutter expectations of many American listeners.

After the release of her last album "Hotel New York" in 2005, Anouk took some time off from the hustle and bustle of the music biz to take care of her three young kids. Earlier this year, she felt the time was right to start recording new music again. She traveled to Los Angeles to work with master producter Glenn Ballard (Alanis Morissette, Annie Lennox) who produced this entire new record. The songwriting was in the very capable hands of Anouk herself together with long-time writing partner Bart van Veen and her husband Remon Stotijn.

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The album kicks off with the blazing rocker "If I Go" that goes well with Anouk's black & white portrait and gun that is pictured on the CD sleeve. She is fed up and gives her lover an ultimatum. "You need to take a good look at yourself 'cause I'm about to close up shop. If you need a servant go find someone else. It's time to step up," she sings.

It is followed by the playful "Might As Well" that displays Anouk's incredible vocal control. She twists and tweaks her vocal chords in a quirky, yet razor-sharp manner that totally wowed me the first time I heard it.

Glenn Ballard wrote the excellent ballad "Make It Rain," one of the disc's centerpieces with its steady verses that lead up to a climatic chorus that is clearly written for prime time.

In typical straight-up Anouk fashion, the singer gives listeners her piece of mind about modern-day idiosyncrasies on the bluesy "Modern World." She sings, "These days adoption is a hot thing. You can get a child for nearly nothing. You take them home to a nanny. Buy off your guilt with toys and candy, but all the money that you work for girls, can't compare it to love boys. There's only one thing they can't fix. No I won't let your be mislead. And that's the hole in your head."

Anouk shows off more of her spunky attitude on the album's first single "Good God," a ''60s style rock joint packed with a buzzing horn section that could easily be from the hands of Mark Ronson or even Phil Spector. An obviously single choice with a glowing, international appeal.

More ballads follow from the reflective "I Don't Wanna Hurt" and "Daze" to the heartfelt "If You Were Mine" that fully relies on Anouk's emotive vocals and lead piano.

"Who's Your Momma" is a gem of an album that presents a huge opportunity for Anouk to take her music abroad. Once again, she comes out kicking on top. (A big thank you to Anouk for sending me a copy of the record. Je hebt echt een super plaat gemaakt!)

("Who's Your Momma" is not available in record stores in North America. However, you can purchase the entire album in MP3 format on Amazon.com.)

December 13, 2007 in Album Reviews, Anouk | Permalink | Comments (18)

Review: Will.I.Am "Songs About Girls"

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Hip hop producer Will.I.Am is on the pulse of what's hip and happening. Not only did he turn the Black Eyed Peas and Fergie into huge global brands, he also helped to shape the sound of countless others artists including John Legend, Pussycat Dolls and Mary J Blige.

His third solo album "Songs About Girls" is a good example of his eclectic musical taste and his knack for working the studio soundboards. The record is a refined blend of pop and hip hop with touches of rock, electronica and even bossa nova. That's hardly surprising. It comes from a man who adores Sergio Mendes, wears Burberry ivys and wrote "My Humps," so you know that you can expect something that doesn't just fit one particular mold.

Hip hop has always been a producer's medium and Will.I.Am takes full advantage of that by cutting 'n pasting genres, alternating groove tempos and adding lots of bells and whistles. But it is never too brash or over the top. He practiced enough restrain to ready his music for mass consumption while still being musically adventurous.

Recorded in the United States and Brazil, the album deals with "the girls" that inspired him over the last few years ranging from the ladies that raised him, dated him, flirted with him and broke up with him.

He keeps his rapping to a minimum and talk-sings his way through the album. Don't expect any cameos from Fergie, Nelly Furtado or Justin Timbaland on this record. "Songs About Girls" is not a big star affair. It is all Will.I.Am with the exception of Snoop Dogg who gets a few lines on "The Donque Song."

Highlights include the mellow electro-funk of "Invisible," the bouncy "Get Your Money" and the sun-baked, Daft Punk-esque "Impatient." He even includes soaring rock guitars on "Dynamic Interlude" that is reminiscent of Prince's sound in the '80s. The single "I Got It From My Mama" is the only track that mimics the sound of the Black Eyes Peas with a snappy guitar bit and female vocals. Will.I.Am even craftfully includes a sample of Electric Light Orchestra's "It's Over" on the soulful album opener "Over"

Will.I.am's "Songs For Mama" is easily one of the best pop records of the year with a compelling sound that is both hit-worthy and innovative.

(Click here watch an EPK interview with Will.I.Am on which he talks about the making of the record.)

November 12, 2007 in Album Reviews | Permalink | Comments (6)