Album Review — Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Dedicated Side B’

She’s really going to do it again, eh? She followed up EMOTION with EMOTION Side B, which many argued the latter was better than the former. And now Carly Rae Jepsen is trying to do it again with the surprise release of Dedicated Side B. For those unaware, Carly Rae Jepsen has quite the prolific output of songs per album cycle (she writes hundreds of songs per album and she also has a “quarantine album” in the works). So with EMOTION she decided to release a Side B for it instead of just shelving the songs in a vault. Except that was an EP. This Side B is a whole new album! And once again she’s showing her “B material” is better than many artists’ A material.

One thing to say about this album upfront is it doesn’t quite have the thematic thread of Dedicated, which explored an emotionally complicated, roller coaster relationship. If I had to pick a theme for this album, it would be summer love songs, as it doesn’t have the tinges of heartbreak and doubt that were peppered throughout Dedicated. This is clear from opening song “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” a song about being self-assured of the love you share in a relationship. It’s bouncy, frenetic, soaring; the same fantastic pop production you can always expect from Jack Antonoff and Jepsen. It’s a fist-pumping anthem that perfectly sets the tone for the album.

“Window” does a great job of utilizing alternating hand claps and drum machines to create an infectious and driving beat. Jepsen’s deliberately staccato-like delivery gives impact to lyrics, making them feel instantly catchy and memorable. “Felt This Way” and “Stay Away” are really fun songs about the insatiable lust one can feel towards someone they love. But what the music nerd in me appreciates is how it gives a glimpse into the songwriting of Jepsen (it was a pretty conscious choice to put both of these songs next to each other). If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice each song song is rooted in the exact same line: “I can’t stay away.” It appears both songs started with this line (or variation) and each evolved into two completely different songs. Yes, thematically they’re the same. But I’m impressed by how Jepsen was able to take one simple line/idea and create two great songs from it. Each have their own feel too, as the first is slow and simmering while the second is upbeat and in your face.

Jepsen shows off her dynamic vocal range on “This Is What They Say.” She stretches her vocals into her uppermost range, specifically on the chorus, and it works to great effect. It puts a renowned emphasis on the hook, which in pop music is critical. Without a catchy hook, your music never sticks. But with Jepsen this is never an issue, as she’s clearly as I’ve said before a student of pop music. She just gets what makes a pop song great. “Heartbeat” is the softest and quietest moment on the album and again Jepsen utilizes her vocal inflections to great effect. Accented with spacey production, Jepsen’s vulnerable vocal delivery gives the song an appropriately delicate and smooth feel as she pours her heart out to the man she loves.

“Summer Love” could have easily been the album title track because as I said I feel this album embodies the idea of summer love: bright, cheery and full of hopeful optimism. This song in particular has an irresistible disco sound that makes you want to burn up the dance floor (or in a better music world, it would be a smash summer hit). “Fake Mona Lisa” seems to be an unfinished song, only clocking in just over two minutes. But I still love it and it only makes me wonder more how it would sound “complete.” Because even in this incomplete form it’s an addictive ear worm, utilizing sci-fi-like synths and drum machines to create a heart-pounding, steamy sex song.

The production on this whole album is amazing, but the production on “Let’s Sort The Whole Thing Out” in particular really stands out for me. The drumming is so damn tight and the instrumentation on this song reminded me instantly of The Go-Gos’ “Vacation.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if The Go-Gos had an influence in some way on Jepsen’s music, as her music unashamedly is inspired by 80s pop. But this instrumentation also perfectly complements the lyrics, as they tell the story of what it feels like to realize you’re in love with someone: the sudden burst of butterflies and feeling like you’re soaring above the clouds as you awaken to what’s in front of you.

The heavily synth-layered “Comeback” sees Antonoff officially accredited as a feature under his indie band name Bleachers. It’s a great choice to include his background vocals, as him and Jepsen harmonize well together in this song about rediscovering ones self in hopes they can win back lost love. “Solo” embraces the 80s pop mentality of go big or go home, as everything about this song is big and loud. This fits perfectly with a song about finding happiness in being single and not letting yourself get caught up comparing yourself to couples. Dance solo, don’t get so low as the song says.

“Now I Don’t Hate California After All” is a fascinating exclamation point to the album. I say fascinating because the production on this is immaculate: a balmy, tropical and soft melody that really reminds me of something Kevin Parker would craft on one of his album. It’s so different from the rest of the album and yet it feels like it still fits. It also makes me want to hear an entire beach-themed album from Jepsen. This song is so chill and relaxing that I can’t help but smile when I hear it and that’s the kind of impression you want to leave with a listener as they finish an album.

Dedicated Side B is yet another pop masterpiece from Carly Rae Jepsen. I can’t believe how she just continues to blow me away with fantastic project after fantastic project. Jepsen won Country Perspective’s 2019 Album of the Year with Dedicated and she’s putting herself in the unprecedented position to win it again in 2020 to make it back-to-back. It’s simply incredible. And oh yeah she still has another album on the way.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

Dua Lipa hasn’t really been on my radar up until this point. Her debut self-titled album didn’t catch my attention. But the lead single for her second album did get my attention and I’ve quietly been hopeful about it. After listening to her second album Future Nostalgia quite thoroughly, I’m beyond hopeful. I’m ecstatic, as this is the kind of pop music that excites me with it’s bold sounds that pay homage to the past while sounding quite fresh and modern.

The album’s title track leads off, greeting with an ominous “future” echoed in the background that frequently interplays throughout the song. Fueled by an infectious electro-pop sound that gives a glimpse of what’s to come in the album, the song feels like Dua Lipa reintroducing herself to everybody, as she proclaims in the chorus: “I know you’re dying trying to figure me out/My name’s on the tip of your tongue, keep running your mouth/You want the recipe but can’t handle my sound.” The synth part in the bridge by Jeff Bhasker really gives it a cool sound to close out on too.

The album’s lead single and what brought this album to my attention, “Don’t Start Now,” is about a woman coming to realize she’s a better and stronger person for getting over her breakup with her ex. She realized how toxic he was and has slammed the door shut on the relationship. It’s a fist-pumping anthem that excellently utilizes various violins to create a classy, yet spacey sound. And of course it did what a lead single should do. “Cool” is about losing yourself to love and seeing something more beyond sexual chemistry. This song screams summer anthem and not just because it references the season, but more than anything the overall vibe puts me in mind of driving down a beach highway at night with the streetlights lit up with it’s smooth, futuristic sounds.

“Physical” is a straight-up banger that hooked me from the first moment I heard it. The combination of tight bass, plenty of synthesizers and well utilized drums creates a frenetic, disco meets sci-fi sound that makes it impossible not to want to dance to. And Lipa delivers a vocal performance with the kind of ferocious charisma that will have you easily singing along. This song has every element I want in a pop song: fun hooks, infectious sound and great vocals. “Levitating” is another exciting love song with good hooks. This song definitely has more disco influences and dare I say some 90s pop influences too. The talk box is beautifully utilized, as it gives the chorus more gravitas.

“Pretty Please” is about missing your love and finding instant relief once you’re in their arms. Once again I have to praise the production aspects, as a groovy, slightly understated bass line drives the rhythm of the song and what I love about it is how it shows you don’t have to have a “wall of sound” to create a big feel. Too many pop artists try to shove so many instruments into their sound to create an “epic” sound, but I’m glad to see Ian Kirkpatrick and Juan Ariza recognized how a simple approach is all that was needed to give this song a punch. “Hallucinate” is another perfect pop song in the same vein as “Physical.” On a 1-10 scale of danceability, it’s a 20 and Lipa delivers the hook with the amount of emotion needed to convey the desperate, intoxicating love being explored in the song. The sound is completely in synch with what feels like an out of control love.

Lipa explores overcoming doubt and insecurity on “Love Again.” It can be easy to overlook how much depth is in the songwriting here, as Lipa goes into many details about how she was previously in the state of never believing she would find love and the storm of emotions she once experienced before finding the love of her life. It’s another song too that nails the futuristic disco sound and the big hero for me is the violin play by Drew Jurecka (who also did the great violin work on “Physical”). It gives the song an appropriately triumphant and resilient feel, while also fueling the catchy disco sound too. “Break My Heart” is about falling for a heartbreaker, enjoying the rush of falling in love and dreading what feels like the inevitable falling out. The drums and the tambourines do a great job of creating that bouncy, disco sound. And I know I keep praising this, but I have to point out that it’s essentially a different team of producers on each song. So it’s kind of incredible how cohesive this album sounds.

Unfortunately “Good in Bed” is a complete mess, even though it does something incredible: it brought universal agreement amongst critics, in that essentially every critic says it’s the worst song on the album, and universal agreement is quite rare these days. The choppy cadence and the clunky lyrics about sex just makes this a bizarre song within the context of the rest of the album, as it just doesn’t fit in any way. Closing song “Boys Will Be Boys” doesn’t really fit the theme of the album either, although at least it’s good and it has a great message. It’s about how boys and young men are given a pass for dangerous behavior that increasingly leads to predatory and violent action towards women, often with the casual phrase “boys will be boys.” All the while girls are expected to be women and forced to adapt to these social double standards. It’s a powerful and meaningful way to bring a message that all should take to heart.

Dua Lipa delivers an absolutely fantastic album in Future Nostalgia. It has the elements I want to hear in a pop album and it comes oh so close to be an album of the year contender. Despite one slip-up, this album delivers everything else perfectly. It encapsulates disco, electro pop and dance music with the kind of aplomb and grace I would expect out of Carly Rae Jepsen, while at the same time delivering incredibly infectious hooks and vocal performances that will stick with you long after listening. This is one of the best pop albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Lydia Loveless’ ‘Real’

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I knew this album would take a while to write. Lo and behold it would take over a month after its release to write. I knew this from the first listen because this is not the type of album you will take to at first. It would be a grower and reviewing it after five listens wouldn’t be fair. So I sat on it for a while and kept listening until finally I feel like I’ve got a great grasp of what Lydia Loveless aimed to capture with her new album Real. Born in Coshocton and residing in Columbus, Ohio, the alternative country artist has certainly racked up her fair share of critical acclaim over the last few years. She’s definitely the type of artist who goes to the beat of her own drum and isn’t afraid to get dark with her music. And she’s only 26 years old, with a long career still ahead of her. While her previous album Somewhere Else released in 2014 was solidly in the alternative country/Americana sound, her new album Real takes quite the sonic turn to the point that many probably wouldn’t even call it country. Regardless of what genre you put it in though, this is an album that absolutely shines from start to finish with its honest songwriting.

Ominous guitars ring in “Same To You.” Loveless’ distinctive voice is something that will stick with you upon the very first time you hear her sing, one of the many things that makes her standout amongst her peers. This opening song of the album deals with the end of a relationship and both sides accepting that things are over, even though one seems to want to try to keep things going on. It’s a solid song to open the album. One of the first songs released off the album, “Longer,” is next. Once again Loveless dives into heartbreak headfirst, as the song is about a woman struggling to get over the end of a relationship and just wanting to spend the day in bed (like the music video for it perfectly depicts). She keeps telling herself she just needs a little bit longer to get over her heartbreak, only to keep repeating this everyday. The song really encapsulates that feeling of helplessness and despair after having your heart-broken.

“More Than Ever” stays in the same vein of exploring relationships and is one of the softer toned tracks on the album. In this song a woman confronts her man cheating on her. The sonic twist I foretold of at the beginning of the review really shows up on “Heaven.” The instrumentation captures the glitz and glamour of 80s pop, a stark contrast to Loveless’ previous albums. But the sound suits her like a glove. Most artists wouldn’t be able to pull of this sonic shift. In some ways it reminds me of a song Linda Ronstadt would cut, but the sound reminds me of something on a Lionel Richie album. Up next is “Out On Love.” It’s the type of song we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Loveless. Her vocals are at it’s absolute best, as she bears her emotions out on this raw love song. Despite her sonic embellishments throughout the album, this songwriting reminds you of why you should be listening to her music.

The song I’ll probably remember the most off this album though is “Midwestern Guys.” It’s pretty straightforward: it’s about midwestern guys and their lives. Now as a Ohioan and Midwestern guy, I knew this song was dead on as soon as the line about them wanting to go to Myrtle Beach was uttered from Loveless. She got inspiration from multiple midwestern guys for this song and I just can’t believe how well she nailed the midwestern life. I will say though for the record I do not like Def Leppard’s Pyromania or any of their other music for that matter. “Bilbao” is probably the happiest song on Real (well it’s happy in terms of this album). The song is about a woman expressing to her man how much she loves him and asks her to marry him. But he’s distant, figuratively and possibly literally. He doesn’t seem to show the same interest in her and so the song comes off more as wishful dreaming by someone who knows it’s too late for this love to happen.

The quirkiest song on the album is “European.” As Loveless has said in multiple interviews, her inspiration for this song came from her touring in Europe and her fascination by European guys who treated kissing so nonchalantly to Americans. It’s a different kind of song, which is nice. It’s probably my least favorite of the album, but it’s still pretty good. “Clumps” is very much along the same lines of “Bilbao.” There’s a strong passion of love from one side, while the other resents it. This is one song where you really get to hear just Loveless’ voice, as an acoustic guitar is the only instrumentation on this song. The album’s title track closes the album out and really puts a ribbon on all of the themes that are explored on it. It might be the best on it, as Loveless explores the feeling of helplessness a young girl can feel when it comes to love. They watch TV, which distorts their view of what’s real and makes them feel inadequate. It makes them go so far to contemplate suicide until eventually they find someone who isn’t exactly “Peter Pan,” but they make it feel like it. Loveless admits to relating to all of this and this honesty is quite refreshing in a world where plastic themes are common in the mainstream.

Lydia Loveless’ Real is an album that won’t be for everyone, but it should be because it’s pretty great. The sonic changes and the album’s not immediate appeal may turn off some listeners. But for those who are patient, willing to give it a chance and don’t fuss over genre labels, they’re rewarded with an album that deeply explores love and heartbreak. The songwriting is quite sharp and I think the production is really solid on each song, a credit to producer Joe Viers and Loveless herself. I also applaud Loveless for refusing to play by “genre rules” and setting out to make the album she wants to make because the honesty of this album really shines through. Real is the type of record any music fan willing to listen to it will enjoy and respect.

Grade: 9/10