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 — Caitlyn Smith’s ‘Supernova’

I gave high praise to Caitlyn Smith’s last album Starfire. Hence why I had such high hopes for the follow-up and put it as an album to watch out for in my inaugural Spinning All The Records feature. Unfortunately this album does not live up to the hopes I had for it. It would be hard to call this album anything other a disappointment from my eyes and that’s hard to say considering the immense talent of Caitlyn Smith. But that’s just it: Smith has an amazing voice and even better songwriting skills. And it results in Supernova. She’s just capable of so much more.

The album begins well enough with “Long Time Coming.” It’s a dramatic song about overcoming darkness to reach the light. Smith sings her ass off and delivers a belting performance that impresses. The production has an immediate gravitas about it and grips the listener. While the production works really well in in this song and other moments on the album, this extra emphasis on the production is the ultimate detriment of the album. “Damn You For Breaking My Heart” is another highlight on the album, a cutting track about having a hard time getting over a breakup. Smith adds so many nice little details to give the story texture, such as trying to hook up with a stranger and then feeling the instant guilt because she can’t get over her ex.

“Put Me Back Together” feels like a mainstream play, but it’s an enjoyable enough song, as I find it easy to sing-a-long with. Smith delivers a fun vocal performance. I think this song would be easier to enjoy if the rest of the album was better though. “All Over Again” is another song that contemplates lost love and the what ifs of the relationship. It’s just fine. Neither good nor bad, as nothing about the production nor the vocal performance stands out. It feels like playlist filler and this certainly isn’t the last instance of this on the album. “I Don’t Want to Love You Anymore” is great with it’s stripped down, airy production that allows Smith’s voice to carry the story of the song. Despite this being another song about not wanting to love someone anymore, it’s Smith’s vocal performance that really sells the emotions of the song and makes it connectable.

The album’s title track centers around the concept of time, how things can change so fast and trying to enjoy the moment. I really enjoy the songwriting and Smith’s eloquent, yet nuanced approach to time. But man do I find the sound of the clock hands in the background to be annoying and distracting. I get the inclusion of it, but as soon as I hear this the first time it bugs me every time I hear it the rest of the song. It’s just not necessary and it takes away from what should be a great song. To make matters worse this leads right into the playlist filler portion of Supernova. “I Can’t” sounds like a generic B-cut from a (insert pop star from the 2010s) album. “Rare Bird” feels like it drags on and on, as Smith has nothing interesting to say in this love song. “Midnight in New York City” has a cool aesthetic, but the lyrics are completely forgettable.

The monotony gets broken up on “Fly Away,” which is a fun love song. It’s catchy and the bounciness of the production gives it a lightness and carefree feel that fits the lyrics well. Although I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this feels like a lesser version of “Contact High.” I really enjoy “Feel That Way” at first. It’s soulful, swelling with emotion and utilizes Smith’s vocals perfectly. But it goes too long, as at about the three minute mark Smith’s repetition of the hook makes it a frustrating listen. It’s very similar to how in hip-hop when an artist repeats the hook one too many times, crossing from fun and catchy into terrible ear worm territory. The album concludes with “Lonely Together,” an admirable attempt at a heartfelt love song. The soft piano play sets the mood for this type of song exactly the way you would want it. But just like so many other songs on the album, the lyrics don’t stand out enough for me.

The tale of the tape for Supernova is quite simple: this album focuses too much on flash and not enough on substance. Smith seemingly forgets about her greatest strength on this album and that’s her songwriting. It soared and impressed on Starfire. On this album the songwriting is so lifeless and it feels like so many themes are used multiple times and recycled. There are some bright spots on this album, but they’re dominated by what I would describe as run-of-the-mill pop rock moments for the most part. I never thought I would levy this kind of criticism toward a Caitlyn Smith album, but the songwriting just isn’t good enough. Supernova is ultimately just an okay album.

Grade: 5/10

Album Review — Tame Impala’s ‘The Slow Rush’

When it comes to Tame Impala, there can be a split amongst it’s fans and it all centers around the last album Currents. And it’s understandable, as the sound of Tame Impala is decidedly different pre-Currents and post-Currents. Personally, I prefer post-Currents, as I find the production to be the big reason I prefer this era of Tame Impala. Currents is in fact one of my favorite albums of the 2010s and I’ll most certainly be talking about it more when I conduct my best albums of the 2010s list. Tame Impala’s new album The Slow Rush picks up right where it left off.

Now one thing to know right up front about Tame Impala if you’re not familiar with the act is it’s only one man who’s writing, producing and making the music on the albums: multi-instrumentalist Kevin Parker. And it’s easy to see he’s a perfectionist when it comes to his production, hence why it’s been five years since Currents. So when it comes to listening to Tame Impala, it’s immediately the first thing you notice and therefore must be the first thing that has to be discussed. It absolutely dominates and smothers every other aspect of Tame Impala’s music. It’s both good and bad. It’s good in the sense because there’s just so much attention to detail and it’s so grandiose and over-the-top that it overwhelms your senses in a good way. It’s bad in a way though too because it’s so hard to focus on everything else, most notably the lyrics. So one big recommendation I would make when listening to Tame Impala and this album is to wear headphones.

The ethereal and echoing “One More Year” opens the album and the song (and the whole album) explores a relationship one year into it. It reflects on how the relationship came to be, the joy of being in it still the same, but also the doubt and fear of the commitment aspect creeps in too. This seems to be fully fleshed out throughout the album. But I have to point out these particular lyrics towards the latter half of the song come off as lazy: “We got a whole year (One more year)/Fifty-two weeks/Seven days each/(One more year) Four seasons/one reason/one way.” It feels like filler. And as I said above the production drowns out the lyrics so that for many listeners that this just glazes over, but once you start closely examining the lyrics you see there are a few moments on this album where the lyrics feel phoned in.

“Instant Destiny” is an instantly catchy song with one of the stronger hooks on the album. This song is about letting the love in a relationship dominate your emotions and essentially letting all the problems come off as trivial (such as traffic). It’s a fun and groovy love song. “Borderline” is a great modern take on disco that avoids the cheese of the genre and focuses more on a funky bass-line that draws you right in. This honestly feels more like a song from The Weeknd with it’s club feeling and Parker’s voice delivery, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a great song, but I would remiss if I didn’t point out the canniness.

“Posthumous Forgiveness” is a perfect example when Parker puts an equally great amount of effort into both the lyrics and production, as he explores the complicated feelings he has towards his now deceased-father. He’s angry at the lies his father told him and how feels betrayed by them, watching his father go to the grave without it ever being addressed. But at the same time he forgives him and wishes he was still alive to share all of the things happening in his life now. It’s a beautifully tragic look into a complicated relationship and shows how fantastic of a songwriter Parker can be. I also love how the beat changes from dreary and dark when Parker is expressing anger, but then shifts to a more shining and upbeat sound when he pleads that he wishes his father was still alive.

The tropical funk of “Breathe Deeper” is instantly infectious and I love the shimmering effect the keys give the song as they interlude throughout. It comes off a prove it song to me, as Parker professes to his love that he can handle the relationship. The infectious groove with the commanding lyrics make for a great song, except it feels so unnecessary for it to be six minutes long. It becomes meandering by the end, as this song could have easily just been four minutes and gotten across the message. The beat change at the end feels like overkill too, showing the cons of taking a perfectionist attitude with production.

“Tomorrow’s Dust” should have been left on the cutting room floor, as it has both the least memorable beats and lyrics. The song is about finding it wrong to connect with an old soul and seeing wrongness in others and quite frankly it’s all an unfocused mess. There’s just no direction or purpose in this song, as it ultimately says nothing to me. It’s too abstract in it’s approach, not to mention the song feels longer as a result. Thankfully the album gets back on track with “On Track.” It’s an upbeat and optimistic song about reassuring one’s self that you’re on the right path and overcoming the mistakes of the past while acknowledging there will still be more mistakes and failures to come. It’s staying focused and not letting the past nor future bring you down. The drums and the airy synths give the song an appropriately reflecting yet hopeful feeling.

The bounciness of “Lost in Yesterday” makes it one of the funnest moments on the album. The song is about facing the memories and demons of the past, facing fears and shedding the things that feel like that hold you back. Once again Parker shares a genuinely heartfelt and healthy message of building off mistakes and making yourself into a better, happier person. It’s also yet another example of Tame Impala at it’s best because the songwriting feels like it’s given the same amount of attention as the production. “Is It True” brings more funky and groovy goodness on an album already full of it. Once again the bass liner is killer from Parker. The lyrics are strong here too, as Parker’s love questions if it’s true when he says he loves her. I thoroughly enjoy and am amazed at how Parker captures in the lyrics the simultaneously contradicting feelings of being head over heels with someone while also being absolutely terrified of expressing it (along with the doubt of both with Parker saying he loves her).

“It Might Be Time” is about grappling with that doubt from both internally and externally, looking for all the excuses of why the relationship can’t work. At the same time it’s acknowledging the change happening around you and in your own relationship, causing more fear and doubt. Ultimately Parker realizes he has to embrace it all and not run from it. I love the frenetic nature of the drums and guitars, lending well to the nature and theme of the song. “Glimmer” sounds like it’s song title, a glimmer of hope and resolve in the face of this fear and doubt. The short song (well more of an interlude) consists of Parker repeating over and over “I just wanna let it all go,” referring to the doubt.

This gives way to the final track “One More Hour,” where Parker finally sheds all the past doubts and demons. He fully embraces the changing dynamics of his life and the love he has, using it to center him as he faces the future head on. The concluding absolute resolve and growth that is demonstrated in this song (and whole album) is fantastic. The production is also once again amazing with the soaring and space-y sounds of the synths, guitar and drums crashing together.

The Slow Rush is another great album from Tame Impala without a doubt. But it’s also hard not to see this album is a few missteps away from equaling the brilliance of Currents. It lacks focus in a few spots and there’s one song that just isn’t needed. But this is also a bit nitpicking admittedly. The production from Parker is once again deeply rich and textured, engulfing you with it’s fantastic details. And the songwriting mostly hits. So ultimately I can say this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Hotspot’

The Pet Shop Boys have been around for decades and when it comes to this duo you know exactly what kind of music you’re going to get: catchy synth pop. It’s no different on the 14th album from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. The in-your-face “Will-o-the-wisp” opens the album with it’s pulsing synths. The song is about coming across someone from the past you considered a will-o-the-wisp (an unobtainable person that you feel compelled to pursue), but has now become a boring and normal person. Yet despite this new reality, the old allure still remains. It tells a good story and I guarantee you will have the hook of this song stuck in your head (in a good way of course).

“You are the one” is a dreamy love song with satisfying lo-fi synths that make you feel like you’re floating in the clouds. I imagine this song will be a love it or hate it type, as I can see how some might find the soft sound to be a bit boring and dragging. Personally I find it relaxing and soothing. The duo gets back to that louder sound on “Happy people.” It’s sound is pure 80s, with the thin synths, hints of snare drum crashing throughout and thumping bass. And I love it, as this is a fist-pumping anthem that puts a smile on my face. The Pet Shops Boys go for an even bigger and bolder sound on “Dreamland.” With surrealistic lyrics about finding solace and comfort in dreams and the grand horns throughout, this song is just fantastic. It’s so much fun to dance to and is easily my top moment on Hotspot.

“Hoping for a miracle” is about the lifelong struggle one can go through to find acceptance and success. While I applaud the theme being explored, I find this song is too meandering for my taste, as it really never goes anywhere in terms of the theme or the sound, which is kind of meh considering the expectations one has with the Pet Shop Boys. “I don’t wanna” is essentially an introvert’s anthem, as it’s about not wanting to go out to the club and be around people. By the end the introvert finds his courage and heads out into the night. I like this hopeful message the song ultimately ends up at. I also enjoy the sound and feel of this song a lot more, as the pounding drum loops and skipping synths gives it a catchy and smooth melody.

“Monkey business” is a funky, heavily disco-influenced track about going out on the town to find “monkey business” (I think you can figure this out). It’s a simple and fun song that is unsurprisingly great for dancing. “Only the dark” is right along the lines of “Hoping for a miracle” for me. It’s too slow, boring and has nothing interesting to say. “Burning the heather” is a song that just outright confused me upon first listen with it’s reflective and ambiguous lyrics. But then I looked up what it means to burn the heather: it’s a common shrub in Europe that has to be periodically burned to help regenerate it, often in the fall. As for the rest of the song, it seems to be about a man who is misunderstood. Personally I find the song to be too complicated to enjoy and quite frankly doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the album.

The album closes with “Wedding in Berlin,” another song that quite frankly sticks out like a sore thumb with the rest of the album. It’s a mashup of electro-dance beats and the traditional wedding march, essentially a modern take on the latter. Most of the song consists of “We’re getting married” being repeated over and over. If you’re getting married and you want it to also feel like the club, this is your song. For the rest, it’s a neat listen once or twice and after that I have no desire to hear it again. It just comes off as a novelty song.

The highs the Pet Shop Boys deliver on Hotspot are really fun and are definitely memorable, while the lows are completely forgettable. It’s a bit of a roller coaster listen, but if you’re a fan of synth pop it’s worth listening to it a few times and picking out your favorite songs to go back to. But the album taken as a whole is just decent and leaves more consistency and cohesiveness to be desired.

Grade: 6/10