How Selena Gomez's Record Channels Lorde and Ellie Goulding

PHOTO: Selena Gomez seen on the streets of Manhattan on Oct. 12, 2015 in New York City.
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This week Selena Gomez switches labels and drops an album of chilled pop, British Invasion band The Zombies burst back onto the scene, indie-rockers The Decemberists release an EP to follow-up this year’s fantastic “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World,” Tori Amos releases the soundtrack to a musical she co-wrote and Heart’s Ann Wilson releases a bluesy EP of mostly covers. It wasn’t that heavy a release week, but still there is plenty of new music to explore.

PHOTO: Selena Gomez - "Revival" (Deluxe)
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Selena Gomez’s “Revival” (Deluxe) ***1/2

Selena Gomez’s fifth album marks a bit of a rebirth. She’s switched labels, making the shift to Interscope and there is a new sense of chilled maturity in her work. For the most part, “Revival” is a pretty hushed effort filled with ambient and smooth club elements. The title-track for instance sounds like something you might hear while enjoying molecular cocktails in a neon-lighted room. It also sounds like it was possibly influenced by Kruder & Dorfmeister’s classic 1998 remix collection, “The K& D Sessions.” At its best, this is a lush collection full of intrigue and slightly sultry grooves. At its worst, it plays with tired pop tropes. For instance, had Maroon 5 not tainted the concept of the whistle hook with their song “Moves Like Jagger,” this collection’s “Kill Em With Kindness” would have earned a warmer reception.

But there’s a noted sense of sonic advancement in this record that indicates some artistic growth. Gomez has had a tough year. She was recently diagnosed with lupus and underwent chemotherapy. Amazingly that recent revelation does not impact her material which for the most part remains somewhat relaxed and sleek, but maybe that is because Gomez isn’t a co-writer on every track. Of course, maybe the title of the album and its opening statement are indications not only of her new label status but also a new desire to embrace what matters. This isn’t a bright party record. There’s a bit of heft here and this album fits well with the quiet alterna-synth-pop revolution that has budded in the wake of the success of both Ellie Goulding and Lorde.

The deluxe edition of this album packs on three additional tracks. The first, “Me & My Girls” is kind of a forgettable rave-up which fuses bits flamenco, spaghetti-western and Bollywood-esque energies. Its classification as a bonus is felt. It’s an interesting experiment, even if it doesn’t really deliver. On the other hand, the ballads “Nobody” and “Perfect” are both worthy additions to the set.

On the whole, this set is a rather interesting and challenging collection. Is it perfect? No. The use of autotune and other such effects on Gomez’s voice are not needed and often serve as distractions. But “Revival” is proof that Gomez should have a very successful career as she crosses over into the more adult-pop landscape. The beautiful piano ballad “Camouflage” and the subtle and mature dance number “Me & The Rhythm” are proof enough that there is something potent beneath the pop flash. On this album, Gomez, who began her career as one of the kids on “Barney & Friends” is growing up with a nuanced sense of style.

Focus Tracks:

“Sober” This is the boldest piece of pop on the record, with a slamming beat and constantly moving melody. The song is positively boosted by chopped up an manipulated vocal samples that play during the intro and the chorus. It also is a song full of great sadness as Gomez sings the hook, “You don’t know how to love me when you’re sober.” She adds, “Up in the clouds / Oh you know / Yeah you know how to make me want you. / When we come down / Oh I know / Yeah I know it’s over.” What a heart-wrenching realization.

“Hands To Myself” This song starts with a whisper before bursting into a big chorus. There are hints of possible Halsey influence in this track which counts pop-mastermind Max Martin among its writers. There’s also a guitar-line low in the mix that sounds like a funhouse-mirror reflection of sorts of the Pixies’ classic “Where Is My Mind?” Paired with a minimalist backdrop, all these elements make for a potent combination.

“Same Old Love” This snapping piano ballad-flavored bit of synth-pop gets better with each repeated listen. Again, it has a very stark, minimalist quality as Gomez wails, “I’m so sick of that same old love. / That s___ it tears me up… / My body’s had enough.” Gomez attacks these lines with a convincing level of sincerity.

PHOTO: The Zombies - "Still Got That Hunger"
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The Zombies’ “Still Got That Hunger” ***

I don’t know if it is intentional, but the Zombies’ new album’s title when paired with their name brings forth semi-comical images of people running away as the un-dead cry out for “BRAINS!” That being said, “Still Got That Hunger” is the British Invasion band’s first effort in four years, having reformed a number of times since their sixties heyday. They are still anchored by lead singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent.

Material-wise, “Still Got That Hunger” indeed has an uphill battle. After all, 1968’s “Odessey & Oracle” is considered an epic classic of the period, containing key tracks like “Time Of The Season,” “This Will Be Our Year,” “Care Of Cell 44” and “Beechwood Park.” In truth, there are very few records that stack up to that timeless gem of an album. But Blunstone still has quite a voice and Argent is still one of the most skilled keyboard players to ever touch the keys.

At its best, this album has a jazzy, Steely Dan-flavored vibe. The aptly-titled “Chasing The Past” is a beautiful, constantly shifting, multi-hued number. On the other side of the coin, however, you have the song “New York,” which starts out with a decent riff and a build before devolving into a cheeseball fest thanks to the Blunstone’s chorus that begins with “America America!” Granted this is presumably telling the story of his first states-side trip and while the gusto of seeing the homeland of many of his musical heroes is warranted, there’s something overly saccharine about the manner of delivery.

In many ways, this album surpasses the current work of many of the Zombies’ sixties peers. It’s a more compelling and interesting record than anything the Rolling Stones have put out over the last decade or so and it also has a bit more edge than let’s say Brian Wilson’s recent output, While this set has its uneven spots, it is the level of musicianship that lifts it up a few notches. Argent’s piano-work on both “Maybe Tomorrow” and “”Little One” shows the same kind of jaw-dropping, virtuoso skill he showed during his organ solos on “Time Of The Season.” It helps that their current band which now includes Jim Rodford, Steve Rodford and Tom Toomey is every bit as tight as their original incarnation. Jim Rodford, who plays bass is a long associate, having played in Argent’s post-Zombies band Argent, as well as being a member of the Kinks from 1978-1996.

Although they have lost some of the arty edges they possessed on their sixties output, “Still Got That Hunger” shows a band with more to say. They are jazzier and more mature, but there is still have a bit of that same spark even at points when their material lets them down. This album is much more substantial than their 2004 effort, “As Far As I Can See.” While it isn’t a classic, “Still Got That Hunger” is still a worthy addition to their discography.

Focus Tracks:

“Chasing The Past” In addition to sounding like Steely Dan, there’s also a bit of this song that recalls “She’s Not There.” It’s slower and feels more calculated, but all the elements are present. It would be interesting to hear these songs recorded with sixties-era recording

methods. Would they sound as vintage as their work from that era? It’s hard to tell. With the modern production boost, the overall sonic aesthetic is slightly altered.

“I Want You Back Again” This is new version of a song the band originally recorded fifty years ago in 1965. They’ve made some slight changes in the arrangement, but it still has soul.

“Little One” Laid-back and lounge-y, this track finds Blunstone backed only by Argent’s piano and it is a testament that their skills haven’t dulled over the years. Admittedly it sounds like something you’d hear being played in a really good hotel bar. I actually mean that in the best sense.

PHOTO: The Decemberists - "Florasongs"
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The Decemberists’ “Florasongs” ****

On the heels of their excellent album from January, “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World,” the Decemberists have released a five-song EP that shows a similar kind of urgency, with a folk-driven country tinge. While opener “Why Would I Now” signals the same kind of classic appeal as “The Crane Wife 3,” “Here, I Dreamt I Was An Architect,” or “The Wrong Year,” “Riverswim” shows them perhaps meditating on a signature sound a bit too long. But Eps are about experimentation, and even if this one has that one slow moment, it is clear that the band members are onto something.

When they wake up for the booming, almost punk-driven “Fits & Starts,” things get more interesting. These were tracks recorded for the earlier album that somehow didn’t make the cut. In this era of too many deluxe and special editions, I want to applaud the band for releasing these songs as an EP on their own. They could have very easily decided to tack them onto a new version of the album in order to boost sales. While there might have been an interesting way to sequence the album so that these songs would fit, this EP survives as a separate beast. Quality-wise, it is only slightly diminished when compared to its original source material, but it still serves as a fitting companion.

Focus Tracks:

“Why Would I Now?” I’m not sure why this song didn’t make the cut. The only reason I can think of is if it was purposely held back in order to lead this smaller collection. It would have been a high-point of “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World” had it been on the record. Kelly Hogan’s guest background vocals are also a real asset.

“The Harrowed And The Haunted” The way this track was recorded with the echo on the piano, the drums and Colin Meloy’s vocals, it sounds like it was tracked in a live setting, perhaps in a big room. The song itself is strong, but the recording method and the mixing enhance its strong qualities. Singer-songwriter Laura Veirs sings backup on this track.

“Stateside” From the start of this song’s melodic riff, this ballad draws in its listeners. Meloy simply sings over a guitar-line, but there is a classic energy here. In the live setting, this song is probably quite stunning.

PHOTO: Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson - "The Light Princess (Original Cast Recording)"
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Tori Amos And Samuel Adamson’s “The Light Princess – Original Cast Recording” ****

Tori Amos’ music has almost always been full of interesting side-steps and flourishes. In recent years she’s virtually changed her original alt-rock palate to one more classical in nature, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she has now written a musical, adding music to Samuel Adamson’s script for London’s National Theatre’s production of “The Light Princess.” The story of course is based on a Scottish fairy tale originally penned by George MacDonald in 1864 about a Princess who becomes weightless after her mother, the Queen dies. This weightlessness becomes a source of frustration for everyone in the kingdom. The tragedy has also left her emotionally distant and unable to cry.

It’s a subject matter that suits Amos’ music quite well, because it combines elements of fantasy and whimsy with emotional heft. These two areas have always been her strong-suit. This collection which is over two hours in length has plenty to offer. Even if you are a fan of Amos, though, be warned, if musicals aren’t for you, you probably won’t appreciate passages where cast members routinely bounce from dialogue to song without missing a beat. This is the kind of musical where characters dramatically sing and spell out every plot. Given this formula, Amos hands in music that is both melodic and fluttery. The whole exercise in lesser hands could come off as a cloying listen, but every element to this lofty undertaking works.

I have to hand it to everyone involved in this production and this disc. It seems like quite a feat. The collection itself boasts thirty-three tracks and comes packaged with an extensive booklet with lyrics, stage-shots and complete telling of the story. To call this an ambitious offering would be an understatement. I’m sure this piece is even better if you are actually fortunate enough to get to see the production itself live on-stage.

Every now and then, the music breaks into a refrain that shows Amos at her poppiest. In different context, the “Everything is changing…” hook of “My Own Land” would have provided her with a hit.

Amos has had quite a prolific decade as of late, releasing seven albums in the last nine years. Each one has been seemingly more intricate than the last. Her soundtrack and writing for “The Light Princess” continues this trend quite nicely. This album is most definitely an acquired taste, but it is complex and endearing if you are open to what it offers. Tori Amos is not a mere songwriter. Somewhere along the way she crossed the line over to composer.

A note to Amos’ fans: She only sings two songs here. Everything else is handled by the cast. Her renditions of “Highness In The Sky” and “Darkest Hour” are tacked on at the end of the collection as bonus tracks. So, if you are looking for more of Tori Amos, herself, this album might disappoint.

Focus Tracks:

“My Own Land” If you are on the fence about whether this record is for you, give this track a listen. It is near the beginning and at nearly seven and a half minutes, it gives you a glimpse of the kind of music heard on the rest of the set. As stated above, that signature hook really is a killer.

“Darkest Hour” As previously stated, two versions of this track are on this collection. One by Rosalie Craig, (who plays the title-character) and the other one by Amos, herself. It is a haunted, heavy piano ballad that illustrates the kind of emotional toll the inability of being at ground-level would take on a person.

“Gravity” This song also appears twice. The first time is paired with the story’s epilogue. The second time is as an isolated bonus track. This song finds nice resolution for the story in its celebratory tone.

PHOTO: Ann Wilson - "The Ann Wilson Thing! - #1"
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Ann Wilson’s “The Ann Wilson Thing! #1” **1/2

Ann Wilson of Heart has chosen to release this EP containing three covers and one original. This feels little more than a vanity project of some kind and that would hold it back but Wilson has those signature pipes. For instance, even if purists are turned off by her radical reinvention of Buffalo Springfield’s classic “For What It’s Worth,” it can’t be denied that it has some momentum. (Although, the original is really an untouchable classic that probably shouldn’t be altered.)

Similarly, she brings some bluesy breadth to the original, “Fool No More,” while Heart guitarist Craig Bartock really rocks out efficiently. She delivers a fitting, live cover of “Ain’t No Way,” a mournful blues song penned by Carolyn Franklin. The song was originally recorded by Franklin’s more famous sister Aretha.

The set ends with Wilson’s version of the Percy Mayfield classic “Danger Zone.” This again is meant to have a live, fresh sound, and the microphone effect on Wilson’s voice here sounds like she’s singing instead of giving a seminar in conference room B. In other words, it sounds like it was recorded with a very simple mic and ends up rather unflattering.

This EP was obviously recorded so that Wilson could flex her bluesier side. Her chops aren’t in doubt. While this is a worthy exercise, its brevity makes it not much more than a momentarily fascinating offshoot from Wilson’s work with Heart. Its missteps are magnified by its shortness, making it slightly miss its mark.

Focus Tracks:

“For What It’s Worth” I wonder if Stephen Stills and Neil Young like this. No matter if you can appreciate this or not, it packs a whole lot of thunder. Heart drummer Ben Smith really brings his A-game here as he pummels away. Wilson’s vocal delivery also brings considerable power. Honestly, though I am still on the fence about whether or not I dig this arrangement even though I appreciate the level of skill involved.

“Fool No More” This original is so good, you wish that Wilson and Bartock had written seven or eight more to make this collection a full album.

Next Week: Another new offering from Beach House only a month after their previous effort, a new album from former Death Cab For Cutie member Chris Walla and more.

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