The Hot Take: Rihanna, PJ Harvey, Chairlift

"Human landfill Chris Brown apparently doesn’t like this song, so I guess it must be doing something right"
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"Human landfill Chris Brown apparently doesn’t like this song, so I guess it must be doing something right"

Welcome to The Hot Take, a feature where a selection of writers discuss some of the noteworthy single releases of the last couple weeks. This time we take a look at the new singles from Rihanna + Drake, PJ Harvey, Chairlift, The Range, and Flume + Vince Staples.

Rihanna, “Work (featuring Drake)”

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: Rihanna has played many roles next to Drake. In “Work,” moves on from the pain and heartbreak of their previous collaborations to celebrate the power of normal, quotidian love. “Work” doesn’t have the power or pizazz of either artist’s many songs about passion and cheating, but speaks to the importance of dedication and effort (doing “Work, work, work, work, work,” both romantically and otherwise) in one’s life, perhaps an even more relatable message. Couple that with an effortless hook and Drake’s usual smoothness, and it’s hard to miss creating a hit. B+

Grant Rindner: “Work” doesn’t do or say anything exceptionally novel, but it’s nice to hear a Rihanna single that isn’t blaring EDM maximalism. There’s a refreshing rawness to the track, down to how much of it winds up being RiRi riffing without really saying comprehensible words. Boi 1-da’s production isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it has a pleasing, off-kilter bounce. Drake’s verse is a bit boilerplate, and while the two have solid chemistry as performers, their collaborations have always lacked much urgency. Overall, “Work” is a fun listen that could’ve been better if left just to RiRi. B+

Luis Tovar: I like a lot of what’s going on here—Rihanna’s endearing accent, the warm synth babbles, Rihanna’s increasingly (and delightfully!) inebriated delivery—but it’s really a bit lazy compared to the raw power of “FourFiveSeconds” and scorching self-empowerment of “Bitch Better Have My Money” (or even the self-important ‘consciousness’ of “American Oxygen”). And a phoned-in Drake does no one any favors. B  

Nathan Wisnicki: I’m sorry, is that “workworkworkworkwork” bit supposed to be a hook? ‘Cause it sounds like ass. Clearly Rihanna’s following in the footsteps of Beyoncé’s last album (who of course followed in the footsteps of Kanye) in trying to make a more Serious and Darkly Artsy record, but Rihanna’s always, always, always been a singles artist, and she has a habit of releasing way too many, so much so that I often forget how powerful of a singer she is. The fact that she apparently made time for crap like this on her new album and yet didn’t even include “FourFiveSeconds” is representative of her sadly-continuous lack of quality control. And speaking of people with no sense of quality control who release way too much stuff, Drake’s here. On the plus side, human landfill Chris Brown apparently doesn’t like this song, so I guess it must be doing something right. The pointillist synth tones are pleasant, I suppose. C+

PJ Harvey, “The Wheel”

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: For one of the catchiest songs released in the first month of our burgeoning year, PJ Harvey’s “The Wheel” is also one of its creepiest. The song tells of 28,000 children who disappeared, and all anyone does is “watch them fade out.” While internet searches yield no specific event to which Harvey is referring, she wastes no time implicating the audience in the children’s mysterious and often brutal disappearance (“a faded trace, the trace of an ear”). The song lends itself to any number of tragedies to which most of the Western world remains spectator—global warming, gun violence, terrorism, the Zika virus in South America, the Flint Water Crisis here at home. It’s a strange, beautiful, affecting song, as memorable for it’s mysterious message as it’s fiery guitar. A

Grant Rindner: I decided to give Apple Music a shot last week, and the first record I downloaded once I had a seemingly unending smorgasbord of corporate-approved tunes at my disposal was PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. Despite my lack of familiarity, I know now just how grueling a five-year absence must have been for longtime Harvey fans, and her new single “The Wheel” certainly doesn’t disappoint. Built on a bed of churning guitar and handclaps, the song is a powerful both as an ode to lost children and a lambasting of our jadedness to tragedy. It’s nice to have her back. A–

Luis Tovar: “The Words That Maketh Murder” redux? Not quite, “The Wheel” packs a bigger punch, and actually becomes more moving as it goes along—that “and watch them fade out” coda is a marvel. Still, I also thought this sounded a bit familiar on my first go. (But there are much worse songs one could remake, dykwim?) B+

Nathan Wisnicki: Having grown weary of Polly Jean’s “subtler” records of the last 15 years—I’m pretty much alone in not fancying Let England Shake—this got my hopes up. Big electric guitars tend to showcase her physical force as a singer, and these ones buzz and sting in a way that recalls a somewhat more refined version of the fierceness in Dry and Rid of Me. I appreciate the militant rhythm of the thing when she starts singing, too; it’s a little bit folky, and the fact that her voice sounds younger than she has in years helps the refreshed vibe. Nothing particularly original here, of course—she never has been—but it’s nice to have her back and fired-up. Now let’s storm the fucking walls. A–

Chairlift, “Show U Off”

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: While “Show U Off” eventually returns to Chairlift’s traditional synthpop formula, the intro offers a pleasant departure from their typical sound, allowing Caroline Polachek’s vocals to really flourish among a sparse bass line and minimal drumming. However, between such less typical moments, it’s difficult to tell “Show U Off” from anything else in Chairlift’s catalogue, which time has increasingly filled with pretty, simple, predictable songs about just how nice (or not) love can be. B–

Grant Rindner: In a parallel universe, “Show U Off” would have been a top 10 hit for Justin Timberlake in 2010. It’s as bald-faced of a pop song as anything Chairlift has ever made, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a bit cheesy, but the production from Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly is undeniably fun. The duo have come a long way since “Bruises” and “Show U Off” is a strong endorsement of their mainstream pop potential. B

Luis Tovar: It took nearly 3 years and several fake-outs, but I feel like we’re finally getting wide-screen pop music in the image of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. “Show U Off” is no “Get Lucky”—while still missing that lofty mark, Moth singles “Ch-Ching”“Romeo” and “Moth to the Flame” come much closer than this tune—but it’s got a killer rhythm section and some bass noodling that does all it can to worm its way into your brain. Another thing: This is actually one of Caroline Polachek’s most conventional vocal turns on Moth, which is a wee bit disappointing considering “Show U Off” takes some of the album’s most thrilling risks. Still, Polachek’s voice has that wonderful texture that has made her career as a vocalist so noteworthy and the song gives it plenty of moments to shine, like that showstopper at the 2:35 mark. B

Nathan Wisnicki: Strong bass groove going on here, and I like the high howls the singer lets out every so often. The gradual layering of instruments, from Nile Rodgers-y guitar to glitzy bursts of strobe-y synth, is charming. Frustratingly, though, the tune isn’t anything to write home about. Ultimately, an ace rhythm part and some creative production choices aren’t really allowed to hit home, leading to more of a Sears-y vibe than they were probably going for. That said, I guess I have to catch up on these people, since they’ve apparently been around for years and have the potential to come up with some really smashing pop. Oh, and I dig the offhand reference to the B-52’s cover of “Downtown”…although maybe I’m just imagining things. B

Flume, “Smoke & Retribution (Vince Staples & Kučka)”

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: God, Vince Staples is hard. That was my first thought about this single, on which Flume takes an easy backseat to the unbelievably talented Staples who burst onto the scene last year. Flume’s electronic production lends itself to highlighting the gifts of other artists, surrounding their vocals with enough light to make them shine, while still allowing enough space for the contributions of Staples and Kučka to stand alone. It’s a difficult track to forget, dense and immediately repeatable. Hopefully, this sets the stage for many future such collaborations. A–

Grant Rindner: Vince Staples can do EDM, he proved as much on “Ghost”, his mesmerizing With You collaboration about a drugged out party girl turned zombie. Staples rode that beat flawlessly, but he never finds a similar comfort zone on “Smoke and Retribution”, his ill-fitting new track with Flume. It’s a pairing that should work in theory but never really gets off the ground, and Flume’s booming production winds up washing out Vince’s vocals. “Smoke and Retribution” isn’t a terrible song, but there isn’t much spark here, and it sounds like a track that was pasted together through a bunch of remote studio sessions, not a true collaboration. C

Luis Tovar: Don’t hurt ‘em, Vince! Staples is so, so good on this that it’s really easy to ignore just now messy this track is. Its individual parts range from pleasant enough (Kučka’s faceless contributions) to fascinating (Flume’s synthesizer abuse), but it is Vince Staples who carries this hodgepodge, mostly through sheer force of will. It plays out like an experiment, and like most experiments it has failed to produce anything practical, but like most experiments it was worth carrying out—and a helluva lot of fun. B+

Nathan Wisnicki: The big exaggerated glitch-twitches around Vince’s rap are interesting, though I can’t tell if they add interest to his raps or accentuate how boring his words are. The Kučka parts seem like they’ve been wedged-in from another song. Flying Lotus, Arca, and FKA Twigs have done so well for themselves that the cheaper imitators now wanna make themselves known. Not much particularly right or wrong with this track. C+

The Range, “Florida”

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: Nondescript in the way only shimmery synthesizers and heavily filtered vocals can be. “Florida” is pleasant enough background music, but with little to nothing that separates it from its numberless electric drumpad peers, it’s a little confusing as a single. Besides, thanks to Animal Collective, it’s not even the best song about Florida released in the last few months. C+

Grant Rindner: Now here’s an electronic artist I would love to see collaborate with Vince Staples. The Range has an understanding of how to convey emotion in his music that far exceeds most electronic producers, and “Florida” is no exception. The single is uptempo and catchy, but with an inescapable touch of melancholy. It uses skittering drums and a gorgeously manipulated vocal sample, as well as a terrifically dissonant ascending piano melody to build something that is both distinctly digital and organic. I don’t know much about The Range, but he has an album coming out on March 25 that I’m fairly confident will be a must-listen. A

Luis Tovar: Ariana Grande’s best song, “You’ll Never Know”, is so full of great moments than it confidently commits the biggest cardinal sin of pop music: it rushes through its chorus. Enter The Range, whose “Florida” seems to exist, infinitely, in the negative space left behind Grande’s brashly tossed off chorus. Ariana Grande’s voice is no stranger to maximalist production support, but The Range dresses her up so that she sounds as if she’s singing in a cave, miles deep. Its the antithesis of the perpetually glossy Ariana Grande, and it’s proof positive that good pop songwriting will always just work. A–

Nathan Wisnicki: Twinkly. Active. Echoing. Generally pleasant. Nothing I haven’t heard before. I like the koto. B