This week on Tracking – a regular series in which we discuss our current favorite songs – you can listen to additions from The Weeknd/Kavinsky, FIDLAR, Annie, Ariel Pink/Jorge Elbrecht, Sam Smith, Willis Earl Beal and Goldfrapp.
(Use the blue arrows to navigate through the feature.)
The Weeknd & Kavinsky - "Odd Look"
Kavinsky’s “Odd Look” was a decent effort to begin with. Seemingly dredged up from the house underworld, the juxtaposition of sinister synthetic droning and a robust electropop bounce, gave the track legs, making for a slightly unnerving, if still infectious, listening experience. However, despite its melodic strength, “Odd Look” was held back by lackluster vocals that overreached in the attempt to convey the retro-nocturne theme Kavinsky was aiming for on his debut. Then again, the concept of a man becoming a zombie with the help of time-traveling Ferrari Testarossa, all dipped in 1980s nostalgia, was a bit bloated from the onset.
Enter Torontonian songbird Abel Tsefaye; better known by his stage name, The Weeknd. No more are the raspy, ensorcelled vocals of before. The synths too have been polished; eliminating the grating buzzing that accompanied some of the louder notes, and replacing them with deeper and darker tones. Tsefaye breaks the zombie-Ferrari motif, breathing new life into the track via his narcotized wails and debauched subject matter. “All you girls try to be saints / I’ll make you roll with a sinner,” he proclaims in his trademark falsetto, twisted into a spooky howl by the melody. It’s a daring move, especially for Tsefaye, who strays farther than ever before from his R&B forte, but one that pays off.
Ghostly and contagious, “Odd Look” isn’t exactly the next “Thriller,” but it is a captivating listen, a testament to Tsefaye’s versatility, and hopefully an indication of his desire to experiment beyond the confines of his comfort. Kavinsky upped his game too, incorporating string elements and handclaps to lend some additional drama to Tsefaye’s more poignant moments, and render this iteration of “Odd Look” a polished masterpiece.
In the second verse, Tsefaye asks “Do you feel like you can take the planet on?” It seems a more appropriate question when directed at himself. The answer is yes, by the way. With more vocal tour de forces like this one, Tsefaye could certainly conquer the globe. - Jean-Luc Marsh
FIDLAR - "Awkward"
FIDLAR’s “Awkward” screams out the most blatant of teenage insecurities, “I’ll probably end up fucking up and make it super awkward,” in the first single since their full-length debut this January, FIDLAR. Basking in confident repetition and unafraid of anything (while singing, at least), the four Cali boys of FIDLAR come from all things LA: prominent skating lifestyles (FIDLAR = “Fuck It Dog, Life’s A Risk” = singer Carper’s former skate mantra), surfboard designing and Long Beach punk-rock scene parents (T.S.O.L.).
The lyrics on “Awkward” are sung with apathetic good-measure, like the last class assignment before summer kind of non-enthusiasm, until the chorus (defined by loudness alone) hits and these imperfect, impassioned voices summon toe-tappin’ energy and summer anthem status. An earlier recording featured Kate Nash’s complimentary tones, although it’s likely the duel-gender dynamic in the end proved unfit for the final song’s juvenile angst.
It’s as if they’re channeling some early teen versions of themselves, with a self-assured dose of “fuck it” mentality pinched and punked throughout. A lo-fi grunge quality reminds us that there are more bands out there with a Weezer strut worth listening to, and that our most insecure moments- the ones full of awkward lonerism, anxiety and unreasonable self-doubt- are shared and screamed and embraced at a later date, always. - Adrienne Thomas
Annie - "Invisible"
Exactly what Annie was up to during her three year sabbatical remains unclear, but one thing is certain, she is back with a vengeance. Originally a product of the thriving underground music scene in Bergen, Norway, Annie returns to her roots, polishing the sound that created her to the point of near perfection. She sheds some of her previous whimsical pop tendencies, leaving them behind in favor of straight-up electro supremacy. In simpler terms: Annie has been reborn as a dance floor dominatrix.
Teaming up with producer Richard X on her forthcoming The A&R EP, the collaborative duo has produced a nitro-fueled banger in the form of “Invisible.” Anchored by a ferocious four-to-the-floor beat that cuts right to the chase (think Lone’s “Crystal Caverns 1991” sans the obtrusive electronic flourishes), and embellished with spells of tambourine and occasional laser-like pulses, “Invisible” is primed for a diva takeover. Despite this, Annie exercises icy restraint, letting the rhythm do the talking, and opting to deliver her lyrics in a tone close to spoken word as she spins a tale of a lover’s ignorance. Her only departure from this cold control is during the chorus when she affects an ethereal falsetto. “Your love’s so cruel / You raise me up, then let me fall / You see right through / As I become invisible.”
At this point, Annie is anything but, and as her recent string of impressive house tracks continues to grow, she is poised to become inescapable, which is a good thing. The dance floor has been in dire need of a new queen. - Jean-Luc Marsh
Ariel Pink & Jorge Elbrecht - "Hang On To Life"
Ariel Pink may be the more popular psych-pop aficionado but Jorge Elbrecht is quickly becoming an adored revivalist in his own right. Formerly of Lansing-Drieden and currently of the excellent Violens, Elbrecht has also had a hand in records from No Joy and Au Revoir Simone and is a touring member of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. Both men dabble in slick pop that triggers romanticized visions of the carefree 70s, scores of acid and all. Mexican Summer brought them together to make (and I know we say this all the time) about as perfect a summer song as you’ll get.
“Hang on to Life” has a beautiful, lilting quality that brings vintage synths to the fore of a Brian Wilson-esque melody. Ariel Pink’s pure, emotive vocals not only work well alongside Elbrecht’s backing tenor but they also bring out the heartbreak that the song seems to be centered around. The chorus takes someone to task: "You screwed the pooch now face it / The truth is in the sky / Intrusions of our youthful delusion rules our life." But the mid-song phone call sees Elbrecht consoling the forlorn friend (“I can’t believe these girls...man”). Maybe Ariel is singing to himself and Elbrecht is the shoulder to cry on. A little cheesy, but when it’s all so pretty (like watching a sunset with your Grandma) it’s hard to complain. - Drew Malmuth
Sam Smith - "Safe With Me"
Maybe you know him from the hip-bumping, finger-clenching Disclosure dancefloor tease "Latch." Or maybe from his chart-topping earworm "La La La" with Naughty Boy. The throaty voice that punctuates each beat? That’s courtesy of the "ft. Sam Smith," the man with the 50s greaser hair and a slicker line in suits than Scott Disick.
But Sam Smith is no longer the bridesmaid. Right? Got it? You will after one spin of "Safe With Me," his debut breakout song. Produced by Two Inch Punch, it’s a dialled down, sensual affair, that, dare I say it, packs a proper punch. A departure from the full-on tunes that he’s previously lent his vocal to, this is serious pop. Sit up and take notice.
In a world of in-yer-face EDM beats, it’s ever so refreshing to hear a song that’s all about the voice. Smith’s vocal is all kinds of powerful and soulful, simultaneously shot through with gentle intimacy - check out his acoustic version of "Latch" for instant goose-pimples. Just listen to him croon "Don’t you know your secret’s safe with me/ All your worries can be put to sleep." It clambers across the song: a shoulder-shaking, head-nodding, rollicking affair laden with flickers of piano and percussion that scuttles like a crab along the sand.
And the brilliant bit? It’s just the beginning for Sam Smith. - Miranda Thompson
Willis Earl Beal - "Too Dry To Cry"
When you read recaps of 2012 festivals that featured Willis Earl Beal, there was the inevitable “holy shit!” reaction from those that saw his sets. He was new enough, and his initial recordings were out-there enough, that people weren’t quite sure what to expect. So when he delivered rustic soul with a voice that is stunningly powerful, exasperation understandably ensued. With “Everything Unwinds” and “Too Dry to Cry,” the first two songs released off upcoming Nobody Knows, it seems that Beal now has the studio resources to form a more coherent and forceful sound. “Too Dry to Cry” mixes Beal’s gloomy soul with a driving rhythm, swirls of gospel and an eery spirituality. The chorus, full of sound and more instruments than his arrangements tend toward, has strong hints of TV on the Radio but there is a sinister depth that Adebimpe’s voice never quite ventures into. Beal has said the album will focus on an idea: “I am nothing.” Not unlike the Ralph Ellison book that covered similar territory, this album may be as scary as it is fascinating. - Drew Malmuth
Goldfrapp - "Drew"
Goldfrapp has a rich history of reversing musical direction in recent years, vacillating between styles with each subsequent album. Initially an electronic pop duo, Goldfrapp did an about-face in 2007 with the marvelous Seventh Tree, embracing downtempo melodies and adopting a warmer, acoustic tone. It was a promising foray, and a direction that many hoped they would maintain. Head First, Goldfrapp’s 2010 offering, foiled any such hopes, documenting their retreat to familiar territory where they resumed crafting catchy, if slightly less memorable, eighties-inspired dance tracks. It seemed that the more organic styles of Seventh Tree were destined to become a non-sequitur, a charismatic ripple on the otherwise smooth electropop surface of Goldfrapp.
Then along comes “Drew,” the first track off of Goldfrapp’s impending release, Tales of Us. A subtly enchanting track with the cadence of a lullaby, “Drew” is a return to their 2007 material, and if it is any indicator of what is to come on Tales of Us, a signal that the winds of change have once again swept Goldfrapp into their grasp. Allison’s Goldfrapp’s lyrics are breathy and delicate. The melody is an understated mélange of weeping violins and undulating acoustic guitar. Both are a far cry from the power pop exuberance of their last effort. This is Goldfrapp unplugged, a more sophisticated affair, and one that sounds like the mature culmination of their convoluted trail of sonic switchbacks. - Jean-Luc Marsh