split screens hail from san francisco and tend to embody some of the distinct musical traits associated with the bay area: concise melody, sunny disposition, and a penchant for throwing wonderful, unexpected curveballs.  on the jesse cafiero-fronted outfit’s newest single, “stand alone,” that curveball comes in the form of a triumphant saxophone riff, punctuating cafiero’s inquisitive lyrical trajectory.  rory o’connor, who also contributes to the live sounds of electronic stalwarts com truise and tycho, lends his drumming and organ skills to “stand alone” to help make the song a dense whirlwind of psychedelic textures that necessitates multiple listens for a complete digestion.  “stand alone” is taken from split screens’ upcoming full-length before the storm, out september 9th.  take a listen and grab a free download below.

july has been a progressive month.  wide varieties of musical trajectories have been pursued, to a wide variety of generally positive results.  from lo-fi to electronic to hip-hop to folk, there wasn’t a genre represented that didn’t offer up something to truly be reckoned with.  i’ll start with the customary list of albums before whittling my way down through the month’s noteworthy tracks.

july 2nd: radiator hospital – torch song

july 8th: ricky eat acid – sun over hills

july 15th: j.e. sunde – shapes that kiss the lips of god

july 22nd: alvvays – alvvays

torch song was an unexpected digital release (its physical counterpart won’t see the light of day until september), but its arrival cements sam cook-parrott as one of this generation’s most formidable songwriters.  ricky eat acid returned with a glitchy new ep, adding to his prolific and prodigious body of work in 2014; with five months to go, it’s conceivable that he could drop something new – and entirely different – before year’s end.  j.e. sunde highlighted a strong month for chippewa valley musicians, as his first solo foray since the daredevil christopher wright’s hiatus proved he is just as emotive and compelling without the help of bandmates.  finally, the self-titled debut from alvvays was a pleasant surprise that is now frequently spun.  molly rankin’s drawling vocals and dour demeanor contrast the band’s sunny, surf-pop guitar melodies nicely and gave the toronto quintet the opportunity to convincingly experiment with a variety of moods in a short period of time.

 

strong showings in the chippewa valley also came from the likes of local scene heavyweights adelyn rose and sloslylove.  adelyn rose released a tender home recording of “perhaps,” a long-time live staple, and sloslylove returned with the haunted, his follow-up to 2012’s chillwave-laden tendencies.  the 1980s nostalgia still hits hard, but it’s clear that two years of perfecting a live show and building synthesizers impacted the album’s outcome.

 

july began beautifully with new cuts from orchid tapes affiliates; mister lies dropped a pair of new songs that didn’t make it onto his upcoming album shadows, and warren hildebrand’s own foxes in fiction shared “shadow’s song,” the lead single off of the forthcoming ontario gothic.  death from above 1979 roared back into relevance with “trainwreck 1979,” potentially foreshadowing a wonderful end-result of their long-awaited sophomore album.  the weeknd shared his second song in just as many months, and “king of the fall” is arguably even better than “often,” or anything on kiss land, for that matter.

 

likewise, slow magic dropped his second tune of the summer, but both “girls” and “hold still” serve as previews of his debut album for downtown records, how to run away.  with each new offering, slow magic’s lethargic-sounding ambiance becomes more appealing and intriguing.  july decided to save the best for last, however, holding onto the rustie/danny brown collaboration until the last week of the month.  “attak” is brash, punctuated by the foul-mouthed rapper’s verses, and builds sufficient anticipation for rustie’s upcoming album, green language, due out next month.

 

august will serve primarily as a buffer for the plethora of releases due in september (see: foxes in fiction, milo, tennis, death from above 1979, slow magic, etc.), but boasts a few noteworthy efforts of its own.  check back this time next month to digest thoughts on porter robinson, j mascis, ariana grande, the gaslight anthem, and whatever singles have wormed their way into our ears.  as always, thanks for taking the time to read; hopefully you gravitated towards something new.

the self-titled debut from alvvays was a pleasant surprise this summer.  front-loaded with earworms and back-heavy with introspection, alvvays accomplished more than most bands could hope to on their first outing.  the album’s second single, “archie, marry me,” now comes in video format; it premiered on noisey earlier today, so hop on over there to read about the quintet’s thoughts on the video after you’ve watched the super 8 throwback below.

j mascis has catapulted back into the spotlight ever since reuniting the original dinosaur jr. in 2005.  aside from releasing three new albums with lou barlow and murph, mascis has embarked on a solo recording career as well.  2011 yielded the understated several shades of why, and he’s set to release a follow-up, tied to a star, on august 26th via sub pop.  take a listen to the second single “wide awake,” featuring guest vocals from cat power, below.

we’ve been following mannequins on 7th street in earnest ever since their dark, soothing synth pop began appearing on soundcloud late last year.  after three impressive standalone tracks, the london-via-brussels duo lay dormant for awhile, granting us this interview as they crafted their debut ep.  breaking their five-month silence, mannequins on 7th street dropped “in two” today; it’s the lead single off of superblue, due out in early september.  “in two” is the duo’s strongest effort yet, its dense textures slowly enveloping and augmenting a gorgeous vocal melody that flirts between elated and agitated.  take a listen below.

my long and storied history with pop music probably isn’t much different than others who are roughly my age.  i started to form conscious memories a year or so before nsync and the backstreet boys began dominating top forty radio, and I eagerly hopped on the britney spears bandwagon at the tender age of six when she released her debut in 1999.  from my narrow and blissfully ignorant viewpoint, these young artists comprised my “big three” of pop music and almost exclusively occupied the disc space in my portable cd player for the next three years (brief forays into enrique iglesias and sting proved to be disastrous experiences best left undisturbed).

an ever-curious child, my parents strongly encouraged my fond interest in reading, a sort of conditioning that eventually got me to train my eyes on the contents of those little booklets shoved inside a cd’s jewel case.  next to or directly underneath most song titles was a list of names in parentheses, sometimes full and sometimes abbreviated with a first initial and a last name; by asking my father, who I’d later discover was a liner notes aficionado in his heyday, i learned that the slew of names denoted who wrote a particular song.  after coping with the heartbreaking realization that my musical idols often weren’t involved in the writing or production of their own music, i began to notice a trend amongst the plethora of songwriters.  some guy named max martin was responsible for a handful of my favorite nsync jams while also appearing to be heavily invested in britney spears and practically a sixth member of the backstreet boys.

years later i’d realize, from brief moments of critical thought and a handful of newspaper articles, that martin had been one of the principal architects of a genre on which i’d cut my musical teeth.  this was at a point where already nsync and the backstreet boys evoked nostalgia of my early childhood, while britney spears was an embarrassing footnote better left forgotten, especially in light of her seemingly endless meltdowns.  i had moved past commercial hip-hop, through a token speed metal phase, and was beginning to push past the thick curtains of nirvana and weezer in search of more alternative bands, but i could at least concede that this max martin dude knew what he was doing; he was a savvy songwriter and producer who successfully went after the popular vote.

unbeknownst to my teenaged self, martin was still plugging away throughout the 2000s, continuing to work with the backstreet boys as their career waned and maintaining an on-again, off-again professional relationship with spears.  he also struck a chord with american idol victor kelly clarkson, who tapped martin and fellow hit-maker dr. luke for a pair of successful singles: “since u been gone” and “behind these hazel eyes.”  even if i didn’t want to admit it, both songs wormed their way into my ear – the latter especially.

as top forty music has become less homogenized over the past few years, in part due to the explosive influence of social media, i found myself hesitantly letting my guard down and getting my feet wet again.  the sheer creep yet mass appeal of “blurred lines” threatened to curb any personal progress i had made, but the frivolous nature of songs like “call me maybe” and “i love it” kept me light-hearted and open-minded; pretty soon i was switching exclusively between the two main pop radio stations in my college town whenever my girlfriend and I were out running errands.  i didn’t make a habit of actively seeking out new pop tunes, but i sure as hell didn’t shy away from the ones that found their way into my ears.

while sitting at an excruciatingly long left-turn red light early last fall, i flipped the radio preset to the other station and caught a voice that unmistakably belonged to mac miller in mid-rap.  wondering how the frat-rapper had managed to stumble into the pop realm, i lingered for a split-second longer than i initially intended, just long enough to hear a rich, engaging vocal melody reply to miller’s slurred verse.  the song was “the way” and that night was my introduction to ariana grande.  her high notes at the end of the tune sounded effortless, almost as if she had shrugged them out, and the organic nature of grande’s vocal delivery kept my finger off of the preset button.  later i would discover numerous critical comparisons to mariah carey, along with grande’s self-admitted influences from premier heavy-hitters like whitney houston and gloria estefan.  based solely on “the way,” grande seemed to be swinging for the fences; in my opinion, she was doing a bang-up job.

sometime during the following week, when i had scraped together a free hour, i sought out grande’s debut full-length, yours truly.  the album came across as a fairly conservative, calculated effort from grande’s team of producers and songwriters, a sensible endeavor for any artist trying to make the jump from actor to musician.  in comparison to her peers that have followed the same career arch, grande’s debut was quite good, consistently placing her vocal prowess and impressive range at the forefront of compositions.  yours truly also leaned on the support of guest artists; along with miller, the album also saw grande teaming up with nathan sykes of the wanted, bombastic pop singer mika, and her rapper pal big sean for a variety of results.  the collaborations often proved to be on the periphery of grande’s sonic aesthetic, with the rest of the album creating a middle ground between the extremes.  one song that hit especially hard was the slow-burning “tattooed heart” and the mika collaboration was fun, even if it did sound like the seasoned singer-songwriter had pulled grande into his eclectic world at whirlwind speed, giving her no choice but to hold on for dear life.  i took note of yours truly and filed grande’s name away in my head, curiously awaiting her next effort.

turns out i didn’t have to wait too long.  “problem” hit at the end of april, setting billboard and radio stations across the country on fire.  upon first listen i, like many others, realized the song was a game-changer, both in terms of grande’s artistic trajectory and in terms of the pop landscape of 2014.  owen pallett already detailed why “problem” is so alluring harmonically, right down to the use of a goddamn chromatic mediant, but i was drawn by the effectiveness of the overblown saxophone loop, its simple three-note cadential reference point (complete with a cheeky mordent) threatening to edge out the vocal melody as the song’s most recognizable hook.  once again, “problem” finds grande collaborating with another artist, this year’s model being iggy azalea.  What azalea lacks in talent, she makes up for in relevance; the tandem success of her own song, “fancy,” inevitably bolstered the mass appeal and dissemination of “problem.”

scanning the songwriting and production credits of “problem,” i found that familiar name: max martin.  entirely absent from grande’s debut album, martin’s presence is immediately felt.  the production is fuller – appropriately at stadium-level quality – and the melodic contour of the pre-chorus routinely soars for the stratosphere, just as it should.  even the lyrics recall the classic martin tropes i remember from my childhood: simple, positive romance-driven concepts dripping of bubblegum-pop flavor.  martin also has writing and producing credits on grande’s newest single “break free,” splitting them with superstar edm producer zedd.

both “problem” and “break free” are taken from ariana grande’s forthcoming sophomore effort, my everything, due out august 25th.  her new album ups the ante in terms of collaboration, reaching for names on the cusp of pop crossover like norway’s cashmere cat and donald glover’s rap alter ego, childish gambino.  another intriguing prospect is her pairing with the brooding, sexual r&b crooner the weeknd, who starkly contrasts grande’s firmly established sunny disposition.  his verse or hook will presumably be the third piece of work he’s offered up this summer in an attempt to redeem himself from last year’s lackluster kiss land.  if favorable, the weeknd’s performance will certainly have a positive impact on the reception of my everything, but grande shouldn’t worry if he falls short; she’s already proven she can frequently outshine her collaborative partners. 

the wider musical spectrum of the album’s guest list aims to insure its dissemination to a wider audience.  those who normally wouldn’t frequent grande’s neck of the woods might stop over to hear verses from big sean or asap ferg, and may subsequently stick around a bit longer to hear other offerings.  it’s a savvy marketing move from grande and her team, one that is by no means innovative but instead relies on a correct formula for success.  for my everything to be a truly substantial and impactive outing, however, grande must prove herself on the handful of solo tracks that do exist on the album.

max martin shows up in the liner notes on four of the twelve songs on my everything.  if you count his involvement on brand new single “bang bang,” a joint effort with nicki minaj and jessie j that appears as a bonus track on the deluxe version of the album (i do), he’s up to five.  fellow songwriter/producer savan kotecha and grande herself match this number, and no one else exceeds it.  that means he has his hand in a healthy third of the album, and has helped to craft the three singles responsible for accruing sufficient sales of my everything.  martin isn’t carrying the team on his back, but he’s its senior-most producer with the longest, and arguably most influential, paper trail in the industry.

after sticking by britney spears and the backstreet boys from the beginning of each’s career, martin began gravitating towards already-established artists over the past decade.  aside from kelly clarkson, he worked with avril lavigne, p!nk, and taylor swift, often teaming up with notable producers such as dr. luke and shellback to churn out some of the more seminal pop anthems of this young millennium.  martin’s work with katy perry, by contrast, has been the most substantial.  he co-wrote the two biggest hits on her major-label debut and has seen his role increase on every subsequent release; on last year’s prism, martin was a co-writer and/or co-producer on ten of thirteen tracks, including “dark horse,” “roar,” and “birthday.”

it’s interesting to speculate, then, how ariana grande will fit into the trajectory of martin’s songwriting career.  i’d argue that no artist will come close to the nostalgic legacies established by the backstreet boys and nsync, but i’ll also concede that this is a purely generational argument and that someone ten years younger than me could probably present a strong case for katy perry or taylor swift based on similar personal anecdotes.  those artists that found martin later in their careers have fizzled to varying degrees, at least to my knowledge.  the sole exception is swift, but she’s had success both before and after martin; he’s more of a supplement to her career, the crowning apex of her foray into pure pop. 

statistically speaking, grande should fall in line with clarkson, lavigne, and p!nk, but her level of talent is simply too profound to allow her to wane prematurely.  martin’s most lucrative recent collaboration has been with katy perry, and i see grande following suit.  if the rest of my anything has as warm a reception as “problem” and “break free” have enjoyed, it’s hard not to envision martin fully in the driver’s seat of grande’s third album, especially if she’s keen on churning out a new record every calendar year.  martin has proved himself a chameleon, able to shift his style subtly while lying relatively dormant in anticipation of the next musical gold mine.  fifteen years seems like a suitable hiatus in between the construction of pop dynasties.

sharon van etten’s are we there is an arresting body of work, largely due to her sheer prowess as a songwriter and a perceptive knack for effectively setting – and resetting – moods.  van etten recently stopped by the kexp studios to play a customary four cuts from her new record, complete with a full band in tow.  in addition to “taking chances,” which she churned out earlier this year on kcrw, van etten performs wonderful renditions of “tarifa,” “break me,” and “every time the sun comes up.”  check it out below.

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