Ariana Grande, Yours Truly

Hold up, people. Ariana Grande, even with all the belts and coos and high notes, is not the new Mariah Carey. As good as the onetime child actress can be – and she has many earth-shattering, stratospherical vocal triumphs on her debut – she’s her own singer, and she’s not yet reached Carey-at-the-height-of-her-career caliber. Not that she doesn’t come close on Yours Truly (just listen to the last bit of “Baby I,” where she goes for M.C.’s signature whistle note), especially when she breaks from the trends to deliver – with the help of ’90s-diva guru Babyface – a throwback to a classier, twerk-less time in music. “Tattooed Heart” swoops with the doo-wop sound of the early ’60s; it’s a lovely listen as its finger snaps and piano line reach a steady rhythm, so it’s easy to overlook the silly title and the track’s altogether nauseating mawkishness. The better ballad, “Almost is Never Enough” with The Wanted’s Nathan Sykes, goes subtler and turns in a sophisticated, handsomely produced sound that’s a definite highlight. What’s surprising – and pleasantly so – is that those are the only outright slow tempos. “Piano” is a buoyant delight that dances on air, “Right There” falls back to ’90s hip-hop and then, for the last song, the unnecessary “Better Left Unsaid,” it’s to the club with a slow-building bounce. Yours Truly, an exciting, very respectable debut that almost gets everything right, will give Ariana the platform and cred to make her next release the pop knockout this one so desperately wants to be.

Grade: B

Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady

Janelle Monáe is a consummate singer, rapper, performer, dancer, suit-wearer and … actress? She is if you’ve been following her idiosyncratic mythology of an alter-ego android named Cindi Mayweather, who’s basically a badass standing for the liberation of the “others,” much like Monáe herself. The third chapter in this ambitious sci-fi saga is a prequel to her other two outings, 2010’s The ArchAndroid and its predecessor, the Metropolis EP. This time, though, themes previously addressed – individuality, equality, self-empowerment and freedom from oppression – rise to the surface in Monáe’s musical vision to unify through song. It’s also the gayest of the three, with an interlude insisting that “robot love is queer,” an allusion to lesbian “undercover love” on “Givin Em What They Love” with Prince, and a crush on a girl in tights during the funky drag-anthem “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a morphing swag song featuring Erykah Badu and a fierce rap outro. Though far less psychedelic than on ArchAndroid, Monáe doesn’t forsake art for commercial appeal even as she vends her Afro-futuristic queerness – and opens up her sound – to the world. Slicking up the sonic palette with shades of straight-up R&B power-ballad adornment (“Primetime”), “oooh-oooh” girl-group melodies (“Electric Lady”) and retro-inspired synths (“What an Experience”), there’s still an air of cool hovering atop Monáe’s pompadour that tells you – with a thrilling, multifaceted and intellectual approach to performance – this android is the real deal.

Grade: A-

KT Tunstall, Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon

The fuzzy feelings of KT Tunstall’s optimistic radio-baiter “Suddenly I See,” a song hooked to your noggin because of your Devil Wears Prada DVD, is nowhere to be found on Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon. The Scottish songstress throws out the cute pop-girl façade and throws on a cowboy hat (literally; check out her being all Paula Cole on the cover), getting deeper into the folk zone she’s dabbled with in the past. She abandons the mainstream angling of previous work – the closest she comes here is on the rustically arranged single “Feel It All” – but sounds right at home with a guitar and her always mulled-over thoughts on heartache, heartache and more heartache. “Made of Glass” is a breakup lament that uses the title as a metaphor for the universal pain of a terminal relationship, and “Invisible Empire” is an eloquently composed rumination on rebirth. “Yellow Flower” is similarly graceful with its fairy-tale-like wistfulness; it’s the most moving song among the 13. Like the bulk of Tunstall’s surprising step back from the spotlight, these pieces are a part of the bigger picture: The album is a catharsis for dealing with the end of a marriage and the death of her father. And even if it doesn’t take to you instantly, and it’s sometimes languid, Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon is still an audacious, emotionally reaching work. Certainly, it’s her most admirable.

Grade: B

 

Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World

The first time folkies Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist released a double album, in 2003 with their stunning masterstroke Ohio, the always wonderful husband/wife duo displayed as much talent as they did ambition. They’re at it again with Meet Me at the Edge of the World, a sprawling set of incredibly moving, gorgeously shaped reflections on life, loss, love and land. They imagine an idyllic universe on the title track, a fitting start that sets the tone for an earthy concept album bent on cherishing the time we have now and looking ahead to the hereafter. In the meantime, “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down” is their advice, and over just a subtle bass rumble and guitar strums Bergquist sings with quiet intensity (and Aimee Mann on backup), “Are they gonna steal my love? Are you gonna free my love?” like she’s encouraging us to keep fighting for marriage equality. Detweiler takes the lead on the second disc’s elegant piano-painted “All Over Ohio,” a charming love letter to their home state. With overarching tropes of uncertainty and mortality, these lazy Sunday-sounding songs end with a celebration of life: “Favorite Time of Light” cherishes fleeting moments of simplicity. There’s nothing simple about these songs, though; there is, however, something beautiful and poignant and near perfect about each one.

Grade: A-

 

Also Out

John Mayer, Paradise Valley

Dressing the songs similarly to his cowboy-in-the-field look on the disc’s pastoral cover, John Mayer’s rustic Americana transition takes full flight on the follow-up to 2012’s also-country-inspired Born and Raised. But the wonderfully sincere Paradise Valley, with guests Katy Perry (“Who You Love,” an old-soul song where Perry sounds refreshingly raw) and Frank Ocean (who stuns on the “Wildfire” interlude) is a more laid-back, well-rounded and approachable set that reestablishes John Mayer as a top-tier music maker.

 

Goldfrapp, Tales of Us

You could say the English duo’s last album, heavy on the Xanadu-inspired ’80s pop, was just a phase. On their daringly different Tales of Us, Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp reel it way, way in and go neo-folk with a musically mysterious and lyrically rich work that finds the pair creating sonic portraits of an androgynous boy secretly yearning to be a girl (the wondrous “Annabel”) and a Hollywood actress married to a serial killer (“Laurel”). The beats won’t stick in your head this time, but the stories – and the seductive vocals bringing them to life – will.

 

Julianna Barwick, Nepenthe

If heaven were a sound, it would be this: musical experimentalist Julianna Barwick’s latest. Nepenthe, the Louisiana-born artist’s fourth release, floats about the ethers with only wordless murmurs and ethereal choral compositions that are akin to Sigur Rós at their most angelic (makes sense: the band’s producer, Alex Somers, had a hand in this, too). They mourn and cry and grieve, but always with a healing sensibility, which is especially evoked in the meditative state of “Labyrinthine.” This right here is divine intervention.

 

Rudimental, Home

British electro-pop quartet Rudimental assembles a groovy set of galvanizing songs for their mostly hit, hardly miss debut. Tracks featuring London music-maker MNEK – “Spoons” and its sexy slow burn, and the intoxicating house track “Baby” – rival the rest, standing out among some of the more standard EDM. “Feel the Love,” with a John Newman vocal, is a Graffiti6-like rush of bass, organ and horns. And it’s never a bad thing when Emeli Sandé shows up; the soul powerhouse is a welcome addition on both “More than Anything” and the chill closer “Free.”

 

 

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

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Photo courtesy of Rumble Boxing Gulch Nashville

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Post-Covid travel planning

Who would have thought that we would have to get through a pandemic in order to appreciate the small things we have, such as the ability to simply pack our bags and hit the road?

For two years, there’s been nothing left for us travel junkies to do but sit at home and try to find new destinations that we will conquer once we defeat what appears to be the biggest villain of the 21st century. But once that happens, hold your bags tight because we will be up for some of the most interesting travel experiences. Take a look at some ideas for your post-COVID traveling plans:

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