SPIN Pop Report: Melanie Martinez Loads Her Sippycups With Booze, Alexx Mack Cracks Open the Sunroof
Plus worthwhile new offerings from ASTR, Børns, LÉON, and Troye Sivan
Before this fall even began, Adele’s looming shadow set the tone for pop purveyors attempting to close and push out their tightly packaged, radio-ready projects — hell, Rihanna even reportedly abandoned a 2015 release date for Anti — in time to avoid the grip 25 will inevitably have over every corner in music come November 20. That meant an abundance of dazzling EPs and albums with lyrics and melodies ripe for the unpacking well in advance of Q4’s be-all, end-all. This quarter’s pop report sifts through the muddy dregs of pop’s outskirts (bye Halsey) in an attempt to mine gold. There are nuggets in there. It comes down to how hard you care to look.
Børns, Dopamine (Interscope)
Børns has only been releasing music for the past year, but his falsetto has managed to line his treehouse-dwelling tunes with cigars, shag carpets, and rattling tambourines along the way. “American Money” is a great justification for trip-hop’s continued existence, its thudding drum machines and hollow-bodied guitar riffs joining hands with Børns on a shroomed-out desert adventure. “Clouds” is a delicate, earnest love song with lyrics like “I forget this and that / I forget about the s**t that doesn’t matter / My memory could be erased / And I’d still be thinking ’bout your face,” while the spiraling choral “oohs” of his kicker, “Fool,” end the album on an ebullient high. Though the Playboy peruser never quite scales the heights of his four-track 2014 Candy EP (of which only “Seeing Stars” doesn’t make the cut on here), Dopamine has enough of the good stuff to go around.
Alexx Mack, Like We’re Famous EP (Self-Released)
While Betty Who is off crafting the follow-up to last fall’s stellar Take Me When You Go — and while Kesha is legally bound from releasing new music for the foreseeable future — Alexx Mack is swiftly hopscotching into the bubblegum-with-brains void they left behind. Her Like We’re Famous EP consists of four songs that all sound like they’re as expensive and well-crafted as Bonnie McKee cowrites and Dr. Luke productions. Alexx Mack strips memories of Katy Perry’s clobbering “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream” for parts and builds up a tidy repertoire of whip-smart modern pop. “Bad” takes the syncopated guitar so favored by the Swedes mixing pop’s potions and tosses 8-bit chimes and cowbells into the cauldron. Mack herself is an immediate draw, her brash, reedy voice the perfect conduit for big, synth-layered productions. One or two verses could use some thematic tinkering, but damn if the sun isn’t shining brighter when Mack’s songs come blasting through.
LÉON, Treasure EP (RMI Music)
Sometimes all it takes is a Katy Perry cosign in the form of an ecstatic tweet to launch a 21-year-old Swedish singer-songwriter (and her well-defined breed of art-pop) from anonymity to the spotlight. LÉON’s sound is a bit like Lykke Li abandoning her gloom ‘n’ doom shackles for a freeing moment in sparkling daylight, with a healthy bit of self-awareness and steely, reality-checking tunes too. “Nobody Cares” is a fierce, out-all-night synth-declaration that doubles as a weary love song (“Come closer one last time / Although it doesn’t feel as good cause you ain’t mine”). The whirring title track falls in step with the jangly, all-or nothing chord structures of “Nobody,” but LÉON brings things back down to earth on the closer:”LÉON’s Lullaby” is a quiet, almost folksy bit of meditation on understanding one’s place in the world. It’s a hard to achieve a balance between otherworldliness and relatability. Doing so in four songs? Nearly impossible.
ASTR, Homecoming EP (300 Entertainment)
ASTR are one of those effortlessly cool New York City duos who front like they’ve been putting out iced-out dance tunes for ages even though Homecoming’s only their second EP, after last year’s immaculate Varsity. The production on tracks like the rat-a-tat “Get So High” and “Bleeding Love” (a Final Boss Level score if there ever was one) is so spotless, you’d think that producer Adam Pallin and singer Zoe Silverman were born holding each other with one hand and their synthesizers in the other. Seasoned pop vet Darkchild (who’s worked with Destiny’s Child and Lady Gaga) takes charge of the gloom-pop gem “Activate Me,” but ASTR save their best work for themselves — the chilly slow jam “Invincible” and the Drive-ready “Cannonball” make that more than obvious.
Melanie Martinez, Cry Baby (Atlantic)
When this New York native appeared as a contestant on The Voice, there were only flickers of the masterful grasp she’d soon have over the creation of nostalgia-pop. On her debut album Cry Baby, Melanie Martinez adopts a youthful persona with flames dancing in her eyes, threatening to torch her innocence. Concept albums are hard to pull off, especially ones with such a niche audience in mind, but the 20-year-old simply fills her sippy cup with candy and bitters. “Soap” transforms the sound of popping bubbles into a cascade of dub drops underneath gruesome lines like “I feel it coming out my throat / Guess I better wash my mouth out with soap.” “Pity Party” flips a sample of Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” into a near-goth refrain about substance abuse and solitude. On “Tag, You’re It,” Martinez recounts an assault through a rainbow-tinted lens (“Grab my hair / Pushed me down / Took the words right out my mouth / Tag, you’re it”). At Cry Baby’s core, the singer unfurls a series of saccharine nursery rhymes that are truly, deeply unsettling. It rattles you with a painted smile.
Troye Sivan, WILD EP (Universal)
So if Vine and YouTube and Tumblr are where we’re culling our pop stars from — and the success of virally derived singers like Shawn Mendes, Austin Mahone, and more prove it is — we could do a lot worse than the 20-year-old Australian pop upstart Troye Sivan. WILD is proof he’s already above pandering to the mainstream; the timely EP weaves tales of young gay love throughout six tracks, conveying his experience as the norm rather than the exception. The songs drip with Lana Del Rey-perfumed dramatic devices — “Kiss me on the mouth and set me free / Please don’t bite,” Sivan moans on “BITE” as a gun clocks in the background. The slightly nasal star aligns himself with a smart, young production team of newbies like fellow Aussie SLUMS — who handles four tracks, including “FOOLS,” a hazy storm of a song tied off neatly with a dubby synth drop. Rapper and fellow Aussie Tkay Maidza briefly injects her lightning-quick wordplay into “DKLA” (short for “Don’t Keep Love Around”) and proves again why the country’s pop exports are quickly gaining on Sweden’s. Sivan’s full-length debut is out next month, which’ll be the real test of whether a former social media star can sustain his appeal past six seconds.