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The albums of February 2019: Sharon Van Etten, Ariana Grande, Panda Bear

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Having taken time off from to explore careers avenues, including acting, scoring films and a psychology degree, while also becoming a mother for the first time, Sharon Van Etten has returned with a laser-focused album that sees her flourishing as a musical artist.

While much of her prior albums leaned heavily on a country twang, Remind Me Tomorrow marks a satisfying expanse of her sound. Key to this transformation is the introduction of producer John Congleton, most famous for his work with St Vincent and now a go-to producer for artists looking for an art-rock makeover.

While Van Etten’s prior recordings were dipped in occasional distortion and reverb that almost made it sound like it was being blasted out of an old AM radio, Remind Me Tomorrow is much more lush in its instrumentation and crisp in its mastering. It adds a layer of intimacy that makes the fragility of her first-person narratives even more striking.

Van Etten has long delved into an early abusive relationship for her work, and that remains a topic she is exploring. Love, loss, romance and break-ups are evoked with fragmentary moments in time that are hauntingly real and universal in their appeal.

Songs like I Told You Everything and Jupiter 4 display Van Etten’s ability to build moods of slowly escalating dread, while Comeback Kid and Seventeen show a keen ear for pop melodic hooks and rock and rock rhythms.

This is 2019’s first great album. 

Ariana Grande – thank u, next (3.5 stars)

While many of the other claimants to the crown of Queen of Pop (Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Beyonce etc) are diverting some of their attention towards new endeavours, Thank U, Next marks Ariana Grande’s ascendancy to that rarefied pinnacle.

While the path to pop supremacy is littered with challenges that need to be overcome, few have had to surmount so much in such a short period of time, while emerging in such glorious and triumphant fashion as Grande. 

The horrific bombing at her concert in Manchester, the death of her former partner, rapper Mac Miller, and the tabloid fodder of her engagement and break-up with SNL star Pete Davidson are but a few of the stories that have formed the backdrop to the past year or two of Grande’s career.

Despite concerns that the five month gap between her previous album, Sweetener, would result in a rushed or rough effort, the production and writing team (which includes Swedish hit-maker Max Martin) has delivered an immaculate and sparse backdrop to showcase Grande’s vocal talents and lyrical flourishes. The result is a collection of quintessentially of-the-moment pop songs. 

It’s rare for any pop artist to leave their prospective singles to late in the album, but Grande goes one step further by closing the record with the one-two-three dose of 7 Rings, Thank U, Next, and Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored. With these Grande became the first artist since The Beatles to hold the top three spots on the US charts simultaneously. 

The ubiquity of these songs at the moment may lead to feelings of audio overdose, but there’s no denying the precise production and nifty songwriting behind these tunes. Meanwhile, throughout the album, tracks like Imagine, Needy and Fake Smile have Grande showing great depth to her vocal skills, utilising her four octave range to not just show off but to convey real emotion. 

There are plenty of pop pretenders who rely on churning out uninspiring rehashes of other hits. While Thank U Next, doesn’t try and push too many boundaries, it does display Grande’s sheer force of personality and talent, with some great tunes to boot.

Panda Bear – Buoys (3 stars) 

While possessing an impressive solo career, Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, is best known as one of the core components and song-writing forces behind Animal Collective, probably the most influential and critically acclaimed US alternative rock band of the noughties. 

Between 2000 and 2009, the band released eight albums that explored the wild frontiers of what would be considered song structures, instrumentation and melodic hooks. Lennox’s solo output has followed a similar varied terrain.

While his previous solo release, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, was a swarming menagerie of sounds that sounded not too dissimilar to an old-school record, Buoys has Lennox stripping down his palette of instruments for  more minimalist fare.

At the core is his unique style of guitar work. Often forsaking standard tuning and chords, Lennox wields the instrument as an artefact of noise, using echo, tremolo and reverb effects on top to build up cavernous soundscapes. Dolphin and Buoys are great examples of how Lennox uses simple melodies and precise effects to create a much greater whole. 

Much like his main outfit, how much you enjoy Buoys is likely to be influenced by an appetite for experimental song structures. But, regardless, it remains a fascinating addition to one of alternative music’s most intriguing canons. 


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