The Knack Music Reviews

Charli XCX: Sucker

She might have had one of the summer's biggest hits with "Boom Clap," but Charli XCX is still best-known for her assists on other artists' songs, most notably Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" and Icona Pop's "I Love It." It's not as if she has been hiding, Sia-like, in the background -- in the past 18 months, she has toured extensively and cranked out a 15-track album, the critical-but-not-commercial favorite True Romance, as well as a half-dozen or so other songs and several features. But that was just a prelude: Her second LP, Sucker, is poised to be the album that makes the 22-year-old Brit a true stand-alone star.

In fact, virtually everything about this album is big and mouthy: Where True Romance was practically a mash note to the pop-critic intelligentsia -- with shimmering production, clever samples and a big assist from alt-pop savant Ariel Rechtshaid -- this one's as subtle as a Super Bowl TV ad. That's not to say the songs, nearly all of which have hooks big enough to be spotted from a satellite, aren't sophisticated. They range from me-and-my-homies party anthems ("Break the Rules") to buzzy new wave ("London Queen"), from a girl-group homage ("Need Your Love") to a potential prom anthem ("Die Tonight"). Virtually every sound on the album is wielded like an earworm-y hook: the grinding guitars and video-game noises in "Gold Coins," the synth squiggles in "London Queen," the EDM-inspired breakdown in "Break the Rules," the booms in "Boom Clap."
Perhaps more than any other young hitmaker, Charli has a sound that is distinctively her own, despite the murderers' row of producer-songwriters onboard: Stargate, Greg Kurstin, Benny Blanco and Rechtshaid weigh in with a song apiece; Patrik Berger (Robyn, Lana Del Rey) and frequent Rechtshaid collaborator Justin Raisen helm several others. The surprise, however, is Weezer's Rivers Cuomo. He's one of four writers on "Hanging Around," but his mark is unmistakable on the song's lighter-waving chorus.

Thanks to "Fancy" and "Boom Clap," Charli's voice is already among the most ubiquitous of the year. But Sucker is likely to confirm that she's one of pop's biggest new stars -- and biggest personalities.

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Rae Lynn: Me

The wonderful thing about RaeLynn's debut EP 'Me' is that she makes no apologies for who she is. The five-song release is diverse, original and absolutely sure to further upset haters that were quick to take aim at her after 'The Voice.'

Her fans will love it. In fact, they'll want more. Approach this talented newcomer with an open mind and you'll find sharp songwriting, clever melodies and a needed new female voice for country music to embrace. Aside from the single 'God Made Girls,' the signature song is 'Better Do It.'
"I'm not the cry type / I'm not the whine type / I'm not the wait around a little while you find time type / I'm not the pretty please / Don't leave me / I'm the one that takes the bull by the horns," she sings during this funky, guitar-driven groove that doesn't back off from modern production techniques.

"Ain't no girl in the USA / That wants a little boy who's always afraid / I'm gonna get to leavin' / Better figure out what you're feeling."
Joey Moi is at the helm, showing some range himself. His arrangements leave plenty of air — he's truly tailored a sound just for her.
The divisive 'Boyfriend' returns. 'Kissin' Frogs' and 'Careless' are the other two songs, the latter being the safest of the five. The songs that are missing stand out. Miranda Lambert's tour opener has been playing nearly a dozen songs live and had previously hinted the emotional 'Love Triangle' (about her parents' divorce) would make the cut. She told ToC her next single will not come from this EP, however, so there's hope that beautiful song will find the ears it deserves soon enough.
Key Tracks: 'God Made Girls,' 'Better Do It'
Did You Know?: RaeLynn co-wrote all five songs.


RaeLynn's 'blondetourage' is growing! The 'God Made Girls' singer has added another yellow furry friend to her household.

The 20-year-old already had one sweet little pup that goes by the name of Dolly (after Dolly Parton). The chihuahua mix is 2 years old and a blonde, just like her mom. This summer, Dolly broke RaeLynn's heart when she went missing near Nashville, but luckily, the chihuahua was found by two local mall workers who took good care of her until she could be returned to the singer.

It didn't take RaeLynn long to realize Dolly needed a friend — another chihuahua, in fact. After eyeing one little boy, who just so happens to be Dolly's brother, the singer knew she had to get him. Of course, also had to give him a country legend's name.

"Dolly loves other dogs and I've been wanting to get her a friend," RaeLynn tells Taste of Country. "I saw Waylon and he was from the same parents as Dolly and he needed a home. I couldn't resist."

Judging by photos and videos on the singer's Instagram, the puppy brother and sister are already fast friends. The two play together and even have their own Instagram account. Waylon, who looks like a lot like Dolly, is irresistible with his big blue eyes.

"It's a blondetourage at my house," adds 'The Voice' star.

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Taylor Swift: 1989

Recently, Taylor Swift was promoting 1989, her fifth album, which reviewers are hearing just once, after signing a lengthy non-disclosure agreement. In Australia she "lashed out" at critics who didn't care for her candid, confessional songwriting and its narrow focus on her past relationships. Swift called this criticism sexist because, as she pointed out, no one derides Ed Sheeran or Bruno Mars for the same tactic. Touché.

Those commentators will be rupturing veins when 1989 finally comes out. Of its 13 tracks, roughly 10 find Swift in love, out of it, or in transition. There are exceptions - such as Shake It Off, Swift's sassy US No 1 single, which rejects the bile of the haters. Recently revealed online, Welcome to New York is a love song, but to Swift's new city. As New York songs go, WTNY is not up there in the Jay Z /Alicia Keys stakes, but there's wisdom among the cliches. "Everyone here was someone else before," Swift notes, reinventing hard. WTNY is this album's scene-changing opener, proffering 80s pop as its signature sound. Swift may have been born on 13 December 1989, but here she is claiming the 80s - gated drums, synth-pop -as a formative influence.

The remainder of 1989 is singularly focused on making eyes at boys, severing ties with boys, and what went wrong with whom. Since storming through the genre qua non of break-up songs, country music, with her first three albums, Swift has since become one of the world's biggest entertainers thanks to these adroit affair postmortems. Songs such as her ubiquitous pop hit, 2012's We Are Never Getting Back Together, skilfully tease universals from juicy particulars.

This album carries on her skilful works, with increased stylistic and tonal variation. "You look like my next mistake," runs Blank Space, an out-and-out pop song with an intriguingly skeletal undercarriage. There is a rewarding pen click when Swift prepares to write down this man's name. Bad Blood faintly recalls Charli XCX with its stark beats. Wildest Dreams borrows a bit of glaciation from Lana Del Rey.

The allure of Swift's songwriting has of course been increased immeasurably by the pop star's choice of companions - a long A-list of singers, actors and boy band members. I Knew You Were Trouble, Swift's killer hit from 2012's Red, is universally understood to be about One Direction's Harry Styles.

Now, the bludgeoningly catchy Out of the Woods recounts a certain stuttering high-profile relationship that climaxes in a snowmobile crash. One of its two characters receives "20 stitches in the hospital room". Even more minxish is Style, a percolating funk-pop number that satisfies on every level: a Love and exes soundbed Swift has never used before, a plot arc about dress sense.

Being able to "tag" exes in love songs has been a manoeuvre in pop for far longer than the concept of online tagging has existed - one distributed pretty much equally across the genders through the ages. A generation ago, Cry Me a River found Justin Timberlake angsting over Britney Spears. Swift's fifth record is a bold, gossipy confection that plays to her strengths - strengths which pretty much define modern pop, with its obsession with the private lives of celebrities and its premium on heightened emotion. The album's one failing? There's no obvious single here as unequivocally great as I Knew You Were Trouble.

For almost a decade, Taylor Swift has been waging, and winning, a war, smiling all the while.

Country music has been - was - a natural enemy for her: hidebound, slow moving, lousy with machismo. She could break the rules and make people nervous simply by showing up. And yet country was also a hospitable host body. She faced almost no direct competition there, and it's a genre that embraces success, grudgingly if need be.

Most important, country gave Ms. Swift context. It made her a transgressor, which means even her most benign songs could be read with mischievous intent. From the outside, she looked like a conquering titan. But from the inside looking out, even as the genre's biggest star, she was always something of an underdog, multiplatinum albums and accolades be damned.

Full of expertly constructed, slightly neutered songs about heartbreak, "1989," which is to be released on Monday, doesn't announce itself as oppositional. But there is an implicit enemy on this breezily effective album: the rest of mainstream pop, which "1989" has almost nothing in common with. Modern pop stars - white pop stars, that is - mainly get there by emulating black music. Think of Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber. In the current ecosystem, Katy Perry is probably the pop star least reliant on hip-hop and R&B to make her sound, but her biggest recent hit featured the rapper Juicy J; she's not immune.

Ms. Swift, though, is having none of that; what she doesn't do on this album is as important as what she does. There is no production by Diplo or Mike Will Made-It here, no guest verse by Drake or Pitbull. Her idea of pop music harks back to a period - the mid-1980s - when pop was less overtly hybrid. That choice allows her to stake out popular turf without having to keep up with the latest microtrends, and without being accused of cultural appropriation.

That Ms. Swift wants to be left out of those debates was clear in the video for this album's first single, the spry "Shake It Off," in which she surrounds herself with all sorts of hip-hop dancers and bumbles all the moves. Later in the video, she surrounds herself with regular folks, and they all shimmy un-self-consciously, not trying to be cool.

See what Ms. Swift did there? The singer most likely to sell the most copies of any album this year has written herself a narrative in which she's still the outsider. She is the butterfingers in a group of experts, the approachable one in a sea of high post, the small-town girl learning to navigate the big city.

In that sense, the most important decision Taylor Swift made in the last couple of years had nothing to do with music: She bought a pad in New York, paying about $20 million for a TriBeCa penthouse.

It was a molting, the culmination of several years of outgrowing Nashville combined with interest in Ms. Swift that placed her in tabloid cross-hairs just like any other global star.

But it also afforded her the opportunity once again to be seen as a naïf. In Nashville, she'd learned all the rules, all the back roads. Now, with that place more or less in the rear view, she is free to make the John Hughes movie of her imagination. That's "1989," which opens with "Welcome to New York," a shimmery, if slightly dim celebration of the freedom of getting lost in Gotham: "Everybody here was someone else before/And you can want who you want." (As a gesture of tolerance, this is about 10 steps behind Kacey Musgraves's "Follow Your Arrow.")

Ms. Swift hasn't been the type to ask permission in her career, but she has long seen herself as a stranger to the grand-scale fame that New York signifies. "Someday I'll be living in a big ol' city" she taunted a critic on "Mean," from her 2010 album "Speak Now"; now here she is, making the New York spotlight her backlight.

On this new stage, Ms. Swift is thriving. And crucially, she is more or less alone, not part of any pop movement of the day. She has set herself apart and, implicitly, above.

The era of pop she channels here was a collision of sleaze and romanticism, of the human and the digital. But there's barely any loucheness in Ms. Swift's voice. Her take on that sound is sandpapered flat and polished to a sheen. The album, named for the year she was born, is executive produced by Ms. Swift and Max Martin, and most of the songs are written with Mr. Martin and his fellow Swede Shellback. Both men have helped shape the last decade of pop but what's notable here is their restraint. (Mr. Martin also did almost all the vocal production on the album.) Ms. Swift's old running buddy Nathan Chapman produced "This Love," a mournful ballad that would have been at home of the "Hunger Games: Catching Fire" soundtrack, and the only song here that could be mistaken for a concession to country.

The best country-defying songs on her last album, "Red" - especially "I Knew You Were Trouble," another collaboration with Mr. Martin and Shellback - were also a move toward forward-sounding pop. Ms. Swift has many charms but stylistic envelope pushing has not always been among them. And yet those songs showed her to be more of a risk taker than she'd ever been, and savvy enough to know her fans would follow.

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