The Knack Music Reviews

Ingrid Michaelson: Lights Out

If voices were candle scents, Ingrid Michaelson would be the warm, buttery aroma you'd burn in early fall: comfortable, cozy, and effortlessly personal. Until recently, Michaelson was all about fuzzy feelings. However, her newest album "Lights Out" features songs that have transitioned out of the coffee shop and into more adventurous territory.

Cue the disappointment of all the Ingrid Michaelson fans who liked her the way she was. Her music, which consisted of syrupy singing over simple backup vocals, has transformed into a bluegrass derivative that relies heavily on intricate background music. For example, in "Home," which is more synth-pop in flavor, Michaelson layers drums, flutes, and electronic "ooh-ooh" harmonies in order to deepen the soulfulness of her voice. 
This is far from the Ingrid we once knew in the Old Navy commercial, where her song "The Way I Am" perfectly served to advertise holiday sweaters. It was a song one could easily hum to a significant other while intimately snuggled on a couch in front of the fireplace. Now, her songs are darker and more mature: The lyrics in the songs evoke a deeper journey of longing, searching, and losing. She's no longer a singer easily emulated.

There are also many artist collaborations on this album and a larger co-writing staff. But fans shouldn't be disappointed. This album is more than a feeble attempt to push genre boundaries or to follow the folksy craze spearheaded by Mumford & Sons or Of Monsters and Men.
Michaelson acknowledges that "Lights Out" will be an experimental journey for both herself and her listeners. Songs like "Home," "Wonderful Unknown," and "You Got Me" all have a connected lyrical theme reflecting on Michaelson finding her identity, as well as a new stability. She invites her listeners to enter the unfamiliar with lyrics like "Into the dark and wonderful unknown, let us go." These songs differ the most from the original Michaelson flavor. They possess the upbeat elements of indie pop, rather than the soft strummings of a ukulele.
Other songs on this album - "Warpath," "Time Machine," and "Girls Chase Boys" - would make a great dance party playlist. They all contain strong bass beats and a driving cymbal ticking sure to encourage some shoulder thrusts and head rolls. These musical elements seamlessly aid in Michaelson's metamorphosis from easy listening to bubbly indie pop. Old fans may not like her new transition, but new audiences will fall in love with it right away.

But not all of her older essence is gone. Long-time listeners will enjoy the songs "Ready To Lose," "Over You," and "Everyone Is Gonna Love Me Now." They are very reminiscent of her preceding classics "Overboard" or "Are We There Yet." With these, Michaelson employs her softer side with an ever-beautiful trick that makes her audience feel as if she were singing solely to them.

These songs serve as a training bra for old fans, becoming a necessary and easy transition that is both comforting and exciting. Michaelson subtly weaves in characteristics distinctive of her newer style, such as faded vocals and poppy rhythms, while concluding each song on a louder, heavier dynamic.

While Ingrid Michaelson is no longer that slow-burning autumn candle, her older fans should not feel disappointed by her fresh scent. Michaelson has experimented a lot with sound, style, and instrumentation in "Lights Out" but has not completely done away with her former self.
Throughout this album, the songs are peppered with old and new components of Michaelson. While her new identity may not be exactly tactile quite yet, this album proves to be a perfect stepping-stone.

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Ed Sheeran: X

From the start, Ed Sheeran has demonstrated a skill for shrugging off the conventions of mainstream pop while still managing to enjoy its successes: His breakthrough radio single focused on a crack-addled prostitute. "The A Team," from Sheeran's debut album, "+" (pronounced "plus"), cloaked its harrowing subject matter in a sensual melody, a nifty trick that has helped the 23-year-old British singer-songwriter transition from pub-playing troubadour to arena act in roughly three years. The accented yearn of his vocal delivery distinguishes him from other aspiring folkies, but Sheeran's real gift lies in his writing -- his lyrics' attention to detail and unorthodox phrasing in particular. As the title implies, "x" (pronounced "multiply"), Sheeran's highly anticipated follow-up, ups the ante from his debut. He sinks even deeper into feelings of love, jealousy and inebriation while trying to navigate pop superstardom -- a problem this album is sure to only amplify.

To that end, "x" looks like a smash. Every song synthesizes the catchiest qualities of "The A Team" and its follow-up hit, "Lego House." "Bloodstream" flaunts a soulful naiveté over the most delicious guitar lick on the album, while "I'm a Mess" builds into an anthemic ending that will surely cap off Sheeran's future live show. As the hooks intensify, Sheeran paradoxically spends much of the album trying to hide -- from the bright lights that make his eyes squint with intoxicated confusion, but also from unnamed women who endlessly frustrate him. There's a reason Sheeran name-checks two Bon Iver songs on separate tracks; throughout the album, he attempts to spin his heartbreaks into an empathetic cry for shambling twentysomethings. "Loving can hurt sometimes/But it's the only thing that I know," he concludes on "Photograph," which lets its careful piano keys and acoustic strums simmer until arena-size drums kick in.

The daring spirit at the heart of Sheeran's appeal is magnified here, and he outclasses other rising male singers simply by utilizing a deeper bag of tricks. Few artists could pull off as stark a transition as the leap between "Sing," a swaggering, Justin Timberlake-inspired dance track, and "Don't," a blue-eyed-soul hymn built around the line "Don't fuck with my love." Elsewhere, Sheeran raps like The Streets' Mike Skinner on "The Man" and crafts a new-school wedding jam with "Tenerlife Sea." Such wild swiveling never feels forced, or even unexpected, from Sheeran, who has proven his exacting musicality onstage. There, he uses chopped-up loops, but few ideas get repeated on "x."

Sheeran seldom lets his songs breathe, packing each second with syllables even when he's not spitting bars. But that overeagerness will likely be tamped down, as Sheeran continues to polish his impressive craft. "x" finds a hungry artist doing everything possible to elevate to another level, simply by abiding by his instincts. After arriving on the U.S. pop scene with an offbeat folk ballad, Sheeran is expanding his profile on his own terms.

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Neon Trees: Pop Psychology

Island Def Jam

Reviewed by

On their two hit singles – 2010's "Animal" and 2012's "Everybody Talks" – Neon Trees refashioned post-Strokes dance rock into unshakable radio pop. If the Utah band was from New York or L.A., its slick simulations of neo-New Wave might seem cynical. But there's something sweet about kids from more or less the middle of nowhere getting their little piece of modern rock. They're not Foster the People, they're everyday people. 

The Trees' third album ups the empathy quotient: Frontman Tyler Glenn, who was raised Mormon, recently came out as gay, so phrases like "I was socially absurd" take on unexpected resonance. Pop Psychology opens with the biggest, shiniest songs he's come up with, each taking on a slippery aspect of post-modern romance. There's the sun-kissed altpop of "Love in the 21st Century," the Peter Gabriel arena gush of "Sleeping With a Friend," the Bowie-quoting bubble-punk of "Teenager in Love." The stark, chilly synth ballad "Voices in the Hall" works as both a late-night breakup lament and a testament of personal struggle, as if the difference between pop and art was no difference at all.

Reviewed by Entertainment Weekly at

Neon Trees first sprouted nearly a decade ago, a mohawked branch on the Killers' dance-rock family cactus. Like their desert-bred forebears, the Mormon-rooted Utah natives mastered the Technicolor hedonism of modern-rock radio — a sound splashed all over their breakout singles ''Animal'' and ''Everybody Talks.'' And on their third release, they've boldly put the word ''pop'' in the title, signaling their full-on turn to sugar-smacked new-wave revivalism.

But lurking beneath the shiny primary colors is a complex new collage of adult perspective. It's a natural reflection of their personal lives: Since their last album, frontman Tyler Glenn has come out as gay and drummer Elaine Bradley became a mother. Glenn's few direct nods to his revelation are just one part of the wiser, more wide-ranging sort of poetry within the sonic gloss, adding an emotional heft the band's earlier songs lacked. ''It's never like it used to be/Maybe it just never really was,'' Glenn croons on the humming ''Voices in the Halls,'' letting in enough grown-up darkness to give the keyboard throbs some weight. Nothing here is as relentlessly hooky as 2012's ''Everybody Talks,'' but its bubbly propulsion informs the cheeky ''I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends)'' and swooning ''Teenager in Love.'' That mix of energy and insight makes Psychology a 40-minute master class in the kind of pop that moves both the body and the brain.

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