The kind of angular rock Beware of Darkness make recalls the Arctic Monkeys as much as the White Stripes—immaculately pop-savvy, with a grungy backbone that makes them as at home on a stadium floor as a barroom one. “Dope” is all spunk and quick-licking riffs, starry and sharp guitars cutting through with gale force after a quietly powerful chorus. It’s the kind of rock critics will rightfully brand “cheeky”, since its punch and wry verve smirk as they jam. And, given how good so much music branded as such is, it’s a pleasure to see “Dope” join the fray so seamlessly.
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“Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” is a slight misnomer — though there’s obviously a lot of wiggle room within the whole blues/jazz/funk/soul domain, the song hews a lot closer to country-fried blues than funk. The two genres feed off each other, though, and Madeleine Peyroux’s affected drawl swings easily from country to folk to blues. Whatever it is, it’s certainly of a period very different from where we are now — its slightly off-time vocal harmonizations and understated guitar are equal parts ‘30s and ‘70s, the kind of reimagining Alison Krauss might do of B.B. King. No matter what disparate elements are thrown into the pot, the output is certainly, if counterintuitively, “funky”. Whether blues, soul, or country, this one works.
As much as the word has been derided (and I personally disagree strongly with said derision, but that’s a story for another time), High Dive Heart perfectly embodies the spirit of “poptimism”. There’s the auditory side: hand-claps and slick harmonies over a tightly-produced piano and guitar backdrop, as with their newest single “Misfit.” There’s the visual side: “Misfit’s” video stars a kid living his superhero fantasy helping people accept themselves as they are, with colorful sketches and editing to boot. And, thankfully, there’s the real-life side: all proceeds from “Misfit” off iTunes and Spotify will go straight to the Bully Project, an organization dedicated to stamping out bullying in schools nationwide. I’m going to silence the cynic in me on this one: if “Misfit” is any indication, poptimism is thankfully alive and well.
Despite the seemingly ridiculous title, “Justin Bieber at the Gates of Hell” is a surprisingly somber affair. Low-light R&B synths catapult off a shallow, bouncy bassline as Damien Verrett — the man behind So Much Light — sings in an alt-’core tenor. The song does in fact recall the Biebs, in that its downward-spiraling structure and occasional pitched-down vocals mirror the Canadian singer’s ascent into a more twisted pop world. It’s alt-pop in the same world as Flume or How to Dress Well, morose and triumphant and serene all at once. It lies at the “gates of Hell” — at a place promising tantalizing darkness, a release in exchange for slavish devotion — and, as with other music in a similar place, that positioning gives it a wonderful topspin.
NYVES’ heavy synths are a far cry from the hard rock of their two members’ previous projects (including Demon Hunter and Project 86), but their ‘80s-tinged electronic is nevertheless impressive. “Just Give Up” looses a hard-rock snarl over a stolid chunk of synthwave, the video’s black-and-white palate reflecting the spartan sensibilities of the song’s evenhandedness. It takes a couple key elements from NYVES’ past — eardrum-crushing snares, rippling bass — and gives them a futuristic sheen, plating smooth chrome over the frenzied metal spirit thrashing within. In other words, its misanthropic words and off-human music are synthwave through and through — and, more importantly, synthwave done right.