Music

Mika: No Place in Heaven

No Place in Heaven is Mika's most assured and confident set of tunes since his debut, Life in Cartoon Motion.


Mika

No Place in Heaven

Label: Republic / Casablanca / Virgin EMI
US Release Date: 2015-06-16
UK Release Date: 2015-06-22
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"I've gone identity mad!" Mika sings on his breakthrough single "Grace Kelly", with falsetto in full blast. In that tune, which features on his 2007 debut disc Life in Cartoon Motion, the British chanteur depicts himself as someone constantly putting on the dressing of other great pop figures, with the titular Kelly and Freddie Mercury being the two most name-dropped. On his fourth solo outing, No Place in Heaven, released almost a decade after Life in Cartoon Motion, Mika announces he's going to "Rio" to "find an alter ego", suggesting, "Maybe I'll be myself when I'm somebody else." Is this vibrant musical personality really "identity mad" all these years later?

If No Place in Heaven is any indication, "identity mad" is far from the truth. Following the sickly sweet technicolor glow of Mika's sophomore LP, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, and the promising but uneven misfire that is 2012's The Origin of Love, No Place in Heaven is a work of significant maturation, a refining of a sound whose brilliance has only ever shone in patches throughout his still young discography. Even the solid Life in Cartoon Motion faltered in places due to its sugar-rush sonic, the strength of tracks like "Grace Kelly" and "Stuck in the Middle" notwithstanding. Although it's not perfect, No Place in Heaven is easily the most consistent of Mika's releases thus far.

This is the case for many reasons, notably because of Mika's abandoning of flashy but ultimately foolhardy add-ons. The Origin of Love could well have been been his bounce-back from the sophomore slump that is The Boy Who Knew Too Much, but on too many songs he shoehorns in dance and electronic elements that detract from rather than enhancing the otherwise sharp pop fundamentals that Mika knows so well. Whether it's the vocoder on "Make You Happy" or the regrettable EDM chorus of "Emily", The Origin of Love is a good pop record marred by some awkward stylistic tics. Hearing excellent numbers like "Step With Me" and "Underwater", one can't help but wonder what Mika would sound like if he shed such gimmickry.

No Place in Heaven provides the answer. Right from the outset, with the fantastic single "Talk About You", it's clear that Mika is focusing on the groundwork of his songwriting: hooks, choruses, and melodies. Things like the phrasing on the pre-chorus lyric to "All She Wants" ("All that she wants are the stars and the moon") and the ascending/descending vocal line on the infectious "Oh Girl You're the Devil" show Mika's immense pop aptitude, which has been evident on all his LPs but most pronouncedly here. The same goes for the musical theatre grandiosity that has long been one of Mika's unique calling cards -- that he has been called the bastard child of Freddie Mercury is all too apt -- which is better than ever. Whether introspective (the title cut) or sorrowful ("Ordinary Man"), the Broadway vibes on No Place Like Heaven are palpable. Mika here continues in the aesthetic that has been unfolding over the course of his previous albums: his life as a musical.

Following that theme, it can be said that No Place in Heaven is the climactic moment of the musical's book -- that is, for now, at least. On the title track, "Oh Girl You're the Devil", and the bonus track "Promiseland", Mika delves back into his Catholic upbringing, which became complicated when he discovered that his sexuality was anathema in his church environment. (After evading questions about his sexuality in interviews for years, as was his right, he came out publicly in 2012 as gay.) "I was a freak since seven years old / When cast away I felt the cold / Coming over me", he laments on "No Place in Heaven", ultimately worried that "there's no place in heaven for someone like me." While Mika told Neon Tommy at the time of The Origin of Love that he still identifies as Catholic, his angst over his religious background is understandable given that church's intransigence on the issue persists to the present day. And unlike, for instance, The Boy Who Knew Too Much's "Toy Boy", which coats a problematic case of child abuse in unbearably saccharine and whimsical music, here the gravitas of the songwriting is on par with the lyrical content. Those who aren't keen on musical theatre's grand gestures will likely find No Place in Heaven's swooning emotional highs and lows overwhelming, but, then again, those people probably don't have Mika in their music collection to begin with.

For all of its successes, No Place in Heaven also does show that Mika still has plenty of wrinkles to iron out in his music, most noticeably in the lyrical department. "Hurts" puts a banal spin on the "sticks and stones" adage: "Nothing's only words / That's how hearts get hurt". While the backing music on the track suggests a modern pop aria, the lyrics make it feel like an overinflated musical number for an after-school special. "Last Party", although bolstered by some dramatic, sweeping strings, can't escape from its clichéd chorus, a lyrical manifestation of EDM's sonic: "If it's the end of the world let's party / Like it's the end of the world / Let's party." Such an overt expression of what is already evident in Mika's artistic persona can't help but be cloying.

Still, these missteps, however noticeable, don't detract from the achievement that Mika has attained in No Place in Heaven. His artistic presence has been easily identifiable since Life in Cartoon Motion, but at the same time he wasn't so wrong to be worried about going "identity mad" on "Grace Kelly". The Boy Who Knew Too Much overindulges in the sugary pop that Mika introduced with his debut, and The Origin of Love haphazardly attempts to over-correct for the full-blast color spectrum of his first two LPs. By contrast, No Place in Heaven is assured and mature, fully embodying Mika's identity while trimming off the zaniness (Life in Cartoon Motion's "Lollipop") and the ill-advised side ventures (the dance-y electronics on The Origin of Love). This artistic growth hasn't come at the expense of playfulness; with tracks the unabashedly Broadway "Oh Girl You're the Devil" and the vacation ode "Rio", it's impossible to not hear the echoes of the same chap who belted out "Grace Kelly" to the world in 2007. But it's the touching self-reflection on songs like "No Place in Heaven" that balance out the syrupy moments that are laced throughout.

On "Good Guys", Mika pays tribute to those that have influenced him as an artist: Cole Porter, Jean Cocteau, and "Bowie from my dreams" are all name-dropped, among many others. This tipping of the cap, however, doesn't detract from Mika's own artistic vision, just as the mention of "Grace Kelly" didn't make his widescreen "Freddie Mercury for the 21st Century" aesthetic any less inviting back when it was first unveiled in 2007. Nearly a decade has gone by since Life in Cartoon Motion, and in addition to a bevy of unbelievably catchy pop tunes, Mika can now add No Place Like Heaven to his list of successes. This record is many things, but "identity mad" is not one of them; Mika hasn't ever sounded more like himself than he does here.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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