1000 Forms of FearHer association with mega-watt superstars including Beyonce, Rihanna and Katy Perry has meant that bipolar, acutely self-conscious and socially anxious singer-songwriter Sia has never been more famous or exposed. A cruel irony or maybe the plan all along? Four years after her last album, “1000 Forms of Fear, her sixth, with its shrewd marketing campaign and consistently, relentlessly mighty major-key choruses means that every hen party and XY and Z Factor hopeful will require a copy, but there’s always been much more to Sia than straightforward show-boating. Slowly veering towards coffee table Dido-isms over the course of her discography, the late noughties saw Sia Furler kick through the inoffensive AOR that always threatened to dominate, and collaborated with guitar and synth pop super-producer Greg Kurstin on 2010’s “We Are Born”. More Cyndi Lauper than Madonna (although a Madonna cover was included, Furler and Kurstin both displaying their collective pop chops) it was more forthright, raucous and brightly commercial than anything before, and still managed to incorporate the power ballads that she is better known for. It was also the album that pushed Sia into semi-retirement from performing, instead concentrating on writing material for other artists, an endeavour that has proved to be more successful than her own solo career.

This sound is both amplified and smoothed out on “1000 Forms of Fear”. “Chandelier” starts off sounding a lot like Rihanna and then it doesn’t sound like Rihanna at all. Once you’ve heard, or experienced, its staggeringly audacious chorus you’re unlikely to forget it and it’s hard to imagine anyone else, let alone Rihanna, sing it. Almost a novelty record, such is its persistent, cartoonish swoops and appropriately high drama; one of the most incredible things about this particular song, one that has already defined and led this era, is how much it is a Sia song and could be only be meant for her. Her vocal eccentricities, and they have always been there but never so pronounced, ensure that this ultimately melancholic song has a clear personality attached to it and could never have been interpreted as effectively by any of its potential owners. 

Big Girls Cry” and “Eye of The Needle” are both unsubtle belters that could soundtrack the next Bridget Jones movie and how you feel about this type of sentimental, rom-com ready music generally will determine how much you enjoy them but they are extremely well done here.  Apart from the terrifically loping and previously released “Elastic Heart” which is co-produced by Diplo, Furler has again paired up with Kurstin and he is at the helm sonically throughout. Less playful and rambunctious than “We Are Born”, there are still some lovely touches here such as the shredded vocals on the chorus of the manically deranged “Free the Animal” which provides some respite from the reliance on a blared super-hook. The seductive, sawing, “Fair Game” shocks with a sudden, sickly , close-up xylophone solo competing with Sia’s distant moans, and an explosive final third, while “Hostage” gallops along with guitars and a retro Motown energy.

Fire Meet Gasoline”, another power ballad and probably the crudest here, highlights the problem of Sia’s omnipresence within the current pop framework. It is without question a song which could be a big hit, it sounds like a million-selling Sia record but one which is already recorded by someone other than her. It sounds a lot like “Diamonds” or “Pretty Hurts”, r’n’b mid-tempos sung by two of the world’s most popular and famous female singers but it doesn’t sound like a record that Sia would ever sing. The same goes for the over-long, over-wrought and noisy album closer “Dressed in Black”. Compare these to the hissing and crackling psychodrama of “Cellophane” (‘Can’t you see I’m wrapped in cellophane, watch the blood pump through my veins, electricity floods my brain, can’t hide the pain’), a rare exercise in restraint here and one of the album’s best songs and the equally macabre, bell-flecked “Straight for the Knife” and it’s clear that some songs are closer to the singer’s own world and personal experiences than others and these are the most successful within this context.

Sia is at the very top of her game with “1000 Forms of Fear”, an album which can admittedly fatigue when played from end to end but when individual songs, or the extremely strong middle section, are played in isolation this is indeed some of the most warming but persistently dark and potent music that Sia has both written and performed. The problem is that we can now clearly see, understand and start to deconstruct her formula, within these twelve songs her technique is laid out bare for all to see. The consistent use of metaphors and building a lyrical theme around them rather than the metaphor fitting the songs’ content (nine out of the twelve titles -- look at them!) and lyrics which are straightforward and defy any kind of confusion or mis-reading, her traditional use of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus writing and key changes which are predictable but wholly satisfactory; there is no deviation from this pattern. Pop’s most reclusive queen may have her back to the audience but she isn’t the reluctant star she proclaims and “1000 Forms of Fear”is her loudest cry for self-recognition so far and  will undoubtedly be her must successful. Good thing too as it seems Sia has finally become tired of standing in the shadows.

Angel HazeAngel Haze is an exciting prospect. The 22 year old rapper and sometimes singer from Detroit’s flow is like an exhilarating and effortless amphetamine hit; you hear her, you sit up and you ask ‘who?’ Her story is one of cult religions, abuse and an exploration of her sexuality and sexual orientation and how all of these things have resolutely not made her into a victim. After several mix tapes it was 2012’s unexpectedly diverse and brilliant “Reservation” and her covers EP “Classick”, both exploring all of these experiences, that guaranteed she could no longer go unheard. Her biggest hit to date, the skeletal and booming “New York” has now become a club essential and a classic in itself. So why exactly does “Dirty Gold”, Angel Haze’s first official album release sound like such a step backwards?

It may take a while to pull your already-established fan base along with you, but the decision to move from the relatively underground to the mainstream is not necessarily bad. It’s apparent after hearing  the opening track, the scene-setting “Sing About Me” that Angel Haze wants to make it big as a crossover act; not as a rap artist or a hip-hop artist but as a pop star. Listening to recent interviews and the snippets of dialogue contained through “Dirty Gold” this indeed would appear to be Haze’s choice. Beginning with a sung chorus, shimmering synths and a repetitive R2D2 whistle, “Sing About Me”, is uplifting and pleasant but completely derivative r’n’b pop. With sing-song rapped verses, Haze encourages us to celebrate her success and this formula of sung chorus and rapped verse is repeated almost throughout the entirety of the tracks on “Dirty Gold”. On the third song, “A Tribe Called Red”, a trapped-out and dub-stepped rhythm supports Haze’s rap spit efficiently enough but then  is completely compromised  and crushed by the excruciatingly heavy-handed (sung) chorus telling the listener  ‘Don’t give up…turn it around’. It already sounds dated; the EDM ticks, the histrionics and the self-empowering sentiment.

As if any further confirmation were required, the presence of omnipresent songwriter and pop star in her right, Sia, both singing and writing on “Battle Cry” (the hands in the air chorus actually states ‘lift your hands towards the sky’) and with production by equally in-demand Greg Kurstin (Kylie, Britney and Lily Allen), there is no doubt that Haze is aiming stadium big. But even with such dependable collaborators the overall sound of this is overwrought and clichéd, particularly in the slower and more ‘serious’ second half. The most obvious comparison is that of Nicki Minaj who, like Haze, released early mix tapes and through thunder-stealing features proved herself as a gloriously eccentric, genuinely witty and charismatic performer and then her debut “Pink Friday” appeared and  it was sonically safe, overly sentimental and, worst of all, dull. The Minaj that was initially promised was not the Minaj delivered and the Angel Haze that we expected has similarly been mislaid somewhere in transit.

There are moments of “Dirty Gold” that do work well within this new format. The first single taken from the album, the Markus Dravs-produced (Bjork, Arcade Fire and Coldplay, amongst others) “Echelon (It’s My Way)” sounds fresh and relevant. It has the best chorus on “Dirty Gold” by some distance and its trap styling and deceptively shallow subject matter (fashion, basically) are pretty perfunctory --  it’s pretty much the second instalment to ASAP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” – but on an album that is looking for instant pop gratification and perfect hooks this does the trick very well. “Deep Sea Diver” has a tight groove and throbs and rattles like prime time Missy Elliott and “White Lilies/White Lies” has breadth and an epic feel that moves away from the more predictable structures found here with the spaghetti western-type loop and long instrumental fadeout adding atmosphere.

It’s maybe important to point out that the deluxe version of this album, and I am loath to review these ‘versions’, which are essentially just marketing tools and undoubtedly cynical, contains four of the most compelling, sonically-challenging and vibrant tracks contained under the “Dirty Gold” banner.  Admittedly one of these is the previously-released “New York”, but listen to the baroque and oddly beautiful “Rose-Tinted Suicide” and marvel at what could (should) have been achieved. The decision to still include these tracks, albeit in this unabridged version of the album, confirms that the young star’s talent is still very much intact. It might be of course that Angel Haze herself wants to distance herself from these more nuanced and disturbing tracks but one can only hope that she changes her mind and finds again the bright light that’s hidden beneath the dirt here, the one that attracted us to her in the first place. The three-star rating is based on the Deluxe Edition.

Night Time, My TimeAlthough her first single appeared in 2010 Sky Ferreira has never released an album before. There appears to have been a lot of music recorded over a three year period, talk of albums near to completion and exciting collaborations, but very little has ever seen the light of day. It would appear that this is mainly due to Ferreira herself not being happy to release material that record companies and interested parties want her to release and therefore becoming an artist that certain sections of the music industry would rather not have to deal with. Either she is a highly volatile personality whose ego stands in the way of her producing consistently good material (hi Azealia!) or she is an artist in the more literal sense of the word who wants to only share material that she stands by. It’s satisfying then to hear, based on this new evidence, it is almost certainly the latter.

“Night Time, My Time” is a surprisingly taut guitar, drums and synths (in that order) album, with Ferreira herself sounding bright and pouting through the majority of it. The sexuality that informs the NSFW album sleeve portrait translates into the multi-harmonies that make up the wall of sound, mid-sixties girl group album opener “Boys”. The predominant electro-pop sound that runs through the majority of her previous releases does not dominate here and this collection sounds unlike anything else released by a female singer in 2013 who is within the genre of ‘pop artist’. Whilst not a retro album, the spirit of early Blondie, Joan Jett, Siouxsie Sioux and even Kim Wilde are alive and well and it’s these kind of stand-alone punk icons that Ferreira obviously feels a kinship with.

Ariel Rechtshaid (Charlie XCX, Vampire Weekend and Glasser), who produces the entire album, excels at creating wonderfully full soundscapes which bulge with intricate details and neat sonic flourishes (listen to Haim’s thrilling “My Song 5” for an example). On songs like the snarling “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)” and “Kids In America”-mugging “Ain’t Your Right”, Ferreira and Rechtshaid give “Night Time, My Time” a genuine indie rock-pop authenticity and power as a cohesive body of work and not just an exercise in producer placement. Regardless of whether acoustic specialist Jon Brion or pop god Greg Kurstin had taken the production reins here, as it was previously assumed they might (both have worked successfully with Ferreira before), none of this would work if the songs weren’t good enough, and Ferreira has always had an excess of brilliant tunes.

Fans who may possibly mourn the overall departure of more traditional pop songs like the towering, Kylie-like “One” from 2010 can still find solace here with three nuggets of airy and gleaming brilliance: “24 Hours”, “Love in Stereo” and, in particular, the defiant “I Blame Myself”. The latter finds Ferreira accusing her detractors ‘How could you know what it feels like to fight the hounds of hell? How could you know what it feels like to be outside yourself? You think you know me so well? I just want you to realise I blame myself for my reputation’.  And that still doesn’t take into account “Kristine”, a real weirdo of a track, short with deliberately hard to decipher lyrics that seem to reference shopping with said Kristine and the young millionaires with an ever
ascending melody key-line and the admission ‘even though I’m not bright, I can live in the bright town’. Its craziness is unexpected and brilliantly realised.

Ferreira has said that the album’s title comes from a line spoken by the tragic character Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s feature length film “Fire Walk with Me”, more commonly known as Twin Peaks, or at least a less successful prequel to the hugely popular TV show of that name. There is an incredibly affecting scene in the film where Laura Palmer speaks about falling in space and how eventually you would burst into flames and the angels wouldn’t save you as they are all gone. A haunting insight into the lead character’s eventual death, Ferreira incorporates this dialogue into the title track’s lyrics; the bad girl punished by death.  It’s a sombre close to an otherwise uplifting and exhilarating album and musically it’s lifted straight from Tricky’s 1995 trip hop classic, ‘Maxinquaye’. It’s sticky and drunken with Ferreira coolly accepting her potential fate. This track alone confirms the risks she clearly wanted to take with her first album, it’s impossible to imagine any one of pop’s golden girls making anything as desolate sounding as this; it’s how you may expect Lady Gaga to sound if you had only seen her.

Heavy Metal Heart” may go precisely nowhere and “Omanko” takes a novelty turn in the wrong direction but this still doesn’t prevent Sky Ferreira’s album from being a massive achievement. Her current reputation as the hipster bloggers’ poster girl is troubling as it is questionable.  How much of that is due to the music as opposed to the image of a seemingly nihilistic, with occasional low self-esteem issues, ex-model? This is a pop artist, though, and image is arguably as important as sound. What Ferreira has done with “Night Time, My Time” is that she has made a record where it isn’t necessary to rely on visual props to fully relate to and enjoy the music. In that way it seems quite old fashioned and there is little doubt whilst listening to it that she loves these songs and making them come to life.  If you were impressed but unmoved by some of the bigger, shinier releases from the last four months of 2013, then this album may relieve some of your pessimism.  She may have taken an age to do it and it’s very early to say, but Sky Ferriera may have made one of the best albums of 2014.

Product DetailsI’ve been keeping a very close eye on Tegan and Sara for a few years now, the Canadian twin sister  duo (and both of them  are gay shocka!) have gradually gone from a shrill, somewhat 2-dimensional alt-indie band to assured songwriters and performers over the space of 6 albums  and this, their seventh, promised what had surely been on the cards for some time now, the recruitment of a massively talented and successful pop producer to allow the girls to fully realise their top 20 potential, in sound at least if not sales.  Greg Kurstin has, amongst others, written for and produced Kylie, Santigold, Sia, Devo, Kelly Clarkson and Pink (alongside the work of his own group, The Bird and The Bee) with Lily Allen being his most frequent, distinctive and creatively diverse collaborator (he produced some of her debut and all of her very good second album “It’s Not Me, It’s You” and is currently working with her on a musical).

Tegan and Sara have in the last couple of years embraced dance remixes of their songs (in particular the brilliant wonky pop of “Alligator” from their last album, 2009’s “Sainthood”) and have  added their guest vocals to trance artists DJ Tiesto and Morgan Page’s work.  “Heartthrob” (and that’s definitely a heart throbbing in pain and not that of a pop idol’s appeal) is not a joyous, arms aloft, life-affirming, dance floor departure for the twins though.  It has its euphoric moments such as the rushing, power pop chords of lead single “Closer” and “Goodbye,  Goodbye” which has a huge, two-part chorus hook and exploits repetition very effectively as the song’s title suggests . But just by looking at the remaining song titles alone massive clues are given to the sisters’ general mood and along with Kurstin, who is responsible for the majority of “Heartthrob”’s production, have created a warm and full, mid-eighties influenced (Cyndi Lauper’s first album, Fleetwood Mac ‘Tango In The Night’, Madonna’s ‘Vision Quest’ soundtrack) mix of guitars and synths that sonically support the girls tales of distrust, disappointment and devastation.

With those kinds of themes and influences you shouldn’t be surprised if a power ballad (they usually terrify me) were to make an appearance and there are 2 amazing ones to choose from here. “Now That I’m Messed Up” ( ‘Now I’m all messed up, sick inside and wondering where you’re leaving your make up’ ) and in particular “I Was A Fool” both bring to mind Abba at their most domestically troubled and saddest when vocally and melodically Agnetha and Frida would somehow be both subtle and overwhelming at the same time. This album sees the first time that the girls have written songs together, they usually write tracks alone with a sole writing credit per track. If the outcome of the sibling’s teamwork is songwriting of this quality then I sincerely hope it continues along with Kurstin, I’m presuming, pushing vocal performances to a new level of soulfulness (many of the melodies are rooted in R’n’B structures).

I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” starts with pounding piano and a 60’s girl group aesthetic and by the time the vocal stutter effects arrive in the last 30 seconds has morphed into 80’s pop anthem that would befit the best of Stock, Aitkin and Waterman’s repertoire . If I had a gripe, and it would be a small one, this album could do with a few more of these kind of belters. This is a short album, just over 30 minutes, and at 10 songs can’t afford an attempt at flirty upbeat grooves like “Drove Me Wild” which only diminishes the sisters’ returns with a characterless vocal and lack of hook and “Love They Say” which sounds like a drab “Sainthood” reject which even magic pop dust can’t save. My favourite track is also the shortest, at 2.53 minutes, “How Come You Don’t Want Me” which  has an edge and a spike to it that none of the other tracks here do and sounds as though it could have been lifted from the sisters’ most satisfying and interesting album from 2007, “The Con”, containing all the best elements of the essential Tegan and Sara DNA.

“Heartthrob” is an album that is a little bit backward in coming forward; it isn’t as instant as you might expect given its credentials and rewards are definitely reaped through related listens. It might not be the sisters’ best album but it definitely contains some of their best and most emotionally engaging work. If you’re lucky enough to still have a record shop near you, then I recommend you spend a tenner on this.  Come summer, when you know all the words off by heart and are belting them out on your car journey to the coast, you’ll thank me.