TaigaThe objective Zola Jesus set herself for her fourth album was to face her own fears about how her love for pop music would eventually have to inform her work and what that might sound like. It is significant maybe that the oldest song here and the one that finally forced Jesus into the glare of potential mainstream and started the ball rolling, “Dangerous Days”, is also the purest pop song on “Taiga”. It has a brightness that contradicts its title, a brilliant pre chorus, an actual chorus which is only slightly less captivating and a sonic energy that’s slick and addictive and brings to mind the slightly more intricate and risky songs from Madonna’s mighty “Ray of Light” album.

The remainder of Taiga is not really a pop record although it frequently aspires to be one. Soundscapes are stripped almost entirely of any of the glitch that featured on 2011’s “Conatus” or the muddy density on her brilliant breakthrough album “Stridulum II” and replaced by something that is undeniably big and rich but simpler and more concentrated than before. A lot of the songs have beautiful, powerful intermissions; it’s just that too frequently the melodies are lacking the strength to push these tracks to required level, the one which you presume she had in her sights. Dean Hurley co-produces with Jesus and is an odd choice given his primary job as David Lynch’s new sound man, responsible for producing both of Lynch’s inconsistent and naive solo albums, and hardly a name synonymous with making music that can be sung along to. There are references here to the Ryan Tedder meets Sia school of Beyoncé power pop on the crashing but dull “Lawless” and the Rihanna-phrased “Long Way Down” but neither songs would pass the pop queen’s test of a tune that hijacks relentlessly.

The more successful tracks, and “Taiga’” is the definition of a front-loaded album, happen in the first half. “Dust” has a woozy, avant r’n’b doo-wop swing which is hypnotising and commercially-minded and “Go (Blank Sea)” like Petula Clark, and hundreds after her, successfully sees Jesus pining for the eternal pop never-never land of “Downtown”. “Hunger” has a thrusting and bewildering attack of beats, brass and synths – at one point it’s hard to distinguish between the two- and a glacial, persistent string part and is exhilarating and sharply euphoric. “Ego” is a suspended hymn of considerable power where all of “Taiga”’s elements fall into place; a lucid and possessed vocal interrupted by sheets of brass that morph effortlessly into aching strings. The ongoing presence of strings and brass in particular bear out the theory that “Taiga” is more of a continuation of the stripped down “Versions” of last year then something you might hear in a bar. From here on in and midway through “Taiga”’s playing time the focus is lost, however, and gives way to repetition and mediocre tunes. “Hollow”, for example, attempts to salvage some drama and presence but is an oddly similar reimagining of the far superior “Hunger”.

Since the release of “Taiga”, Jesus has been remixed by the likes of The Juan Maclean and Diplo, a still relatively underground sophisticated pop-dance act, and the man rumoured to be producing the next Madonna album. Both artists have done commendable jobs in highlighting the hooks in what were admittedly already two of the album’s stronger songs (“Dangerous Days” and “Go”). Where their real strength lies, though, is in taking Jesus’ music to a demographic previously unaware of her and potentially initiating an interest to investigate further. This is where Jesus and “Taiga” stumble as the initial promise of something different and more accessible is never really delivered so new fans are unlikely to convert and current ones will be dissatisfied at the loss of the incredible depth and half-shaded mystery that permeated her earlier work. A good album still with some great songs but “Taiga” doesn’t quite provide the soundtrack that Zola Jesus commands and deserves, whether she continues to chase her big pop arrival remains to be seen but you feel that this isn’t it.

Changing LightMirah’s fifth album proper continues the chamber- folk, rock/pop sound that she has been nurturing and refining since her 2004 album “C’mon Miracle”. This is also -deep breath – a break-up album but queer-identifying Mirah seems more inclined toward the very grown-up, conscious uncoupling of Gwyneth than that of, say, Fiona Apple. But saying that would also be doing this collection a massive disservice. “Changing Light” continues to showcase Mirah’s supreme knack of writing songs that charm and bewitch, and glorious melodies that have been a constant link through all of her solo work, but this time she really does mean business. Competing with the likes of the recent incarnation of Tegan and Sara as androgynous eighties prom sound-trackers and omnipresent recluse Sia, there’s a big and brilliant power ballad included here. It’s unexpected, not cynical in the slightest and conveys Mirah’s constant refusal to be pigeonholed into one, tidy category. She is making music now that is put together with staggering precision and beauty.

The opening of “Changing Light” is undeniably strong and assertive and, while not exactly front-loaded, it does set the bar extremely high for the remainder of the album. ”Goat Shepherd”, with its Spectoresque drum intro, thunders in this accusing and extrovert album opener. Guitars and drums bolster Mirah’s incredulous concern ‘said the Shepherd to the Goat, what is this feeling in my throat? So this is anger? I’ve never known her – she took over’. “Oxen Hope” is one of the best examples of Mirah’s ability to shapeshift and try on sonic cloaks which would normally be taboo within the genre. Electronic clatter, elegant but persistent, and unexpected auto tune caress Mirah’s vocals which, on this stand-out track, mourns the loss of eternal optimism; ‘did you know you’d struck the final blow to my oxen hope?’ “Turned The Heat Off” follows, the power ballad in question, and  it crashes and glides its way through into the irresistible pop chorus before descending into delectable strings and a falsetto warmth that marks new territory for the singer; she succeeds effortlessly. Subtle strings continue through to “Gold Rush” and build to a full orchestra in the melodramatic and expansive final minute; a cello solo and yearning tone lead to an exquisite experience.

Maybe sensibly, the sumptuousness established in the early part of “Changing Light”  drops away for the middle part of the album with “Fleetfoot Ghost” and the rambunctious “I Am the Garden” being rawer, and stripped back acoustic examples of the core Mirah sound, but lacking the bite, maybe, of her earlier work. The excellent “No Direction Home” pulls the album back on track with its solitary brass opening, r’n’b backing vocals behind tight economic melodies and a great understanding of space and drama. “24th Street” is a plain speaking, humorous, recollection of how bad behaviour becomes second nature during the final hours of a long-term relationship. Closing tracks “LC”, a tribute to the healing power of Leonard Cohen set in a near accapella choral-like interlude, and “Radiomind” are downbeat and minor and somewhat stranded from the solidly cohesive sound preceding it.

Relationship albums that come out this genre are usually easy to relate to and obvious; an all-encompassing weepie, histrionic angry interludes, self-love, self-loathing and nostalgia combined to make an overture to torment and rebirth. “Changing Lights” doesn’t feel like any of these things but these areas are, indeed, all covered. Mirah recounts her experiences in an even and indeed passionate way, lyrically she can be obtuse here and it would on occasion be a relief and a thrill to hear her disconnect from the sense of control and really let rip. It’s hard to imagine that there will be a fourth album in what feels like the natural end of a sonic trilogy. From the buzzy lo-fi indie pop and snark of “You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s LikeThis” which she debuted with in 2000 through to the ever more polished and sweeping sound of her work over the last decade, it does feel as though she has possibly peaked here with this sound. This album perhaps doesn’t expose her in the way one might have expected, considering its personal nature, but she continues to be one of the most thoughtful and surprising singer songwriters to come out of American over the last decade and “Changing Light” is Mirah’s most accessible and admirable release so far.

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.

WishboneSince recording her occasionally twee, but consistently charming self- titled debut from 2011, Danish electronic pop singer-songwriter Oh Land has been listening to a lot of rap and the influences of this genre can be heard all over the tight and tough follow up,” Wishbone”. The stark, attention-seeking cover portrait alone projects enough star power to confirm that Nanna Ohland Fabricius means business this time; just try not to stare at it. Along with the recruitment of David Sitek, TV on the Radio member and fast becoming the most inspired alt-pop producer to emerge after the last couple of years (Beck, Beady Eye, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and CSS), the promise of something both unexpected and immediately compelling is met almost without exception.

“Wishbone” is Oh Land’s declaration of change and of the strength required to achieve it. Many of the songs use fighting or violent metaphors to get the message across, but are then off set against lush, warm restorative retreats. Album opener “Bird in An Aeroplane” is a strange, weary-sounding minor key, synth pile-up; it’s also a very good pop song but not fully realised on first listen. Like some of Sitek’s other productions, the fun is unravelling and exposing a song’s real intentions, which can sometimes take time. At the other end of the spectrum, “Renaissance Girls” furiously changes the tone with its scatty mania and staccato melody, Oh Land dazzling with exuberant vocals. It’s one of the most self-possessed pop songs of the year.

Love a Man Dead”, “Kill My Darling” and, in particular, “My Boxer”, which sees Oh Land reunite with producer Dan Carey (MIA, Bat For Lashes and Kylie), form a trilogy of sorts of part-rapped, part-sung concise muscular electro pop tracks. David Sitek again changing musical tack with “Pyromaniac” which is loose and funky and with its celebratory woo-hoo’s is The Cardigan’s classic “Lovefool”’s older sister. The twinkling “Sleepy Town” and doomy, two note piano chime of “Next Summer “(‘Put me to sleep and don’t wake me up, until time has changed please let’s fast forward the clock’), both topped with deceptively sweet vocals, successfully take the theme of small town resentment and boredom into mid tempo territory along with the finger snapping r’n’b of “Cherry On Top”.

Green Card” is a majestic, rolling Sia co-write and is a success of proportion and restraint; trumpets swell and Oh Land’s elaborate vocals demonstrate the skill and versatility of her vision and talent. The wheezy and dilapidated electronics on album closer “First to Say Goodnight” mimic more than anywhere else here the overall sonic atmosphere of Sitek’s successful collaboration with Scarlett Johansson on her album of Tom Waits covers “Anywhere I Lay My Head”. Where Johansson’s voice was never much more than a remote smudge or drawl, Oh Land’s clear and intimate vocals pull you much closer to the sentiment and sound beautiful alongside the ornate, drunken musicbox soundtrack.

Robyn, Lykke Li, Dragonette and Annie make vivid, revered and, to many, cultish pop music of various shades. Oh Land, like several similar acts, has been on the periphery of this greatness for a little while now but “Wishbone” sees her nudge her way into this very special group with an album that, in addition to cementing her own unique identity, is a delirious and thoughtful collection of pop beauty.

Product DetailsSo this is Rihanna’s most diverse, sonically challenging and seemingly personal album to date, not that you would ever know it reading the acres of negative reviews and critiques it, or should I more accurately say ‘she’, has had. I understand that you can’t separate the person from the music and to do so would be potentially disastrous, especially for a pop artist, but it seems as though Rihanna’s decision to re-record with Chris Brown, as she has done here, means that everything else about this album, however good or interesting, ceases to count; “So let’s punish her even more by either completing ignoring or trashing her work” seems to be the message of some of the more supposedly ‘intelligent’, left-wing media. I of course have an opinion and yes it does make listening to the song in question here difficult as I see Brown as a particularly nasty man, we know what he’s done and how he’s subsequently portrayed himself as a victim and how America has forgiven him and it is deeply odd, but that has to be seen as a separate issue. Rihanna may be foolish and she may be promoting relationships which are not necessarily recommended for anyone (if her and Brown are in fact back together again) but how do we know what’s ‘real’ and what’s not and who said she has to be a role model? Not Rihanna to the best of my knowledge.

 For people who have actually listened to “Unapologetic” and the not the white noise going on in the background, they may be surprised. First of all there isn’t an ‘”Umbrella’” here, or an ‘”Only Girl in the World” or “We Found Love”. I’ve listened to this album many times and there are many obvious highlights (the bhangra bombast of “Jump” in particular) but there isn’t a massive, joyous pop song here like these previous monsters that become a part of life in that weird way, creating millions of different memories and feelings for people who weren’t, at the time, even necessarily conscious of it. It certainly isn’t the first single, the Sia-penned “Diamonds” which is nice enough and would have made a better Bond song than Adele going through the motions on “Skyfall” and was actually the first indicator that “Unapologetic” was going to be something more personal to Rihanna, something more substantial but not as instant and attention-grabbing as previous releases. There is something admittedly morose about this album, something insidious and creeping and its similarity to the “Rated R” album both thematically and musically would seem to confirm that it’s a world that Rihanna herself likes to inhabit. It’s a well known that after “Rated R”, which was a moody, hip hop album released soon after the incident with Brown, that there was some panic within the Rihanna ‘team’; sales indicated that the brand was maybe too limited.  Exactly a year later the trend for Rihanna releasing a new album every 12 months began with “Loud” which was shiny, dancefloor-ready, optimistic and inconsistent, the same goes for “Talk that Talk” which contained some of her most explicit lyrics but some of her most lumbering filler too.

So, “Phresh Out the Runway” tears open “Unapologetic” with a hoover sample from Joey Beltram’s “Mentasm” and is an example of the current Trap music trend which combines hip hop, rap and techno or a hard house/core (see almost everything by Azelia Banks) but the only concession to stadium dance here is the David Guetta (who else?) produced faceless “Right Now” and it is indeed horrible; bad song, badly done. “What Now” on the other hand is a bit of a revelation, starting off as a pacey piano ballad before the theatrics of the dubstep-slammed chorus and a hollering Rihanna create something that is immediate, thrilling and completely ridiculous; it’s brilliant.

“Stay” is another more traditionally performed ballad, musically and vocally, and is a smart song and a lovely performance but it’s the third ballad proper that breaks so many of the rules of a traditional pop song that it’s amazing it appears here in this format at all. At nearly 7 minutes long, “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” changes gear abruptly around the 2 minute mark morphing into a different song completely and has a central performance from Rihanna which is both heartfelt and moving (‘I’m from the left side of an island and I can’t believe this many people know my name, Mother Mary I swear I want to change’) and reminds me of what Madonna was once trying to achieve on her career-defining “Like A Prayer” album. Rihanna is of course the closet thing we have now to the one-time Queen of MTV (they showed pop videos once upon a time you know) and all things Female Pop, both presenting new versions of themselves for each subsequent release and gradually encouraging rage and hostility within the media in conjunction with a fascination and obsession.

Two tracks here don’t have any beats at all (the mood jazz of “Get It Over With” and reggae chugging “No Love Allowed”) and “Numb” is a dark, dubby ode to something that has rendered both her and Eminem incapacitated and  would sound right at home on Grace Jones’ “Hurricane” album. There are some weaker moments but for once they’re in the minority; “Loveeeeeeeee Song” is extremely dull, “Lost in Paradise” never quite settles on a convincing melody and “Pour It Up” is morbid, macho hip hop. The aforementioned controversial duet between Rihanna and Brown, “Nobody’s Business”, is actually ok, a breezy, mid tempo Bobby Brown-ish “Two Can Play That Game” swinger.

So my advice is to try and listen to this album if you can and more than just once or twice as, surprisingly for an artist who is still considered to be disposable, Rihanna’s complex seventh album rewards best after several listens. It’s a sterling, experimental pop album that admirably refuses to follow an easy path and may well be her best, I suppose we only have to wait another 12 months to find out.

We apologise for the lack of audio links in this review; for some unknown reason, Spotify has removed the album.  If it returns, we’ll try to reinstate the links.