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.

No Mythologies to FollowOn paper at least it would appear that is unlikely to deviate much from what is a well-established and superior brand of Scandi-pop. With this album being three years in the making, the Copenhagen based twenty-five year old has had time to hone her preferred blend of r’n’b pop with trap leanings and an occasional wander into 1960s reverb-heavy girl group territory. Her competition is undoubtedly strong; Lykke Li, Annie, Robyn and Oh Land to name a few of the female singers who have already demonstrated their worth in the genre over the last decade. But MØ can thankfully hold her own more often than not on this, her debut album, “No Mythologies to Follow”.

Album opener “Fire Rides”, one of the new songs which represent the minority here, as over half the album has already been released, is a perfect introduction to MØ’s style and sound. Following a near acapella flurry of swooping, angelic vocals, stop-start post Timbaland beats hit hard against the melancholic melody line before a rave synth adds another, more angular dimension to the chorus. It may sound crowded but it’s a sublime merging of styles. Most impressive of all though are MØ’s vocals, full bodied and soulful with an impressive and expressive range that her contemporaries can’t match. The apocalyptic metaphors on “Fire Rides” are bought to life with her possessed performance on the haunted and yearning verses:

‘What’s it gonna be with the violence?

What’s it gonna be when the fire rides in?

What’s it gonna be when the sound of you and I die out?’

Maiden”, “Pilgrim” and “Waste of Time” are all previous singles and further represent MØ’s fixation with the music she grew up with. Much like Grimes, contemporary futuristic r’n’b and hip hop have been essential influences to her along with electronic pop music and an ability to subvert these genres subtly and without irony but with heart; this is her specialty. “Maiden” introduces a classic nylon-strung guitar sound that crops up more than once in the album’s playing time and it’s to her credit that she applies these odd stylistic flourishes to her sound and makes it something that is identifiable to her and without contrivance. Producer superstar Diplo appears on the brassy and low-slung “XXX 88” and it’s maybe not surprising that it’s the most commercial moment here but also completely in keeping with the sonic themes of the album. Don’t Wanna Dance” and the slowly chiming “Never Wanna Know” in particular pay a brilliant homage to Motown and girl group dilemmas and sonics. Both tracks are wonderfully conceived and a perfect for MØ’s longing and alienated vocals, “Never Wanna Know” has a divine spoken interlude that draws the line from The Shangri-Las to All Saints, it may be an easy pull but it certainly hits in all the right places

‘All of a sudden I was brain dead and rotten

With thoughts of you and I

And I wanted to ‘goodbye’ you

But the nights are so cold

How I missed your human soul

I would never let you go if I’d been a little older’

 he less successful songs here, and there only a few, are also the newer ones. “Red in the Grey” has a pretty straight forward trap arrangement but is more of a re-tread of earlier material rather than a fresh update.  Dust is Gone” continues with the sixties thread but the lack of a strong song and Lana Del Rey aping render it redundant karaoke. The clanking and clapping “Walk this Way” and the gorgeous “Slow Love” with its opulent, misty funk fare much better. Compare any of these tracks though to the older and eccentric “Glass”, the closing song here, with its deeply disconcerting festive synth hook, massive pop chorus and general oddness, and these tracks fail to fully measure up.

“No Mythologies To Follow” may not be as instantly gratifying as one may have expected given a genre that all too often and easily is written off as disposable. This is an album that initially is difficult to warm to and a fairly steady mid tempo throughout can provoke a feeling of sameness. This proves to be a strength as opposed to any kind of weakness however as repeated listens reward enormously as buried melodies and hidden embellishments are excitingly revealed over time. MØ has already managed to establish her own style and found a voice which allows her access to the hallowed music hall of Swedish Pop (a copy of Abba’s “The Visitors” is given to all wannabes as homework) but she also cleverly sets herself apart from her contemporaries effortlessly and with some aplomb. MØ is indeed something quite special: an awkward and talented woman challenging her inhibitions and desires through frequently beautiful and slow burning music that is, at times, equally awkward.

MatangiM.I.A. has gone through a bit of a hard time. Her last album “Maya” was not loved, she was accused of hypocrisy because she may or may not have consumed  truffle french fries whilst being interviewed by The New York Times and her relationship with the obsessively revered Julian Assange (which is continued here) bothered some and problems with both her record company and her own marriage were publicly discussed. She is a fascinating artist, as unique and important as Bjork and, like Bjork, her work could only ever be hers. In respect to the first criticism at least, 2010’s “Maya” was widely slated as inaccessible, ugly-sounding and, the inevitable, ‘hard to love’. Even early musical partner Diplo expressed his concern about her apparent lack of judgement and choice of collaborators but this reaction was one that perplexed. Featuring her most brilliant pop moment ever with “XXXO”, a lovely cover version of Spectral Display’s “It Takes a Muscle” and “Born Free” with its insane ginger-haired army video and Suicide sample, the album was thrillingly eclectic and intricate. It differed from previous releases though, in that M.I.A. had strayed somewhat from sounding like her and this is what’s addressed in “Matangi”, M.I.A. sounds a lot like herself again.

The title track, the first of many here produced by UK electro, fidget-house master Switch sees the pair reunited from the highly-acclaimed and successful “Kala” album, sounds like a continuation of the burundi beats, squawks and chaos of 2006’s “Bird Flu”. The two part time signature of “Come Walk With Me” comes from the same place as “Jimmy”, also from Kala, which M.I.A. remembers as being inspired by pop songs she heard on the radio as a kid. It’s exuberant and child-like and at odds with the majority of M.I.A.’s discography.  “Attention” is vocodered, cut to ribbons, archetypal M.I.A and will irritate the hell out of some. Julian Assange helped her find as many words as possible that could contain the word ‘tent’, acounTENT’ being a favourite although she may be pushing it a bit with LoubouTENT shoes.

The skanking “Double Bubble Trouble” shockingly uses the lyrical hook from Shampoo’s massive pop brat hit from 1988 ‘Trouble’ and is conformation of the amount of fun that M.I.A. is having here. The lightness that was all over her debut album has certainly returned and on “Bring the Noize” and “Y.A.L.A.” she has created two of her biggest and brutish club tunes to date. Lyrically the rhymes do not stand up to close scrutiny, less political than ever before aside from the politics of being M.I.A.. “Boom Skit” talks about her most recent battle with the Super Bowl organisers and “Bad Girls”, sounds as elegant and fresh now as it did two years ago, is about, well, how bad she is.

“Matangi” tends to fall down somewhat with its mid-tempos. Where “Maya” had the gorgeous and spooky “Space” and “Kala” and the gargantuan “Paper Plans”, this has two (very similar) versions of the same song “Sexodus” and “Exodus”. Initially intended for Madonna, or at least offered to her but subsequently refused, it would have been interesting to hear the superstar’s take on this and her proven track record to pull out a melody would have come in useful here. Keeping the slower tracks bunched together at the album’s close only highlights the weakness of them musically and melodically; spaced out during the entire run of the album they may have been more welcomed as a breather from the relentless tempo and charged attitude. It’s only on the minimal, popping shuffle of “Lights” that M.I.A. sounds refreshed and intimate.

“Matangi” has been heralded as Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam’s most spiritual album to date and this statement may confuse but it is not as misleading as initially perceived. Lyrically it may not bare soul and penetrate in the way imagined but musically and rhythmically it references M.I.A.’s own culture as a London-born, Sri Lankan woman and it’s this sound that is at the forefront, left and right in every track. The chants, the percussion, the drums, the melody styles and, on “YALA”, the explicit statement, ‘If we only live once then why do we keep doing the same shit? Back home where I come from we keep being born again and again and again. That’s why they invented Karma’. On “Kala” she explored other cultures and sounds but this is M.I.A. reasserting her own sound and place in popular culture and music. It may not be as aggressively forward-sounding as some of her previous material but “Matangi” is a celebration of M.I.A.’s ability to provoke and assault in her most joyously sounding album to date.