SelectadiscNottingham-based Ronika has fashioned her debut album, named after the now closed record shop that stocked her essential loves and obsessions, after three crucial but somewhat lesser known albums made in the early part of the 1980s. Shannon’s “Let The Music Play”, Gwen Guthrie’s “Portrait” and, to a lesser extent, Cristina’s “Doll in the Box”. That’s electro-pop, disco, freestyle and boogie with some arch knowingness thrown in for the hell of it. American dance music made at a time of racial and sexual revolutions; soul music to linger in between the wink and kiss-off attitude, when people danced like it would save their lives. Ronika seems to get this relationship intrinsically and her album is one that also has a slightly unhinged quality which cements a clear persona and her mix of the old and new is wonderfully realised and, when it’s at its strongest, still fresh sounding.

Recorded over a four-year period, “Selectadisc” features some material already heard on Ronika’s previously-released and well-received EPs and it’s some of the best music here. “In the City” is a fantastic song, a smoothly rolling ode to metropolitan night-time living; it gets under your skin and under your feet and is the kind of record that should have been huge and at one time would have been. “Video Collection”, “What’s in your Bag” and “Forget Yourself” are reminiscent of a Tom Tom Club/Gwen Stefani type of camp pop and are all essential. The two duets with Charles Washington, “Clock” and “Paper Scissors Stone” show a more experimental showy side and “1000 Nights” trips itself up only because it is very nearly a facsimile of Shannon’s tensely terrific “Give Me Tonight” and even then it’s still enjoyable enough. Ronika’s voice has occasional flashes of very early Teena Marie soulfulness but is smoother and less dramatic; make no mistake she can sing and comparisons to an early Madonna, at least vocally, sell her short.

With her arresting, canny and playful image Ronika falls into a category of idiosyncratic women who adore and emulate different forms of dance pop and understand the aesthetic of late eighties MTV. She is in good company with the likes of Annie, Roisin Murphy and the newly refreshed Kyla La Grange and displays an ability to write songs that are not only instant but those which also develop into lifelong soundscapes that accompany moments of invaluable dance-floor escapism.  All of the really important dance music has done this, whatever the sub-genre and “Selectadisc” has a high count of great songs and a fun but involved groove grounding the majority. Ronika will be around for some time, it appears; her devotion to making and performing music seems inescapable and is irresistible. The UK dance scene -- if such a thing still really exists -- should welcome her with open arms.

 

 

BangerzAt some point over the last six months Miley Cyrus has stared the current state of Pop Culture directly in its confused and salacious eye and declared ‘it’s on!’  The combination of a short haircut (I know), high cut leotards (I know!), two very good songs, twerking and the most attention hungry VMA performance in years has managed to create the same impact, the same level of horror and disgust as Madonna did when she first rolled around an empty stage in a wedding dress singing “Like A Virgin”, also at the VMAs, in 1984. Both artists understand the rules and both appear to break many when really they know exactly how much they can get away with. Star power remains as such only when the connection is fully made and maintained and right now Miley Cyrus wants your attention all the time; “Bangerz” will go a long way in determining whether she gets it or not.

As it often the case with these kinds of post-Disney reinventions, Miley Cyrus’ juggernaut of an album (to the Cyrus uninitiated it may seem as though this is her debut when in fact it’s her third album) is steered by the r’n’b producers and song writers du jour, in this instance relative newcomer Mike Will Made It and the evergreen Pharrell Williams. In the case of Williams it features some of his most engaging work in a long time and MWMI shows a diversity to his sound not yet demonstrated on such a vast level. Importantly they understand how to push and develop the pop component and therefore, in this instance, the artist. The surprise for many will be Miley Cyrus herself, the overbearing sound of controversy (Sinead O’ Connor is on her fifth ‘open letter’ to Cyrus at the time of writing, maybe the next should be sealed) having the negative effect, along with several positives of course, of making her hard to hear. Cyrus can really sing, passionately and with humour and drama when required or she feels like it; she is extremely present throughout; something that artists such as Britney Spears or Rihanna can still struggle with.

The first half of the deceptively named “Bangerz” (it’s a fifty-fifty ballad and up-tempo split) is not the strongest. The two massive singles which both feature early on certainly stand out; the opposing ends of the Cyrus vehicle, they are two of this year’s best. Opening the album with a ballad, the “Ray of Light” drum machine skittering “Adore You” is brave but its bland fawning won’t pull you in. The Salt n Pepa-indebted title track featuring a creamy sounding Britney Spears and the twangy, doesy-doe of “4x4” (containing the bizarre lyric ‘driving so fast about to piss on myself’, one of many very odd moments) are both gimmicky and therefore disposable. Unlike the fantastic “Hollaback Girl” (Gwen Stefani) from which this genre was partly born, both songs have forgotten to include a decent chorus. “My Darling” is a mawkish mess and an, albeit imaginative, attempt to uptake Ben E Kings “Stand By Me”.

“#GETITRIGHT” just about sums up the remainder of “Bangerz”. A joyous and naive, guitar-led groove which captures what Madonna was aiming for when she worked with Pharrell but failed to achieve on her flat attempt at urban pop, “Hard Candy”. Williams here produces one of the very best, if not the most triumphant track, on the album with Cyrus sounding ecstatic and utterly contagious. “Drive” is an appropriately named juddering and in turn undulating, excellent metallic ballad. The melancholic drop at the end of the lyric ‘drive my heart into the night, you can drop the keys off in the morning’ hits hard, twerking it seems only being part of Miley’s increasingly sad story. “FU” is another deranged, “I Put A Spell On You”- riffing and swinging show tune underscored by a whomp, whomp dubstep and “Do My Thang” is “We Can’t Stop”’s trappier and more bratty cousin; ‘I’m a southern belle, crazier than hell’. Indeed.

The two tracks which end “Bangerz” are interesting in that they are ballads which I imagine could have appeared on Cyrus’ earlier releases before her ultimate rebirth, the only songs here that this may apply to. I haven’t heard any of Miley Cyrus’ material from this time as I don’t feel that it’s necessary (and I don’t think I would enjoy it) but there is a strong, country feel to them and this is after all a strong part of Cyrus’ heritage (god-daughter of Dolly Parton and daughter of “Achy-Breaky” father Billy Ray and all). “Maybe You’re Right” is more traditional in sound and song structure where “Someone Else” is an insane rave ballad with speed -sung verses and staccato stabs of vocal puncturing the chorus,  It fades on a repeated, whooshing synth noise and the album ends; it is satisfyingly odd.

There are probably two more number one songs here to follow on from the two already achieved before the album was released and means that in 2013 Miley Cyrus is a phenomenon. She can follow in the footsteps of Britney, Beyonce, Gaga and, lest we forget, Madonna. All of those artists understand and luxuriate in artifice and have perfected the other art of being worshipped. They also share a seemingly innate understanding of what constitutes the right song and how to fully inhabit it.  Right now at least, Miley Cyrus has also synced into their groove and “Bangerz” is the highly enjoyable but flawed soundtrack that will accompany her to the next instalment. Whether it will be as engrossing as this one, who knows so I would suggest that you begin to listen and start to fall in love with her, at least for now.

"Push and Shove"No Doubt can hardly be considered prolific; this is their sixth album in 20 years, 10 years since their last and best album “Rock Steady”.  In the decade since this album Gwen Stefani temporarily left her bandmates, had children and released 1 brilliant and hugely successful pop album as a solo artist,  “L.A.M.B”, followed by the far less cohesive “The Sweet Escape” in 2006 which betrayed itself by chasing r’n’b trends and guest spots. No one seemed to be sure what was to follow, which finally finds us here in 2012 with the Mark Stent-produced “Push and Shove”.

Settle Down” was the public’s first taste of  the bands new material and it tasted familiar and reassuring; pop ska with some ‘hey, hey, heys’, a Bollywood string opening and a spacy full minute and a half instrumental dub outro.  It also seemed to confirm that the band were prepared to experiment a little . Next up and the best track here by a long shot, is the exuberant Major Lazer-featuring and produced title track ‘Push and Shove’.  Stefani shares tongue-twister verses with dancehall rapper Busy Signal and the whole track with its slowed-down, big beat chorus and multi- part structure could have been an over-ambitious indulgent mess but is the only track that really has any authentic energy and demonstrates all that can be potentially fantastic about No Doubt. Both of these tracks were made available before the album was released, “Settle Down” as the first single accompanied by a full 6 minute video directed by old favourite Sophie Muller and “Push and Shove” as a teaser track.  Shame that these tracks were not indicative of what was actually remaining on the, at that point unheard, album.

Gwen Stefani has recently been conducting the usual round of interviews required when promoting an album from a hugely successful band who many thought may never record together again and she said an interesting thing. Whilst referring to her solo albums she commented they were never meant to be taken seriously, a weird comment to the millions who bought them and watched her tour them live. Even stranger is that one of the better tracks here, “Sparkle”, was originally recorded for Stefani’s second album but was never used and that the template for at least half of this album is exactly the electronic pop that defined her solo excursion, so is this also not serious? The ska/surf pop punk makes a very brief reappearance, a few trumpets here and there but the songs themselves are bland and fail to stick. “Gravity” is a nice electro pop track but is the complete spit of Stefani’s big solo hit “Cool” and “Undone” is a dreary acoustic ballad which never reaches its destination.  “Looking Hot” and “One More Summer” are shallow, slick non-starters and could be sung by either Pink or Katy Perry on a slow day.

It’s hard to understand how No Doubt managed to make such a sluggish, boring album; they have access to the best producers, songwriters and musicians but that’s failed to make a difference.  “Push and Shove” will probably do very well, though I doubt somehow it will sell like its predecessor. Incredibly significant changes have taken place in the music industry, good and bad, over the last decade and it looks like No Doubt are trying to play by the new rules when really they need to throw them aside and just do own their own thing.  A major disappointment.