Wednesday, September 4, 2013

album review: 'yours truly' by ariana grande

Believe it or not, I am not a teenage girl.

I know, right? It's so hard to tell, particularly given my music tastes! I mean, I like  Ke$ha and Avril Lavigne (well, most of the time) and Colette Carr and Natalia Kills and I used to watch Glee and I'm one of the three internet critics who gave Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez a fair shot and probably the only one who'll provide that same courtesy for Miley Cyrus! I guarantee you that a whole swathe of the reviews of Miley's material will focus on her oh-so-controversial VMA performance instead of her actual music, or will completely ignore the fact that she was tied to one of the best songs of the year ('Ashtrays and Heartbreaks' by Snoop Lion - not kidding).

But that got me thinking again - why do I like this music in comparison with my general distaste for the typical material teenage boys usually like (all the hard rock and associated genres of metalcore and electrocore)? But really, the answer was pretty simple: outside of hip-hop and rap (and even occasionally within that genre), I have a seriously hard time suspending my disbelief and buying into the ridiculous facades of masculinity that these bands like to promote. Even back in 2007 when I was a teenager, I was listening to Nightwish and Blind Guardian and I was much more impressed by their force of personality and subject matter than the whinging and swaggering self-aggrandizement of the metalcore, hard rock, and screamo scenes. Yes, I'm not going to deny that there occasionally was scraps of talent in those scenes, but I never found it remotely compelling.

So why do I, unlike some critics, tend to give the artists aimed at the opposite gender more of a pass? Well, if I look a bit closer, I can say that most of the acts that I like as a part of that group tend to be gunning for the same 'toughness' appeal, going for confrontational, but the ones I like also add flavours of nuance to that confrontation besides plain anger (which is probably the reason I'm no big fan of Beyonce or Carrie Underwood). And you know, maybe it's just me, but it sounds a lot more real and emotionally complex coming from Ke$ha or Pink or Avril Lavigne (well, most of the time), and part of it is because I think they're genuinely trying harder. Let's be honest, most guys don't have to try all that hard to sound intimidating or angry or to impose their presence, and with rare exception, the record industry tends to respond with some skepticism whenever women attempt to match their male counterparts. Yes, it's aggravating and unbelievably sexist (don't even try denying this, guys, the shit women go through in the record industry is miles worse than anything most guys go through, particularly if they're working in a male-dominated genre like rock, rap, or metal), but that means the ones that succeed work all the harder (or they sell out). And I like seeing effort in music, and I respond well to it.

Ariana Grande, on the other hand, doesn't appear to fit the mold of a female pop singer I would normally like. Leaping straight from the teenage sitcom Victorious and styling herself as a pop/R&B act most closely imitating Mariah Carey (I'll come back to this), Ariana Grande notched her first big hit this year with 'The Way', which only seemed to play up the fact that she was a young, girly teenager (even though she's 20), all bubbly and excitable and very, very innocent. In other words, she seemed to be taking the polar opposite route of her contemporaries in Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus and was downplaying her sexuality in order to preserve her fanbase following her over from her shows. Okay, not a bad plan, considering how brutally Miley's fanbase revolted when she made her transition from Hannah Montana. But at the same time, I didn't really have high hopes for her debut album, Yours Truly, expecting it to be the sort of cheaply-produced, High School Musical-esque dreck that catered to the lowest common denominator of her fans. Did I get what I expected?

Well, not quite. Ariana Grande's Yours Truly isn't nearly as bad as I was steeling myself for - in fact, it's not really bad at all, actually turning out to be quite good. But make no mistake, there are some big problems with this album that detract from its strengths and ultimately will keep it out of my Top 10 for this year. And what's really frustrating about that fact is that none of these problems appear to be the fault of Ariana Grande.

Let me explain by starting off with the elements that truly work. Ariana Grande has been compared with Mariah Carey, and for the most part, she completely earns that comparison. Now I've had issues with Mariah Carey for years now, but none of my issues have been with her vocal delivery, which has always been gorgeous and which Ariana Grande matches very well. This girl has a gorgeous voice, and she shows impressive range throughout her songs while maintaining her likability, which is a balance many classically trained vocalists have trouble maintaining. I do wish I could have seen more in her belting range, but for the most part, she's got a lot of inflection and emotion and sells her material extremely well. She is a naturally gifted singer with a ton of charisma, and I enjoyed her delivery way more than I expected I would.

This is mostly because the songwriting is surprisingly strong. One of the reasons I don't tend to like Mariah Carey as much as many critics is because the songwriting can occasionally get pretty lazy and terminally underwritten, instead relying on her ability to belt and coo and perform vocal gymnastics that might be very pretty, but lack some of the context to really get to me. And yet, Ariana Grande and her songwriters do a surprising amount to get me engaged with her material, which is well-written, heartfelt, and occasionally a lot more creative and witty than I ever expected. Songs like 'Tattooed Heart', 'Piano', 'You'll Never Know', 'Almost Is Never Enough', and especially 'Popular Song' might have very simple premises, but the beauty comes out in the little details. Take 'You'll Never Know', which seems like a recreation of 'Sk8r Boi' by Avril Lavigne for R&B - and surprise surprise, it actually works, showing enough nuance to make us feel kind of sorry for the guy who never made the move and still ultimately support Ariana in her choice. Or take 'Almost Is Never Enough' (featuring Nathan Sykes of The Wanted in a surprisingly good turn, giving me hope their album later this year might actually be good), which is played with enough world-weariness to actually make us care for this relationship falling through because neither side could get it together. And while 'The Way' isn't one of my favourite songs on this album, mostly because Ariana Grande seems infatuated with a 'bad boy' that her teenage fanbase could easily misinterpret, her choice of bad boy is Mac Miller, who is such a dork that to Ariana Grande's innocent young mind, he seems bad even though he's really harmless.

That's another big strength for Ariana Grande that elevates Yours Truly above the High School Musical waste bucket. The major reasons I've always disliked material like High School Musical is because it's shallow and it's poorly written and most importantly, it's fake. I don't buy into the faux-innocence that High School Musical likes to create, particularly when it's so transparently phony. But Ariana Grande's portrayal of innocence comes from a much more real place, at least to my ears, and it helps that her songs speak about sex at most in innuendo. Now I can tell that a lot of you probably would find this a little too saccharine for your tastes, but I don't - mostly because Ariana Grande sounds legitimately sincere. In 'Tattooed Heart', she references 'Going steady / like it's 1954', and really, it fits because the album is very much pro-love and anti-sex. Of course, that makes songs like 'Right There', featuring Big Sean, all the worse, as Big Sean tries to convince us that Ariana is his girl - even though he's got a thick black book full of other girls he's still seeing, which makes Ariana look like she's getting exploited by an asshole! And I would understand it if Ariana was trying to play to a harder lifestyle or was implying that she was okay with Big Sean screwing around, but Ariana Grande isn't aiming for that. Instead, she wants to sing a collection of heartfelt, occasionally silly love songs - and there's nothing wrong with that.

Of course, they aren't all silly love songs, which takes us to my favourite song on the album, 'Popular Song', featuring Mika. Yes, it samples 'Popular' from Wicked, and yes, it's pretty damn silly all things considered. But really, that's what makes the song work so well - Mika and Ariana Grande take the original upbeat, quasi-demented cheerfulness of Kristin Chenoweth and play it perfectly in a great recontextualization of the original sample, flipping the song against vapid popularity in a great subversion. Mika has always gotten a lot of crap from critics for writing some of the most plastic and ridiculously upbeat songs of the 00s, but he fits well here, mostly because he lets Ariana Grande take center stage and doesn't jump into his helium whine that irritated so many people. And the song, like the original from the musical, is ridiculously catchy and genuinely funny, definitely the highlight of the album for me. 

But here's where I have to talk about the big, glowing weak spot on this album: the incoherent instrumentation and the disastrous production. Oh, don't get me wrong, there are quite a few songs (pretty much the ones I've already mentioned), where the production is sound enough, classical enough to play to Ariana Grande's strengths and modern enough not to sound like a throwback. But like Justin Bieber's album Believe from last year, it's clear that nobody has the slightest clue where to take this album instrumentally. The worst tracks on the album alternate from drawing inspiration from Mariah's early 00s' work (which definitely is not where any Mariah fan would advise drawing influence) and trends in modern hip-hop, which means so many of the tracks are punctuated with sloppy synths, badly chosen samples, and an anonymous chorus of guys shouting 'Ayyy' in the background. And while I was annoyed by the lack of organic instrumentation on Natalia Kills' album, I was genuinely angry by some of the instrumental choices here. With the exception of 'Popular Song' and arguably 'The Way', Ariana Grande sounds best with minimal accompaniment, and too often we got cluttered, barely-on-tune instrumentation instead that clashes badly with her delivery.

And the production is even worse, leaving too many songs sounding flat and completely lacking the dynamic sound that gave Mariah her strength on her early albums. It's rare that Ariana Grande's voice is given enough space on the mix to fully dominate, as too often the track is cluttered with sound effects that do nothing to enhance the sound. Worse still is the occasional autotune on Ariana's backing vocalists, which does not fit in the slightest when set up against Ariana's vocals. The overproduction here does nobody any favours, and what's all the more infuriating is that it's not Ariana Grande's fault! You're not producing for Rihanna or Katy Perry or Britney Spears, acts who need all the help in the instrumentation that they can get - you've got a singer with a beautiful voice and a lot of personality who can stand on her own, so give her center stage!

But even despite these issues, I think I can still recommend Yours Truly by Ariana Grande. It's innocent and sweet - maybe a bit too sweet at points - but there's a lot of charisma and personality and sincerity on this record, and I liked it a lot more than I expected. And for a guy who traditionally isn't a fan of R&B, that's a big plus in my book. If you're looking for a young artist in the vein of Mariah Carey and with good enough songwriting to back her up, you could definitely do a lot worse than Ariana Grande.

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