Friday, November 18, 2016

album review: 'glory days' by little mix

I was worried about this album - and man, I didn't want to be.

Because if you've been following the continuing saga of the Syco Music girl groups Fifth Harmony and Little Mix - of which I've covered two records apiece from both band - I've been coming to the stark realization that the groups really are being mismanaged across the board, from production all the way up to marketing. For some ungodly reason Fifth Harmony was pushed towards R&B on their first record and added more tropical touches for their second - and it became all the more apparent they should be making pop music, and certainly not pop/R&B. They barely wrote their own music or actually harmonized, their most pitchy and frustrating singer Camila was pushing her own pop career in a Nicole Scherzinger sort of way, and their best songs off of 7/27 were when they were making pop music, like that tropical collaboration with Fetty Wap 'All In My Head (Flex)'!

Little Mix, on the other hand... well, Salute was the first clue that they could easily step into a pop/R&B mold and do just fine. They harmonized, they had great chemistry, they started taking a much more active role in writing the songs... and yet Syco - backed by Simon Cowell - insisted on pushing them as the plastic pop group, with all of the bottom shelf production that their label deigned to give them. Sure, it's led to international success and a string of #1 hits in the U.K., but it's almost meant that any effort to break them in the United States has been token, whereas if they had been packaged as the next Destiny's Child they'd probably be competitive in the U.S., especially over the past few years where R&B has been a lot bigger. And yes, Get Weird was a good pop album, but Salute was the evidence for me that they could do more... provided, of course, they had a budget or producers and guest stars who didn't suck. And that's why I had reservations about Glory Days, because it looked like it was going even more pop, and I had zero faith Syco would actually give them the production to make great pop music in the mold of Girls Aloud or even The Spice Girls. To put it another way, there was cowriting credits from Meghan Trainor and their only guest star on this record was Charlie Puth. All of that gave me a real sinking feeling, but hey, 'Shout Out To My Ex' was good, this could turn out well, right?

Well, remember how Little Mix's last record was called Get Weird? They should have saved that title for this, because Glory Days is the sort of wild, careening pop record that leaps across styles and sounds with the sort of insanity that I normally expect from a modern Jason Derulo project! I'll say this for Little Mix, they sure as hell didn't make a boring mainstream pop record saturated in reverb and drab tones, instead one of the most colorful, deliriously ridiculous albums I've heard this year. And make no mistake, when you take this sort of approach, the only thing keeping you from outright disaster are strong writing and performances... and while I definitely have questions on the former, the latter does save this record from blowing apart. It's definitely a messy, messy album, to the point I'm astounded Simon Cowell let this get out the door, and yet there are enough moments that are either excellent or kind of mind-blowing that there's a very real part of me that wants to endorse this.

So for all of you who think I've lost my mind here, let me stress the central reason this record works at all: the girls themselves. I've always thought the group was well-balanced with distinctive voices that carry a ton of texture, but Glory Days seems to have finally eased back enough on the vocal filters to let it all come blasting through. That's not saying there aren't effects - you can tell that there's a tad more compression than I'd otherwise prefer around some of the vocals, particularly from Jesy, but that's a minor concern, especially when the flip side is getting to hear them belt and harmonize as much as ever. Go back to the shifts in the vocal arrangement on 'Touch', or how raw Perrie sounds on the opening of 'Power' - again, she could make pop rock and kick ass at it - or how sultry Jade and Leigh-Anne sound on 'Your Love', or how vulnerable and raw Jesy comes off on 'Nobody Like You'. Now that Leigh-Anne has picked up some more raw soulful bite I'd probably say Jesy's thinner coo is my least favourite of the group, but she does have dramatic range, and that song proves it. And that's before you get the louder and fuller harmonies on the hooks of 'Shout Out To My Ex' and 'Private Show' and 'Nothing Else Matters' - not the first time this record reminds me of S Club 7 in a very good way, and for this brand of pop, you're not going to get more anthemic swell that feels organic and earned. Hell, they even manage to get a half-decent performance out of Charlie Puth, mostly by playing him as a secondary, passive actor in the story and a very well-timed key change.

And that ties into the second big reason this record holds together: composition and production. I will not say that Little Mix have top-of-the-line or even genre-pushing production here - this isn't Xenomania, after all - but I will say it probably holds together the best out of any Little Mix record in terms of the fullness and melodic balance, which makes a lot of the wild stylistic shifts easier to handle. It also helps that at the core of these songs are rock-solid melodies and hooks that finally have the impact and swell to match the vocal arrangements, from the galloping acoustic groove of 'Shout Out To My Ex' to the arranged instrumentation and strings that fills out the back of 'F.U.' and 'Nothing Like You'. A big part of that was the addition of a lot more horns, from the touches around the edges of 'Touch' and 'Nothing Else Matters' against the wiry, hollow synth lines to the much more blatant squonk of 'Oops', 'You Gotta Not', and especially the heavy new jack swing vibe of 'Private Show', which was just awesome. On the flip side, for as much as I didn't mind the tropical touches that filled up 'Your Love' or the reverb-heavy emptiness of 'Nobody Like You', which was well-balanced enough to intensify the isolation, other modern trends don't really treat the girls well. The most obvious is that farty, fizzy synth all over 'Down & Dirty' with the bass-heavy drop and popping melody that isn't nearly as dirty and rough-edged as it thinks it is. Similar case for 'Power' - I really did like the wiry guitars, louder percussion and motorcycle revs, but man, that song could have done without the squealing trap drop and I would have been fine. 

But okay, wonky instrumentation aside, it all needs to hold up against good lyrics... and really, it's a mixed bag here, but I do lean on the positive. It's obvious the girls are taking more of a role in the writing process and it does lead to more vulnerable, detailed, and effective pop songs, with Leigh-Anne probably taking the biggest lead here... but at the same time, this record does tilt into questionable territory a few too many times. 'F.U.' has that stupid alphabet gimmick to get to its title and would be a song of retribution about a cheating guy if he wasn't so dreamy - seriously, did Meghan Trainor write this? Well, no - she wrote one of the most obnoxious songs on the record with 'You Gotta Not', which not only has a vocal arrangement that doesn't give the girls any real room but also emphasizes all the things this guy needs to put aside to be with her... like blue's clues, bluetooth, and tighty whities that reveal a muffin top. Again, this is coming from a woman who called her ass her boom-boom, but seriously, using that language doesn't exactly inspire me to think the girls are as mature as what they want - hell, the diva flexing of 'Down & Dirty' might be grating but at least the Game of Thrones reference worked there! But really, where this record shines are in two places: simple girl-power anthems and love/hookup songs, which actually get fused together in the album closer 'Nothing Else Matters' and given the tumult of the record, it does feel earned. And I think the straightforward framing of these songs does them a fair amount of credit - I've already talked about how 'Shout Out To My Ex' is less obnoxious with no ill will on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but take 'Oops' for example: I appreciated the awkward balancing act of it all, from hookup to friendzone and then realizing they both have lingering feelings out of it and trying to rebuild the connection, it's played pretty well. 'Nobody Like You' seems to head towards territory that's similar to 'F.U.' - bad relationship but she wants to hold it together - but it's telling that the song frames her lack of self-esteem being the greater issue than any real neglect. And 'No More Sad Songs' goes after the breakup where they want to cut loose to get over this ex and perhaps make him jealous... but after having failed and walking home alone, the realization comes that trying to hurt him isn't making her situation better. Of course, on the flip side of emotional complexity we get the broad strokes of the hookups on 'Touch' and 'Your Love', not to mention the over-the-top 'Private Show'... hell, 'Power' even falls in that lane, and if it wasn't for Jesy's interlude barking out the word 'bike', it might have connected better.

Look, this might be the kind of album I enjoy talking about more than I enjoy itself, but I have to confess that if Little Mix is going to stay in pop, this was a refreshing step - less consistent overall but the highs are greater. The production is still a little flat but it's arguably the most full and detailed it's ever been, the writing is picking up a bit more complexity, and the girls have never sounded better. Yeah, there are some missteps here, but I like this record in the way I like S Club 7 albums - solid compositions, some wild swings that do miss, but when they connect they're making the sort of colorful and energetic pop music I enjoy. For me, this is a solid 7/10 and a recommendation - I do think for some this'll be a tough sell, especially if you've wanted them to pivot towards R&B, but if not... hey, I'll take what I can get.

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