Ariana Grande (Republic Records)
While Miley Cyrus is being a wild child to demonstrate she is growing up, Ariana Grande is letting her music do all the talking.
The 20-year-old singer-actress, one of the stars of Nickelodeon’s Victorious and the network’s spinoff Sam and Cat, is in near-perfect form on her debut, mainly thanks to her Mariah Carey-esque vocals and songs written by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
“Yours Truly” kicks off with the R&B-flavored, nearly six-minute “Honeymoon Avenue.” It’s dreamy, velvety and warm, and backed with shoo-be-doos and violins. It sounds as good as a Justin Timberlake intro.
Grande uses her voice as an instrument throughout the 12-track set: “Baby I,” with its finger snaps, features her screaming high notes; “Tattooed Heart” and “Daydreamin’” are A-List ballads; and on “The Way,” her lead single and Top 10 hit, Grande’s voice sounds like a Carey-Toni Braxton mash-up.
Her breakthrough comes at a time when other former Disney-Nickelodeon stars have pop hits — Cyrus and Selena Gomez are following the Rihanna track with “We Can’t Stop” and “Come & Get It,” while Demi Lovato’s latest sound mirrors Kelly Clarkson. But Grande is looking back to a ’90s R&B-pop feel on her debut — and her formula works better than the others. “Almost Is Never Enough,” a duet with The Wanted’s best vocalist, Nathan Sykes, sounds classic and the Big Sean-assisted “Right There,” which samples Jeff Lorber’s “Rain Dance” — also sampled for Lil Kim’s “Crush on You” — could easily be a No. 1 hit.
Carey should be proud.
— MESFIN FEKADU, Associated Press
Wise Up Ghost
Elvis Costello and the Roots (Blue Note)
Enough with Velvet Elvis. This year’s model of Elvis Costello features a collaboration with the Roots that inspires his angriest singing and best album in many years.
“Wise Up Ghost” covers topical turf as Costello rails about the tense and troubled times. The title cut calls for a revolution, “Come the MEANTIMES” offers dark ruminations on faith and the flag, and “TRIPWIRE” considers the combustible combination of fear, hatred and armies.
Costello also lets loose on love gone wrong, as he has done on many of his best songs. “She’s pulling out the pin ... that lets her hair fall down,” he sings on “(She Might Be a) GRENADE.”
Writing with Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and producer Steven Mandel, Costello dials back his melodic ambitions, and for a change he sings songs that don’t exceed his range. Built more on riffs than hooks, the music has the verve of new wave, the directness of punk and the groove of 1970s R&B, with Questlove’s snare and Costello samples among the hip-hop flavorings.
The hybrid gets good mileage, and Costello’s venomous vocals energize much of the set. But on the closing piano ballad, “If I Could BELIEVE,” he oversings and reverts to his worst role — EC, square.
— STEVEN WINE, Associated Press
The 1975 (Dirty Hit/Polydor)
The 1975’s self-titled debut is a mixed bag. Jumping from guitar-heavy indie hits to disco funk dance-floor tracks, the boys from Northern England say the varied sound of the album is down to their “lack of identity.”
That lack of identity allows a rawness to emerge, both in lyrics and music. However, despite the variation on the album, the indie pop tracks are the ones that work the best.
“Chocolate” is the perfect concoction, opening with an infectious riff, and it almost doesn’t matter that the only word in the song you can decipher is “chocolate.” ‘’The City” plays off the strength of singer Matty Healy’s voice coupled with a pounding drum beat and a repetitive chorus.
The album is co-produced by Mike Crossey, who has worked with The Kooks and Arctic Monkeys, and though The 1975’s lyrics don’t match the lyrical prowess of Alex Turner, at times they are as playful and sarcastic. In the synth-filled “Girls” they jibe: “I like your face despite your nose, seventeen and a half years old.”
In general, however, lyrics are littered with teenage angst. “Sex” covers the obvious themes of teenage lust but paints literal scenes: “My shirt looks so good, when it’s just hanging off your back.”
— SIAN WATSON, Associated Press