Well it seems to celebrate the tenth week straight of this little column the universe decided to gift us with the weakest crop of new singles in that time.
Only one honorable mention this week, and with no really great track this was almost my favorite of the week. Finneas, who we talked about a fair bit last week, dropped a new single “A Concert Six Months From Now”. I went in with very low expectations after reading the title and assuming this was going to be a piece of pandemic art (I’m really not looking forward to getting swamped with Covid-centric content over the next few years, you’re not all Bo Burnham). I also haven’t been crazy about Finneas’ solo work in the past, as he’s oddly played his own production far safer and conventional than when producing for his sister. This track is still not as adventurous, but Finneas’ vocals are right up against your ears like many tracks from “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” and the writing has more personality. He uses the same “this is suddenly an Avril Lavigne song” trick with the guitar burst midway through as on the title track from “Happier Than Ever”, but there’s enough going for this ballad to have me more optimistic for Finneas’ next record due later this year.
Favorite New Track: “Take My Breath” by The Weeknd
I can’t lie, I do hope to write about new tracks here that are at least slightly left-field. So featuring The Weeknd right after Billie Eilish hurts the music snob in me a little, but here we are.
I think like most music fans who were paying attention to The Weeknd back when he was an enigmatic internet figure helping pioneer “Alternative R&B”, I prefer his early work to more recent albums. I enjoyed some tracks from “Beauty Behind the Madness” and “Starboy”, but the projects as a whole lacked the cohesiveness of “Trilogy” and played things way too safe for me.
I wasn’t alone in thinking this- these were pretty popular opinions- but I became the minority when it came to “After Hours”, the Weeknd’s most recent record. Unabashedly borrowing from 80’s synth pop, Abel Tesfaye’s alter ego became a household name – even my 80 year old grandmother asked me if I knew The Weeknd. The record wasn’t just popular with the public either, becoming his best reviewed album yet. But I didn’t- and still don’t- feel the same. I thought the record was bland, flaccid and leaned too heavily on the 80’s influence, using the familiarity as a crutch in place of better songwriting. It had it’s moments, like the title track which pulls on Abel’s earlier work more than anything else on the album and the mix of styles works really well. But all in all, it was a fine, forgettable album to me. So when I saw the throwback single art for “Take My Breath”, signaling that The Weeknd was doubling down on this 80’s sound for another album cycle, I wasn’t expecting much.
Thankfully, my expectations were proven wrong. This track is the level of quality I was expecting when people hyped “After Hours” up so much. Abel is definitely still leaning hard on the 80’s sound, but the disco rhythms underneath the synths add the main thing his last record lacked to me: energy. It’s a dance track with a real pulse, and wastes no time meandering into things like so many tracks from “After Hours”. Abel’s vocal performance is strong as usual, but it doesn’t hold the track back from charging ahead with any over-singing, a pitfall he can sometimes fall into. In fact, the one major criticism I have is that this kind of feels like it could be anyone’s song. But if Abel can inject some of his (formerly) trademark sound into this more energetic version of this 80’s sound, I think I’ll be much more into this upcoming record.
Favorite Old Track: “Gold” by Spandau Ballet
Not too long ago during an earlier lockdown, I was on one of my daily allowed walks around the city, listening to the new Dayglow album “Harmony House”. Early on in the record, each track came and went and I was thinking the album was solid. Well produced, generic but not obnoxiously generic lyrics, but some ok tunes. But by the time I got halfway through the album, I just couldn’t do anymore of the aggressively inoffensive sound. As you sink into the album, the passable synth pop just stayed too sterile- at first like brushing your teeth but quickly turning to just straight up eating toothpaste.
I’ve talked about this before, so I won’t harp on it too much here. Advances in technology have been amazing for music in a lot of ways. Hip-Hop is thriving now more than ever thanks to production software being so accessible, and musicians ae exploring sonic textures in virtually every genre. But it’s also led to a flood of singers making music that have no idea how to perform, or maybe more accurately have no interest in exploring performance in their music. And it makes sense, there’s absolutely nothing that hasn’t been captured on a mic when it comes singing.
But damn I miss power ballads.
Spandau Ballet and bands likes them, are one of my blind spots when it comes to my music knowledge (I’m moving to Islington next month where they were formed, maybe they’ve got a mural there or something). I know the hits though and “Gold” is absolutely my favorite track by them. There really isn’t much to analyze here, frontman Tony Hadley is just singing his ass off. That’s the song’s USP, and there’s no clutter around it to take away from that. Even though I love the busy-ness of a lot of modern music, I wish we still got ballads that weren’t just whispery, overly dramatic covers. But that’s a rant for another day.