Fun & clouds in Skylar Grey’s ‘Don’t Look Down’

Chances are that you’ve heard her before. She sang the opening refrain in Fort Minor’s “Where’d you Go” (2006), in Diddy’s “Coming Home” (2010) and in Eminem and Dr. Dre’s “I Need a Doctor” (2011). 

And she wrote the hook in Eminem and Rhianna’s “Love the Way You Lie” (2010) while she was living alone in an Oregon cabin.

“This is where all the inspiration came from,” Skylar Grey said. “Just being here by myself and thinking a lot and reflecting a lot.”

Grey has written harmonies since she was 2 years old — which landed her a handful of Grammy nominations including those for her work on “I Need a Doctor,” “Love the Way you Lie” and Kaskade’s album “Fire & Ice” — so it seems like it’s about time that she has a major label studio album; “Don’t Look Down” — which was released today, July 9, under KidinaKorner and Interscope Records after three years of production — is her debut album as Skylar Grey. (Her first album, “Like Blood Like Honey,” was released in 2006 under Holly Brook, her given first and middle name.)

And her new album even features some of the artists that lauded her work and launched it into national prominence. Eminem raps in Grey’s single, “C’mon Let Me Ride,” a catchy pop song loaded with sexual innuendos.

Meanwhile, Big Sean’s rapping and Travis Barker’s drumming accompany her vocals in the album’s first track, “Back from the Dead,” an electro-pop song reminiscent of Kaskade’s “Room for Happiness.” The whirling noises and drumming beat make her sound tinny and robotic, even as she sings about her emotions: “I’m so confused I don’t know what to feel.”

Perhaps those lines explain her eclectic range. Whereas “C’mon Let Me Ride” is about as catchy and subtle as Brittney Spears’ “If You Seek Amy” and “Back from the Dead” sounds so mechanic and recycled, it’s easily forgettable, darker tracks like “Final Warning” are vindictive and deliciously thrilling.

“Someone’s going to get hurt,” she sing-songs sweetly. “And it’s not going to be me.”

She has a knack for writing about abusive relationships — even though she claims the only one she’s been in is with the music industry. “Good afternoon, dear/ How does the rope feel around your neck?” she sings in “Final Warning.” No doubt this is the reprise to “Love the Way You Lie.”

The tracks change from the potential Top 40 hit to the lyrical and melancholy. Quieter tracks like “Love the Way You Lie Part III” and “White Suburban” — whose only embellishments are her voice and the piano — are beautiful, showcasing her impressive vocal range and storytelling capabilities. She sounds reflective, and a bit like Regina Spektor at times.

Which couldn’t be more different than the hip-hop beats in “Shit, Man!” or the pop-rock feel in tracks like “Wear Me Out,” “Clear Blue Sky” and “Religion.” (The guitar chords in “Religion” sound familiar — a bit like those in the beginning of Clay Aiken’s “Invisible”?)

But if she hadn’t already gotten accolades for her singing/song-writing abilities, or received recognition from artists like Eminem (who signed on as the album’s executive producer), it would be hard to market Grey; she masters a potpourri of genres and her album’s tracks seem as capricious and unpredictable as the weather. But whereas her first album has a more folksy piano/guitar singer/songwriter feel, “Don’t Look Down” is clearly directed at pop audiences with wide-ranging musical tastes.

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‘Bastille’: sieging the charts by storm

“Oh I feel overjoyed,” Bastille’s 25-year-old frontman Dan Smith sings in the UK band’s first debut album, “Bad Blood.” Although Smith sounds a bit more melancholy than overjoyed while singing his tracks, he should be feeling overjoyed right now.

Not only has Bastille’s “Bad Blood” tour sold out within minutes of its UK release, but their single “Pompeii” has been no. 1 on the UK Official Streaming Charts for at least seven consecutive weeks.  According to the UK iTunes charts, their album, “Bad Blood,” (which was released only in the UK on March 4 by Virgin Records) is selling at no. 7. “Oh I feel overjoyed/when you listen to my words,” Smith sings in Bastille’s single “Overjoyed.” Well, Mr. Smith, your wish is fulfilled. More than 22 million people have watched the music video for “Pompeii” on YouTube, listening to your words.

Smith, who’s been writing songs since he was 15,  says his songs aren’t overly autobiographical. Instead, the singer/songwriter follows in the tradition of Regina Spektor and Josh Ritter, American alternative indie folk singers known for their narrative styles, drawing from fiction or history for inspiration. Smith — who named the band after Bastille Day, the English term for the French holiday celebrating the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution on July 14, 1789 — plays his part as a historian or singing bard.

His song “Daniel in the Den” chronicles the biblical story from the point-of-view of Daniel, who was trapped in the lion’s den. “Icarus” is based on the Greek myth where Icarus, the son of Daedalus, flew too close to the sun, melting his wax wings and falling to his death. “Pompeii” is about the fall of the Roman city from the point-of-view of its citizens. “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” Smith repeats.

Whereas other English singer/songwriters wrote autobiographical and emotional, passionate songs about heartbreak, Smith’s songs are cold and passive, sounding a little detached, but no less addictive. Adele had “Set Fire to the Rain.” Bastille has “Things We Lost In the Fire.”

Like Adele, Smith has a high vocal range and a knack for songwriting, but the man behind the words is a mystery. In fact, Smith kept his music a secret until his songs were discovered:  “None of my friends ever knew. My family knew because they overheard it coming out of my room – these weird warbling noises,” he told The Independent. The elusive Smith literally masks his face and his wild, spiky black hair — first with a shapeless brown sack and then with a grotesque mask — in Bastille’s music video “Laura Palmer,” inspired by David Lynch’s television series “Twin Peaks,” one of his favorite telly shows.

Smith’s lyrics are beautiful and haunting. “There’s a hole in my soul/ I can’t fill it/ I can’t fill it,” Smith sings in “Flaws.” In the Abbey Road recording of the song, violins cry in the background, harmonizing with Smith’s choruses.

“The Weight of Living, Pt. 1” sounds like something out of the “Where the Wild Things Are” soundtrack. “Your Albatross/ shoot it down/ shoot it down/ When you just can’t shake/ The heavy weight of living,” Smith sings. You can almost hear Maurice Sendak’s words wash over you: “There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

Smith’s company consists of Chris “Woody” Wood on drums, Will Farquarson on bass-guitar and Kyle Simmons on keyboard. But they aren’t like the British boy bands of One Direction or The Wanted. Wood, Farquarson and Simmons are content echoing the “ey-ey-ey-oh, ey-ohs” in the background of “Pompeii” or harmonizing to the “ay-ay-ay, ay-ay-ay, ay, ay, ays” in “Get Home,” rather than take turns with solos.

The lead singer, on the other hand, has reservations about being in the spotlight. “Kyle [Simmons] who plays keys in the band always takes the piss out of the fact that most of the stuff I have to do is my idea of hell, like putting myself out there and being in photos,” Smith says.

Well, Mr. Smith, it looks like you better get used to hell because your Bastille has stormed the British charts and started a revolution across the Atlantic. And as you know from your world history, revolution’s contagious.

Bastille’s debut album “Bad Blood,” which contains 13 tracks including their singles “Overjoyed,” “Flaws,” “Bad Blood,” “Pompeii” and “Laura Palmer,” is currently only available in the UK. Their 4-song EP, “The Haunt,” was released in the United States on May 28.  

‘The Heist’: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis rob your time for 10 thousand results

Ben Haggerty knows a thing or two about hard work. Taking a note from Malcolm Gladwell, who preached “the key to success is practicing a task for 10 thousand hours,” Haggerty pours himself into The Heist, his debut studio album.

Haggerty, better known by his stage name, Macklemore, raps about what it took to compile The Heist, which he and producer Ryan Lewis recorded between 2009 and 2012. “I put my skin and all my bones in everything I record right,” Macklemore raps in the album’s second track, “Can’t Hold Us.”

It shows.

The independently produced, 15-song album is moving and autobiographical, ranging from Macklemore’s obsession with clothing to his former drug addiction (he went to rehab in 2008). In his song “Wing$,” Macklemore raps about his battle with consumerism. His opponent: his first pair of Nike Air Macs. Macklemore says the shoes empowered his 7-year-old self to feel “like Mike”; however, the same brand that elevated him isolated him from his less financially stable peers. The song’s refrain — a chorus of children singing about broken dreams — is as haunting as his memories.

In “Starting Over,” Macklemore raps about his relapse from his three-year drug-free stint: “And you know, what pain looks like/ When you tell your dad you relapsed and look at him directly into his face,” he recounts. The steady rhythm and repeating chords illustrate the cyclical nature of his journey to recovery.

Macklemore, a white rapper from Seattle, also tackles other social issues in the hip-hop culture, ranging from homosexuality to racial equality. In “Same Love,” Macklemore acknowledges the stigma the word “gay” has in hip-hop: “If I was gay/ I would think hip-hop hates me.”

And in “A Wake,” he could be describing himself: “It’s always so refreshing to hear somebody on records/ no guns, no drugs, no sex, just truth.” It’s refreshing that Macklemore avoids degrading women in his rhymes and that his lyrics are about equality rather than misogyny.

Macklemore’s clearly enunciated words are poetic if not spiritual. “Neon Cathedral” compares the bar to a chapel; the ritualistic sharing of the wine becomes the routine trip to the bar, drinking “one or two more.” The transformation from a simple bar crawl to a prayer is as transcendent as the Pascal mystery.

Meanwhile, Lewis’ instrumental mix adds another layer to Macklemore’s words and rhythm. “Thin Love” sounds like multiple dial tones giving off different frequencies. “Make the Money” opens with what sounds like an echoing siren, before a repeating piano ostinato keeps tempo. The guitar in “Cowboy Boots” gives the track a Celtic feel while Macklemore sings about drinking at the bar — which is fitting to his Irish heritage.

Providing social and political awareness, The Heist is empowering. It shows a reformer who overcomes past regrets and the “10 thousand hours” it takes to achieve them.

A ‘Gleeful’ Christmas

We have seen them belt out chorus after chorus in honor of artists from Lady Gaga to Brittany Spears to CeLo Green to Journey to Kanye West. We have seen them do musical numbers, such as Wicked’s “Defying Gravity,” and “Singing in the Rain,” complete with water and umbrellas, as well as mash-ups, such as “Halo/Walking on Sunshine.” We have seen them week after week on Fox’s hit show, Glee. Yet this season, Gleeks can celebrate the festivities a little bit early with the release of “Glee: The Christmas Album” on Nov. 16.

Like when the McKinley High glee club, New Directions, covered the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” releasing a Halloween CD before the episode aired, the Christmas CD follows in the same tradition, exciting fans for the future broadcast.

Once again, the cast of Glee proves their versatility as singers, sounding ‘gleeful’ to pop-y to soulful to angelic with a dozen of holiday hits. Beginning with a happy little ditty called “We Need a Little Christmas,” which features solos from Mercedes (Amber Riley), Rachel (Lea Michelle), and Kurt (Chris Colfer), the cheerful song sounds like it could have come from My Fair Lady or a similar Broadway musical. Colfer’s vocal abilities are astounding as he sings and harmonizes with the females in the glee club.

“Deck the Rooftop” — a Glee-style mash-up of “Deck the Halls” and “Up in the Rooftop” — follows, remixed with a little pizzazz. A strong steady percussion beat accompanies the glee club’s vocals, giving the song more hop than hip. Lea Michelle shines in “Merry Christmas Darling” and “O Holy Night” — slow, beautiful, and tender songs featuring her angelic voice and sounding like a chorus of angels.

However, the true gem hidden in this stocking-stuffer of holiday must-haves is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a fun and flirty duet between the budding gay couple Kurt (Chris Colfer) and the heartthrob from the rival boy’s academy Blaine (Darren Criss). The song is classy, exuding enough sexiness to rival Madonna’s Christmas classic “Santa Baby.” Again, Colfer is stunning, nailing the female vocals. Criss’s voice is smooth and suave. Combined, their voices soothe one like a warm mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter day, making one feel warm when “It’s Cold Outside.”

Yet, if there were a song that would ring true to who the McKinley High glee club are, it would be “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year.” The song echoes the glee club’s plight as outcasts of McKinley High, often getting bullied or slushied in the face for not being popular. First featured in 1964 animated movie Rudolph: the Red-Nosed Reindeer, “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year” deals with a similar band of outcasts: misfit toys. The highlight of the glee club’s rendition is the outlandish quirky comments from cheerleader Brittany (Heather Morris), Artie (Kevin McHale), and Kurt (Chris Colfer). “How would you like to be a spotted elephant,” Morris says during the song in a manner much like how her character would often blurt out outrageous, yet hilarious lines.

However, if there were a pop single that could rival Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey’s fun and perfect Christmas duo, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Last Christmas” would put up a fair fight. The song features solos between the lead male and female couple, Rachel (Lea Michelle) and Finn (Corey Monteinth). Their voices compliment each other in this pop-style duet on love.

Meanwhile, “Jingle Bells” becomes a Marco Polo game, featuring the boys, Finn (Cory Monteith), Puck (Mark Salling), and Artie (Kevin McHale). With the musical accompaniment, one can envision the trio serenading at a jazz club, wearing suits and top hats. “Jingle Bells” is a refreshing burst of energy among some of the more somber songs celebrating Christmas.

The CD ends on a soulful and spiritual note with “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “O Holy Night,” getting at the true meaning of Christmas. Sung by Mercedes (Amber Riley), “Angels We Have Heard On High” sounds like a chorus of Halleluiahs on Easter Sunday, or perhaps a scene from Sister Act. Riley’s voice would fill any church, with her praise reaching the heavens above. Meanwhile, “O Holy Night” is what one expects to hear at midnight mass, just hours before St. Nick comes knocking down your chimney. Listening to Michelle’s voice, one expects to be able to close one’s eyes and see the star of Bethlehem and remember baby Jesus’s humble beginnings.

The Glee Christmas episode airs at 8 p.m. on Dec. 6 on Fox, featuring some of the songs from “Glee: The Christmas Album.”