By Julio C. Reyna, March 2018 Web Exclusive.
Artist: Camila Cabello
Coming from a public falling out with Fifth Harmony, two failed singles and a string of delays, it is no surprise that the original working title for this album was The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving. But the release of “Havana” late last summer – and the mass success it achieved – helped ultimately steered the visual and sonic direction of Camila Cabello’s self titled debut.
The second single, “Never Be The Same,” starts the album off. The track, touted to be much more grand than the peaks it actually reaches, finds itself somewhere between the all too common mumbling and whisper vocals and the notes that are just not possible for Cabello to hit. It is one of the rare moments on the album in which she strays from the latin-lite trappings that dominate the tracklist. The guitar lead “All These Years” makes no attempt to conceal that it’s equal parts Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.”
The moments that stand out, and by that I mean work for her, are when she almost lets her personality and some sass come through. “She Loves Control” is a caution to any potential suitors about a woman who does not need anyone, but also knows the trail of heartbreak she’s left behind. “Real Friends” could have easily gone the route of a petty take down, but is instead a self-aware nod to the situation she faced with her previous bandmates.
The album is mostly just here in the sense that it is so carefully executed that no room for mistake was given. It plays out as a passable first effort, but one that is almost completely void of an actual personality. Still, what she lacks in vocal ability she quickly makes up for with her ability to perfectly fill each song with emotion.
Artist: Above & Beyond
Album: Common Ground
Above & Beyond returns with their fourth album, Common Ground, an effort that finds the group navigating post-party emotional ups and downs. While the project feels comfortable, thanks to new collaborations with artists featured in previous work, it also finds the group in a space where the focus is less electronic and more instrument oriented.
The album begins with “The Inconsistency Principle,” an instrumental track that is ambient, uplifting and perfectly leads into the single, “My Own Hymn.” The song features Zoe Johnston the first of her three appearances throughout the album. As any of fan of the group can attest, the pairing of her beautiful and mesmerizing vocals against the pulsating synthesizer never fails to create a sense of awe. While the track relies on familiarity, the other two collaborations with the singer reveal the group’s sonic versatility. “Sahara Love” is an foray into ’80s pop sensibilities and “Always” is a practically acoustic piano-led track.
Richard Bedford and his ever-haunting vocals make multiple appearances – “Northern Soul,” “Bittersweet & Blue” and “Happiness Amplified” – the latter of which plays in familiar fashion, the verse slowly builds into a grand chorus and the music drops, creating a sense of elation. It is a song that teases the intensity of the group’s live performances. It’s hard to not picture their hands in the air, lights hitting to each beat and confetti filling the sky.
As a whole, Common Ground manages to both take listeners on on emotional journey and also creates a safe space for anyone willing to join them on the adventure. In a world the seems divided all too often, this is a reminder that everyone ultimately yerns for the same things. Above & Beyond always had that mission in mind and their ability to cohesively and consistently achieve this is deserving of the almost cult-like following they have.
Artist: Justin Timberlake
Album: Man of the Woods
“Look closer, through the trees, do you see it?” Jessica Biel asks at the end of album opener, “Filthy.” After multiple voice-overs, questionable sexual innuendos and 66 long minutes, one would be hard pressed to find an answer in Man Of The Woods. With visuals and press releases that touted this project as a return to Justin Timberlake’s Tennessee roots, this album is badly in need of a compass.
The confusion here is not that he is trying to evolve sonically, because it is really not a stretch from previous work. It’s a Neptunes/Pharrell-heavy set with Timbaland and Danja sprinkled throughout. Any addition of folksy or country sounding tinges seem like a complete afterthought. But without these touches, the album could double as Justified 2.0. Perhaps, for someone who has spent the entirety of his career taking from other artists and claiming pop innovation, it was only a matter of time before he borrowed from his own catalogue.
For example, both “Say Something,” a duet with country singer Chris Stapleton, and “Supplies,” a sad attempt at Migos, show the sheer desperation of trying to court as many audiences as possible. And both fail due their blatant inauthenticity (the latter ultimately being the most disjointing aspect of the entire album). There is never a point when the persona or messages he’s proclaimed he’s conveying are even remotely believable.
Ultimaltly, Timberlake’s fifth studio album begs the question: Was the direction and branding a result of a long afternoon of Pinterest searches for such things as “woods,” “rural” and “Flannel” (which is an actual song title here). The album plays out like a pinboard that never serves any real purpose. The tracks are low-rent versions of songs Timberlake and company have previously released sold under the thin veneer of modern Americana.