It Ain’t That Deep Either Way: This Month In Pop With Anna Cafolla

How does it make you feel? Does it make you dance? Does it make you cry? Anna Cafolla brings us October's pop, with Willow Smith, Tegan & Sara, Sälen, Blossom Caldarone, Mabel, and a guest appearance from Grace Jones.

I recently watched Grace Jones: Bloodlight And Bami, the documentary by Sophie Fiennes that captures the Jamaican queen of subversive pop, party and putting you in your place. Across five years, the film depicts every sharp facial angle, every stage soliloquy, every belly laugh and every hot pink fingernail tapping on a flip phone. Fiennes navigates documenting as a silent observer, but also a friend to the musician, snapping moments of intimacy – Grace as a grandmother, buckling at the knees for Jean-Paul Goude, applying makeup – that haven’t been seen before. It debuted at the Grace Jones symposium in Edinburgh, to an audience full of scholars and decades-dedicated fans.

Perception is an important facet of pop: music that bangs is true to you in a very specific time and place. As much as Grace’s work across Hurricane, Nightclubbing and the rest are vital to her as an artist and diva, that personal moment of experiencing the sublime is vital to you. Far from Studio 54 or European super-arenas, my first encounter with Grace was on a portable Sony CD player, alternating Island Life with Gwen Stefani’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby – the sexual and gender maverick of avant-pop resonates with me now as it did when I saw her then, or last year at Afropunk, hula-hooping to ‘Slave to the Rhythm’.

With the death of Tom Petty in early October, I thought a lot about how I was exposed to his music, and the hazy summers he soundtracked for me and countless others. Picking ‘Learning to Fly’ on a bass in a friend’s makeshift studio, screeching those drawling lines of ‘Here Comes My Girl’ out the car window on the north coast of Ireland. I’ve imposed my own narrative on artists, making their hits into my life markers.

Then reading Laura Snapes’ interview with Jessie Ware before spinning Glasshouse gave it a lovely setting to pick out those moments of anxiety, familial strain and a fear of losing control that permeate raw lyrics set to haunting synth pop. I sought it out and felt it. It’s as much about what you do with music as what it does to you, and some of the past month’s releases have made me feel a lot of things.

Sophie – ‘It’s Okay To Cry’

PC Music affiliate and pop supreme producer Sophie has spent the last few years working with Vince Staples, Charli XCX and Cashmere Cat. ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ sees the Scottish artist float to centrestage for the first time in shimmering self-directed visuals, a moving triumph. It’s an interesting move away from the staccato, bubble-popping beats of ‘Bipp’ or ‘Lemonade’, pulling off the PC Music clingfilm layers to a vulnerable centre, making it an emotional bop. The slow, synthy rise to a stratospheric climax – Sophie literally travels the galaxies in the video – provides a twinkly backdrop to some pretty, almost spiritual lyrics: “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way/ but I think your inside is your best side,” she sings. I am in love.

Tears for Fears – ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’

The Bath synth-pop rockers are back with their first original material in 13 years.

Known for big-muscle choruses, beefed-up orchestral ballads and ski-slope guitar slides, ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’ orbits our 80s nostalgia. It might not replace ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ as the drunk serenade on the 3am Central Line journey home, but it’s nice enough to lose yourself in big beat cymbal clashing and a galvanising hook. Their recent spiky cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ on Radio 2 is worth a watch too.

Tegan & Sara – The Con x Covers

The Con turned 10 this year – a much-loved fifth album from the Quinn sisters that propelled their leftfield melancholic pop into the mainstream, railing against the misogynistic media of 2007 that deduced them to “tampon rock” and “twin airbags” (yes, really). The album was a painful process, delving into their queer identity, broken relationships and dying loved ones, setting sadness to an aching soundscape. To celebrate its anniversary, the musicians recruited an all-star lineup to cover every album track – it’s fascinating, as a long-time fan, to hear songs that beat so boldly through the veins of Tegan & Sara receive a refresh, forming curiously new narratives. The adventurousness shown by the artists is wonderful. Mykki Blanco gives ‘Knife Going In’ the dark, crackling spin it deserves, and Paramore’s Hayley Williams strips back the punky hurly-burly of ‘Nineteen’ for a hushed, intimate affair. We glide through a glinting ‘Dark Come Soon’ by Grimes x Hana (under Trashique) and disappear into the smoky revamp of ‘Call It Off’ by Chvrches, ending on a hazy, gloriously synthy high – Cyndi Lauper with ‘Back In Your Head’. And on the plus, plus, plus: the compilation’s proceeds go to the Tegan & Sara foundation in aid of LGBTQIA girls.

Multiple outputs from Fifth Harmony

While Harmonizers and K-pop stans have been going nuts at just the thought of Fifth Harmony and BTS collaborating, the girlband has been super busy this last month. Dinah Jane has spread her wings with her first major solo project – a little bit of a tepid rumba with producer giant RedOne, Daddy Yankee and French Montana, ‘Boom Boom’. Mildly infectious, prescription: 5H’s eponymous album released at the end of summer. As a band, the foursome collaborated with Pitbull on a Spanish-English dancefloor filler, elevated by those familiar Mr Worldwide woops. It’s Lauren Jauregui and Ty Dolla $ign’s partnership that comes out on top though, with ‘In Your Phone’. Pulsating Boomin-like basslines and two full-bodied voices make it the winning banger. Stans are already shipping ‘Tyren’ too (farewell Camren). Speaking of Camila Cabello, the ex-5Her gave her gloriously hot ‘Havana’ tune an amazing telenovela-inspired music video.

Willow Smith – ‘Romance’

Willow’s activist outlook permeates this record, obliterating ideas of courtship and modern values that distract us from all the fucked up things in the world. “I’m imagining a different history, where men and women stay equal in the eyes of society,” she sings over swaggering guitar lines like that of Ruthie Foster or Tracy Chapman. “Where we don’t condemn different people, for exercising their freedom, we’re sexist, I cried in an act of divine love.” It’s bruised but not yet beaten, with the free spirit of her brother Jaden growing with every record, rising up to write the next exciting chapter we’ll see in her forthcoming sophomore release The 1st.

Sälen – ‘I Am Champagne’

When it can feel like we’re drowning in puddle-deep EDM and neverending twee hooks, some gross-out pop won’t go amiss. Three-piece London act Sälen dropped two tracks from their upcoming EP, Zebedy’s Cult, which also accompanies a short film. “I have quite a sweet-sounding voice, and because our music is quite poppy, if we then had really ‘nice’ lyrics… it would be a bit much!” lead singer Ellie said recently. “It’s also cool to make people care less about that stuff in general.” Neon-splashed and unafraid of diving deep into the mysterious white powders, spit and sweat that fleck modern romance, ‘I Am Champagne’ showcases Ellie’s honey-slick vocals that sound out coiled lyrics over Simon and Paul’s smooth, syncopated productions. The crystalline ‘I’m In Love With My Best Friend’ is given a reboot from its first release in 2015, building on the band’s growing confidence and skill.

Blossom Caldarone – ‘Fairytale Lullaby’

The 18-year-old south Londoner floats through awkward missteps and complicated social conventions of teenage love, looking outward with a quiet but sharp humour, to mind-crushing 9-to-5s and manufactured suburban palaces in ‘Fairytale Lullaby’. She has the storytelling skill of Marina & the Diamonds, Lily Allen or Alessia Cara, and a heavenly falsetto that reverberates through your body, bouncing lithely off the shiny school gym floor.

FAUX – ‘Take Back Time’

Josef Page, Amber Simone and Sherry Davis’ soulful pop concoction turns back the clock without relying on pure cheese – it’s full-lunged lush, spirited in its syncopated beats and funky percussion. That sparkling chorus is totally embedded in my brain, like a Prince song ringing in your ears as the sun sweeps through the bedroom window cracks on new year’s day. The video, directed by Will and Carly, is a neon-soaked Hackney dream. Swipe on the neon purple eyeshadow and slick your legs in Vaseline for those latex gold leggings.

Mabel – Ivy to Roses

Mabel has thrived since her first foray into breezy underground R&B with ‘Know You Better’ and the sun-dappled ‘Thinking Of You’. Slow-burning banger ‘Finders Keepers’ has been pummeling the charts, and the EP it appears on holds its own. She finds herself in that sweet crossroads between vulnerability, self-realisation and sheer power, confidence radiating from the title track ‘Come Over’ and the anthemic call-to-arms ‘Weapon’. ‘Low Key’ is a dynamic driver telling guys to calm the fuck down, à la TLC and Aaliyah. “Don’t take it bad, if I’ll say not today, not today, I just need some time looking out for me. It’s not that I don’t like your company,” Mabel asserts. Ivy To Roses takes that big step into the abyss and soars.

P!nk – Beautiful Trauma

The seventh studio album from P!nk is the amalgamation of all the artist’s creative personalities: the acid-tongued woman who offered up everyone’s problematic fave ‘Stupid Girls’ meets Eminem for a tête-à-tête in ‘Revenge’, spunky hooks play out in ‘I Am Here’ and dark lovelorn introspection has a place in ‘But We Lost It’. None of these characters particularly jumps off the page though. Even with Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff on the title track’s production, it’s very safely textbook P!nk. Nevertheless, it’s blunt and confessional in a way that’s intertwined with charting bangers all thanks to her output circa 2006. “You punched a hole in the wall and I framed it,” is that glimmer of beautiful defiance and rage we still need.

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