Dig These Discs :: Ke$ha, Icona Pop, Morgan James, Bruno Mars, Alicia Keys

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Friday December 14, 2012

Electro-pop rules the roost with new collections by the brash rocker Ke$ha, and Swedish synthpop duo Icona Pop. Alicia Keys is on fire, and Bruno Mars continues dropping his smooth R&B-influenced rock. And Morgan James tackles Nina Simone's songbook with élan.

"Warrior" (Ke$ha)

Singer/rapper Ke$ha burst on to the music scene in 2009, when she teamed up with Flo Rida for his number-one single "Right Round." The following year, her debut album "Animal" hit number one, with her top singles, the ridiculously catchy "Tik Tok" and "We R Who We R." Her talk-driven rap style and love of auto tune and yodeling mesh well with her electro-pop tunes on the themes of partying, heavy drinking and, occasionally, an odd sense of female empowerment. This collection of 12 tracks is reportedly inspired by '70s rock with more guitars in the mix, but the difference is hard to see. She kicks things off with the title song, "Warrior," a rock tune, with her singing, "We are the misfits, we are the bad kids...we ain't perfect but that's alright!" Although the chorus of "warri-orri-orri-er" is odd, it may prove catchy in radio play, as it pairs with her odd rap break. "Let's make the most of the night like we're gonna die young," she sings in "Die Young," exercising the strong vibrato sounds for which she is known. In "C'Mon" she sips on a warm wine cooler and reminisces about those high school days and in "Wonderland" she sings fine and unfettered as she reminisces about her youth. Critics call Ke$ha frivolous and crass, and though I wouldn't want to bring her home to meet mother, her brash style is perfect in the way she turns the idea of the womanizing, boozing male rock star on its head and makes it her own. It is feminism, of a sort. For example, in the track "Thinking of You" she tells an unfaithful ex to "suck my dick." Whistling intros the clean track "Crazy Kids," which delves into dubstep, but avoids auto tune, proves that Ke$ha actually does have a decent singing voice. "Wherever You Are" is an undying love song with a strong electro beat, She teams up with Iggy Pop for "Dirty Love," singing, "all I need is to get in between your sheets." The song is the most rocking of all the tracks, although "Only Wanna Dance With You" does have the girl-power vibe of '80s-era Go-Go's songs. "Supernatural" is a much more au courant song, meshing choral breaks with electro-pop verses. Ke$ha gives herself a shout-out in "All That Matters (The Beautiful Life)," a strong dance track, and finishes with "Love Into the Light," which is very reminiscent of an old Phil Collins' tune, with its moody drum line and the lyrics, "I'm sorry but I am just not sorry/ because I swear and cause I drink." In a world full of candy-coated pop stars, Ke$ha's grit and dirt provide a nice balance. SONY

"Iconic EP" (Icona Pop)

The Swedish duo of Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt rock their electro-pop, house music, punk and indie vibe on their six-track sophomore EP, "Iconic EP." Their single "I Love It" was unveiled at the electro music festival in Summerburst in Gothenburg, and became a hit, already charting on the official Swedish singles chart, Sverigetopplistan. The song is freeing, as they sing together, "I got this feeling on a summer day when you were gone, I crashed my car into a bridge I watched, I let it burn, I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs." The two young girls are crazy, professing, "You're from the '70s, but I'm a '90s bitch!" The vibe is very Modern English from the "Valley Girls" era, and at less than three minutes long, it's the best ride since the Matterhorn. In "Manners," they sing, "You better reconsider, 'cause you will never do better." Their second single, "Ready for the Weekend," was released on Sept. 11, and is already creating a buzz. After a chanted intro, the girls seize on a very synthpop sound, and it is infectious and fun, and just a little bit exotic for their foreign-ness. But the track "Good for You" sticks with you, with its precise pop beat and the lyrics, "You love my love you know you'll never find better love/ you hate my love, you couldn't live without it." The cool, halting synthpop instrumental beats of "Top Rated" meshes nice with the Katy Perry-pop style lyrics, "You aim too low and I've had enough. I've always been top rated, you think that you can change it?" The EP finishes up with "Sun Goes Down," with male distorted vocals singing, "Now my only hope is this message in a bottle." Icona Pop recently relocated to New York City, and will tour with Marina and the Diamonds "Lonely Hearts Club Tour" this December. For now, you will have to be satisfied with one of their EP's, personally signed and complete with handmade covers, created by Jaw and Hjelt. But they are recording their official studio debut album, due in early 2013. Take a listen now, so you can say you knew them back when. BIG BEAT RECORDS

"Morgan James Live" (Morgan James)

Singer/songwriter Morgan James tackles the standards of Nina Simone's repertoire in her debut release, "Morgan James Live," recorded at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York City, with the help of music director and pianist David Cook. The Juilliard-trained opera singer has amazingly refined vocal skills and a remarkable range, but she left it all behind to pursue musical theater. That she should tackle the work of the High Priestess of Soul is testament to her skill. "For a long time I wasn't sure what to do with the fact that I've got this gigantic voice that doesn't quite match how I look, so I ended up trying out lots of different things to find my way," said James. "Nina refused to be pigeon-holed into any one genre, and she wasn't setting out to impress anyone," she said. "That sort of purity and lack of showboating means so much to me as a musician." In this collection of a dozen classic tunes, James simultaneously pays homage to Simone while also establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with. She kicks things off with a sultry rendition of "I Put A Spell On You," that doles out intrigue and heartbreak by equal turns, helped along by a stellar horn section and ripping sax solo by Ron Blake. She continues with Simone's title track from Bethlehem Records, "Little Girl Blue," which has been covered by the top female singers of our time since, and has a touching bass solo. James' range is amazing, as she moves from deep baritone notes to high soprano's. Her phrasing is much like Billy Holiday's halting patter in her "Don't Explain," which Simone covered. It is alluring and discomfiting at once. Simone's then-husband Andy Stroud wrote, "Be My Husband," which James imbues with life, aided by some warm bongo drums. She slows down the classic, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," to a relaxed patter, singing, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good, oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood." The song was originally written for her Broadway Blues show, and as Morgan tells, it fits well with Simone's songbook of blue tunes. She goes deep into those blues in "My Man's Gone Now," and gets funky in "Funkier Than a Mosquita's Tweeter." A fast-moving scat beat rocks, "My Baby Just Cares for Me," with a swinging stand-up bass accompaniment and an expansive drum break. And the nails-scratching-up-the-back naughty comes out in "Tell Me More And More and Then Some," singing, "whisper from now until Doomsday, but never will I get enough." "Promised myself after the first romance, I wouldn't give you a second chance, they said to seek sure to find, but the closer I get to you, you drive me out of my mind," Morgan sings in Aretha Franklin's "Save Me," giving this old chestnut a spin that makes it sound like momma's got a whole new bag. She rocks the blues standard "Trouble in Mind" as if Janis Joplin never had a crack at it, and finishes things up with "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Morgan will take the stage in April 2013 for "Motown: The musical." Until then, this new album should help to scratch that itch. EPIC RECORDS

"Unorthodox Jukebox" (Bruno Mars)

Raised in Honolulu by a family of musicians, Peter Gene Hernandez, a.k.a. Bruno Mars, rose to the top quickly, releasing his debut album, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans" in 2010. He was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, and won Best Male Vocal Pop Performance for "Just the Way You Are." His style -- and his look -- is rooted very much in the Motown/ R&B artists Little Richard, James Brown and Michael Jackson. An arrest for cocaine possession in 2010 gave him the bad-boy tarnish that his squeaky-clean image needed. Mars kicks things off with "Young Girls," singing, "I spent all my money on a big old fancy car, for these bright-eyed honeys, ah you know who you are." The young, wild girls will be the death of me, Mars croons, but you know that will never keep him away. "Locked Out of Heaven" is a track reminiscent of The Police's "Zenyatta Mondatta" album, with a quickstep beat fueled by drum, and a yodeling chorus. He sings about cocaine and ladies in "Gorilla," singing, "look what you're doing, look what you've done, in this jungle you can't run, but you'll be banging on my chest, baby/ gorilla." The x-rated subtext of sex so loud the cops come banging on the door doesn't vibe with the slow, sweet sound of the music. He taps into Prince's sexy motherfucker vibe in "Treasure," down to the old-school electronic flourishes. Mars sings with urgency in "Moonshine," showing off skills as his voice moves up and down the scales, singing, "Take me to that special place, the place we went last time." It has the passion and sound of those reaching ballads of the early '90s. Mars produced the album with his team The Smeezingtons (Philip Lawrence, Ari Levin) and producers Jeff Bhasker, Mark Ronson and Diplo. His heartbreaking tune, "When I Was Your Man" bemoans not buying flowers, dancing and spending time with his love when he had the chance," singing, "now my baby's dancing, but she's dancing with another man." His fast-moving track "Natalie" is a 'should've known better' song about a "gold-digging bitch" that hearkens to his early tracks, and "Show Me" is a hot reggae-inspired track that should make its way up the charts. The heavy swagger of "Money Make Her Smile" meshes old-school themes with electronic sampling, singing of a superfreak: "music make her dance and money make her smile." He finishes up with a classic R&B/rock tune, "If I Knew," with traditional drum breaks and a 4/4 beat. Mars said he got his nickname because "a lot of girls say I'm out of this world." Count on this new album to shoot him even further into the stars than he is already. BMG CHRYSALIS

"Girl on Fire" (Alicia Keys)

Alicia Keys is back with her fifth studio album, "Girl on Fire," and her first since she married Swizz Beat and gave birth to her son, Egypt. She has said that her title track was inspired by motherhood, and recorded a three-track suite of the song, one featuring vocals from Nicki Minaj, called "Inferno." She gives props to '80s star Billy Squier for using his drum track from "Big Beat" in the song. Keys really shows her chops here, running her voice up and down the octave as she belts out the lyrics, "She got both feet on the ground and she's burning it down. She got her head in the clouds and she's not backing down. This girl is on fire." She performed it for the first time at the September MTV Video Music Awards, where it went over big, with help from Minaj and Olympic athlete Gabby Douglas. Despite a few holdouts, it has been almost universally critically praised, and hit the number one spot on the Top 10 Billboard chart and sold 159,000 copies in its first week. The album features 13 new R&B tracks, and the majority of them are strong. Keys teams up with Scottish songwriter Emeli Sandé for the ballad "Brand New Me," and while the sentiment is there, the soul is lacking. Ditto for "Tears Always Win, a soulful, old-school song about the one who got away, written with Bruno Mars. And although the message of love as the greatest riches in "Not Even the King," is sweet, the song falls with a thud. Her drum-heavy "New Day" fares much better, as she works a Latin vibe, and sings, "We've got one life, let's live it up." And she joins forces And Frank Ocean lends his verses to "One Thing," a beautiful R&B song about a man with "a foul mouth that never lied," who has left her to move into the house his father left him, and hasn't invited her to join him. It's easily among the best of the lot. Keys finds her voice best in her story songs, like the funky ballad, "Listen to Your heart," written with John Legend, and the acoustic jam, "That's When I Knew." She makes the most of synth beats and funky drums in "When It's All Over" produced with Jamie xx, but the song meanders too much to be a good dance track. "Limitedless" does better, with an island beat that reminds one of early Rihanna jams. The genial Maxwell lends his falsetto warbles to "Fire We Make," a slow song with clap tracks and a guitar solo by Gary Clark, Jr.. This slow jam is just the thing for when loving moves from the streets to the sheets. Keys closes with "101," a whisper of a love song that showcases her fine voice. Keys will hit the road in 2013, on tour with R&B singer Miguel, when this fire will really heat up. RCA

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.