Commerce abhors a vacuum, especially when the void is a product gap that’s being exploited by someone else. EMI must have been feeling very blue about Universal Music’s lucrative investment in Justin Bieber, till it heard about Conor Maynard.
This 19-year-old Briton had what now counts as a storybook entry into the music business. Friends heard him singing other people’s hits on the way home from school, and encouraged him to post his covers on YouTube. Several millions hits later, Ne-Yo was sending him fan mail and EMI’s Parlophone was at the door with a contract. That was in February, 2012; by April, Maynard’s first single Can’t Say No was nudging Bieber’s Boyfriend down in the U.K. pop charts.
The single, like most of the albums rushed to market in three months, was written and produced by Invisible Men, an English production trio cunningly recruited by Parlophone. There’s nothing particularly new about Maynard’s sound and singing style – Michael Jackson fully deserves the thanks he gets in the album credits – but Invisible Men’s buzzy hooks and down-market sound palette add some edge.
Can’t Say No is driven by woozy Game Boy sounds, and has a vaguely South Asian feel to it – some tabla in the beats would not be out of place. This catchy ditty is a bit like M.I.A. lite, with Maynard singing about how bad he likes to be with all the girls who “send my rocket to the sky.”
Animal is also about rutting hard and often, with peppery production and a terrific sense of pacing. Vegas Girl sees our young hero frolicking in the desert with the likes of Rihanna (whose hit Umbrella is briefly mimicked). Much of the disc, in fact, is an accounts-receivable note for the fleshy wages of fame. Never mind that Maynard’s album photography makes him look like he’s 12. This kind of product aims at tapping tween fantasies about a cute, willing but inaccessible boy. When an actual female shows up – in Better Than You, sung with Rita Ora – Maynard sounds like he’s hitting on his older sister’s friend, much as Bieber does in his recent duet with Nicki Minaj.
The best stuff is loaded at the top of the disc. A terrible swoon in quality takes over through the middle of the album, hitting bottom with Another One, which has neither a good hook, nor a decent melody, nor much charm in its grim hunt for another girl who “wanna peel my banana.” Maynard’s voice is darker and more heavily processed. You begin to see how a teenaged YouTube busker can be worked over by a powerful record company: Can’t say no, indeed.
The last good thing on the album is Glass Girl, a goodbye ode with a great hook and a gloomy bass line. Maynard sings about a fateful trip to Glastonbury, and about being “too young to be committed.” But those aren’t his words: The whole song was written and produced by Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes. If most of the album is Maynard dreaming of a life like Williams’s, this song is Williams imagining a life like his young protégé’s.
There’s nothing else on the record that would clue you in to Maynard’s actual experience of growing up in a seaside British resort town. For the purposes of this commercial project, he’s the randy, cherubic, tabula-rasa boy, and that’s just the way EMI wants it.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
God Forgives, I Don’t (Def Jam Records)
Of the luminaries to seek hip-hop’s crown, Rick Ross has been one of its strangest entrants. Jay-Z earned the throne with hustle and flow; Dr. Dre cautiously crafted his mythos. But in just two years, Rick Ross has become a meteoric kingpin through larger-than-life presence and an ear for juicy instrumentals. That’s all still here – but despite expensive beats with all-star guests (Drake, Andre 3000, Usher), you’re left wondering if he just paid the cost to be the boss. And when he joins Jay-Z and Dre on 3 Kings, you assume the title just rounded up from 2.5. “But I can adapt,” he insists on Hold Me Back, before abandoning the album’s surprising, soulful first half to lace laconic rhymes across reliable snares. In the land of the brash, the one-trick man is king – but as well as he does it, his is a hollow crown. Adrian Lee
Passion Pit (French Kiss/Sony)
Passion Pit is the electro-pop vehicle of Michael Angelakos, a high-voiced maestro whose glitzy exaltation and synthesizer shine demands sunglasses, the better to make out the full picture – a balance of the “bursting rays of August and your cold raindrops of March.” While Angelakos seems to admire upper-case popsters ELO and ABBA, Constant Conversations is neo-retro soul in the manner of Mayer Hawthorne. Mirrored Sea shimmers and twitches and thumps. Take a Walk stomps and spikes thoughtfully about family finances, and the stress of it all. Angelakos sings that he is too much a coward to admit when he’s in need, but, really, his album artfully says otherwise. Brad Wheeler
Passion Pit plays Montreal’s Osheaga Festival on Aug. 5.
Sleeping With a Stranger
Christina Martin (Come Undone/EMI)
This is a singer-songwriter who observes, feels, does not judge, and relays what she finds – “not good at keeping secrets,” she even admits. With a voice high, strong and bittersweet, the affecting Nova Scotian sings of search, vulnerability and the concept of home. Some of her most striking pieces are the shortest ones, such as the fleeting piano-driven ballad Away from Me, with its crystalline harmonies. Production touches – the brass on Falling for You will straighten your mood right up – are imaginative and deftly done. I think I hear a little Fleetwood Mac, on the pop side. This record just goes on, a dirt road forever, no turning back now. B.W.
Lekeu: Trio et Quatuor avec piano
Trio Hochelaga with Teng Li, viola (Atma Classiques)
The excellent Montreal ensemble Trio Hochelaga makes a mission of rediscovering music that has slipped through the cracks, and these two pieces by Belgian-born composer Guillaume Lekeu are wonderful finds. Lekeu had little opportunity to live up to the extraordinary promise of his 1890 Piano Trio in C minor: He was dead, of typhoid fever, a few years later at the age of 24. In Paris, Lekeu had studied with both César Franck and Vincent d’Indy, and their influence is clearly audible in the dense textures, chromatic harmonies and concentrated emotional energy of his music (and, less happily, in an overdependence on fugues and recurring themes in the trio). But these pieces are neither copies nor curiosities. From the trio’s arresting introduction to the quartet’s long, lyrical finale, this is music well worth programming. Elissa Poole