LabelParlophone / EMI
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)
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Passion Pit (French Kiss/Sony)
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Passion Pit plays Montreal’s Osheaga Festival on Aug. 5.
Sleeping With a Stranger
Christina Martin (Come Undone/EMI)
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Lekeu: Trio et Quatuor avec piano
Trio Hochelaga with Teng Li, viola (Atma Classiques)
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