Expanding the sonic canvas

November 25, 2018

Expanding the sonic canvas

Album Reviews

On their latest record, Little Mix feature a set that sees the singers searching for hits by trying on different styles to see what fits; Olly Murs’ You Know I Know is split in two parts; Muse’s latest concept album, Simulation Theory, sees them expand their sonic canvas.


Artist: Little Mix

Album: LM5***1/2

While many of their reality TV cohorts may have fallen by the wayside since their time vying for a recording contract on a televised singing competition, Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, and Jesy Nelson are still going strong.

Since being brought together as Little Mix on the eighth season of UK’s The X Factor in 2011 (and eventually emerging as the series victors), the British girl group have become one of the most popular products of the talent show circuit and amassed considerable success over the years. The ladies have now released their fifth album, LM5, a set that sees the singers searching for hits by trying on different styles to see what fits; lucky for them much of it does.

Lyrically, the album largely focuses on female empowerment, clearly aiming to inspire their young fans to love themselves and support women around them. Little Mix relay messages of body positivity (‘Strip’), confidence (‘Joan of Arc’), and friendship and support (‘Told You So’) on this record, although standard musings about relationship strife (‘Monster in Me’) and unconditional love (‘More Than Words’) have also been peppered into the mix.

Sonically, this fourteen song set is more confident than their previous releases. This is R&B-tinged pop that seems coloured in part by the mainstream trends across the pond. Indeed American artists and producers provide a helping hand in shaping some of these tunes - Nicki Minaj contributes a rap verse to reggae influenced ‘Woman Like Me’, Sharaya J appears on the self-acceptance anthem ‘Strip’ and Timbaland lends his production wizardry to ‘More Than Words’.

The most interesting moments of the album come curtesy of infectious beats and unique musical touches, like the strutting stilettos of ‘Strip’ and the cutlery-on-crockery beat of highlight ‘Wasabi’. But Little Mix also impress even when they’re delivering a regular power ballad like ‘Monster in Me’, which explains the outfit’s enduring appeal.

Not everything works quite as well though. At times the group seems like they’re searching for an identity and haven’t quite been able to find a sound that’s uniquely their own. And there are a few lyrically questionable moments here as well; singing "when he’s with me, b*tches hate me" on ‘Motivate’ undercuts their message of female solidarity, and given how their lives and stories turned out, "Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, [and] Queen of Hearts" (‘Joan of Arc’) probably aren’t the icons women should want to feel like.

Highlights: ‘Wasabi’, ‘Strip’, ‘Monster in Me’


Artist: Olly Murs

Album: You Know I Know***

Another X Factor alumnus still soldering on is Olly Murs, the British singer who has used his smooth voice and lovable persona to find a place in the entertainment industry. Nearly a decade into his career, the pop singer has released a new double album to both continue his musical journey and celebrate his many successes so far.

You Know I Know is split into two parts; the first consists of fourteen new songs, while the second serves as a greatest hits compilation, putting together his most popular tracks including his collaborations with Demi Lovato, Flo Rida, Rizzle Kicks, and Travie McCoy.

There may be a few skippable moments on it, but overall the second disc is an enjoyable collection of career highlights.

It’s the first disc, however, that yields more mixed results. Thematically the new material mostly revolves around love and relationships and doesn’t go in any different or exciting directions. Musically, the album mostly offers upbeat ditties, accompanied by the occasional ballad. But while there are pleasant tunes here, there isn’t much creativity. The disappointingly derivative lead single ‘Moves’ sounds heavily inspired by Calvin Harris’s ‘Feels’, and ‘Mark On My Heart’ feels like it belongs on a Jess Glynne album.

Put together, You Know I Know doesn’t widen the singer’s appeal, but there are enough catchy new pop tunes here to please his fans, and the hits compilation is a joyous reminder of just how infectious his songs like ‘Dance with Me Tonight’ and ‘Up’ are albeit a distracting reminder of just how much ‘Troublemaker’ sounds like Maroon 5.

Highlights: (Disc 1) ‘Love Me Again’, ‘Something New’, ‘Take Your Love Away’

Artist: Muse

Album: Simulation Theory***1/2

Synthpop-meets-stadium rock in Muse’s latest concept album, Simulation Theory, the band’s eighth studio release, sees them expand their sonic canvas without abandoning their established style. And yet, it still sounds entirely like Muse, but Muse who is very enamoured with synthesizers and hip hop.

The English rock group have co-produced these eleven songs primarily with Rich Costey while singer Matt Bellamy continues to be the group’s main songwriter.

With a throwback science fiction inspired narrative built around the simulation hypothesis – the theory that all reality is actually an artificial simulation – the record finds Bellamy and co. trapped in a "dark fantasy world", trying to escape this false universe, a setup so dystopian it should come with its own comic book. And to drive home the 1980s pop culture reference point, the album cover art has been designed by Stranger Things visual artist Kyle Lambert.

Synths and hip hop beats adorn the tunes, and while the band clearly still believes in the power of the guitar solo, Muse have fully embraced the bombastic pop song here, creating the Timbaland-assisted hip hop ditty ‘Propaganda’ and the glorious, yearnful highlight ‘Something Human’. But things go awry at times, when the band ends up so lost in the mainstream that they fail to capture the magic that originally made them so popular. ‘Get Up and Fight’, for instance, is more fitting for a Katy Perry album, and even the aforementioned ‘Propaganda’ is just as likely to intrigue long-time fans as it is to disappoint them.

Highlights: ‘Pressure’, ‘Something Human’, ‘Propaganda’

Expanding the sonic canvas