INGRID MICHAELSON: HUMAN AGAIN (ALBUM REVIEW)

by ALEX NAGORSKI

Singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson’s heart is like a vineyard grape: a fragile object that was stomped on and crushed until all that was left of it was a bloody mess.

With a mess like that, you can do two things: either discard what’s left or use it to create a bottle of wine. And the latter is precisely what Ingrid has done with her fifth release, Human Again. She’s taken her heartbreak and turned it into the finest Merlot: a richly textured and full-bodied product with deep crimson tones and a satisfyingly tart edge.

Channeling the angst and vulnerability of its predecessors like Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill or Kelly Clarkson’s My December, Human Again is a raw and brutal portrait of the end of a relationship and the tide that comes after the storm.

On Human Again, Ingrid also trades in her signature ukulele for a grittier rock sound to match the darkness of the album’s theme. Upon first hearing her play cuts from the record at her annual Holiday Hop back in December (which I reviewed here), I immediately knew that Human Again would give birth to a much more mature and musically evolved Ingrid than the one her fans were used to.

And while the record is a natural next stop following her last release (2009’s Everybody), Human Again will come as a surprise to those who expect another near-acoustic compilation of cutesy love songs and occasional Grey’s Anatomy-ready self-deprecating ballads.

The album opens with “Fire,” a track with a string opening so bombastic that it almost seems like it’s challenging the orchestration of The Veronicas’ “Untouched” to a duel. The track perfectly sets up the tone of the album as Ingrid sings about pursuing a toxic love. And despite knowing the danger that lies within the flames, she can’t help but be the moth drawn to its enticing glow.

“You burn me up and I love it/Now I’m walking in, walking in a fire/I’m walking in a fire with you/I’m walking in, walking in a fire/When I walk into you,” Ingrid sings over the driving percussion pulse and a clashing battle of violins.

Up next is “This Is War,” a song about the struggles one must face when leaving a relationship behind. But instead of succumbing to the pain inflicted upon her, Ingrid uses the track to pick herself up from the ditch her former lover is kicking her into. “You lock me out and knock me down/And I will find my away around/I won’t surrender/This is war,” she triumphantly declares.

This Oprah-approved attitude of moving forward and learning from a relationship instead of allowing it to cripple you is one that appears throughout much of Human Again. Upbeat tracks like the rock-driven “Palm Of Your Hand,” the funk-injected “Black and Blue” and the confectious piano-pop anthem “Do It Now” showcase Ingrid’s unwillingness to settle – no matter how tempting a prospect at times.

But as in any tale of major heartbreak, for every moment of strength comes a moment of weakness. A moment where despite your better judgments, you give into your masochistic instincts and find yourself paralyzed by the after-effects of sleeping in the bed you once shared with someone you love. And on Human Again, these moments are abound.

The most harrowing example is “I’m Through,” a gut-wrenching ballad that tells the story of Ingrid’s inability to let go of her ex. In the song, she’s dating someone new. They laugh together and have a seemingly good time, but, simply put, “he holds the door and holds my hand but doesn’t feel like you.” Never one to shy away from exposing her innermost emotions in her lyrics, Ingrid has written a song that flawlessly illustrates the pain that comes with trying to force yourself to move on before you’re ready to.

Yet sometimes feeling that pain is precisely the kick in the ass you need to be able to continue. “No, no, don’t rescue me/I like the saltwater sting/It feels so good to feel/It feels so good just to feel something,” she sings on the Fiona Apple-esque “In The Sea.” In other words, the wound is raw is but the pain is at least a reminder that she’s still capable of feeling. Way to put a positive twist on a heart-shattering concept, huh?

Production wise, Human Again is the most advanced we’ve heard Ingrid yet. Songs like album standout “Ribbons,” the bluesy “End Of The World” and bonus track “Live It With Love” are fueled by illustrious harmonies and background vocals that accompany her already gorgeous voice far more than in her previous releases.

Yet don’t be fooled into thinking that the singer/songwriter quality of Ingrid’s music is gone. Tracks like the soft “How We Love,” “Keep Me Warm” and “Always You” serve as gentle reminders that Ingrid is still the go-to chanteuse for your smoky coffeehouse playlists.

Debuting at the top of the iTunes charts and projected to premiere in the top five on next week’s Billboard charts, Human Again is a true testament to Ingrid’s artistry. It’s a rare record in that it marks a major evolution for an already established musician while both preserving and amplifying the authenticity of her previous releases.

Scaling the entire spectrum of heartbreak, Human Again is an album as phenomenal as it is honest from start to finish. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy now. But fair warning: if you’ve recently experienced a bad breakup, you may want to hide all sharp objects before listening.

Human Again was released on January 24.

Originally published on MuuMuse

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH JOJO

by ALEX NAGORSKI

In 2004, 13-year-old singer JoJo became the youngest person to ever have a #1 single on Billboard’s Top 40 mainstream charts with her smash, “Leave (Get Out).” Two years later, she relived Top 5 Billboard chart success with “Too Little Too Late,” the platinum-certified lead single off of her sophomore album.

But then a whole lot of shadiness happened over at JoJo’s label, Blackground Records. And despite her seven-album contract, it was unclear when her fans could be expecting another record from the singer. In the meantime, JoJo starred in a number of films (such as R.V. alongside Robbie Williams), released a mixtape and assured fans that more new music was on the way.

This spring, the wait will finally be over.

Six years after the release of her last official record, the now 21-year-old popstar is set to make a comeback of epic proportions this spring with the release of Jumping Trains, her third official album and her first with Interscope Records.

With lead single “Disaster” currently impacting radio (the music video is posted below), I spoke with JoJo about the creative process and evolution of Jumping Trains, her touring plans, her newfound adoration for Madonna and more.

What does the title, Jumping Trains, mean to you?

Jumping Trains has taken on a few different meanings for me. Relocating from Massachusetts to L.A. was definitely a big transition for me. Then there’s that natural progression of growing from girl to woman, changing labels, leaving certain things behind and moving onto a new chapter, a new season and bringing fresh energy in. When you think of actually jumping trains, it’s dangerous and exhilarating – but if you make it, it’s worth the risk. So I wanted to bring that idea to the project.

The album’s lead single “Disaster” marks the first time you’ve broken into the Top 40 Billboard Pop Songs chart since “Too Little Too Late.” How did you celebrate when you heard the news?

(laughs) Well, I haven’t celebrated it yet. But if it continues to climb, maybe I’ll pop open a bottle of champagne with my team. But there’s still much more to be done.

Based on what we’ve heard so far, Jumping Trains will be a much edgier and sexier record than your previous releases. On your website, you call this directional shift, “pop with an anger-management problem.” Can you elaborate a little bit about what you mean by that and talk to what sparked this musical evolution?

Sure. It was very natural. The recording process has been very organic. Whatever’s going on in my life is going to be reflected in the music. And by the way, I’m still recording. That never stops. I’m constantly writing and this album continues to evolve. But for a great chunk of time, I was in this very angsty place where I felt like I was fighting against the world. I was in a toxic relationship and everything was just dramatic so I did write a lot about that. But now that I’m out of that, this is definitely not going to be a “guy bashing” album or a “me against the world” album. It’s just a really honest representation of a girl trying to make her way through her 20s.

How representative is “Disaster” of the overall thematic structure and sound of Jumping Trains?

That’s a good question. I would say that “Disaster” is one of the more straight forward pop records on this album. I wanted this album to be infused with all the different genres of music that inspire me and keep me going. So I would say that “Disaster” is the most rock/pop record on here. And while there is a lot of diversity on the album, this is the most cohesive body of work that I’ve put out.

So if you had to classify the album with a single genre, what would it be?

I think pop would be most appropriate because it covers such a wide variety of things today. We call Adele, Rihanna and Lady GaGa “pop,” but I think they’re all quite different in the things that they come out with.

The releases of your mixtape, buzz single “The Other Chick” and eventually “Disaster,” introduced your fans to a much more mature and lyrically exposed singer and songwriter than the one we’ve been used to. What about grown-up JoJo will shock your fans the most?

(laughs) Well it might be shocking for them if I curse or if I talk about sex or if I’m opinionated and outspoken. Or even if I’m a little rough around the edges. I’m not really sure what the most shocking thing would be but I just try to be myself because that’s all I can do.

Your cover of Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” exploded all over the blogosphere last year and has hit over 21 million views on YouTube. Were you surprised by the huge reaction the song received?

Oh, I was totally surprised! I had no idea anyone would even want to listen to it. I just really loved Drake’s song. I loved what he was saying in it. I thought he was very vulnerable and honest and I thought it was very bold of him to say the things that he said. So I said to myself, “I’m going to take a stab at this. I’m feeling kind of emo right now and I’ve got some pain in my heart so why not try letting it out?”

The way you discuss the themes of female empowerment in your music call to memory the massive “girl power” movement around the prime of the Spice Girls. What women in the industry inspire you most as both a songwriter and a performer?

Well, I’ve been doing a lot of studying lately. I’ve been obsessing over YouTube clips and Googling things and reading books about people that I consider to be icons. So I’ve been researching people like Madonna and Joni Mitchell and more current day people like Beyonce, Celine Dion and even Alanis Morissette. I’m just really interested to learn about these women who built these empires that kind of transcend music. They’re just all really smart with their money and with their branding. I think it’s a wonderful time to be a woman and I try to take what I can from the people who have come before me. Like I think that Madonna is so brilliant. I have a totally newfound respect for her after I just watched her Truth or Dare documentary. I know that that’s old news and that it came out years and years ago but it was new to me. I was too young, obviously, when it came out and I’m just so, so inspired by her.

That’s so funny that you mention Truth or Dare because I watched that movie literally three days ago with a friend of mine and we were talking about how even if someone is not a Madonna fan per say, it’s a movie so worth watching.

Exactly! I definitely didn’t consider myself a diehard fan or anything like that but after I watched this, I thought to myself that there’s just no denying that this woman deserves her place in history forever.

Absolutely. And speaking of Madonna, she’s going to be playing the halftime show at the Super Bowl next weekend. I know you’re a big sports fan so are you going to be doing anything special for the game? Which team are you rooting for?

Oh, definitely The Patriots. I actually grew up with their stadium in my backyard in Foxborough. So I’m really excited! I’m not sure what my plans are yet. I’m not even sure yet where I’ll be. I don’t know if I’ll be in L.A. or on the road but wherever I’ll be, I’ll be celebrating (laughs).


Last year, you toured with Joe Jonas and Jay Sean, took part in Hard Rock Café’s Pinktober tour for breast cancer awareness and in a couple of weeks, you’ll be hitting the road again by joining Big Time Rush. Which of your new songs are you most excited to perform for a live audience?

Honestly, I can’t wait to share everything with the audience. I’m not going to be playing the whole album yet. I’m obviously a little nervous about that because we’ve had so many leaks. But I’ll definitely play some cuts off the new album because I really do want to share them and hear peoples’ opinions. But I also don’t want the material to be stale by the time the album comes out. I’m most looking forward to when the album is released and being able to perform all of the songs because they really are my babies. Especially the more emotional records or the ones that feel like excerpts of conversations that I’ve had. I’m really excited about that.

What’s your signature ritual to preserve your voice when you’re out on the road and performing so much?

(laughs) The signature JoJo thing is that I take shots of extra virgin olive oil before every performance. It lubricates your throat. It’s so effing disgusting and just thinking about it makes me want to throw up right now. But I do it. I cover my nose and I take shots of it. And then after a show, I like to have a hot toddy.

You’ve been working on this album for literally years now. How have the songs evolved from when you first wrote and recorded them to the mastered versions we’ll be hearing when Jumping Trains hits stores?

I know that sounds like, “oh my god, that’s so long,” but I just never stop, you know what I mean? Since there hadn’t been a release date for so long, I was just like, “eff it, I’m going to stay in the studio.” There’s definitely been an evolution in the lyrical content, in the vocals, in the maturity and a whole bunch of other things. I just experimented with a lot of sounds to see where I felt comfortable, what worked best and what people were responding to. And I think we came up with something that I’m really proud of. In the beginning, I experimented with genres like neo-soul, jazz and things like that. I’m kind of musically schizophrenic and I just explored as much as I could. Right now we have this overall pop record but it is infused with hip-hop, rock and even some country melodies. It’s just a mix of things that influence me.

Aside from being a singer, you’ve also appeared as an actress in quite a few feature films. Can we expect to see you on the big screen again anytime soon?

Definitely. I love to act. It’s just not my main focus right at the moment because I’m so involved in getting this album out and promoting it and making sure that I give it my full attention. But when the right project comes along, I’d love to act again and would love to continue to do it in the future.

As someone who’s spent so much of her life in the limelight, how have you managed to avoid the troubles and downward spirals that so many child stars unfortunately experience?

I find this question to be really interesting because I am not without faults and I am certainly by no means an angel. I’ve had my share of ups and downs – they just haven’t been publicized. I don’t like to make a spectacle of myself – and I’m not saying that these people do – but when I’m going through something, I try to contain it and keep it more within my camp. I think I’m just lucky. I come from a small town in Massachusetts and I don’t want to ever embarrass my family or my friends or my team and I just think that I’m very conscious of the way I represent myself.

Do you already have plans for a follow-up single to “Disaster” leading up to the release of Jumping Trains?

Yeah, there are plans but I’m still really focused on “Disaster.” It’s just starting to kick off so I really want to just stay concentrated on that for now.

And for my last question: if you were running for President of the United States in 2012, what would your official campaign slogan be?

(laughs) Wow. Great question. Hmm … well okay, I’ll say this because it’s the first thing that comes to mind and I just got it tattooed on myself. I grew up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and it’s the New Hampshire state motto, “Live free or die.” I don’t know if that’s a slogan for a campaign but that’s what I’m going to say. Live free or die. (laughs)

I like that! Thanks so much, JoJo. I’m really looking forward to the new record and it was very nice to chat with you.

Aw, thank you! I appreciate you so much. It was great talking to you.

Originally published on PopBytes

THE "AUTHENTICITY" OF LANA DEL REY

This past Sunday morning couldn’t have been pleasant for singer Lana Del Rey.

The already controversial up-and-comer had just made her American television performance debut as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. With this month’s upcoming release of her first major label album, Born To Die, there was much hype and anticipation before her SNL appearance. But her two performances (which you can watch here) were distinctly underwhelming.

Del Rey looked nervous and bored and had very little stage presence. Not to mention her vocals seemed off. All of a sudden, her post-SNL career seemed to have been given the AshleeSimpson-kiss-of-death before it had even really started. Across the web, Del Rey was panned from all angles.

But there’s just one problem: a large portion of the criticism of her failed to focus on her music. Which is why I say let’s not rush to judgment.

True, I haven’t yet been blown away by any of the songs I’ve heard from Del Rey. But I want to listen to Born To Die before forming my opinions. Sadly, I seem to be the exception here. Many people are all too eager to write her off before the record even has a chance to hit stores. Why? On the grounds that she is “inauthentic” – an adjective that has been used by Del Rey’s critics almost synonymously with her name.

But how exactly is Del Rey “inauthentic”? Because she was born as Lizzy Grant and opted to use a stage name for her pop persona? That argument really sucks. Think of Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and a substantial chunk of the rest of the entertainment industry. Stage names are everywhere and we love stars who use them, forgetting that they ever were called anything else.

Or is it because she had obvious plastic surgery? If Del Rey’s infamous pout had been enhanced by Photoshop on a magazine cover instead of by needles at a doctor’s office, we’d probably be okay with it. She’d be adhering to our cultural expectations of what a 25-year-old female singer should look like.

What so many people aren’t willing to admit is how petty and illogical many of the “authenticity” critiques of her really are. Or that the “identities” of other pop stars we culturally embrace are not carefully manufactured to maintain certain public perceptions of who they are.

Take Lady Gaga. One day, she’s Tisch alumn Stefani Germanotta playing open mic nights at piano bars on the Lower East Side. The next, she’s a global pop icon who can sell out three headlining shows at Madison Square Garden in just one hour.

Yet the fact that Gaga transformed herself into this expertly crafted piece of performance art when she released her debut record in 2008 never produced the charge that she wasn’t “being true to herself.” Instead, it got fans so interested in her that she’s selling millions of copies of her records and is the world’s most followed person on Twitter.

Lana Del Rey is no different. She is to Lizzy Grant what Lady Gaga is to Stefani Germanotta: a carefully crafted character who illustrates the side of her that she feels best represents the music she’s making. And there’s no arguing that the character of Lady Gaga is what put Stefani Germanotta on the map.

Then there’s Katy Perry. Before she was singing wretched songs about blacking out on Friday nights, she was gospel singer Katy Hudson. But when she wanted to rip off her wimple in favor of whipped cream shooting out of her chest, she started fresh by releasing her “debut” album under the pseudonym of Katy Perry. Now she’s a record-breaking pop sensation and international sex icon who couldn’t be more opposite from the wholesome pastor’s daughter character she was when she first entered the music scene. Yet of all the things that have been said and written about her, Perry has never been crucified (at least on a mainstream level) for her lack of authenticity.

So then why is Del Rey? If she had waited until she experienced Billboard success and then slapped “Sasha Fierce” to the title of her next album, would it have been okay for her to take on an alter ego? To be relevant in a continuously and rapidly evolving pop climate, you need to at least be open to the idea of revamping your image. Do you really think Madonna would be playing the halftime show at the Super Bowl in 2012 if she hadn’t reinvented her persona time and time again after her 1983 debut?

There’s a reason that artists like Christina Aguilera have entirely brand new looks with each new album they put out. It’s so that the focus of the conversation is on them. That doesn’t mean they’re not genuine. It means that they’re smart business people.

And that’s exactly what’s happening with Del Rey. Her first major album hasn’t even been released yet and she’s already been asked to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live and has made countless headlines. She’s even got NBC news anchor Brian Williams sharing his opinion of her. How many people can make these claims? And despite the seemingly negative attention, Del Rey’s album sampler EP climbed to #2 on the iTunes charts (falling just under the adorably untouchable chart-hog Adele).

“It’s evident that the American public is now not only aware of this controversial new singer, but that they’re interested in learning more about who she is and what she sounds like,” wrote VH1 Managing Editor Mark Graham in a blog post following the SNL debacle. “In other words, mission accomplished for Team LDR.”

So if you want to dismiss Lana Del Rey, that’s obviously totally fine. Just realize that the criteria you should be judging her on is her music and her music alone. Her “authenticity” should play no role in how her songs are received. Sorry America, but as the genius South Park episode about Britney Spears pointed out, it’s not your job to dictate how pop stars should live their lives. Not to be that guy, but can we just for once collectively decide to let the music do the talking?

Born To Die is now available to pre-order from iTunes.

Originally published on PopBytes

And thank you to THE WEEK for linking to this article in this feature.

GREY’S ANATOMY: WHY TEDDY WON’T BE IZZIE 2.0

by ALEX NAGORSKI

 

In Italy, her actions could be considered a crime of passion. On The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, she would be dubbed “morally corrupt.” But no matter how you see it, there’s no denying that when Dr. Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) cut her terminally ill fiancée’s LVAD wire to bump him to the top of the heart transplant recipient list, she would never be the same again.

In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a fan of ABC’s primetime medical drama Grey’s Anatomy who doesn’t consider Denny’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) death in the show’s second season finale to be one of the series’ most iconic and heartbreaking moments.

And while the episode itself was more of a tearjerker than Nicholas Sparks could ever dream of concocting in the estrogen-soaked lab he shares with Jodi Picoult, the sting felt by its aftermath was just as harsh.

It was after Denny’s death that Izzie became a hollow shell of the person she used to be. Who could forget the season three premiere when she lay on her bathroom floor, unable to move or accept the help she was being offered? Even when she found love again in Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) seasons later, she was still (and quite literally in the case of season five) haunted by the memory of Denny.

Now in its eighth season, Grey’s Anatomy remains one of ABC’s highest rated shows. And while Izzie may be long gone (Heigl ended her contract to pursue a career as a film “star”), a situation similar to hers is currently shaking the grounds of Seattle Grace/Mercy West Hospital: the death of Henry Burton.

For those of you who hate good television and therefore don’t know, Henry Burton (the unfairly handsome Scott Foley) was married to Dr. Teddy Altman (Kim Raver). Like Denny, he too began his journey down the road of Grey’s romantic drama as a patient. But despite what many critics and fans are currently hypothesizing, Henry’s death will not turn Teddy into Izzie 2.0.

For starters, Teddy is a tough cookie. This is not to say that she isn’t incredibly impacted by Henry’s unfortunate fate or that Izzie is weak – but rather to point out that Teddy has a thick coat of armor from the tragedy she’s already had to endure. She is, after all, a woman who lost her best friend in 9/11 and later served as a doctor to our troops in Iraq. And whereas you got the impression that Izzie spent her whole life planning a fairytale wedding and ripping out pages of Cosmo, Teddy has never been the girl who wears her heart on her sleeve.

Therefore, the main dividing line at which the comparisons between Denny and Henry’s deaths are drawn is at the coping mechanisms of their significant others.

Following Denny’s death, Izzie immediately wanted to quit her internship program and leave the medical field. Her entire world stopped and she lost sight of her purpose in it. Without Denny, Izzie temporarily lost her entire sense of identity.

But in the episode that followed Teddy’s discovery of Henry’s death (which aired this past Thursday), she was back in the OR, dry-eyed and characteristically bossy as she continued to save the lives of others.

And where Izzie largely blamed herself for Denny’s death, Teddy comes to the realization that Henry’s death was inevitable. In the most recent episode, there’s a devastating reoccurring scene in which Teddy asks Cristina to tell her from beginning to end the measures she took to try and save Henry’s life while operating on him. Difficult as it is, Cristina does this over and over again as she knows that this is something she must do to help her friend begin to heal.

Yet despite Cristina’s inability to save Henry, Teddy points no fingers. At the end of the episode, there’s a particularly poignant scene in which Cristina is once again recounting the events of Henry’s surgery and Teddy chimes in to finish the story with her. The details have all sunk in. She understands how and why Henry died. She knows that nothing could have been done differently to save him. Once again, Teddy comes to terms with the fact that she has lost the most important person in her life.

From what we’ve seen so far, it’s safe to say that Teddy will prove the naysayers wrong and will externalize her pain in a very different way than Izzie did. She refuses to let her loss serve as a catalyst for her personal demise and there’s no doubt that she’ll force herself to soldier on. Now it’s just the question of how.

“I can’t even imagine how she’s going to trust to open up her heart again,” Raver told The Hollywood Reporter. “When she did lose her best friend in 9/11 and went to Iraq, her PTSD wasn’t really apparent; she was very positive. I think that is one of her amazing qualities: she finds the positive, life-affirming thing. But I think there is a depth of sadness underneath all of that. I can’t imagine how she will bounce back from the loss of Henry because I feel for her that was her first and major true love. She imagined the rest of her life with him so I don’t know how she will open up to that again. But that will be an interesting journey.”

Grey’s Anatomy airs on ABC on Thursdays at 9:00. Below, watch the trailer for this week’s new episode:

Originally published on PopBytes