The idea behind Clean Bandit, the British quartet whose dance hit “Rather Be” cracked the American top 10 this week, is to combine classical works by composers like Shostakovich and Beethoven with modern electronic music. The title of their first single, 2010’s “Mozart’s House,” cheekily spelled it out. It’s not exactly a new idea, but the band claims their use of stringed instruments for lead melody separates them from Balearic club tracks that have long deployed string sections to infuse their beats with extra drama — and as of this year they’ve certainly become the most popular proponents of this particular genre blend. (EDIT: Except Lindsey Stirling, blah!) Clever wordplay aside, “Mozart’s House” was an amusing curiosity that underlined why Clean Bandit’s approach was a sketchy proposition. Merely meshing together two genres isn’t enough; you still need a song.
With “Rather Be,” they’ve finally got one that rises above the level of novelty. The slow-climbing hit pairs Clean Bandit with Jess Glynne, a singer whose soulful theatrics sync well with the band’s house inclinations. She blooms from understated sass to full-on hand-in-the-air euphoria over the course of the song, lending it a humanity Clean Bandit’s music often lacks. If anybody becomes a star on the back of “Rather Be,” it will be Glynne. But the song excels for reasons beyond her vocal performance. Every instrument is on-point and vibrantly alive: The violins dart playfully, the keyboards dance through otherworldly arpeggios, the piano pounds with an organic urgency, and the digital drums and bass glide with crisp, fluid precision. The song is a strong composition in its own right, yet it’s elevated by every element in the arrangement.
Fortunately, the majority of Clean Bandit’s recent album New Eyes hews closer to “Rather Be” than “Mozart’s House” — that is, it’s an album of pop songs built on Clean Bandit’s electro-classical formula, not a celebration of the formula itself. A lot of intriguing sounds pop up over the course of the LP: “Come Over” combines Lily Allen-style synthpop with ebullient steel-drum dancehall; the title track matches a spidery beat with grimey rap verses and a vocoder chorus worthy of science fiction; “Birch” is an alluring trip-hop Bond theme; “Extraordinary” shows that the “Rather Be” formula can be applied to a power ballad too. Clean Bandit have honed their approach without restraining their creativity, and the resulting album is overflowing with ideas. Furthermore, most of those ideas play out so naturally that you almost forget this is the work of classically trained academics.
Still, none of Clean Bandit’s other songs match the potency they achieved on “Rather Be.” They’ve released a whopping seven singles from New Eyes, and none of the other six came close to connecting like that one, so it’s no surprise they’ve teamed with Glynne again for one of the bonus tracks on the album’s inevitable deluxe reissue. “Real Love,” their attempt to make lightning strike twice, is predictably not as effortlessly effervescent as “Rather Be.” Those playful instrumental flourishes aren’t as plentiful, and the composition isn’t quite as inspired. It feels very much like a sequel. Yet Glynne sells the shit out of this song, and from the sparkling computer flickers to the soaring strings to the heavenly backing vocals, the band is in fighting form as well. They should consider adding her to the band full-time; I’d absolutely listen to a whole album based on this partnership. There’s a lot to appreciate about music that makes you think, but when they’re with her… well, you know how the song goes.
Will Clean Bandit continue to ascend to the status of pop music royalty? They seem more likely to become a one-hit wonder in the broader public imagination while developing a passionate cult following among music students who want to rage against academia’s own special brand of snobbery. (Check that “So you think electronic music is boring” monologue on “Mozart’s House”; nah, dog, most people like electronic music just fine these days — it’s classical they can’t abide.) What about setting off a new wave of classical instruments in club music? It’s hard to imagine one band of dabblers with an effective gimmick will singlehandedly changing the course of a genre, but I could see them having a Ramones-like effect and spawning a small yet fervent subgenre among their fellow violin-slingers. Regardless of what happens in the future, they’ve crafted at least one song worth losing yourself in right now.
Consider this: Last week’s #1 album was by Barbra Streisand, and this week the Billboard 200 crown belongs to Tony Bennett (with Lady Gaga’s help, but still). At first blush, that seems to confirm the truism that old people buy music and young people don’t. But considering how many copies Thom Yorke moved via BitTorrent — stats that don’t count according to SoundScan — maybe it just confirms a different truism: The old ways of measurement are no longer a sufficient yardstick. But SoundScan is what we’re concerned with here, and SoundScan says Bennett and Gaga’s album of old-timey big band jazz duets, Cheek To Cheek, is the best-selling album of the week. It moved 131,000 copies in its first week, narrowly defeating Kenny Chesney’s new The Big Revival (#2, 130,000) and Streisand’s Partners (#3, 127,000). As previously noted, Bennett, 88, breaks his own record for oldest person with a #1 album.
Alt-J’s knotty This Is All Yours enters at #4 with 68,000, which is more than 11 times better than the 6,000 in first-week sales for 2012 debut An Awesome Wave. A cappella group Pentatonix enters at #5 by selling 46,000 copies of new EP PTX: Vol. III. Chris Brown’s X sold 36,000 to land at #6, while the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack is back in the top 10 at #7 with 30,000. Joe Bonamassa is at #8 with 26,000 in first-week sales for Different Shades Of Blue; as Billboard points out, it’s the best ranking for a blues album since Gary Clark Jr.’s Blak And Blu debuted at #6 two years ago. Rounding out the top 10 are Maroon 5’s V (#9, 26,000) and the debut of Jennifer Hudson’s JHud (#10, 24,000).
Over on the Hot 100, the big story is two long-simmering hits finally cracking the top 10. Those would be Swedish pop auteur Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)” (#7) and, as mentioned above, Clean Bandit’s Jess Glynne collaboration “Rather Be” (#10). Both songs are highly deserving of their popularity, so kudos to them for breaking through stateside. As for the rest of the top 10, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” are 1-2 for a fourth straight week. The next three shuffled around from last week, with Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” back up at #3, Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora’s “Black Widow” returning to its #4 peak, and Jessie J’s Ariana Grande- and Minaj-assisted “Bang Bang” falling to #5. You already know #7 and #10 — as for the rest, Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” stays strong at #6, Grande and Zedd’s “Break Free” slides down to #8, and Jeremih and YG’s great “Don’t Tell ‘Em” is up another spot to #9.
Maroon 5 – “Animals”
“Baby, I’m preyin’ on you tonight/ Hunt you down, eat you alive/ Just like animals.” If you think the lyrics to Maroon 5’s latest single are intense, wait until you see the blood-soaked video, which domestic violence advocacy group RAINN condemned this week for glamorizing stalking. (Levine plays a butcher who hunts and kills women including his real-life wife Behati Prinsloo.) They’re right; the video is gross and creepy. Musically, though, this is way more appealing than the tepid “Maps.” It’s got more character than Maroon 5 songs usually do, even if that character is arguably reprehensible.
One Direction – “Steal My Girl”
Regardless of which song its intro rips off, the song itself (along with previously big-upped power-pop jam “Fireproof”) has me thinking 1D’s Four will be among those challenging Tove Lo’s Queen Of The Clouds as the year’s best pure pop album. (I previously listed Taylor Swift, Charli XCX, and Jessie Ware as contenders; Nick Jonas should probably be on the shortlist too.) I’m still stunned that this new generation of boy bands is infusing their sound with so many rock elements (see also: 1D tourmates 5 Seconds Of Summer), but I’m liking the unexpected flavors of bubblegum they’re ending up with.
Gorgon City – “Go All Night” (Feat. Jennifer Hudson)
British DJ duo Gorgon City are poised to become the next Disclosure. With “Go All Night,” they enlisted fellow rising star Kiesza to write them a song on par with Settle’s best and Jennifer Hudson to pull the same house-diva theatrics Mary J. Blige contributed to Disclosure’s “F For You” remake. The result is a fucking banger that absolutely deserved its honor as Zane Lowe’s “Hottest Record In The World” this week.
Mikky Ekko – “Smile”
Ekko is the dude who duetted with Rihanna on “Stay,” but what he’s doing here is a lot more interesting — kind of a space-age Jeff Buckley thing, but with the edges smoothed out.
Lilly Wood & The Prick And Robin Schulz – “Prayer In C (Robin Schulz Radio Mix)”
Spotify’s US and UK top 10 are essentially identical right now, with one major aberration: In Britain, they love “Prayer In C.” I’m not entirely clear as to why; it’s nice enough, but no one aspect of the track jumps out and screams, “It’s a hit!”
You + Me – “Capsized”
Still not sold on the partnership of P!nk and City And Colour’s Dallas Green, but this gloomy acoustic ballad is a step up from the self-titled song they introduced themselves with. Think of it as a misty sequel to Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls.”
Nicole Scherzinger – “Run”
Scherzinger, the former Pussycat Doll who’s been trying to carve out a successful solo career for a while now, has rarely had material as strong as the piano ballad “Run” to work with. It suggests that maybe her destiny is not steamy club jams with elaborate dance numbers but belting out torch songs in formal dresses at ornate theaters.
Hayley Kiyoko – “This Side Of Paradise”
Disney actress Kiyoko has a role in the upcoming Jem And The Holograms movie, and according to Idolator she makes electro-pop in her parents’ LA basement. “This Side Of Paradise” is fairly pedestrian post-Purity Ring stuff, but it’s better than most actors’ attempts at music.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Gawker ranked all 141 #1 singles of the past decade; Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” was crowned #1 of the #1s. [Gawker]
- Director Jon Landis is working on a 3D version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. [NY Daily News]
- Taylor Swift is providing fans with stationary to make invitations for 1989 listening parties. [Evite]
- Why would anyone want to listen to a version of Jessie J’s “Bang Bang” without Ariana Grande or Nicki Minaj? [Idolator]
- Macy Gray’s new album The Way is streaming. [Billboard]