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Buttery new Mika album assembles pastiche of throwback pop polish

As hit singles dried up, out singer/songwriter shows no sign of creative disenchantment

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Mika My Name is Michael Holbrook review, gay news, Washington Blade
(Image courtesy Republic Records)

First, I gotta get something off my chest: despite having released a glowingly wonderful new album, Mika has irritated me.

First, his current “Tiny Love Tiny Tour,” which kicked off last month and is on hiatus before resuming in November in Europe, featured a pathetically paltry three dates in the continental U.S. (there were two others in Montreal and one in Mexico City). Um, seriously? Your first U.S. tour in six-and-a-half years and you can only give us three dates? Not even a Miami show, where you actually live and recorded the new album? WTF?

I toyed with the idea of trekking up to New York for his show there, but am so glad I didn’t — he only played a paltry 70-minute set and completely ignored his last album, the 2015 masterpiece “No Place in Heaven.” He admitted in a recent Rolling Stone interview he used the no-frills U.S. dates to test material to unveil in a full-fledged production for the European dates. Um, gee, thanks. I mean, yeah, he’s a way bigger star in Europe so no surprise he keeps his eggs mostly in that basket, but this was such an egregious “fuck you” to his U.S. fanbase, it’s positively insulting. 

It’s hard to be too upset however as his new album “My Name is Michael Holbrook” (***1/2 out of four), out last week, is almost as good as “Heaven” and its equally solid predecessor “The Origin of Love” (2012). 

The 36-year-old openly gay pop singer/songwriter has hit an unfair sales slump. All his big hits were from his first two albums (“Life in Cartoon Motion” and “The Boy Who Knew Too Much”). They’re hook-laden ear feasts, too, but the last two albums and the new one feature a leaner, more sophisticated pop craftsman that sadly hasn’t caught on. Sales for “Origin” and “Heaven” paled in comparison to the first two records and yielded no major hit singles either here or abroad. “Popular Song,” an Ariana Grande duet, hit no. 87 on the Hot 100. His biggest hit, “Grace Kelly” was a worldwide smash in 2007 but only made it to no. 57 here. 

Washed up at 36? What’s going on here? Thankfully, artistically that’s not the case.

Written entirely by Mika (in most cases with a bevy of co-writers) and a new production team (Mark Crew and Dan Priddy) “Holbrook” is a lean, glistening pop gem featuring deceptively tight hooks; logical, cascading chord progressions; witty lyrical observations; tons of trademark falsetto vocals; and an overall buttery, easy-on-the-ear sonic shellac that flirts at first with an impression of slightness but ultimately so bombards you with catchy choruses you succumb to its charms even when you try to keep it at bay. 

Among the standouts are ‘70s-flavored “Paloma,” which starts off as a slightly out-of-tune piano ballad, kicks into a lite bossa nova shuffle, then builds into a finish with strings and choir; the Fleetwood Mac-ish “Sanremo” with its sunny, loungy vibe; and effortlessly breezy and slinky “Dear Jealousy.” 

First single “Ice Cream” is a sexy, catchy ear worm. The party continues with “Tomorrow” (“who gives a shit about tomorrow?”), another falsetto-soaked charmer. Opening cut “Tiny Love,” is catchy but feels a little pretentious and Beatles-derivative. Much later in the album, “Stay High” keeps the party going with a watusi groove and Monkees-esque chorus. 

Only occasionally does the album reveal flaws — “Cry” is a bit lame (but not horrific) and screams “B-side.” “Platform Ballerinas” gives things some unexpected rock crunch but feels jarring; Elton John-ish “I Went to Hell Last Night” is just OK and was “Tiny Love Reprise” really necessary? It’s different enough to be its own full cut but gets too big, overblown and soundtracky. A kids’ choir comes in, another character enters — it ultimately falters under its own pretentiousness. 

That might sound like a lot of quibbling for a three-and-a-half-star review, but the stuff that thrills works so exceedingly well, you just kind of take it and run with it. It’s the musical equivalent of delicately curated but highly accessible textile exhibit — there’s a sense that a lot of these pieces could have come from thrift store finds, but there’s just too many of them and almost no junk that you know you were falsely lulled into thinking this was easy to assemble. No single element is particularly original but it’s so expertly executed, you sense a master pop excavator is continuing work at his peak powers. 

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Music & Concerts

Musical icons and newer stars to rock D.C. this spring

Brandi Carlile, Bad Bunny, Nicki Minaj, and more headed our way

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Brandi Carlile plays the Anthem this month.

Bands and solo artists of all different genres are visiting D.C. this spring. Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will team up to perform at the Wolf Trap in June, and girl in red will play at the Anthem in April. Some artists and bands aren’t paying a visit until the summer, like Janet Jackson and Usher, but there are still plenty of acts to see as the weather warms up. 

MARCH 

Brandi Carlile plays at the Anthem on March 21; Arlo Parks will perform at 9:30 Club on March 23; Girlschool will take the stage at Blackcat on March 28.

APRIL 

Nicki Minaj stops in D.C. at Capital One Arena as part of her North American tour on April 1; Bad Bunny plays at Capital One Arena on April 9 as part of his Most Wanted tour; girl in red performs at the Anthem on April 20 and 21; Brandy Clark plays at the Birchmere on April 25; Laufey comes to town to play at the Anthem on April 25 and 26. 

MAY 

Belle and Sebastian play at the Anthem on May 2; Chastity Belt performs at Blackcat on May 4; Madeleine Peyroux stops at the Birchmere on May 5; The Decemberists play at the Anthem on May 10; the rock band Mannequin Pussy performs at the Atlantis on May 17 and 18; Hozier plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on May 17 as part of the Unreal Unearth tour. 

JUNE 

Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will sing soulful melodies at Wolf Trap on June 8; Joe Jackson performs at the Lincoln Theatre on June 10; the Pixies and Modest Mouse are teaming up to play at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 14; Maggie Rogers plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 16 as part of The Don’t Forget Me tour; Brittany Howard headlines the Out & About Festival at Wolf Trap on June 22; Sarah McLachlan plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 27; Alanis Morissette performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 29 and 30

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Music & Concerts

Grammys: Queer women and their sisters took down the house

Taylor Swift won Album of the Year

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When the late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, her answer was simple: Nine. She stated: “I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” RBG did not attend the Grammy’s last night, but her spirit sure did. Women, at long last, dominated, ruled and killed the night.

Cher, in song a decade ago, declared that “this is a woman’s world,” but there was little evidence that was true, Grammy, and entertainment awards, speaking. In 2018, the Grammys were heavily criticized for lack of female representation across all categories and organizers’ response was for women to “step up.”

Be careful what you wish for boys.

The biggest star of the 2024 Grammys was the collective power of women. They made history, they claimed legacy and they danced and lip sang to each other’s work. Standing victorious was Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, SZA (the most nominated person of the year), Lainey Wilson, Karol G, boygenius, Kylie Minogue and Victoria Monét. Oh, yes, and powerhouse Taylor Swift, the superstar from whom Fox News cowers in fear, made history to become the first performer of any gender to win four Best Album of the Year trophies.

In the throng of these powerful women stand a number of both LGBTQ advocates and queer identifying artists. Cyrus has identified as pansexual, SZA has said lesbian rumors “ain’t wrong,” Phoebe Bridgers (winner of four trophies during the night, most of any artist) is lesbian, Monét is bi and Eilish likes women but doesn’t want to talk about it. Plus, ask any queer person about Swift or Minogue and you are likely to get a love-gush.

Women power was not just owned by the lady award winners. There were the ladies and then there were the Legends. The first Legend to appear was a surprise. Country singer Luke Combs has a cross-generational hit this year with a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” When originally released, the song was embraced as a lesbian anthem. When performing “Fast Car,” surprise, there was Chapman herself, singing the duet with Combs. The rendition was stunning, sentimental and historic.

Chapman, like many of the night’s female dignitaries, has not been public with her sexuality. Author Alice Walker has spoken of the two of them being lovers, however.

The legend among legends of the night, however, was the one and only Joni Mitchell. Not gay herself, she embodies the concept of an LGBTQ icon, and was accompanied by the very out Brandi Carlile on stage. On her website, Mitchell’s statement to the LGBTQ community reads, “The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”

Mitchell performed her longtime classic “Both Sides Now.” The emotion, insight and delivery from the now 80-year old artist, survivor of an aneurism, was nothing short of profound. (To fully appreciate the nuance time can bring, check out the YouTube video of a Swift lookalike Mitchell singing the same song to Mama Cass and Mary Travers in 1969.) In this latest rendition, Mitchell clearly had an impact on Meryl Streep who was sitting in the audience. Talk about the arc of female talent and power.

That arc extended from a today’s lady, Cyrus, to legend Celine Dion as well. Cyrus declared Dion as one of her icons and inspirations early in the evening. Dion appeared, graceful and looking healthy, to present the final, and historic, award of the night at the end of the show.

Legends did not even need to be living to have had an effect on the night. Tributes to Tina Turner and Sinead O’Conner by Oprah, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor and Annie Lennox respectively, proved that not even death could stop these women. As Lennox has musically and famously put it, “Sisters are doing it for themselves.”

Even the content of performances by today’s legends-in-the-making spoke to feminine power. Eilish was honored for, and performed “What Was I Made For?,” a haunting and searching song that speaks to the soul of womanhood and redefinition in today’s fight for gender rights and expression, while Dua Lipa laid down the gauntlet for mind blowing performance with her rendition of “Houdini” at the top of the show, Cyrus asserted the power of her anthem “Flowers” and pretty much stole the show.

Cyrus had not performed the song on television before, and only three times publicly. She declared in her intro that she was thrilled over the business numbers the song garnered, but she refused to let them define her. As she sang the hit, she scolded the audience, “you guys act like you don’t know the words to this song.” Soon the woman power of the room was singing along with her, from Swift to Oprah.

They can buy themselves flowers from now on. They don’t need anyone else. Cyrus made that point with the mic drop to cap all mic drops, “And I just won my first Grammy!” she declared as she danced off stage.

Even the squirmiest moment of the night still did not diminish the light of women power, and in fact, underscored it. During his acceptance of the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, Jay-Z had a bone to pick with the Grammy voters. He called out the irony that his wife Beyoncé had won more Grammys than any other human, but had never won the Best Album of the Year. Yeah, what’s with that?

But then, it brought additional context ultimately to the fact that the winner of the most Grammys individually … is a woman. And to the fact that the winner of the most Best Album of the Year awards … is a woman.

Hopefully this was the night that the Grammys “got it.” Women are the epicenter of The Creative Force.

Will the other entertainment awards get it soon as well? We can hope.

Most importantly, in a political world where women’s healthcare is under siege. Will the American voters get it?

A little known band named Little Mix put it this way in their 2019 song “A Woman’s World.”

“If you can’t see that it’s gotta change
Only want the body but not the brains
If you really think that’s the way it works
You ain’t lived in a woman’s world

Just look at how far that we’ve got
And don’t think that we’ll ever stop…”

From Grammy’s mouth to the world’s ear.

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson returning to D.C, Baltimore

‘Together Again Tour’ comes to Capital One Arena, CFG Bank Arena

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Janet Jackson is coming back to D.C. this summer.

Pop icon Janet Jackson announced this week an extension of her 2023 “Together Again Tour.” A new leg of the tour will bring Jackson back to the area for two shows, one at D.C.’s Capital One Arena on Friday, July 12 and another at Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena on Saturday, July 13.  

Tickets are on sale now via TicketMaster. LiveNation announced the 2023 leg of the tour consisted of 36 shows, each of which was sold out. The 2024 leg has 35 stops planned so far; R&B star Nelly will open for Jackson on the new leg. 

Jackson made the tour announcement Tuesday on social media: “Hey u guys! By popular demand, we’re bringing the Together Again Tour back to North America this summer with special guest Nelly! It’ll be so much fun!”

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