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Strong releases from Kesha, Trainor ignite airwaves, streaming platforms

’TiK ToK’ hitmaker returns with mature-but-still-playful new sound, lyrics



New albums out Jan. 31: ‘High Road’ from Kesha and ‘Treat Myself’ by Meghan Trainor. (Photos courtesy RCA and Epic respectively)

We’re off to what’s shaping up to be a deliciously big year for women in pop. Selena Gomez and Halsey released new albums in January and Meghan Trainor and Kesha (stylized as Ke$ha until the release of her 2017 “Rainbow”) have new albums out last week.

It’s hard to believe that “TiK ToK,” Kesha’s first single as a solo artist, reached the no. 1 spot on Billboard exactly one decade ago. Her 2010 debut album “Animal” was followed by the platinum EP “Cannibal” in the same year. Singles like “We R Who We R,” “Die Young,” “Timber” and “Blow” still dominate club play. If pop music continues to be remembered by decades, the 2010s may well be the decade of Kesha — certainly the first half. Bawdy, dancey, unapologetically electronic, masterfully produced — these are all defining features of Kesha’s artist output. Vocal virtuosity is sidelined in favor of her distinctive party girl persona.

Kesha’s 2017 comeback “Rainbow” was something of an anomaly. With singles like “Praying,” she was clearly trying to revise her previously successful formula and add some depth to her artist production. “High Road” is the brilliant culmination of her previous work, seamlessly incorporating a variety of genres, yet it remains fiercely distinct. It is both a return to the Kesha of “TiK ToK” and marked evolution from that Kesha — a perfect balance of playful and serious, innovative and mature.

Take, for instance, lead single “Raising Hell,” which features Big Freedia. It’s a bouncy anthem that manages a thumping pop bassline and churchy, gospel feel at the same time. There is even a fabulous breakdown with bluesy organ. It’s refreshing to see the effects of gospel beyond Kanye West. Like “Praying,” Kesha cleverly appropriates religious language for her un-religious party anthem: “I’m all fucked up in my Sunday best/no walk of shame ’cause I love this dress/hungover, heart of gold, holy mess/doin’ my best, bitch, I’m blessed.” Kesha has always been lyrically strong, if not vocally, but “High Road” takes it to a new level. In lieu of the empty monotony of overdone, feel-good tropes, Kesha has a sense of humor.

The song “Honey” is different sort of song. The influence of rock groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers is evident from the first guitar stroke. The stripped down instrumentation gives one of several opportunities on this album to appreciate Kesha’s soulful vocals. The song “Cowboy Blues” is another outlier, an unexpected hipster-girl tune with ukulele — think Zooey Deschanel’s band She & Him. But, as usual, Kesha puts her own spin on quirky.

Perhaps, the biggest surprise of the new album is “Resentment,” which features Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson, country artist Sturgill Simpson and the singer Wrabel. It is a beautiful country song and it could reasonably find its way onto the country charts. It’s a crossover into country from the other direction, a sort of reverse Faith Hill. It perhaps speaks to the vitality of country music in the past several years thanks to artists like Margo Price.

But in addition to the surprises, Kesha still leaves us with a healthy dose of raucous party music. “Kinky” is a delightful up-tempo dance track that celebrates sexual freedom and polyamory: “Monogamy ain’t natural/at least not for me and you/we’re in our own dimension/we’re making up our own rules.” It’s like the 2020 update to Katy Perry’s now classic (and now utterly uncontroversial) “I Kissed A Girl.” And as always, Kesha gives us a taste of the carnivalesque with “Potato Song (Cuz I Want To).”

Treat Myself” is Meghan Trainor’s third studio album, and she’s come a long way since her emergence on the charts with the release of her no. 1 debut album “Title” in 2015. The singles “All About That Bass” and “Like I’m Going To Lose You,” which features John Legend, both from her debut, have over 500 million streams on Spotify. The new album has been in progress for some time, and is a slick, well-produced pop album.

The catchy lead single “No Excuses” was released in 2018 and has already had extensive radio play. But the album is fairly robust and offers several other excellent tracks. “Wave,” released as a single last fall, is a heavily electronic anthem that showcases Trainor’s well-harnessed vocal abilities. Of the singles, it’s hard not to be a partisan of “Nice to Meet Ya,” a collaboration with Nicki Minaj. It has similar feel to hip-hop dance tracks from the early 2000s and the way Minaj’s punctuates the last word in each line of her verse is in some ways reminiscent of songs like J-Kwon’s 2000 “Tipsy.”

“Genetics,” a collaboration with the Pussycat Dolls (who knew they were still around?), is an impeccable dance track. The bass line would make even the most resistant person in the friend group sway along. It makes me nostalgic for the Pussycat Dolls of “Don’t Cha” and “When I Grow Up.” And Trainor gives some needed vocal competence to the pulsing beat.

Perhaps the most delightful part of the new album is the song “Funk,” Trainor’s funky answer to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ 2014 “Uptown Funk.” In fact, it feels like it might have started an improvised riff on it. But it strikes a groove all of its own, and the horns take on something of Michael Jackson feel, as the chorus cleverly hammers away: “I miss the way we used to funk.” It is an inspired new direction for Trainor’s music. But if there is one thing to reproach Trainor for, it’s that her lyrics peddle in endless strings of cliché. She could stand to learn a thing or two from Kesha on that front.

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Music & Concerts

Washington Arts Ensemble to host immersive concert

Creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture



The Washington Arts Ensemble will host an immersive concert experience on Saturday, June 18 at 7 p.m. at Dupont Underground.

This concert will show how distinct genres influence pop culture and articulate the commonality between classical, jazz, and electronic music while creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture.

Some of the works that will be performed include “Switched-On Bach selections” by Wendy Carlos, “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals by Camile Saint-Saens, among other works.

Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on the Washington Arts Ensemble’s website

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Music & Concerts

John Levengood releases anthem “Say Gay!” to protest discrimination

Slated to perform new song at 2022 Capital Pride Festival in June



Recording artist John Levengood’s latest song ‘Say Gay!’ is out Friday. (Photo courtesy Levengood)

“Say gay! Say gay! Say gay!
“Say what? Say what?
“One little law won’t shut us up!”

Slated for digital release this Friday, recording artist John Levengood’s latest song “Say Gay!” confronts anti-LGBTQ legislation such as the “Don’t Say Gay” law by encouraging others to “profess their queerness loudly, proudly, and never in the shadows,” Levengood said in a press release shared with the Blade on Tuesday.

On June 12, Levengood is set to perform the song’s live debut at the 2022 Capital Pride Festival in Washington, D.C., to streets teeming with community members, food trucks, and local vendors, according to the press release.

“The rise in oppressive legislation and proposals have many in the LGBTQ+ community alarmed,” the press release says. Levengood “hopes this song can be used as a metaphorical weapon to blast holes in the argument that teaching children about acceptance and diversity is more appropriate at home than school.”

The bill, enacted by the Florida Legislature earlier this year but not yet in force, would limit teachers’ ability to teach LGBTQ topics in some school settings and obligate school officials to disclose students’ sexual orientation and gender identity to their parents upon request.

A D.C. resident himself, Levengood currently works over the weekends as resident host and karaoke emcee at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, Va., an LGBTQ bar and restaurant.

Levengood is no stranger to the music scene, in 2013 moving through multiple rounds of auditions for the third season of “The X Factor” before coming up short of formally appearing on the show, according to the release.

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of rural Virginia, the press release added that music has been an outlet for Levengood to express himself from an early age. The new song marks his seventh musical release.

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Music & Concerts

Tori Amos spins magic at Sunday night D.C.-area concert

First show in the area since ’17 finds Gen X icon vocally subdued but musically energized



As with many veteran rock stars, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on how hot or cold Tori Amos’s 30-year-old solo career is at the moment. It sometimes seems like she’s moving past the take-her-for-granted-because-she’s-never-away-for-long phase, and there certainly was that sense in the air Sunday night for her D.C.-area stop of her current “Ocean to Ocean Tour,” her first show here since 2017, which, with COVID, feels like a lifetime ago.

But there are also signs that it’s never been chillier for Amos in the overall pop culture landscape. It’s been a decade since she charted a single on any chart and there were no videos or singles from her “Ocean to Ocean” album last fall. It landed just outside the top 100 on the U.S. Billboard 200 album sales chart altogether, a new low that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago when her “regular” (i.e. non-specialty/concept) albums were almost guaranteed a top 10 debut. 

The slide has been swift, too: 2014’s “Unrepentant Geraldines” hit No. 7, the next album (2017’s polarizing “Native Invader”) only made it to 39, then came “Ocean’s” thud at no. 104. There’s a lot you could point to to explain it — streaming, her aging Gen X fan base, the endless undulations of the music industry itself — but in some ways it has started to feel like she’s getting less and less return on her artistic dollar than one would expect. 

Yeah, that always happens with veteran female pop stars once they hit their 50s and beyond, but Amos and her small but mighty fan base, who for decades exhibited a devotion of Grateful Dead-like proportions, outran the trend for so long, to see it finally catching up is a bit bewildering.

But then you go hear her live at a decent-size venue like The Theater at MGM National Harbor (which seats 3,000 and was about 97 percent full), and it feels nearly like old times. Sure, some of the excitement was just that we’re all gagging at being at concerts at all and having mask restrictions and vaccine requirements paused, but there was an electricity that, while mellower than it was at Amos concerts in the ’90s, still felt magical. I’ve never in my life seen so long a line for the merch table.

The concert itself was, for the most part, sublime. It was the first time since 2009 she’s toured with a band and while her solo shows are great too, there was pent-up yearning to hear her unleash full-on with a solid rhythm section (Jon Evans on bass, Ash Soan on drums) again. Beat-heavy songs like “Raspberry Swirl” and “Cornflake Girl” sounded tepid with canned beats the last few times out, so to hear everything truly live (save a few BGVs and effects) last night was heavenly.

It was Gen X queer night out Sunday night at the Theater at MGM National Harbor for Tori Amos’s first concert here since 2017. (Photo by Desmond Murray; courtesy Girlie Action)

The show had special poignancy too, as Amos grew up in the region. She has written and commented heavily on the immense toll her mother’s 2019 death took on her personally and artistically, so that the date happened to be Mother’s Day gave the proceedings added gravitas. “Mother Revolution” and “Jackie’s Strength” spoke, of course, to the holiday, though (and this is quibbling) I would have vastly preferred “Mother” from “Little Earthquakes,” a deep cut we haven’t heard live in eons. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Highlights included the slinky, rhythm-loopy opener “Juarez”; “Ocean to Ocean,” one of three cuts performed from the new record, which shimmered with Philip Glass-like piano arpeggios; the vampy, slinky interplay between the three musicians on “Mother Revolution”; and unexpected fan favorite “Spring Haze.” Amos, overall, is varying up the set list quite a bit less than is her norm, so it was one of the few surprises of the evening. 

The lengths of several of the songs were drawn out considerably. At times — “A Sorta Fairytale,” the aforementioned “Revolution” — that worked well and gave the band time to languidly jam. At other points, it felt a bit self-indulgent and even slightly boring — as on “Sweet Sangria” and “Liquid Diamonds.” 

“Russia,” a bonus cut from the last album, sounded just how it did when Amos performed it here in 2017, but took on added resonance because of current events. Closing line “Is Stalin on your shoulder” was chilling.

Overall, the show — lighting, pacing, everything — largely worked. The sound mix, which fans have said has been muddy at some venues recently on the tour, was pristine. Pacing only lagged a few times in some of the mid-tempo cuts from later albums, but just when you felt some were zoning — the flow of those entering and exiting is a good barometer — Amos whipped things back together with a fan favorite like “Past the Mission” or “Spring Haze.”

It all came to a satisfying, audience-friendly climax with “Cornflake Girl,” then the two encore cuts, “Precious Things” and “Tear in Your Hand,” both from the first album. 

Vocally, the range was there and sounded lovely, but the oomph was considerably held back. Vocal preservation for the many dates ahead? Probably. It’s understandable. Amos, at 58, may lack the stamina she had 20 years ago, but it did feel underwhelming in passages that in years past would have been full on, balls out like the “Bliss” bridge or the “nine-inch nails” passage from “Precious Things.” 

Not one acknowledgment or mention by Amos of the female folk duo openers Companion. I’d have invited them out for a few numbers to sing BGVs. I mean, heck, they’re in the house, why not? And other than the welcome, a brief soliloquy on Mother’s Day was the only Amos comment of the entire night. 

Still Amos never came off as aloof. She seemed genuinely excited to be playing live again and the queer-heavy crowd responded in kind. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)
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