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Life after Taylor Swift's '1989': Carly Rae Jepsen, Chvrches carve out new pop sounds

Welcome to 1990.

Or, if you prefer: Welcome to one year after Taylor Swift's 1989.

In the 12 months since Swift dropped that epic, soaring, smash-after-smash album, the pop universe has bent entirely around her gravitational pull. We've seen this play out on her 1989 Tour, which hits Tampa on Halloween night. Swift can seemingly conjure any singer at will to pop up on stage and sing alongside her, building a friendship bank that looks a lot like Billboard's Hot 100.

1989 isn't the first pop album to achieve such ubiquity; nor, frankly, is it the best. But its staggering success during a tough era in the music industry ensured we'd be hearing a lot more pop songs marked by sweeping synthesizers, echoing vocals, gigantic hooks and impeccable, '80s-inspired production. Think Rachel Platten's Fight Song, Hailee Steinfeld's Love Myself or Halsey's New Americana.

Are these artists copycats? Not necessarily. Maybe Swift and her producers just saw where pop was headed, and the album they constructed is a dazzlingly bright reflection of our times. Still, any artist who dares visit the same sonic territory will inevitably see his or her work compared, rightly or wrongly, to 1989.

For Carly Rae Jepsen and Chvrches, those comparisons aren't such a bad thing. We may be living in Taylor Swift's world, but they've found ways to make it their own.

• • •

At some point this summer, the Internet decided Carly Rae Jepsen was the millennial answer to Paul McCartney. The hype over her new album Emotion was so over-the-top effusive ("We are not worthy of this Carly Rae Jepsen album," raved one typically breathless tweet) that it began to feel less like Jepsen's followup to smash single Call Me Maybe, and more like a lost Beatles album.

No album can live up to that kind of hype, but Emotion sure gives it a shot. Like Jepsen herself, it is charming, intelligent and awfully hard to dislike, literally from start to finish.

Emotion opens with the breakaway sugar rush of Run Away With Me and closes with the breezy, chimey funk of When I Needed You, and those happen to be my two favorite tracks on the album. When's the last time an artist stuck both the takeoff and the landing so emphatically? That, I think, goes a long way toward explaining why Emotion feels so cohesive, so winning across the board.

Between those pitch-perfect bookends, Jepsen has created an immaculate pastiche of '80s and '90s radio pop and '10s indie pop, equal parts Paula Abdul and Passion Pit, Amy Grant and Walk the Moon. There's the glistening soft focus of All That, the chic Chic disco of Boy Problems and Let's Get Lost. And in keeping with pop tradition, every song is about the push and pull of love and yearning, with Jepsen hoping, praying, begging that you like her as much as she likes you. (And, as she warbles on I Really Like You, she really, really, really, really, really, really likes you.)

The whole '80s vibe has been done to death in pop music — it's a tag oft applied to 1989 — but it feels fresh coming from Jepsen and her collaborators, including Swift's 1989 producer Shellback, but also 21st century tastemakers like Sia, Ariel Rechtshaid, Dev Hynes and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij. It shows on Gimmie Love, LA Hallucinations and Warm Blood, tracks whose beating hearts are just enough askew to be memorable.

Jepsen may not be a Beatle, but if 1989 is millennial pop's Sgt. Pepper's, Emotion might be its Pet Sounds, a bracingly cohesive creative leap forward that many fans will prefer for years to come.

• • •

Two years ago, few would compare Chvrches to Taylor Swift. The Scottish electro-pop trio whirred, blipped and warbled their way to major indie-rock festival success and a niche hit in The Mother We Share, all while Swift still had a toe in the stream of country music.

Like Swift, Chvrches (pronounced "churches") were poised to go full pop with their sophomore album, Every Open Eye. And their new songs are more intense, more expansive, more electric. They are definitely thinking bigger.

But even as they tinker with broader pop sounds, they haven't abandoned the propulsive synthesizers that serve as their lifeblood and foundation. To stick with the '80s analogies: If 1989 and Emotion are homages to Madonna and Paula Abdul, Every Open Eye is more about the tight, glittery Euro-pop of Erasure or Depeche Mode.

Every Open Eye explodes with a pounding bass line and trickling squiggles as Lauren Mayberry opens her heart in anthemic empowerment on Never Ending Circles: "Here's to taking what you came for, and here's to running through the pain," she sings. "I'll go my way if I'm going at all."

Mayberry's distinctive chirp meshes well with Chvrches' signature synths. There's a tightness, a tension, to the combination that pays off on Clearest Blue, which swells for two minutes before a cathartic drop into a kaleidoscopic frenzy. Many songs — Empty Threat, Keep You on My Side, Make Them Gold, Bury It — don't bother waiting that long; Mayberry steers them into an overcaffeinated tizzy from the get-go.

Synth-and-sample man Martin Doherty takes over lead vocals on the glassy disco groove High Enough to Carry You Over and Follow You, a simmering bonus cut from Every Open Eye's special edition. On both cuts, Chvrches sound like a band reinvented, not just vocally but musically. You can hear that growth on some Mayberry-led tracks, too, particularly the airy, drum-free coda Afterglow and the bonus cut Bow Down, a blast of New Wave energy that may be the purest pop song they've ever done. (Seriously, shell out for that special edition. It's well worth the extra $2.)

Chvrches, coincidentally, plays Jannus Live in St. Petersburg on Oct. 31, the same night Swift plays Tampa. Give Every Open Eye a listen, and you might have a tough decision to make.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Ranking the contenders

1. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion: Endearing and uplifting start to finish, it's a pristine paean to late '80s and early '90s pop — one that's tighter and more cohesive than Taylor Swift's 1989.

2. Chvrches, Every Open Eye: The Scottish trio expand their aim, and often hit their mark, without sacrificing the signature icy tension of their synthesizers and Lauren Mayberry's voice.

Life after Taylor Swift's '1989': Carly Rae Jepsen, Chvrches carve out new pop sounds 10/21/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2015 11:07am]
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