Monday, May 26, 2008

This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race

A certain paper's music editor changes 90% of the words I write for him. I don't have this problem with any other professional editor I've ever had, and I choose these battles carefully. I'm too cash-poor to all-out quit or boycott, but in honor of this guy turning down my pitch for a Rilo Kiley feature in favor of a factually incorrect one he did himself on Under the Blacklight "celebrating the end of [Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett's] relationship" (in fact, they broke up a few albums ago), here's a paltry quasi-protest of poor editorship.

All of my reviews for the publication thus far as they were originally written. If a disciplined editor wants to take a stab, be my guest. In alphabetical order, that's Erykah Badu, The Kills, Lil' Mama, Stephen Malkmus, M83, The Mountain Goats, Old 97's, Phantom Planet, The Raconteurs, The Roots and Usher if you don't feel like scrolling.

Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Vol. 1, 4th World War

Erykah Badu may be hard on her country, but she’s not exactly Chuck D; ever forgiving, she promises to love it “tooth for tooth and eye for eye,” no matter which electorate boob sucked it dry. Her “Amerykahn Promise” [sic] includes giving up to it her nose, eyes, ears, hands, hips, tongue, toes, and most crucially, her new album seven years in the making (with a detour for 2003’s hazily catchy Worldwide Underground EP).

“Come out with your skills up!” she languidly threatens on “The Healer,” where she aims with glassy beats and droll handclaps to draw in and contract all the scientists and rappers necessary to fix her broken country (“Have you seen my 42 laws?”). The concept is attractively Obama-esque, not just because she refuses to attack anyone on her belated Bush America commentary, but because the music is such a pleasant mishmash of steamed jazz and space-soul that you can imagine the young Barack inhaling to it.

New Amerykah might be too sparse and weird for actual America, which seems to prefer T-Pain these days. But she was never bland enough to be a Grammy darling anyway, so Corinne Bailey Rae and India.Arie dutifully filled the gap while she was out learning things. But don’t be mistaken, the wait was worth it even if there’s nothing new to extract from rehashed uplift like “hold on/ my people,” except that great uplift need not be burdened with originality.

The Kills
Midnight Boom

In retrospect, it makes sense. A male-female so-called rock duo that avoids guitar like the plague and sacrifices a blues-rock debut for repetitive bass and 808 hypnosis, the only reason we never suspected the Kills were secretly a techno act is because of their name.

Midnight Boom shuffles through its 12 tracks with more breeze than than the 11 on 2005's idle No Wow because it ditches palm-muted, postcoital ennui for industrial sound effects, slamming doors, dial tones, decorative noise guitar when necessary. Their minimalism can still be maddening for those of us who never "got" Suicide, but at least this time they left the ad-infinitum phrase-repeating they tried to pass off as hookcraft at home. "Last Day of Magic" actually takes a pass at engrossing melody, but even at their best the Kills sound less like prime John and Exene as some have claimed, than the dull half of LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver.

Though I still wish they let themselves explode more often, I have to give credit where it’s due, and evolving from “Fuck and Fight” to “Goodnight, Bad Morning,” is progress. They finally sound like they can enjoy the sex and wait until the next day to hate each other.

Lil’ Mama
VYP—Voice of the Young People

I don’t want Lil’ Mama to be a one-hit wonder; she doesn’t have the voice for it. The last one-hit wonder I can remember with a voice as room-commanding as Niatia Kirkland’s was Gregg Alexander, the face and brains of the short-lived New Radicals (“You Get What You Give”), and he quit the frontman biz to do songwriting and production work. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that for Kirkland, who turns 18 this October, but who knows; on last year’s huge debut single “Lip Gloss” she sounds ready to conquer anything, compact in hand. Who’s to say beatmaking’s not in her future?

The musicless “Lip Gloss” sounds weird with a context, but it remains steadfastly non-annoying as far as teen novelties go (the schizophrenic “G-Slide [Tour Bus],” however, falls prey), and once “One Hit Wonder” and the T-Pain to Chris Brown baton pass “Shawty Get Loose” get going, it’s not hard to imagine her as an album rapper at all. In a world where Rick Ross can hit #1 and Lil’ Wayne can live a lifetime’s worth of tribulations and talent at 24, it doesn’t seem a stretch at all to accept this charming, sassy VYP as Roxanne Shante Incarnate. And Shante never sang a sweet, Sugar Ray-esque easytune like Lil’ Mama does on “Truly In Love.” Now, what'chu know 'bout that? What'chu what'chu know 'bout that?

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Real Emotional Trash

Allow some counterpoint on the notion that the Pavement was the greatest work of Stephen Malkmus. As someone who grew up with alternative rock not only existing but already a bankable radio format, I discovered S.M. through his self-titled, go-it-alone debut and worked backwards to discover Pavement was well and great, but not usually better than "The Hook," the instant classic from 2001 in which our hero comes to preside over a rowdy bunch of Turkish pirates.

With just as much product solo now as he did with his former band, his knack for writing catchy tunes remains fresh: the steady bopper "Gardenia" woulda-coulda-shoulda been a college radio hit at a time when college radio still had hits. But the track is an anomaly, to plant his entitlement flag, and unlike much of the noodley sprawl on Real Emotional Trash, regrettably. We can now faithfully expect when he allows the Jicks to be named on the record’s spine that it’s a strictly a four-way band affair. And his dream indie-Dead acolytes now include the indispensable Janet Weiss, the fulcrum of seminal Olympia rockers Sleater-Kinney and Casio warriors Quasi. But he could’ve mixed it up a little more; 2005’s Face the Truth made room for nine-minute marathons and three-minute tchotchkes alike. True, his unit successfully jams to a blistering peak on nearly half of these, but the successes are modest and the future ain’t certain: he sounds like a Phish out of water.


M83 was a great idea on paper for years: Anthony Gonzalez indulges his amateurish techno with big slabs of 1980s synth-craft to give the illusion of arena-sized significance, like the Coldplay to Daft Punk’s Radiohead or something. But until now, he didn’t have the songs, excepting some-people’s-classic “Don’t Save Us From the Flames.” Now the singer behind “Teen Angst” has decided to go all-out flamboyant with his increasing Brat Pack fetishism and Saturdays=Youth, his first non-ambient album in three years, appropriately unreels itself like a TNT coming-of-age movie extravaganza.

Here his M83 concept is redesigned to complement the usually too-long techno tracks every which way with real songs and the blessed addition of Morgan Kibby, a Kate Bush-evoking singer he appropriate met on MySpace, to whom he feeds mantras: “she is haunting me,” “we’ll go flying today.” She even references “hounds of love” in “Up!” An honest-to-God driving song begins with her promising “I’m gonna drive it until it burns my bones.” Speaking of bones, old fans of the beats are thrown only one, the eight-minute club killer “Couleurs,” which—take it from the new fan—isn’t as exciting as the widescreen-anthem stuff. And he can’t resist saving the best moments for himself, like the prerequisite “Flames” follow-up anthem “Graveyard Girl” (with fake movie monologue at close!) and the monolithically pleasurable “Kim & Jessie.”

The Mountain Goats
Heretic Pride

The Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely was a sepulchral detour in John Darnielle’s catalogue that some consider a success, but the general consensus agrees it is “difficult.” Their new Heretic Pride is a relapse back to same-ol’-same-ol’; the most difficult thing about it is telling whether it’s a great album because it’s a return to form, or merely suspiciously easy to call a great album because it’s a return to form. Form in the technical sense, that is: Darnielle’s voice has returned to its exuberant bleat (on Get Lonely it rarely rose above a wounded, wobbling falsetto), the kind that makes your heart swell to hear sudden exclamations like “That’s good! We can always use some more electrical equipment!”

How Pride stacks up against the other Goats’ releases is immaterial; what’s such a thrill here is that Darnielle has never sounded more eager to please his fans. He dispenses with the narrative arcs that typified his last few records and just lets fly with compelling one-by-one vignettes, framed by a new arsenal of rock drummers, swooping strings, duet partners (most notably Annie Clark, known to gushing critics as St. Vincent) and incandescent titles like “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident,” and “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature.” Most endearing is his new willingness to take on the responsibilities of arena-sized dynamics, that, what dramatic songwriter could resist, really? So I won’t resist either: the pounding “Michael Myers Resplendent” and the awesomely cranked tribute to H.P. Lovecraft make it hard enough as is.

Old 97’s
Blame It On Gravity
New West

“He was on her like she was a drug,” sounds like Rhett Miller spent the last four years cooling off and loving up. At the very least, it’s a safe assumption he’s no longer singing about the character that opened the last Old 97’s affair, the one who spat, “You’re a bottle cap away/ from pushing me too far.” And Blame It on Gravity sounds like the lightest Old 97’s affair yet, reconciling the swoony-eyed wistfulness of Miller’s solo efforts (opener on his last one: “My Valentine”) and his band’s manic shuffle, the sound that often evokes the steely railroader of its namesake.

After all, the most menacing thing here is a quasi-tango called “Dance With Me” and concerns girls with “flip-flop smiles,” a far cry from “The New Kid,” the excitingly unsatisfied shitfit from 2004’s Drag it Up. Elsewhere, “She Loves the Sunset” and “This Beautiful Thing” sounds like a man ready to retire to a timeshare I’m certain no one in this Chili’s-fed group can actually afford, even if they did just do a Chili’s commercial. Unfortunately, being satisfied caps their membership in the wide-ranging fan club of Replacements-styled bands, and the softer touch to the usual propulsive drums and stinging guitar lines here is the kind of nice change of pace you hope won’t lead to Paul Westerberg’s solo career. So keep those bottlecaps at the ready, instigators.

Phantom Planet
Raise the Dead
Fueled By Ramen

Long a work in progress, I feel comfortable finally saying California power-pop chameleons Phantom Planet have come into their own, trailing three albums of almost-there craft and one pleasant surprise hit (The O.C. theme “California”) along the way. Where they last left off, the Planeteers were belatedly trying to take some of the shine off the Vines’ star by snotting up Phantom Planet with higher-watt riffage and a gory, zombie-flick video for “Big Bratt.”

This time they learn to augment the tunes of their first two albums with the last one’s forcefulness, with the amped production values of a Pete Wentz discovery, and come up with a product both louder and catchier than anything they’ve done before—at least for a few tracks. The first four songs on Raise the Dead are paradise; released on their own, the EP would be one of the year’s best. The title track starts proceedings with a screeching, thudding quasi-epic that never stops topping itself, before imploding into the sexy diminished chordplay of “Dropped,” while a children’s chorus(!) blasts off “Leader” and finally we set off fireworks on “Do the Panic,” the first single that deserves to overtake all the royalties of “California” with its beyond-irresistible “ba-ba-shadoo-be-do” hook. That streak proves untoppable however, and Raise the Dead quickly sinks into three-star competence, and who cares if it’s allegedly a concept album about cult leaders. But man, what an introduction.

The Raconteurs
Consolers of the Lonely
Third Man/Warner Bros.

Pay attention to the White Stripes’ color scheme, it’s big thematically: Meg and Jack paint albums in red sirloins of chunk guitar and blindingly white splashes of cymbals and fumbled 4/4 locomotive. Not a one of their records evokes any other color, even Icky Thump, the last one, which flirted with “green” on the bagpipe tracks and who knows what hues on the comedy skit. Within the subtle, gritty shades of their limited palette, they’ve folded in all kinds of sounds and reconstructed each one to match their single-minded, blunt dynamic. They sound like an on-off switch: flick it and no other function exists, it is simply on and alive.

Jack is never as interesting when he lazes off and removes the limits of his signature duo. He’s such a major musician in a century with comparatively few that I feel comfortable comparing the Raconteurs to Hitchcock filming in color. Working so well under the pressure of self-imposed weights, his side experiment in conventionality will never work up the nail-biting intensity of an “Icky Thump” or a “Blue Orchid.” Where the Raconteurs’ out-of-the-blue second album, Consolers of the Lonely succeeds is that it stops trying and goes for all-out fun: who cares where they’ve heard the chords from “Salute Your Solution” before, they still rock as hard as any other rootsie worth his weight in Corisidin bottles.

The Roots
Rising Down
Def Jam

Rising Down is an apt title for Philadelphia’s Pride’s 10th excursion of ferocious agit-rap and thrashing live funk. Coming off 2006’s miracle of soundscaping Game Theory, it’s too easy to point out it’s (by a very slight margin) their weakest album since they abandoned light jazz for real beats, but it’s still pretty damning: witness the spare, slamming Dice Raw and Peedi Crack posse cut “Get Busy” with its creeping videogame key-bass or the charming freestyle by a 15-year-old Black Thought they included to show off how they’ve grown.

Of course, the tactic backfires and instead makes you wonder a little. Those hot ones are all stuffed to the front and leaving the back half opened to too many guests, trippy guitar jams and unusually indistinct songs. It also doesn’t help that the group is billing this as both their tough-guy move and their smart-guy move. The worst they can come up with when they dig deep and hard for radical things to say about politics is that they get treated like “criminal[s]” yet “[they] will not apologize.” In top form: Black Thought’s flow is sharper these days than a pencil, profound or not, and Hub’s bass hooks steal the show, from a bobbing, palm-muted funk line on the Fela Kuti tribute to the buzzing synth* runs on the nonstop “75 Bars (Blacks’ Reconstruction).”

Ashlee Simpson
Bittersweet World

You can lead a pop star to a great leap forward but you can't make 'em jump it. Ms. Simpson, a singer launched by a reality show and a famous sister who really took off with her own reality show, has a secretly shared respectability among some music critics who really, really want her to succeed because she's less creepy than Gwen Stefani and more human than Avril. It was cute we insisted, when she got caught lip-synching on Saturday Night Live and jigged off the stage. We liked the chinks in her armor, her weird nose, her indifference to the Older Hotter One.

And unlike fellow likable Britney Alternative Mandy Moore, her singles are often great: Courtney Love-for-tots "Autobiography," coy-sexy "La La," Gang of Four-hundred-times-removed "Boyfriend." But there's a big gap in her credibility that has nothing to do with plastic surgery or going blonde or stretching Timbaland and Pharrell paper-thin: her albums run out of juice.

Consider Bittersweet World, her third, headed by the best thing she'll ever do: the miraculous "Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)" could've set up a real reinvention a la Justified, with its perfect No Doubt-Toni Basil synthesis and relatively avant-cute video. But she refuses to stick to theme (to be precise, Britney Spears' answer to Cyndi Lauper) and craps out after "Rule Breaker," a Joan Jett bad-girl chant with surprisingly tricky guitar fills. The rest just aren't memorable tunes, with half exceptions for "Little Miss Obsessive," her newest Avril move, the pushy "Ragdoll," and "Boys," which sounds just like Britney's "Boys."

Here I Stand

Usher may have left the most shocking—well, for a genre so sex-obsessed—confession out of the 2005 Weird Al-certified “Confessions Pt. 2.” “You get on top tonight/ I’m on the bottom/ ‘cuz we trading places/ When I can’t take no more/ You say you ain’t stopping/ ‘cuz we trading places,” at its cleanest sounds like a classic Prince-ly genderfuck a la “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” If your mind’s in the gutter or at least aware of the gutter, it sounds like a naughty boy wants his girlfriend to peg him.

The lines in question are from “Trading Places,” nonetheless one of the smartest songs on Usher’s “mature” new Here I Stand even if I don’t think the longtime R&B hitmaker is as clever as Prince or R. Kelly. But with last year’s wonderful Kelly pair-up “Same Girl” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. The only way Here I Stand could’ve truly sold out would’ve been to borrow T-Pain’s autotuner, (Usher must be in a queue five miles long, and Lil’ Wayne keeps cutting in line), and—good for him—he resisted. (Though I’ll have to dock something for putting Young Jeezy on the lead cut. Yeeeaaaahhhh.) Here I Stand wisely cribs from The-Dream if anyone, producing spare, crawling robo-soul that occasionally spits out something truly hitworthy, like “Best Thing,” a synth-swirl waffle cone topped with Jay-Z.

*This, it turns out, is not actually a synth, but a tuba. My editor did catch that.


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