Go! Pop! Bang! Boom! Pow! Crash! Flash! Fashion! Sex! Danger! Finally — 2014 releases are here!
Beck: Morning Phase
(Capitol, 2014) [BUY]
In 2002, the Crown Prince of Pomo Irony released his worst and most controversial album, Sea Change, in which he shed his signature humor and sound-collage absurdism in favor of soggy singer-songwriter indulgence. He’s recovered since then, most notably with the excellent 2005 comeback Guero. Unfortunately, this “sequel” to Sea Change is even blander and more docile than the original.
Meandering through valleys, basking in balmy California sunshine, creeping from one jangly guitar riff to another, he’s almost weirdly relaxed. His new sonic environment invites you to lie back, get comfortable, and let the summery harmony just seep through your body. Warm, dazed waves of echoey, shimmering ambience ripple around plucked acoustic figures, refined piano backup, and quiet beds of ostinato strings as his breathy, electronically filtered voice swoops through the mix. Each song offers its own peaceful little melody, but the album as a whole stretches into a slow blur, a single extended pastoral fantasy characterized by a mood both lethargically hazy and blissfully submissive. Where Sea Change at least was sad, a mournful reflection on Beck’s own perceived helplessness, now he’s just spacey, incapable of anything beyond the merely pretty. Previous feelings such as nostalgia and regret seem uncommonly expressive and confident compared to the affectlessness he settles into here.
Theoretically, his hardwired aesthetic distance lends acuity and cerebral cunning to music that might otherwise have wound up agonizingly sincere. In fact, it distances the listener further, rendering it accessible only to indie acolytes for whom beauty and passivity are one and the same.
(YG Entertainment, 2014) [BUY]
Yet another episode in Korean pop’s world takeover: 2NE1 are the Spice Girls to Shinee’s Backstreet Boys and G-Dragon’s Justin Timberlake, and the miracle is that all three are making more consistent albums than their Western predecessors. Partially because they’re playing to a different market and partially because their label hires different song doctors, this album isn’t as surefire as, say, The Misconceptions of Us. It does come close, however.
Like most teenpop in every culture, Crush comes across as pretty lightweight at first. With their preferred mode the midtempo confessional, few songs here match the fiery rush and in-your-face defiance of the title track, and closing with a poky acoustic version of the lead single remains quite a dubious if amusing marketing ploy. As their ballads make clear, they’re not the inflated megacelebrities most labels would prefer; they exist on a “human” scale, singing accessible and mostly inoffensive songs for teenagers to relate to. But these songs have a way of sneaking up on you — even the slowest ones loop around the warped, percussive keyboard riffs that make this album so vivid. Their music mixes your ordinary sublime teenpop fluff with squealing electronic texture and dubstep-inflected synthesizer distortion, adding muscle and edge to their dance bangers and making their breakup anthems a lot weirder. Their choruses soar, yearn, and glide, sweetening their energetic drive.
Worlds away from Shinee’s polished pop machine or G-Dragon’s hip hop-styled beatmastery, their specialty is range. They can do everything from upbeat aggression to unfeigned compassion to worried disquiet, and they love singing in English: “Karma is gonna find you,” “You love me but your kiss is a lie.” “They love me cause I’m hot/they love me cause I’m cold/they love me cause I’m real/they love me cause I kill.” Kill?
St Vincent: St Vincent
(Loma Vista, 2014) [BUY]
Unabashed experimentalist Annie Clark collaborated with David Byrne on 2012’s scattershot Love This Giant, and she does share with him a certain quirky politesse. While she resembles the solo Byrne far more than she does Talking Heads, the mannered dilettante rather than the hard-rocking visionary, she neatly inhabits her own style.
Supposedly, this album represents Clark’s embrace of popform, or at least something more sociable than the jagged nouvelle wave she’s previously put her name on. Rhythmically, it skips through a spiky funk cadence at once abrasive and rich, cutting through her sumptuous orchestration with spurts of synth babble and buzzing snake-charmer guitar. Her yelping shrieks and terse, nervous arrangements humanize the kind of fidgety, neurotic compulsion that’s so often a front for extreme anxiety. All this embodies popform only by the artiest of standards: though “Rattlesnake” and “Huey Newton” get their jam on conventionally enough, most of this music is fussy, prickly, melodically twisted and harmonically contrived, hard to hum, and like Byrne she rarely makes her meanings clear even when the verbiage is spare, which usually it isn’t. Gleeful eccentricity prevails.
Adapting her voice to the contours of the groove, wriggling all sorts of crazy sounds out of several stringed instruments, she’s a worthy artiste. Only those who care about the everlasting state of art-rock in America will get much use out of this record. But only those who hate all forms of pretension will find it utterly charmless.
Eric Church: The Outsiders
(Universal, 2014) [BUY]
I liked 2011’s Chief, in which canny Nashville pro Church applied his literary chops to a red-blooded country/classic-rock hybrid remarkable in its sustained power and accessibility. But crossover can get exhausting, and here he digs in his heels. There are only so many places you can take pretending to be a cowboy in the 21st century.
Whether this is a calculated attempt to rub his Southern pride in your face or just a sincere collection of songs expressing his deep feelings, Church has deliberately embraced the kind of romantic outlaw mythology that fuels neocons everywhere from think tanks to western movies. Shamelessly impersonating John Wayne, Grover Norquist, and the ideal American Man, he’s meticulously crafted every song to support a persona. He’s a maverick, a rebel, a damn rock & roller, and he’ll wrestle with Satan till the day he dies. He comes on like a wrecking ball sometimes, and he’ll admit he’s got a bit of a temper. He’s a proud family man, a provider, and sometimes when he tears up at night he’ll wax nostalgic about the summer when he and the boys drove Daddy’s old Winnebago all the way to Talladega. He’s the kind of guy who makes grand philosophical declarations like “The devil walks among us folks and Nashville is his bride,” but he sure ain’t no intellectual; he knows how to fight. All you thugs and ugly mugs dealing drugs and making noise, well, he don’t like what you do and where you’re from, he don’t much like your bling or the way you wear your pants, and if you touch a hair on his little boy’s head he’ll whup your ass faster than you can beg for the bullet he’ll put in your brain. His loudly swaggering arena riffs and sodden acoustic strumming perfectly match the image he’s projecting.
Admittedly, Church remains a gifted writer, and this album is nowhere near as grotesque as, say, Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party. But Bryan at least can claim the hack defense, whereas Church is autonomous enough that it’s obvious he sincerely believes in being a good old boy. And Bryan is more tolerant of thugs and ugly mugs.