The great ’80s idol George Michael has just released a live album, Symphonica, in which he sings a number of romantic standards backed by a full orchestra, and although I won’t ever listen to the whole thing unless it starts getting better reviews or sells a whole ton, it’s inspired in me a magnificent rockgeek fantasy. One day, Michael Bublé is going to find out about this record and fall in love with it, captivated by swanky and seductive covers of “Wild Is the Wind” and Blue Moves-era Elton John. Smitten, Bublé will listen to Michael’s entire back catalogue, savoring 1987’s pop blockbuster Faith and 1990’s tragically underrated significance move Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. And then he will release an album where he covers every song on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, lending new majesty to such jewels as “Freedom! ’90” and “Cowboys and Angels.” If anyone reading this knows Bublé, could you please suggest this to him? I really want this to happen.
Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love, Marriage & Divorce
(Motown, 2014) [BUY]
Two major ’90s new jack luminaries whose careers have slowly and pleasantly receded as crunk and techno subsume soul on the pop charts, Toni Braxton and Kenny Edmonds team up for a concept album about the gradual decline of a relationship. However slow, lavish, and corny it is, I find it captivating, a fearless exercise in honest and unflinching emotional expression.
Don’t be fooled by the title, as divorce predominates. From “Hurt You” to “Where Did We Go Wrong?” to “I Hope That You’re Okay” to “Take it Back” to “The D Word,” they suffer with deep, pained melancholy, building from scared infatuation to tender acceptance to a sense of lonely deprivation so profound it hurts to listen to. Already worried and nervous at the beginning, by the end they’re shocked, resigned, crushed yet dignified and utterly miserable. Braxton’s breathy, throaty voice finds flashes of intensity and pockets of feeling in songs with melodies that echo through your head, and Babyface, always the canny producer, smoothes and slickens these poignant electroduets until they glide into a single surge of contained, sustained energy. Subdued only to heighten the formal command, light but striking keyboard color shimmers over midtempo drum machine backup while pristinely climate-controlled atmosphere creates roiling, burnished flow, all to the cadence of two charismatic sex symbols singing their hearts out.
Starting with a lament and ending with a dirge, this isn’t the kind of album you’d play for fun. But you may find yourself craving its tight quietstorm groove even if its plaintive ballads are a little middlebrow. Pray for an upbeat sequel in which the couple gets back together.
Foster the People: Supermodel
(Columbia, 2014) [BUY]
Having been appointed a cause célèbre on the strength of a fluke 2011 hit that wowed everybody from hit radio programmers to alternarock festival organizers, Mark Foster offers definitive proof of just how corporate the indie-rock scene has become. Three years into his career, hoping to mature into a serious, respectable artist, he churns out the labored follow-up album we all knew he had in him.
Stylistically, not much distinguishes this record from Foster’s debut, Torches. He’s still crafting the same brand of fuzzy dancepop, less MGMT than Portugal the Man, decorating uncommonly energetic tunecraft with sugary electronics and glistening sound effects. Dainty, finicky funkbeats skate through fancy keyboard latticework, complete with wheedling guitar lines, dazed vocal harmonies, and very ornate synthesizer display. The band’s jumpy drive has fleshed out and relaxed a little, adding thicker surfaces, gooier bubblegum squiggles, foamier textural overlays. Foster writes archly cheerful songs with lyrics ostensibly much darker than the sunny mood would suggest, although casual listeners are more likely to notice the voice he sings them in, a high, quavering yelp that he thinks sounds hip and actually sounds whiny. However, where Torches was cloyingly bright, this album is cloyingly vague, and where the hooks on Torches yapped along in an actively annoying way, here they recede into the background, slowly and absentmindedly spacing out in a psychedelic daze.
Posing, posturing, acting mannered and chic for the camera, he has successfully repeated himself. If rich kids have as much rockstar potential as anyone else, how come their music always sounds drenched in fashionably privileged anomie?
Schoolboy Q: Oxymoron
(Top Dawg/Interscope, 2014) [BUY]
Where Kendrick Lamar plays a troubled, thoughtful backpacker and Ab-Soul gets wild on demand, Schoolboy Q is the most genuinely gangsta of Los Angeles’s Black Hippy posse. But unlike other aspiring thugs, he specializes in compelling beats and aggressive raps rather than gross brutality. Sticky and hypnotic, this album turns the driftingly ethereal mode of so much underground hip-hop into a powerfully percussive style of catchy beatmastery.
As dense as it is, Q’s music isn’t as haunting or exquisite as Lamar’s, whose albums mesh better as discrete entities. Q is angrier and more ordinary, presenting himself as a dangerous working-class ghetto criminal and hence spewing out endless rants about narcotics and violence and stylized sex, although he feels suitably ashamed about his reliance on prescription drugs. Sometimes he raps quickly and subtly and sometimes he coasts along in a calm drawl, but he also commands a guttural, throat-scratching roar worthy of Lil Jon, and he’s not above gnashing guest rappers apart with his teeth. Enlisting such star producers as Pharrell, the Alchemist, and the crazed Mike WiLL Made It, his beats typically surround a chillingly simple keyboard/piano loop with hard-edged metallic creaks and whooshes, plaintive vocal samples, and thick, claustrophobic clouds of distortion, a familiar alienation effect given playful edge by the muscular hooks that prevail through it all. Far from sounding blurry, the atmospheric approach brings everything into searingly sharp focus.
Layering noise upon noise upon verse upon verse upon crackling reverb upon tense snarl, the first four or five songs here are works of untrammeled genius, especially the shamelessly crass “What They Want.” The rest soars on glee and vocal authority.
Real Estate: Atlas
(Domino, 2014) [BUY]
These New Jersey mumblers have been consistently producing album after album of pleasantly bright guitar-pop for five years now, and though the last record conveyed an aura of childish discovery as best they could, by now they’re affluent professionals working a formula. Their sensitive collegiate audience can always count on them to craft intimate emotions and sleek confessions revealed with expert poise and polish.
It feels silly to accuse a band called Real Estate of being bland and suburban, but there’s no getting around it. From their retro guitar style to their precise instrumental technique to their wimpy vocals to the wistful, autumnal glaze that congeals over every surface of their music like the morning sun, suburban blandness is what they’re selling. Where the National, say, write songs about forlorn yuppies navigating middle-class life in Manhattan, these guys speak for every hopeless romantic trapped in Westchester, gazing at the leaves falling from the trees and hoping one day to be free. Matt Mondanile’s chiming, jangly treble riffs ache with pastoral reverie, conjuring a golden rural wonderland where shy kids can frolic through the amber waves of grain, and the general prettiness of these buoyantly strummed dreamsongs can cheer you up, each melodic ripple trembling with tender longing. Then again, they also sound cheesy, which given the nostalgic twinge in Martin Courtney’s breathy sigh, turns the album doubly shallow.
This is skillfully executed pop music, and it’s shot through with a unified vision that’s rare among all sorts of guitar bands. But in the end its dewy evocation doubles as a sentimental fantasy, the kind of weak-minded escapism that makes edgier urbanites queasy.