MusicWeekend

Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (January 2013, Part 1)

by Lucas Fagen on January 19, 2013

No use after the fact, but I swear I wrote an intro paragraph to this column on the day before the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll 2012 came out,  in which I hazarded a guess that the top three would be Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Fiona Apple in that order, after which the score of everything else would pale in comparison, and I was right, you gotta believe me. Meanwhile, on Pitchfork’s year-end list, something suitably obscurantist: their #1 song is virtually indistinguishable from their #13 and their #58. On Rolling Stone’s year-end list, something suitably direct: Bruce Springsteen was their #1. I mean, seriously?

Grimes: Visions 

GrimesArbutus, 2012 [BUY]

Where most commercial artists operate under their own names, underground ones tend to use pseudonyms even when it’s just one person. This speaks to their conceptual audacity but also to their potential dullness; either they have something really cool in store, or they’re too scared to show their face. For the life of me, I cannot tell Grimes’ aka Claire Boucher’s breakthrough album apart from Purity Ring’s Shrines. I prefer it by a little because it’s less garish, but it’s hazier, and unless you dissect it note by note, just as incoherent.

The hit here is “Oblivion,” allegedly about Boucher’s response to sexual assault, which has made her the next feminist icon in the indie community, although how fans distinguish it from any of the other tracks I can only guess. There are in fact tunes here, often welcoming, agreeable ones. But to answer her complaint that nobody in the press treats her like a human being, it’s because with her voice filtered through high-pitched vocoder sound effects, she sounds less like a person than some helium-coated pixie, or maybe a butterfly fluttering all over the place. The sugary keyboard-dominated sound fits this general spirit: also rather shrill, it diddles around with moony, ineffectual squealing for nearly fifty minutes. I can’t make out any lyrics, so I couldn’t say for sure whether she speaks for oppressed women or not. Then again, music this mannered tends to result from a confluence of wealth and apathy, neither a quality typically associated with victims of oppression.

Too unobtrusive to count as truly irritating, she never draws your attention. She practices a laxity all too common among artists unused to actually having an audience, and she has even less to say about feminism than Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography.

Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen Columbia, 2012 [BUY]

Springsteen’s transformation from vibrant, committed rocker to the quintessential American rock titan is, despite my deep-seated love for his music, a little hard to take. His talent certainly deserves the reward it has gotten, but then again, he can’t exactly speak for the teenage underdog when he’s selling millions of tickets in Madison Square Garden. His persona has always been that of an everyman. Here, he positions himself as reacting against the current political climate.

This is one of the most propulsive records on the market right now, and it’s obviously his best since 2002’s The Rising. Like The Rising, it aims to lift you up, to get you through the hard times. He understands better than any rock star just how hard the times are now, but where that album was explicitly a response to 9/11, this is rougher and less focused, at best his contribution to the Occupy movement and not always that specific. His acoustic guitar strumming complements the soft, husky chant his voice has turned into, the tin-whistles prove he still has roots, and he often succeeds in calming you down, shoring up your soul. Only with the snarling violence on “Death to My Hometown”, though, does the physical release of the Clarence Clemons-deprived E Street Band escape spiritual blandishment.

It’s nice to have Springsteen back on this quality arena-rock album. But without enough context to lend his reactive tendencies meaning, it all comes across as ambiguous, vague, a bit confused. Maybe he really has taken the Occupy movement to heart.

The Coup: Sorry to Bother You

The CoupAnti, 2012 [BUY]

The Coup is an incredible band, and it maddens me that they don’t record more, because every record they’ve put their name on is uniformly excellent. Boots Riley is the only rapper ever to make me consider the values of communism, his humane spirit and radical outrage each validating each other, and his last four albums have each been no less than perfect. This one isn’t quite, but that’s not saying much. It’s fascinating to watch them slowly adapt and evolve with the present political sphere, especially when it results in earbombs like this.

Compounding killer riffs with fresh keyboard punches over rhythms that combine the unstoppable rush of P-Enemy with the laid-back glide of P-Funk, the live band taps an insanely assertive, hard-rocking groove that stands up and challenges you: the musical realization of the revolution they keep ranting about. Riley is one of the great rhymers, with a thick, gravelly drone that snaps snippets of anti-capitalist rhetoric together like puzzle pieces. They drag a bit here, as the record is filled with weird, unprecedented formal experiments – slow, string-led ballad, soft-soul choruses – that soften the really fierce songs. But the flow is classic Coup, starting strong and slowly adding on muscle until gloriously exploding at the end. They climax with “The Guillotine,” a terrifying mass chant keyed to a calm guitar figure whose equable intensity nearly matches the volatile rage of “Piss On Your Grave” itself.

Occasionally I do get a little uncomfortable by how extreme-left the politics are, but there’s no arguing with a credo like “My painting isn’t finished till it kills you/or it makes you feel more powerful than pills do”. In the very same song they proclaim “You are not a riot… you just get hyped by the aesthetic of rebellion,” directed at none other than Andy Warhol. It also applies to me and probably you.

Pink: The Truth About Love

PinkRCA, 2012 [BUY]

Having released Greatest Hits…So Far!!! two years ago, Pink continues her decade-long chart run as if nothing happened. She’s officially an established name in the business now, a guaranteed bestseller who goes double platinum by force of sheer personality cult alone, and she’s now inviting a ton of guest artists, some talents (Lily Allen, Eminem) and some hacks (Nate Ruess, who enunciates like the Broadway singer he will no doubt become).

By Hollywood standards, she comes up with the average percentage of spirited dance numbers, functional dance numbers, and mush. Unlike so many other celebrities, she has her own sound, centered on the interplay between her acoustic guitar and her buzzing, rock-solid beats. This has always given her songs a certain punch, and although this album is just another hits-and-filler package, the hits are impressive – synthesized uptempo rockers that make the most of her paradoxical emotional range, acting feisty and tender simultaneously, like the romantic idol she instinctively presents herself to be. The slower, less confident songs sound downright sentimental by comparison, never quite achieving the overwhelmingly intense desire and self-projection that marks the truly awesome moments. Still, I can sympathize with the most humane, fun pop star around regardless.

This record isn’t much more focused than 2008’s Funhouse, but it’s also a bit faster, which makes all the difference: you can relate to it. Let’s hope she releases “Slut Like You” as a single and popularizes the word as being something to affirm, although judging from how the radio censors turned Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” into “Forget You”, they’d probably ruin it. “Sick Like You,” maybe. “Sack Like You”?

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: The Heist

MacklemoreMacklemore LLC, 2012 [BUY]

That this entirely self-released album should reach the #1 spot on iTunes only hours after coming out is the ultimate proof of how homogenized the commercial pop scene is, and this white Seattle rapper speaks to youth culture to boot. While charming and intelligent, Macklemore also inadvertently falls into a new/time-old trend, that of the vapidly spiritual. “Thrift Shop” is a hilarious single, and “Jimmy Iovine” gives more incentive than most other never-gonna-sell-out songs. Many of the other songs here meander between ballads about drug abuse and yet more ballads that claim being a starving artist is the most sacred calling.

It’s clear that Macklemore has significant verbal gifts. He’s funny when he wants to be; I love the way he coasts on the slow tracks and then speeds into hyperactive chatter on the hookier ones. He’s good-hearted, too, speaking out for gay rights and against ghetto violence. Since producer Ryan Lewis’s symphonic-electronic grandiosity backs up his even-tempered speech rhythmically, the record is sonically pleasant, at least if its overblown aspects don’t bother you. But they do bother me, and I’m not convinced. He raises questions like what the value of sincerity is, whether it’s a good idea to wear your bleeding heart on your sleeve. He applies humane liberal moralism to a basically conservative, Dubya-approved aesthetic, that of the sledgehammer, so that even when he eloquently articulates his worthy ethical beliefs, it still sounds like he reached them for all the wrong reasons – even “Same Love,” the gay marriage song, comes across as rather trite. In this context the synth bombast becomes sugary, and his white voice starts sounding suburban.

While much of this album is perfectly enjoyable, the sententiousness just gets in the way. Although I know it rarely works like this, I hope commercial success makes him a little more restrained.

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