Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (January 2014, Part 1)

If anyone wants an extra holiday present at this late date, do yourself a favor and order a copy of Shinee’s Misconceptions of Us online. In a few weeks, you will be shipped from London what might just be the most gloriously pretentious box set ever. It comes with has three glossy foldout booklets, two of them hardcover, inside which you will find many, many fashion magazine-worthy pictures of five young South Korean men named Onew, Jonghyun, Key, Minho, and Taemin. They pose and make Zoolander-style faces at the camera, proudly flaunting their leopardskin pants, neon-green undershirts, sparkly watches, bleached hair and dark guyliner. One of them appears several times playfully cocking a toy gun off into the distance; one of them is frequently seen sticking his hand into a glassful of white goop; sometimes they are covered in floating bubble bath; there are a number of Photoshopped images where they are decorated with tiny horses, a number of images where they stare emotionally into the camera, a number of images where they’re free falling. I’ve been leaving these booklets out on the coffee table just so people will ask me what they are. Some of the best music of the year, too.

Shinee: The Misconceptions of Us

misconceptions-of-us(SM Entertainment, 2013) [BUY]

Exploiting the increased market niche for K-pop made inevitable by “Gangnam Style,” this South Korean boy band has been startlingly prolific in the past year, having released a slew of EPs and two half-hour albums, the fabulously named Chapter 1. Dream Girl: The Misconceptions of You and Chapter 2. Why So Serious?: The Misconceptions of Me. Musically, Dream Girl is the brighter, sunnier, commercial move, while Why So Serious? is the darker, scarier, goth statement. Played back to back in this longer compilation, they yield the great bubblegum album of our time.

These enthusiastic young men are hardly above sincere emotion, and the three soulful, heartfelt ballads here prove they’re definitely the kind of teen idols who double as romantic role models. But riding a polished production sound so tight it’s amazing they can keep it up for this long, their overall effect is less ‘N Sync than the Cars, or Duran Duran. Inflected by the electronic abrasion of modern rave and the power-riff punch of American synthpunk, their calculated, detached riffs lock in around supersingable choruses, everything as sleek and chic as can be. This album just keeps piling shameless harmony singing, cheesy guitar shredding, slabs of white-hot keyboard, chewy swirls, and buzzing, ringing squiggles onto its plastic funk groove — it’s that dense. What exactly the singers are telling their loving audience of teenage girls I have no idea; the lyrics are mostly in Korean save for occasional English phrases like “You’re so dangerous,” “Hey love let’s run away,” “Excuse me miss/Vanilla ice now in your kiss.” But their juicy, sugary, surefire hooks are instant and immediate for dancers and musos alike.

High on adrenaline, charged with supersonic flash, this album is the sound of twenty perfectly realized pop songs in straight succession. A stylized tribute to Western dance music, it achieves the kind of solid, coherent formal pleasure that corporate expediency is meant to guarantee, and the result is dizzingly catchy. These tunes will spin and zoom and zip happily around your head for months as you grin like an idiot all the while.

Disclosure: Settle

Disclosure-Settle(Cherrytree/Interscope, 2013) [BUY]

With the electronic dance world split between harsh, ascetic pseudo-DJs pursuing subcultural credibility and shallow, commercial pseudo-DJs pursuing chart success, Guy and Howard Lawrence split the difference right down the middle. Like Chase & Status, say, or the Teddybears, their songs rely on guest vocalists, and this album reads like a celebrity VIP list. But the beats at its core are so wiggy and witty they’re anything but corporate.

Musically, this is fairly straightforward. Melodic pop choruses, often provided by English house singers but also obscure samples and diddled vocal clips, highlight a continuous, mechanical techno pulse. The percussion tracks chug forward in that familiar Kraftwerk train rhythm, the keyboards wash over you in rubbery waves, and the whole jittery package flows by quickly and subtly. Often the hooks are at once too simple and too monotonous, their automated rhythms coldly marching forward like the robot manikins they impersonate. The human voices help, though. These are standard tension-and-release games, actualized by the way they introduce an electronic blip, loop the drumbeat for what seems an ungodly amount of time, and then finally bring back the theme.

Sometimes the guests don’t quite mesh with their surroundings, and Aluna remains a little twee. But just as often, the revolving door of singers switches up the momentum with some tricky phrase, and the wacked-out powerhouse “When a Fire Starts to Burn,” which samples a speech by the “world renowned motivational guru” Eric Thomas, is visionary.

Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest

Boards of Canada(Warp, 2013) [BUY]

This reclusive Scottish downtempo-techno duo developed an odd cult following in the eight years since their last album, and I’m not surprised that this alleged comeback has been reviewed so kindly. But Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin have gotten even more underwhelming than before. They’ve devolved into the most tedious kind of ambient easy-listening, with any traces of lyricism once nestled in their organic soundscape long gone.

Most critically acclaimed techno is sweeping, portentous, aggrandizing. This album is just less obtrusive about it. Sandison and Eoin make remarkably content-free music even for instrumental electronic minimalists, subdued as a matter of formal principle. Centered on repetitive, pro forma synthesizer loops, they color in the edges with warm, hazy ostinato drones and cold, watery surges of mood. Subtly building up atmosphere, they drift ethereally through geometric patterns and across virtual airwaves. Theoretically, this autumnal record is a throwback to childhood, wistfully capturing an innocent, idyllic time of life, while its antiseptic luster and robotized artificiality place this hazy utopia firmly out of reach. In practice, everything remains static and shimmery, floating off into the airy mist like the wings of a wispy, gossamer butterfly.

Their dazed, dreamlike crawl is indeed one-of-a-kind, and the Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey is right to call it a “mysteriously moving musical language.” But “evoke the sound of nostalgia itself”? This canned elevator music doesn’t evoke shit. Play it in the background and chances are you’ll tune out entirely. Actively concentrate on it, ditto.

Chvrches: Bones of What You Believe

chvrches-the-bones-of-what-you-believe(Glassnote, 2013) [BUY]

In hipper circles, these Scottish teenyboppers somehow get away with their earnest, anthemic songwriting due to a whole slew of computerized alienation effects, but to my ears it’s the latter that sounds obnoxious. Essentially, they’ve turned a pleasantly bland set of tuneful ditties into a layered, textured jewel, as brashly intricate as it is difficult to listen to. Couldn’t they have contented themselves with being just another weird alternative-rock band?

Once squealcore becomes its own distinct genre I won’t be able to get away with claiming Grimes, Purity Ring, and this band all sound the same, but as long as they remain a specialized taste I’d like to point out that all three acts surround irritatingly shrill, childlike female vocalists with glazed, syrupy keyboard goop. Chanteuse/ingenue Lauren Mayberry’s voice is certainly more humane than Claire Boucher’s, the propulsive drums power it all into genuine pop territory, and the melodies really do bring off a bright, positive cheer. But essentially they pursue their peppy, upbeat, honey-coated aesthetic so relentlessly it all turns sickly-sweet and cloying, like eating too much candy on Halloween. Their knotty sonic constructions twist sparkling synthesizers around glassy sound effects, which are then threaded through sharp mirrorlike filigrees. When Mayberry then starts to sing, her piercing, high pitch fits this style all too well.

Maybe I should just be grateful that an indie band is acting friendly and outgoing for once, and the opening “Mother We Share” nails the kind of energetic uplift that so rouses them. But they need to learn the difference between oomph and overkill.

Pet Shop Boys: Electric

pet-shop-boys-electric-album-cover-2013-400x400(x2, 2013) [BUY]

Basking in the shadows of actual rock stars, these playful English gentlemen have long been the kings of elegant electrodisco. They approach their music like intellectuals, thoughtfully assembling earnest love songs and fascinatingly hedonistic hooks for their loving audience of brainy pop aesthetes and also English radio, where they continue to score more hits than you’d expect from a band this erudite. Gliding its way across the dancefloor environment they’ve always yearned for, this is their best record in twenty years.

While Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have never made a bad album, over the past few years they’ve been getting softer, quieter, passively resigned about their receding careers and shrinking commercial clout. They’ve been charmingly arch about it, though; dourness just doesn’t suit them. But here they power up their subversive postmodern dance style and it’s like they never left. Mastermixer Lowe bends Hollywood strings, vocoded robot muppets, grand textural whooshes, chiming bells, garbled Russian dialogue and all sorts of electronically treated kitsch effects onto plastic drum machines and bouncy keyboards. They do cultivate a certain surface blandness in their pseudoironic gloss, a deadpan suburban theatricality that simultaneously reveals the whole enterprise as parody and honest camp. But Tennant’s high, quavering voice and bemused songs take so much sweet delight in this ethos that even their most mechanically screwy moments turn profoundly expressive, and these gleefully schlocky synthbeats are so blissfully unrestrained that even their most mechanically programmatic moments turn sublime.

From their rampant club bangers to their mockeries of classical music to their gloriously dinky Springsteen cover, they’ve gotten their exuberance back, and not a moment too soon. Credo: “I like the people / I like the song / This is my kind of music / They play it all night long / I like the singer / He’s lonely and strange / Every track has a vocal / And that makes a change.”

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