However speciously, I usually consider myself above tabloid gossip, and everybody will have forgotten about this in a few weeks, but I would just like to announce that Justin Bieber was arrested Thursday morning in Miami for drag racing in a residential neighborhood. He was reportedly under the influence of alcohol and other drugs. Am I the only one who finds this pricelessly funny? It seems like only yesterday that he got his last visit from the tooth fairy. Our little boy is growing up!

Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt

(Don Giovanni, 2013) [BUY]

Theoretically, Katie Crutchfield’s greatest art project should suffer from all the standard do-it-yourself bedroom-tape setbacks: sparse instrumentation, poor recording, quiet singing, self-conscious performance. But even though this album is far more homespun than the one from her last band, P.S. Eliot, that’s part of its charm. For once, you really do get the feeling that  a self-produced indie cause célèbre is  singing to you personally.

Half of these vaguely folky songs  seem to be just Crutchfield and her solo acoustic even if there’s a muted drumkit pattering behind the melody, and “Brother Bryan” lacks even a guitar, just drums and a thumping bassline. Often the execution is flat, toneless, amateurish, which is supposed to fulfill that raw need for authenticity tormenting many alternative enthusiasts but actually just slows down the pace more than your average garage-rocker might prefer. Still, Crutchfield’s songwriting and quavering voice are so straightforward and direct that what at first seem like technical drawbacks only enhance the intimacy, stripping the music down until its lean calm articulates fear and vulnerability. “Dixie Cups and Jars” unnerves you with a piercing blade of a guitar hook, “Lips and Limbs” calms you down with a wooly blanket of a guitar strum, and “Swan Dive” is a stunning confessional all the more emotional for its restrained modesty. The rest adds color with autumnal elegies, subdued celebrations, and bemused anger.

Insular and lonely, she nevertheless generates enough warmth to touch any open-minded casual listener. Maybe label founder Joe Steinhardt could introduce her to Brad Wood, who has been making indie sociophobes sound dynamite in the studio for twenty years. They would get along.

Lady Gaga: Artpop

(Interscope, 2013) [BUY]

Statisticians call this album a commercial failure, and maybe it is, but like everything in the biz, failure is relative — it went gold in only fifteen countries, oh dear. That’s still a significant percentage of the world listening to Lady Gaga. However silly her ideas about contemporary art, she’s pulled off another electrifying collection of turbocharged arena-pop songs, her toughest if not most enticing album, and her energy level is superhuman.

Where Madonna’s music is about empowerment through formal command, Gaga’s is about liberation through formal release. She’s always nurtured a gift for the fist-pumping, bleeding-heart anthem, and this is where she heightens her big beat into full overdrive. Building up an overwhelming wave of synthesized glitz and guitar riffage, these assertions of defiance explode with the airless density of electrohouse techno, their keyboard effects rattling off each other as they mindlessly whomp toward climax after climax. She really lets loose vocally, too, yelling her lungs out in a voice tougher and more butch than the pop queen norm. As intense as it is, the pounding momentum does eventually wear you out — you can only jump up and down for so long without getting tired or bored, especially when your smashing beats lack melodies as irrepressible as in “Judas” or “Bad Romance.” This album is a jumble; it’s frantic and disorganized both musically and conceptually. But the sheer performance is so passionate and wild it slams every point home regardless.

Her songwriting is more uneven here than on 2011’s Born This Way — the sex songs are ravishing, the philosophical expeditions are vague, and the fashion songs dabble in standard-issue image/projection/communication/media theory. Nevertheless, she remains a reigning glam idol. Dynamic and voraciously red-blooded, this is classic rock at its best. Karaoke bars all over the world light up at the mere mention of her name.

Beyoncé: Beyoncé

(Columbia, 2013) [BUY]

However definitive her work with Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé’s solo hits have largely been flukes — her typical medium is emotional overkill, bellowing regal power ballads like the superhuman professional entertainer she is. This album, stealth-released under everyone’s noses in mid-December, is something different. It emphasizes sex, and also pop choruses. In fact, it overflows with them.

While the musical environment here ranges from jazzy minimalism to electronic smog, everything is anchored by fat, dense, bumping bass and bouncing, laid-back Pharell/Timbaland beats, a vibrant backbone deep and driving enough to propel even the more serious songs into rhythmic gold. These slinky-smooth guitar riffs, glittering synthesizer chords, occasional horns and battering drum machines, relaxed and martial in equal measure, lock into a sleek groove, a new stylized flavor of seductively hooky funk. Taking the latent carnal charge behind both burning quietstorm allure and upbeat R&B cheer to undreamt-of extremes, she rubs her libido in your face as audaciously as any rapper. Whether she’s getting it on with Jay-Z in the back of their limo (“He Monica Lewinsky’d all over my gown”) or singing slow baby-making ballads (“Let me sit this ass on you” — a pickup line recommended to everybody), she’s not just lubriciously pornographic. She’s brazenly, defiantly, triumphantly erotic. And her music makes these wet dreams a physical reality.

Coming from such an idol you have to wonder whether her sex songs double as dominance songs, especially when she’s singing so heartily. They probably do. But they’re also about pleasure, about letting go in the throes of sheer material enjoyment. That this album sold a million copies in little over a month is all the proof you need that hedonism is good for you.

Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe

(Domino, 2013) [BUY]

Having made his name as a hired songwriter for Solange Knowles and Sky Ferreira, alleged R&B crooner Dev Hynes proves himself with his very own comprehensive chef-d’oeuvre. If you mistake him for another eclectic soul balladeer you’ll find he has a brooding charm about him, but soon his prickly side comes out and he morphs into a post-swing-inflected New Romantic artiste.

For a nominal funk album, this is remarkably chilly. Its rhythm section stays constant throughout, and the basslines and programmed drum tracks never fail to kick in, providing firm musical bedrock. Everything else is basically atmospheric embellishment — glowing, hypnotic guitar lines and impressionistic piano melancholy fade in and out, immersed in throbbing background texture. Hynes has assembled a wide array of instruments or at least simulations of such, with shrill saxophones and mellow xylophones slinking in with the wash, but the music is so hazy it comes across less as a bizarre soul synthesis than a particularly elaborate lounge-jazz suite. That is, until he starts straining his voice in a breathy falsetto murmur, upon which the whole project turns so creepy you abruptly snap back into consciousness and leave him where he is, sitting in the corner staring into space, morosely mumbling conflicted laments about depression and anomie.

Every now and then Hynes succeeds in melding riff and ambience, tunelet and staggering rhythm, aura and actual physical presence. Otherwise, only voluptuaries who believe that scented ear candle therapy purges their minds of impure thoughts will find this soapy mood music remotely luxurious.

Britney Spears: Britney Jean

(RCA, 2013) [BUY]

Although Britney Spears has always been smarter and more audacious than tastemakers are willing to admit, she does have her corporate side. In the studio she’s capable of perfectly bright pop inspiration, but she’s just as likely to assemble serviceable filler. Highlighted by a few knockout punches, this album is on the whole nowhere near as inspired as 2011’s Femme Fatale.

At her best, Britney makes gloriously shallow, mechanically luscious, superficially synthetic cyberbubblegum, coated in schlocky electronic sparkle. Manifested both in her girly squeals and the light, glossy production, her cheerfully bland polish can be positively robotic sometimes, creating a winningly restrained surface tension that’s the key to her mass sex appeal — not only do her sporadic hormonal tantrums yield double the release when breaking through programmed pop detachment, but she remains in control all the while. Her ethos is fairly represented here: mammoth hit “Work Bitch” rides one of the fattest, bounciest hooks of her career, and I love “Perfume,” in which she sprays fragrance all over her boyfriend so she can “mark her territory.” Just as often, though, she’s churning out faceless dance tracks or sincere heartsongs, summed up by the sappy duet she shares with her sister.

This album is a commercial holding act, empty product designed to keep her on the charts. But her empty product isn’t so bad. Give her a few more years and she’ll be back to dynamite.

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...

One reply on “Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (January 2014, Part 2)”

  1. Well done. I highly recommend to you the new drop by Future of the Left “How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident.” An album of weird genius.

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