Three fairly mediocre but very acclaimed critical darlings this month, plus two corporate hack jobs that I’ve fallen madly in love with. Maybe this says more about me than it does about the state of modern rock criticism. But let’s get real. If you actually think El-P is a better rapper than 2 Chainz, you desperately need to learn how to dance.
2 Chainz: B.O.A.T.S. II: #METIME
(Def Jam, 2013) [BUY]
Having proven his street bona fides by losing to Drake at the Grammies, Mr. Champagne on the Airplane makes another fabulous party record. The first was 2012’s Based on a T.R.U. Story, after which this is named; they sound pretty much the same, although the sequel has more focus. If you find sunbaked, hypnotic Southern crunk dubiously dull, this album won’t change that. If you find it addictive, the groove will smolder and electrify.
Musically, these strong, simple beats and rattling trap drums provide a more aggressive, straightforward minimalist rush than the laid-back languor currently fashionable among commercial gangstas, and Chainz enunciates gruffly in the amused, conversational Jay-Z style rather than slathering his vocals with Auto-Tune. Yet he’s the essence of pop-rap regardless. You can tell because his lyrics are irrelevant. That’s not to deny the delight he finds in goofy obscenity, mysterious free-associations, or questionable wordplay; the slithering “Let’s make a sex tape and put it on Netflix” has been gliding through my head for weeks. But his verses signify only as neat constructions of language, and they mean next to nothing when it comes to content. By now rapping about strip clubs, dealing crack, and all your gold bling has become meaningless, devoid of any social protest or, conversely, endorsement of the criminal/mack lifestyle — it’s a formal convention pure and simple. As with any good formalist, Chainz’s bubbly piano tunelets and ringing glockenspiel simulations are tough and restrained, yet they also let loose with a childishly entitled sense of play. Although this album’s second half slows down a bit, everything comes roaring back with the penultimate “Black Unicorn,” about himself.
Altogether too silly for aggrandizing shows of macho, his heavy club bounce is devoted to a standard of fun so juvenile it’s disconcerting at first. But Mr. Codeine in my Wine Glass really, really wants you to have a good time. It would be juvenile to decline.
Panic! at the Disco: Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!
(Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen, 2013) [BUY]
Feigning rock defiance and delivering corporate product, beefing up Vegas sleaze with hammy melodrama custom-made for the cheap seats, these guys will always be the quintessential emo posers. But while I’ve found them theoretically interesting for a long time, never did I dream that they would evolve/mature/stumble into some indigenous hybrid of Fall Out Boy and the Dandy Warhols as they do here. By virtue of skillful concision and unfailing cheer, they’ve achieved a tight, vaguely psychedelic punk-pop of uncommon punch and wit.
At first, the band seems both slight and overblown; it’s not every day a puffed-up power ballad called “The End of All Things” just fizzles out after three and a half measly minutes. Drenched in baroque strings and electronic gloss, strutting around their sweaty metal licks and theatrical display, they’re like a parody of your average Fueled By Ramen band, their supposedly garage-identified posturing having reached new ridiculous heights of shallow expediency. In fact, this album is so absurdly, audaciously, outrageously shameless that you’ll belt every one of these rock-solid hockey-rink anthems whatever you think of Brendon Urie’s melismatics. Highlighting nine bouncy, upbeat songs plus the puffed-up power ballad at the end, the orchestrated dynamics deliver a glorious neon hook parade, from plastic drum machines to mechanized rubber synthesizers to the hard crunch of their rhythm guitar. In musical context, even Urie’s whiny octave leaps become the kind of sound effect you long to hear again, and if the price of a great tune is an idiotic lyric, I’m happy to sing “This is gospel for the fallen ones/Locked away in permanent slumber/Assembling their philosophies/From pieces of broken memories” for all eternity.
Where too many bands like this rely on generic hard-rock energy, these guys really have their own sound, all lean and glammy and glitzy. This album sears that sound into your brain with piercing riffs at their hottest. Hell, I even love that puffed-up power ballad.
Jason Isbell: Southeastern
(Southeastern, 2013) [BUY]
This ex-Drive-By Trucker has written some great songs, most of them on the 2003 and 2004 Trucker albums Decoration Day and The Dirty South. After a pretty negligible solo career, this is supposed to be where he cleans up his act, gets sober, and turns into a respectable Southern gentleman. As with too many solo albums by artists from bands, though, he sounded bolder sharing the spotlight with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.
The album cover sums up its sound fairly accurately: over spare, subtle guitar strumming and not much else, maybe another guitar twanging out some chords or a quiet violin adding very softly subdued instrumental color, Isbell stares thoughtfully into your eyes, thinking deep thoughts about his emotions, the fear that lives in all of us, and the ephemeral nature of life on earth. A striking if traditional melodist with a high, quavering voice, Isbell has stripped his music down to the bare bones, and the resulting record moves at a crawl, disclosing various personal revelations under a thick cloud of hesitation and worry. He can write very directly about relationships and especially addiction, and he tackles socially conscious themes like cancer and child abuse without reveling in how dark they are. None of this, however, much distinguishes him from dozens of other Americana-identified singer-songwriters competing for critical attention, most of whom have louder drummers.
Many of these songs tell compelling stories, his gift for which remains undiminished. But with the exceptions of the harder-rocking “Flying over Water” and “Super 8,” they’re too polite by far. Wouldn’t “Elephant” hit harder if a rumbling garage-rock band like the Truckers ripped into it rather than Isbell alone, slowly and neatly plucking it out on solo acoustic?
David Bowie: The Next Day
(ISO/Columbia, 2013) [BUY]
David Bowie has done so much for the culture that he has every right to make as many mediocre comeback albums as he wants, as indeed he has. Always the kind of eccentric auteur-dabbler whose tinkerings would equal schlock in a lesser talent, he’s actually returned to form with a fairly sound record this time, complete with endearing weirdness, balanced rock songs, and the ghastly vocals we’ve all learned to love.
This is the Thin White Duke’s first album in ten years, the longest gap in his career so far, a statistical oddity notable only because Bowie is the kind of artist with no filter: maddeningly prolific, veering off in all sorts of directions, singing anything that floats through his head. So his hiatus seemed more permanent than with most rock stars. But now he’s crafted an album that could have been released between 1980’s Scary Monsters and 1983’s Let’s Dance, say, totally out of the blue. His guitar strum undercut by woozy, creaky machinery, his jangling guitars swathed in distant echo effects, this screeching funk soars for the first three songs or so before settling into crankier, subtler space-age balladry. Many of its melodies reach out with uncommon clarity, and the icy string arrangements that swamp too many of the slower songs are not without goofy charm. Creating its own all-encompassing aural environment for anyone who cares to enter, this rich, buoyant, often aimless music really does sound like he’s lost in space.
As the rare rock star with little expressive gift per se, Bowie has nothing much left to say anymore — in the ‘70s and early ‘80s he invented a new kind of marvelously lavish performance, and now that his musical substance no longer reflects pop fashion, half its meaning is gone. Nevertheless, the album connects on its own wacky terms. Who knows, maybe he’s ready to be a star again.
El-P & Killer Mike: Run the Jewels
(Fool’s Gold, 2013) [BUY]
In 2012, Atlanta rapper-insurgent Killer Mike hired New York alternative rap figurehead El-P to produce his raging, fiery R.A.P. Music. Well, they’re back, nastier and more misanthropic than ever. As a collaboration this has serious charm, with the two rivals locked in a ferocious competition to out-rhyme the other, and it blends their respective styles together seamlessly. Like too much alternative rap, though, it’s very much an insider’s album, deliberately forbidding and willfully thorny.
On the surface, this record resembles R.A.P. Music both musically and in vocal delivery. Its explosive funkbeats twist burping basslines under glittering synthesizer chandeliers and acerbic turntable scratching, an old-school deejay aesthetic cleverly screwed with, and the dense rapid-fire verses the rappers spit keep bouncing off each other, building up vicious tension. The rappers complement each other perfectly, with Mike’s low growl deepening P’s sociopathic, neurotic babble. But with P fully in charge this time, you mainly notice the babble. Where even on his most outraged protest songs Mike has a warm, generous aura about him, P has long represented everything bitter and reclusive about underground hip-hop and its confusion of a spartan ethos with a refusal to compromise. The rap equivalent of an indie puritan, he’s damn well going to be difficult if it scares weak listeners away. Its increasingly wordy lyrics become a nerdy alienation effect, and its harsh, twisted rhythmic overload a hostile one; this album is for the strong, for every backpacker who refuses to be just another sheep, every self-proclaimed autodidact who rants against the system and its evil major labels.
At their most potent, they could convince you that mainstream hip-hop is dying of blandness. Otherwise, these two sociophobes never outgrow the obscurantism that passes for acumen among hipster intellectuals. There’s no release in the music’s sharp edge, no love of language in the rhymes. Just bottled-up anger.