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

ipod_earbuds-HOMEIt has come to my attention that the radio edit of Future’s “Move That Dope” has been christened “Move That Doh” in a classic censorship joke. Those in charge of cleaning up dirty songs for a more sensitive audience could have called it “Move That Dough,” which would have made a little more sense given the context, but instead chose to remind rap fans everywhere of Homer Simpson bumping into a pole. Why didn’t they go all the way and call the song “Move Those Donuts?”

Robin Thicke: Paula (StarTrak/Interscope, 2014)

Robin ThickeRobin Thicke became a national superstar in 2013 with the silly, absurdly catchy Marvin Gaye tribute “Blurred Lines”, inspiring a fair bit of controversy over how creepy/douchey the song was and a music video that featured Thicke dancing with a bunch of fully nude models. He justified such antics by claiming “What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before,” upon which his wife promptly left him. This album, a dramatic breakup saga intended to win her back, may just drive her away for good.

Understandably, Thicke is feeling a lot more crestfallen than he did last year, and you can hear it. Having been slapped down for his jocular frat-boy misogyny, he comes across as appropriately penitent; having nonetheless failed to abandon said misogyny, he’s a sad lounge lizard in a tear-stained leisure suit, brooding in the corner because his backup dancers won’t flirt back. His silky-white falsetto, lonely piano chords, lushly soulful arrangements, and occasional blasts of retro-flavored horn sound slick and melancholy simultaneously, with his misery undercut by the cloying artifice in the music. Perhaps many of these songs are too intimate, too private, for anyone not named Paula Patton to really understand — that is, most people might hear “Living in New York City” as a totally bizarre funk showpiece in which Thicke brags about walking his bulldog in Central Park and makes vague references to 9/11, but the song might very well include a number of inside jokes between Thicke and his estranged wife. Then again, “Living in New York City” was also conceived as a filler track, as were many of the soggy laments that drag down the album.

Obsessing over his own failures, he just can’t muster the requisite feeling to make these heartsongs credible. I do sincerely hope he and his wife patch things up. Then he might make a better record.

Sunny Sweeney: Provoked (Aunt Daddy, 2014)

4PAN1TTexan songbird Sunny Sweeney has heretofore built up a reputation among country fans for a stripped-down, old-school style of honky-tonk and an eye for detail that eludes many of her contemporaries. This album is where she takes that style and goes all the way with it, settling into her own playful, passionate voice.

Although Sweeney’s biting sense of humor is one thing that makes her songs vivid, she’s definitely playing a well-defined role in country music: the feisty, defiant, smart backwoods gal, warm and kind when she wants to be, but unafraid of letting her sharp tongue and quick temper loose on anybody who crosses her, which happens a lot in a world where the working class get no respect and no money. This act is nowhere near as rare as adoring outsiders believe; among female artists trying to make it big in Nashville, it’s become rather common. As an adoring outsider, this makes me very happy. Equally comfortable mindlessly rocking out and calmly sailing along, Sweeney’s band arrives at a spare, neotraditionalist sound that’s a world away from the slick, glossy arena-rock that corporate country has turned into, piling on raucous banjo riffs, dulcet pedal steel, twangy acoustic guitar strumming away. Since she has little use for slowness or subtlety, she always hits you with as much musical force as she can muster. Even her breakup songs have some kick to them.

With a gift for linear narrative and the pithy phrase, she makes the whole album snap from beginning to end. She celebrates excess drinking and sleeping around on breezy ditties like “Bad Girl Phase.” She covers “Can’t Let Go” and lives up to the Lucinda Williams version. She goes out with a bang on a song called “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass”.

Future: Honest (Epic/Freebandz/A1, 2014)

FutureHaving made a name for himself with 2012’s Pluto, Atlanta’s reigning trap wizard delivers another solid, driven, eccentric album of energetic dance-rap. Spacing out, cruising around, jumping up and down, tiptoeing through his own thorny rhythm jungle, he’s in supreme command.

On Pluto, Future assembled fourteen polished, silvery, shimmering gems of crunk-hop, with a production formula more metallic than electronic and a vocal signature more electronic than human. The album wasn’t robotic, exactly, not with so many touching love songs thrown in with its swaggering bangers, but it did achieve mechanical expertise so sonically unified it would be impossible to repeat. Amazingly, this follow-up sounds related, but the beats form their own totally new musical style, dark where Pluto was bright, moody where Pluto was bouncy, tightly restrained where Pluto was cheerfully expansive. Dominated by manic producer Mike WiLL Made It, these percussive snare drums, glowing synthesizers, sticky webs of keyboard, and church bells morphing into gunshots cruise at medium speed like a car you think might be following you at night, every now and then flashing its headlights just to make its presence known; you get the feeling that the music is constructed from heavy slabs of steel. His verses have gotten faster and more demented, and although he’s cut down on the Auto-Tune somewhat to suit the new sound, his use of pitch-correcting equipment remains visionary, less an exuberant pop device than a scary, creepy alienation effect. With his every codeine-drenched hiccup filtered through a vocoder, the resulting aesthetic distance heightens the sense of deprivation at the heart of so much gangsta rap, turning what was originally intended as hedonistic party music into something a lot more ominous and powerful.

I recommend the more expensive Deluxe Edition, whose excellent bonus tracks flow perfectly right at the end, including crucial singles like “Shit” and “Karate Chop.” He’s a weird hook machine, and he sneaks up on you.

5 Seconds of Summer: 5 Seconds of Summer (Capitol, 2014)

5 Seconds of SummerEither because they play guitars or because their song doctors have degrees in high school nostalgia, these four Australian teenagers have formed the closest thing to a real boy band our alleged Teenpop Revival has produced in the past few years. Attempting to align themselves with a relatively more mature strain of pop-punk, they don’t quite live up to their role models, Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy. But they sure squash Justin Bieber and One Direction.

Lead single “She Looks So Perfect” is everything I love about this genre. Dynamic power chords, artificially treated ballad singing, and a tune that will stomp around your head for days combine to produce an unabashedly shallow and/or poignantly sincere heartsong with fairly memorable, amusing lyrics: “You look so perfect standing there/in my American Apparel underwear,” “We made a mixtape straight out of ‘94/I got your ripped skinny jeans lying on the floor,” and the undying hook “And I know now/that I’m so down.” Everything else remains somewhat generic — punchy, upbeat summer songs glad to embrace a certain cheerful blandness for their target audience. “18” pines for a girl who happened to turn that magical age before our unfortunate narrator. “Mrs All American” celebrates a recent arrivée from New York to Sydney or wherever, one whom said narrator would love to seduce. “Good Girls” bows to Pete Wentz and looks askance at those who do well in school.

Too vapid-suburban to really rock hard, they’ve nevertheless crafted a solid, lovable dreamboat album. Unlike most boy bands, they truly adore their love interests.

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