Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (August 2014, Part 2)

fagens-critical-catalogue-september-20121The Tiësto review is dedicated to a dear personal friend of mine whose obsession with Electronic Dance Music knows no bounds. The Lily Allen review is dedicated to Kanye West, for obvious reasons. The Cher Lloyd review goes out to Simon Cowell, thanks to whom the pop industry is an altogether classier place. As for iSweat Fitness Music, ah, blame it if you will on my own schlocky taste.

Cher Lloyd: Sorry I’m Late (Epic, 2014)

cher lloyd-1Most graduates of England’s The X Factor and its stateside cousin American Idol make a show of their emotions, hammering every note home with vocal chops more suited to a megaphone, or a battering ram, or a tank. These generalizations do not apply to Cher Lloyd, who finished fourth in The X Factor’s seventh season. Not only does she sing upbeat pop songs instead of languid breakup arias, but she’s a convincing, naturalistic singer, with a knack for simulating conversational dialogue.

Although Lloyd’s music does incorporate a wide range of styles, don’t ever think it’ll cost her airplay. Sizzling electrobeats, house-inspired keyboard loops, aerodynamic dubstep whomp, catchy choruses that could pass for Rihanna singles, half-singing/half-rapping that rides the flowing rhythms underneath, puffs of pink smoke and blasts of drum machine and spouts of cherry soda and golden rings of synthesizer, and okay, a few sentimental ballads just for good measure; all this adds up to a particularly clear, stylized flavor of sugary bubblegum. Sometimes her beats zoom forward at lightning speed, sometimes they wobble a bit. Sometimes she sings with angry scorn, sometimes with frivolous charm. Sometimes she wants you to dance, sometimes to sing along, sometimes just to sit still and listen. Always her glitzy, fruity hooks click exactly into their groove.

Those convinced that shallow pop music will lower your IQ or rot your teeth or make you look uncool in front of your friends will find this album unlistenable. Those who value it for its unstoppable, hedonistic immediacy will jump at the opportunity to hear Lloyd mastering her craft.

Tiësto: A Town Called Paradise (Universal, 2014)

TiestoWhere pop is a singles medium and dubstep can stretch on for hours on end so people can dance, the dubstep-inflected pop we’d best call EDM does both or neither. Committed to catchy snippets of hooks that might get played on the radio, it also tries to make said snippets club-friendly, which usually involves repeating them for longer than any normal person can stand. This prestigious Dutch DJ, having started in trance-techno but switching genres now that he knows where the money is, falls prey to all the compromises of the form.

As a matter of technical wizardry, Tiësto’s screams and sirens and builds and drops are immaculate. With sputtering explosives and hissing vacuums whizzing by like a sleek Eurotrain running on time, there’s no denying he’s in complete control of his formula. He’ll hire some semi-famous artist — Icona Pop, most prominently, or Krewella, or a whole panoply of identical C-list Hollywood singers — and get them to bellow a few inspirational platitudes, plus maybe an intro verse to create the illusion of songcraft. Then he surrounds these most honored guests with the loud, blaring keyboard breaks that have become today’s club and also pop norm. Although his music crunches and bangs as a commercial prerequisite, he’s somehow managed to polish his ubiquitously abrasive synthesizer effect so that it sounds smooth, slick, soft, hypnotically pretty. Given how fashionable harsh ugliness is on the charts right now, why would he ever do such a thing? Because the market for vapid, feelgood uplift will last forever.

It is a miracle that such music exists in the pop realm at all, and even at his emptiest he’s still riding a surging skyrocket of energy. This kind of energy can be thrilling, electrifying, something we should all be grateful for. But it wears out fast.

Lily Allen: Sheezus (Parlophone, 2014)

lily allenBelieve the fabulous album title: once-cheerful diva Lily Allen has assembled a whole album devoted to pissing off the media. When her satire hits the target, she’s funny, shocking and likable all at once. When she misses ever so slightly, however, you start to think maybe artists should just shut up and accept criticism.

Any journalist who ever gave her a bad review should take cover pronto, because Allen is on the warpath. Song after song targets the lazy herd mentality, shallow trendmongery, and ingrained misogyny of modern rockcrit, with her masterstroke a song in which she impersonates a young amateur blogger who fancies himself quite a bigshot: after dropping a bunch of fashionable names, she sneers “I don’t like girls much they’re kinda silly/Unless of course they wanna play with my willy,” then pauses, letting her anger sink in. The arch, plastic surface sticking to her mildly catchy synthpop evokes the queasy, anonymous world of Internet pundits and backlash cycles, and her playful, very British voice conveys deep frustration without sacrificing barbed glee. At first you think she may have devised a brilliant statement on media culture. Soon, however, her superficial keyboard gloss turns somewhat nauseating, and on the whole her friendlier love songs stay in the mind’s ear longer than the sarcastic kissoffs that frame them. Perhaps an album that concentrated on these would have a better chance at winning over the critics.

Given the irreverent nature of both musicians, why should Yeezus become an established classic while Sheezus gets roundly panned? Well, partially it’s because rock critics are sexist assholes, as Allen loves to point out. Partially it’s because the music on the former cuts deep while the latter just zips along. Partially it’s because Allen never transcends her own cheap irony.

iSweat Fitness Music: Jillian Michaels Workout Mix, Vol. 1 (iSweat Fitness Music, 2014)

isweatFor everyone who doesn’t attend aerobics classes, which includes me, the workout music industry is huge: fancy corporations like Power Music Workout, RunningTrax, and iSweat Fitness Music manufacture an endless assembly line of cartoonishly sped-up dance remixes, sponsored by personal trainers all over the world. Some of these albums are inanely robotic, others exciting and fun. This is the best one I’ve heard in a while.

On one level, my perverse attraction to this goofy genre rests on willful pseudointellectual interpretation, the insistence that purely utilitarian music equals a gloriously postmodern recontextualization of contemporary EDM hits. But the real reason I like it is purely sonic, the privilege of lying back and grinning as a hyperactive wall of hooks hits you at full blast. There’s nothing wrong with contemporary EDM hits, after all, it’s just that most of them could be a little, you know, faster. So voilà, here are twelve absurdly overcaffeinated techno vehicles, jittering and clattering all over the place. Although each remix is shrewdly paced, giving all you performers of jumping jacks and pushups the occasional chance to rest, forward motion dominates, and by the end everybody will have collapsed on the floor exhausted, taking deep breaths, wiping the sweat from their eyes. In fact, the piledriving beat is so uniformly predictable even I get tired of its nonstop bounce by record’s end. Only “I Need Your Love” stands out from the pack, and I think I prefer the original.

This album will only delight psychotic aesthetes who crave the total extreme, and as a whole it barely approaches the dinky majesty of my beloved Songs of Summer 2013. But don’t let that deter you from sampling such an expertly designed slice of maximalist kitsch.

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