CHICAGO — I hate to say this after Obama’s reelection, but my faith in popular taste has been shaken a little: except for Fiona Apple, none of the biggest sellers this month are worth your time. You could think of these records as the music industry’s way of stealing your money. Or you could simply refuse to buy them. BitTorrent, the world needs you.

Justin Bieber: Believe

2012, Island [BUY]

I’m usually suspicious of people who claim that pop stars are just puppets for their managers. However, the idea of Justin Bieber is so brilliant, literally so brilliant, that it’s obvious he’s an invention of Scooter Braun and associates. Really, what eighteen-year-old could invent such a juicy image, let alone maintain it for three years and counting? No wonder his heart isn’t in his music.

You’ve probably heard this before, and it’s true: the reason Bieber is famous is because he functions as a perfunctory sex symbol. Young, sure, clean and innocent enough to appeal to moralists and/or parents nostalgic for the days their children lived at home, he’s also seductive enough to tantalize those who could actually picture sleeping with him. Even if you and I find him icky, that doesn’t matter because millions of girls feel otherwise. And to maintain the consumerist fantasy further, his albums are veritable lexicons of modern musical platitudes, complete with giant synth hook after identical synth hook, keyboards mushing into each other, and power ballads. His lyrics could have been cribbed from a dating-advice website, not that he wrote them himself anyway. His voice is a charming imitation of Auto-Tune. If you can endure these various sonic offenses, maybe you’re worthy of his love. If not, maybe you’re worthy of a better record.

Usually child stars only last a couple years until they lose their cuteness factor, but Bieber’s voice has already deepened with no notable loss of sales, so I fear the worst. Imagine, for example, fifty years from now, the girls of 2070 lusting after an eighty-year-old Bieber leaning back in his wheelchair, looking smugly out at his audience, absent-mindedly curling his thick white chest hair. C-

Staff Benda Bilili: Bouger Le Monde!

2012, Crammed Discs [BUY]

Tricycle-riding paraplegics who build their own instruments and used to rehearse in a Kinshasa zoo, Staff Benda Bilili has been hyped to death. But unlike most other groups with similarly intricate origins, this one lives up to the marketing. Having extensively publicized their backstory, they’re clearly selling something, and they make such joyful noise it’s definitely worth embracing them with open arms.

Though you might expect their transposition of the classic soukous beat onto down-home acoustic instruments to simplify the band interplay, this narrow approach actually adds muscle, simultaneously making the record more forceful and more modest. Both the bass and the rhythm section mesh to grind out tremendous pressure – an imposing groove that keeps blasting out riffs and vocal hooks until it all tumbles over itself into relentless musical momentum. The high howl of Roger Landu’s self-made one-stringed electric lute gets propelled to the front particularly often, but the other guitar masters also distinguish themselves. When they don’t, the classic soukous beat carries the record.

Even on the slow songs where the harmony singers take over, they always push for over-the-top, for far-out, for never-let-up. I’ve heard great testimonies to their live show and would love to see it. A-

Mumford & Sons: Babel

2012, Glassnote [BUY]

This English quartet is the most prominent of bands that transpose folkie riffs and melodies onto arena-rock song structure, a trend whose various attractions and turn-offs they typify. Their rise to fame was remarkably mechanical because, in their case, the arena-rock dominates spiritually. Given their aching sentiments, though, I’m surprised they’re so popular among young people – kids who act and talk like Marcus Mumford does are rarely if ever considered “cool.”

Despite formal similarities to, say, Fleet Foxes, Mumford has found a unique style that sells millions and still stands out among dozens of prog-country bands. His emotionally authentic banjo strumming complements his emotionally authentic tales of romantic/sexual isolation, with some biblical references thrown in to appeal to emotionally authentic religious families. If you have to make such a conscious effort towards authenticity, how fake do you have to be? Since ponderous acoustic ballads and portentous pastoral truisms are aesthetically revolting at any rate, it really doesn’t matter whether he means the sermons he’s warbling or whether he’s just trying to look sensitive. At least Christian-rockers try to look tough.

This record is more bland and mannered than anything currently on Nashville radio; the most impressive thing is how homiletic it is. Sure it sounds good to say, “I know my weakness, know my voice, and I believe in grace and choice.” However, it is also theologically inconsistent. C+

Speech Debelle: Freedom of Speech

2012, Big Dada [BUY]

This underground English rapper preaches about ethics a little too earnestly, but I find her willingness to analyze and her sneaky sense of humor amusing enough to let her get away with it. In a world with porn-rappers and gangsta-crunk, what’s to prevent a sensitive, liberal Mary J. Blige fan from bum-rushing the hip-hop game? Certainly not aesthetic restraint – most of these songs hammer you with strong-minded vitality.

For a “socially active” rapper, she’s a bit jumbled. Her idea of a big political statement is “I live for the message/spiritual wealth,” and some of the guest rappers one-up her antimaterialism even more mindlessly. But the sheer sound of this record is so striking you barely even notice the verbal blunders. The gloriously orchestral beats impose themselves on your brain more compellingly than their American counterparts do, and her speedy-breathy rapping style flows by smartly and quickly, signifying simply as an instrument as well as a vehicle for meaning. The meaning is all in the sweeping motion of the music. Its relaxed uplift does provide actual spiritual comfort, and its physical presence could make any materialist proud.

Though occasionally she gets too polite, her keyboard hooks never do. My favorite is “Collapse,” in which she imagines the end of the world in a scary fantasy that comes close to making geopolitical sense. A-

The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth

2012, Merge  [BUY]

Indie-rock cranks often have the wackiest personalities, as they can afford to show more of their true colors without driving away their audience. As one of the few such cranks who can make simple self-expression resonate artistically, John Darnielle is all that and lovable too. He’s always known the power of being emotionally direct. As long as he has something to say, he might as well say it explicitly. This is his formal acknowledgement of that fact.

Though he’s more of a cult hero than a household name, Darnielle’s ambitions are as soaring as Bob Dylan’s or Neil Young’s – a reclusive genius so delighted with his creative energy he can’t stop spewing out song after song. Centered on an impressive array of moral truisms, proven with concrete evocations of disturbed, disturbing bohemians who might or might not be projections of himself, this album is one of his most powerful. Its soft, rich band backup expands Darnielle’s guitar into a soothing landscape of its own, and definitely adds weight to his reedy cough, grounding every detail he’s uttering. Since he’s so candid, he could easily come across as didactic, but the overall effect is more like jumping blindly into freezing water: painful, invigorating, strangely redemptive.

At first this record seemed a little slow to me, as I preferred the Darnielle of 2002 howling “I hope you die” to the Darnielle ten years later howling “Stay forever alive”. Having then internalized his tender cadence, I realized his message hasn’t changed in the slightest. Obviously, he’s fascinated by alienation. If you are too, you could learn from how bravely he sets out to conquer it. A

Gary Clark Jr.: Blak and Blu

2012, Warner Bros [BUY]

Whether milking their sacred tradition for all it’s worth or wallowing in their own conservatism, most modern so-called bluesmen are formalists, focusing less on song content than on stylistic consistency. Gary Clark Jr. is different, with actual personality to his lyrical quirks. The songwriting here isn’t quite strong enough to make this the great revival album it’s advertised as, but the overall sound is pleasant enough, and formally, he’s rather innovative.

Rather than foregrounding the strictly structural confines of his music, a trick that in a genre as conventional as this one becomes complacent fast, Clark Jr. writes eloquently. His existential laments, love ballads, and sex ballads seem personal, as if he’s expressing real emotions, which for all we know he is. The fuzzy, crunching guitar sound provides excellent backup, and his epic solos have made him the fiftieth or sixtieth nominee for the “new Hendrix,” give or take a few. Though this isn’t enough to let him get away with his seven-minute psychedelic jams, the rest of the album rocks really hard.

Though there’s always meaning, he doesn’t have much to say; he never reaches the uncompromising clarity of, for example, fellow modernist bluesman Robert Cray. But he’s an inventive enough guitarist to hold your attention, at least for now. B+

Green Day: ¡Uno!

2012, Reprise [BUY]

After a decade of pompous concept-rock, fans are glad that Green Day is returning to the slacker-punk that made them famous in the first place. It’s nice that they’re doing it so prolifically: this is the first of three albums set to be released in the next few months. Still, that is the kind of publicity stunt you’d expect from wealthy pop-titans, and with Billie Joe Armstrong stranded in rehab, it’s pretty clear he identifies with this demographic.

Though Armstrong’s platinum sales have all but crushed his cynicism, which back in the ‘90s was his unmistakable ideological hallmark, the songwriting here is his best in twelve years. Even if his perspective on love and partying is rather derivative (he likes them), it’s infinitely preferable to his perspective on politics and religion (he wants both to go away), and I take it as a sign of maturity that he’s outgrown trying to act like a serious artist. What he hasn’t outgrown is musical exaggeration – writing rock operas has blended Broadway-derived melodic devices into his songs, and the eager/exuberant feeling he wants to express here has consequently been augmented into inflated grandiosity. In this context, his whiny voice is irritating. The clunky, face-smashing drums and vamped-up guitars just sound like overkill.

The best song here is the U2 rip “Oh Love”, the one tune straightforward enough to get away with its giant chorus; the worst is “Kill the DJ,” in which the champions of youth culture twenty years ago condemn youth culture today. The rest is ham-handed power-pop recontextualized for the arena. B-

Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

2012, Epic [BUY]

It took Fiona Apple seven years to make this record, and it was worth it. Though it comes across slow, quiet, and dry at first, like the work of too many other spoiled pop perfectionists, let it sink in for a couple days and you’ll realize that she’s really put in work to make it perfect. You may find her more gimmicky touches annoying – the full album title, for example is The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do – but I find them entertaining, and this is probably the funniest relationship album all year.

When compared to her rival femme fatales on the market, Apple is something special. Rather than focusing on thoughtfulness or beauty, she obsesses like a stalker over various relationship issues. Completely mastering the long-undervalued art of bathos, she’s a folk-rock experimenter and a showtune-derived vaudevillian, not to mention a singer-songwriter who treats her love life as a joke. This album is surprisingly rewarding just for being so thorny, based on the conjunction of her heavy piano hooks and Charley Drayton’s jazzy drums. From crackling melodies to herky-jerky rhythms to slow tempo to Apple’s rough, pronunciation-mangling voice, details after details promise to be musical turnoffs and keep morphing into radically original, embarrassingly pleasurable musical attractions. The result is a fully abrasive record.

Despite how long it takes to fully grasp her rockpoetry, the scratchy force of the music nearly makes you care about Apple’s emotional drama. If this is what she’s like when she’s brokenhearted, I can’t wait to hear her happy. A

*   *   *

Whatever my official stance on MTV is — it’s all visuals, there’s no real music, etc. — I’m grateful to the music video industry for Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which I’m sure started out as a dance and turned into a single. That the video is so ridiculous comes as no surprise, and there will never be a decent follow-up, but I was shocked when I found myself actually humming the thing. As music, it’s actually funny, its hooks so exaggerated you might laugh even harder than upon hearing the other great novelty single of the year, Domo Genesis’s “BBW.” Also, not to engage in hype or anything, but the new Dillon Francis single is mind-blowing, like everything else the crazed mixmaster has ever put his name on, which includes: “Masta Blasta,” “Westside!,” “Now Hear This,” “Dill The Noise,” “Beautician 2.0,” “Brazzer’s Theme,” “Falling Up,” “Que Que,” “I.D.G.A.F.O.S.” and the big finale, “Bootleg Fireworks.” Forget Skrillex, these are sonic innovations in the grand tradition of “Pump Up the Jam,” of The Chronic, maybe even Digital Underground. Once he makes an album, it better be great.

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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...

2 replies on “Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (November 2012)”

  1. Funny how you deride Green Day for “pompous concept-rock” and then lavish your affection on Ms. 22 word album title.

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