I swear I’m not doing this on purpose — another great techno album this month, and this one might even be a couple steps above my other big favorite, Teleseen’s Passages. Give it a chance and you might fall in love with it too. If it featured some generic teenpop star singing over its heavy beats, it might even chart, not that it needs one to sound fantastic. Otherwise, I’ve been exploring what actually has charted, with middling results.
Lil Wayne: I Am Not A Human Being II
Cash Money/Republic, 2013 [BUY]
The new Artistic Statement by the most brilliant hedonist in America furthers the gradual decline that really started when he first went to jail in 2010 and was only temporarily fended off with 2011’s Tha Carter IV. Certainly he has no idea or control over what he’s doing half the time, which has always been part of his charm: he just bubbles over with unrestrained glee. As a business plan it’s a recipe for disaster, and I foresee a lengthy burnout.
The bedrock of his childlike sense of amusement, Wayne’s high synth loops and thunderous basslines are steadier and gentler this time around, presumably to fit the romantic, “sex”-oriented rhymes. He’s nothing if not a chameleon, and having softened the natural musicality of his scratchy, cough-syrup-addled, instantly recognizable, often unintelligible voice, he really does sound nicer and chattier than usual. Whether lines like “that pussy boneless, that’s Chick-Fil-a” are actually about pussy, or Chick-Fil-A for that matter, is up for debate — even “that dick boneless, cause it’s a dick filet” would make more sense than that. Though accusing Wayne of being nonsensical is like accusing Eminem of being offensive and though you should never take him literally, sometimes that just doesn’t matter. The sheer inanity of many songs here simply outweighs his love of language.
He may indeed be experimenting with stylistic convention when he exuberantly chants “Beat the shit out of that pussy ass nigga!” However, that does not change the fact that he’s chanting “Beat the shit out of that pussy ass nigga!” He just can’t tell the difference between what’s literal and what’s a metaphor. In hip-hop, a genre where all sorts of losers defend themselves by claiming metaphor status, this flaw is fatal indeed.
The Strokes: Comedown Machine
RCA, 2013 [BUY]
This cult band once processed fresh punk delight, but they’ve stayed within the same traditionalist boundaries for too long and become conservative and complacent. While positioned as the heir to the CBGB’s scene, their sound was always more Soho than Lower East Side, in keeping with guys excited to be real rock state. Here, they exhibit all the traits people don’t like about rock stars, in particular lethargic entitlement.
Even more than “formalist,” what really sums up these guys is “wealthy” — Julian Casablancas’s father founded a modeling agency. Rock & roll’s working-class pain and material drive are foreign to rich kids. A structural replica is all Casablancas can manufacture, albeit an upbeat one, complete with simplistic, energetic motion and snarling riffs cranked out at an impressive rate. But his three-chord guitar headbanger-songs have always been free of content, vehicles for whatever mood he was in at the time. Where twelve years ago he was feeling youthfully amazed at his own charisma, by now the shock has worn off and he’s an aging, cranky veteran who thinks the world owes him more than he got. His mood is resentful and smug.
I still have lots of talent, insists Casablancas, and if you don’t think that’s a good reason to shower him in money, maybe you’re not glamorous enough to buy this album anyway. When you put so much work into making yourself look like you don’t care, you miss the point.
King DJ: Let Me See You Feel
Bear Funk, 2013 [BUY]
Most Eurodisco aspires toward a midpoint between ironically archaic kitsch and arty vibe-trance, directed towards aesthetes who don’t care if their music is anonymous as long as it provides that legendary rapture. Kristof Michiels has a more obtrusive sound in mind. I don’t know if he’s really a techno legend in Belgium or if the label was blatantly lying, but his definitive dance-funk runs circles around the postmodern electropop scene.
In a world where subtle differentiation is everything, this album slams hard and never lets up. Michiels layers his keyboards like Uncle Jam layered his horn arrangements, tightening the interplay and sharpening the edges, and the result is a full-fledged giant hook monster. His farting basslines and rubberized synthesizers wind themselves so firmly around an automated groove they explode like clusterbombs and pound forward like an electric train, their beats building and climaxing and settling down again until you can’t take it anymore and then it’s building again and no you can’t relax, their off-center rhythms bouncing up and down but mostly up. Despite having minimal vocals and exploiting the same harmonic signature for the entire record, this is so infectious you’ll just have to dance. I’m even imagining myself dancing in some parallel universe.
Clear, straightforward, welcoming yet undemanding, Michiels offers an instant gratification that’s beyond Berlin/Detroit industrialists. Never let it be said that a drum machine can’t look discreetly over and give you a sly wink. Or a warm pat on the back. Or a punch in the face.
Michael Bublé: To Be Loved
Reprise, 2013 [BUY]
This Canadian crooner is literally a crooner, in the vein of Perry Como or Anita Baker, only he’s not the unreconstructed straight-out-of-the-’50s reactionary you might think. For a modern pop star to be so shamelessly old-fashioned is in fact pretty audacious regardless of how creative his reinterpretations are. He would sound childishly innocent if not for the deep sexualized twinge in his voice that reveals him for a calculating schemer.
Why American needs music like this is beyond me, but for some reason we do. It dominates in malls all over the country, especially from mid-November to early January. Beefed-up, professionally produced big-band backup marches on, cutting in with ritzy horns or schlocky violins or even doowop harmonies as the case may be. With his enunciated consonants and undulating vowels, Bublé takes after those cabaret singers who died out with the advent of rock & roll; he sounds like a straight stud imitating Rufus Wainwright imitating Judy Garland. What’s remarkable about this album is how unremarkable it is, how inoffensive it is, how there’s nothing you could possibly object to. So I object. When someone’s most erotic song is from Toy Story, I think it’s fair to accuse him of brainwashing the American public.
This is impeccable pop music, shiny and imaginative despite its retro tendencies. But these modern calibrations of classic songs that don’t add anything to the originals seem specifically regulated to evoke nostalgia for a time Bublé’s audience wasn’t even alive for, nor was Bublé himself. Maybe there’s a reason he gets played in malls after all.