Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (December 2013, Part 1)

earpods-HOME1I saw Kanye West live a few days ago, and even though both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone ranked Yeezus #2 behind Modern Vampires of the City, I wouldn’t be surprised if he runs away with the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll this year, followed by Vampire Weekend and Daft Punk. (Haim?) Rolling Stone claims that “the most exciting news of the year might’ve been the astonishing number of breakout new artists,” which is kind of funny given that their #1 pick for last year was Bruce Springsteen. Anyway, the two great albums reviewed below are by musical veterans. If I ever met Eminem, he might have some nasty words to say to me for loving Dean Wareham’s record even more than his, and that’s just a chance I’m willing to take.

Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2

Eminem(Aftermath/Interscope/Shady, 2013) [BUY]

2009’s Relapse relied on grossly unoriginal shock tactics, while 2010’s Recovery was a little too solemn to suit the Slim Shady fan in me. But despite a title that sets him up for failure by citing one of the greatest albums ever, this is Eminem’s best album in nearly a decade. Admittedly, it’s stiffer and more plodding than The Marshall Mathers LP; perhaps a more accurate title would be The Eminem Show 2. Even so, his triumph feels good, complete with rants against LMFAO and the Kardashians the way he once vilified Fred Durst and Christina Aguilera.

As a rapper who first became infamous for the kind of edgy, lighthearted provocation that’s hard to justify or even maintain once you’re a serious, respectable celebrity, Eminem had two obvious options: he could have followed “Not Afraid” into a full-fledged pop career, promising new heights in sanctimonious bleeding-heart anthems, or he could have gone mature, ditto. Instead, he summons all his forces and just like that lets loose with what’s simultaneously a hilarious return to comedic gold and a seething, rampaging exercise in emotional catharsis. Occasionally he does sink into self-pity, and I like his dinky-minimalist style more than the slammingly punchy arena-rap aesthetic that prevails here. But these surging, boomingly grandiose beats propel his rage and color his unfiltered style of humor as he shapes brutally honest stream-of-consciousness discharge with impenetrable verbal display.

Few artists in any medium have ever matched his capacity for raw expression, which hasn’t been this thrilling since forever. He’s funniest when he targets himself — declaring himself an “Asshole,” “Berzerk” and “Brainless,” which he then rhymes with “dangerous,” “famous,” “insaneness,” and “pain in the anus”.

Haim: Days Are Gone

Haim(Polydor, 2013) [BUY]

Although the postmodern alternative scene often winds up recycling and reinventing genres you’d expect hip young people to avoid, this album makes me chuckle: the Haim sisters have somehow wound up recalling the most professional ’70s studio-rock. Not that they’ve gotten bleached over by corporate producers; they settled upon their blend because it satisfied their tasteful chops and creative need. It is kind of refreshing, actually.

With every chorus smoothed over with golden gloss, every hook firmly embedded in tightly sprung beds of syncopated percussion and elastic bass, every vocal swoop complemented with a suave guitar riff, it’s all so sleek and so expertly executed it barely makes an impression at first. Once absorbed, however, the band’s accomplishment is clear. Not only have they mastered careful, formally detailed songwriting, they’ve managed to make wholesome, feelgood optimism signify as spiritual release, their precise perfectionism a means to simple aesthetic pleasure. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous Fleetwood Mac comparisons are erroneous for so many reasons. Not only aren’t their songs vociferous or visceral enough, not only do they lack Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, but they lack vocalists of any notable personality or even persona. Singing in warmly cherubic harmony, the breathy, fluttery sisters are indistinguishable, which cuts into just how meaningful their songs can be in turn.

Quite nice, quite agreeable, this band generates their fair share of worthy hooks, but power pop typically requires more energy, and soft-rock demands more sentiment. If it’s “hard to truly dislike” them, as PopMatters‘ Matt James asserts, it’s also hard to truly care.

Queens of the Stone Age: Like Clockwork

Queensofthestoneage(Matador/Rekords, 2013) [BUY]

Josh Homme is one of those angry white guys who learns guitar to take their rage out on the world and to convince women to sleep with them, stylizing various classic-rock tropes into a novel yet reactionary-sounding synthesis à la Jack White or Dan Auerbach. Although this is supposed to be his comeback album, it’s also his crudest, mired in self-aggrandizing male posturing.

For such crunchy, snarling blues-metal, this album lays the noise on thick, hammering out one loud, piercingly sour lick after another. Foregrounding a flowing river of violent axe aggression, it’s bitter, narrow and structurally condensed, accentuating the physical power of its thundering, grandiose guitar excursions and swelling, crashingly distorted waves. This music is essentially a macho domination fantasy, more formal than it is sexual — Homme is impersonating an idealized version of the traditional masculine rock god, panting and snorting atop Guitar Mountain. Though he’s too rancidly spooky to vocalize his libido, you can nevertheless see him solemnly pumping his pelvis as he sneers “I blow my load over the status quo”.

Sometimes Homme does rip out a good riff, and I could imagine half these songs sounding pretty explosive in concert. But ultimately this red-blooded hard rock is for young stonerboys too drunk on testosterone to realize that rock gods were an endangered species long before Nirvanamaniacs hunted them out of existence.

Dean Wareham: Emancipated Hearts

D.Wareham(Double Feature, 2013) [BUY]

After nearly a decade of relative inactivity, ex-Galaxie 500/Luna frontman Dean Wareham crafts the best kind of solo debut, focused on intimately personal emotion and directly compassionate songform. This record is rich and sumptuous at eight songs in 32 minutes. Aiming to soothe, its worldly, engaged rendering of his signature art-punk calms the nerves with kindly welcoming, profoundly eloquent intensity.

Wareham’s music has gotten silkier and hazier, its calmly strummed acoustic guitars and echoey violin screeches providing a crucial quantum of resonant atmosphere. Through their cold shimmer and dark charm, however, his contemplative melodies generate a tenderly quavering glow that’s genuinely comforting due to its hissing, quasiatonal dissonance. Anyway, from the warbling sea of cacophony in “The Longest Bridges in the World” to the circular piano shifting in “The Deadliest Day Since the Invasion Began” to the title track’s unrestrained jangle attack, his penchant for the chewy electric riff remains undiminished. In musical context, Wareham’s modest, reedy voice turns startlingly demonstrative whether he’s mumbling lyrics about the rain and the bomb or covering the Everly Brothers. This album is everything I wanted Fade to be: sublimely relaxed, embarrassingly dreamy, awash in overwhelming delight and pensive lyricism.

With the savvy, offbeat originality of his music, this fragile, amused, halting, sophisticated Manhattanite has achieved an edgy domesticity that’s been eluding bohemians for generations. Blurring the lines and softening the lighting, he sweetens and freshens what’s supposed to be an uncompromisingly avant-garde form.

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