Monthly Archives: November 2010
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
How far we’ve come. Prodigious hip-hop producer, international hit maker, egomaniacal narcissist, heartbroken balladeer, social pariah—Kanye West has worn all these guises and more, often flipping through them from week to week, depending on how he sees himself and how the world sees him. Certainly no other pop star in recent memory has been scrutinized so thoroughly under the spotlight and remained so polarizing because of it. But even by his standards, West’s last few years have been particularly eventful. Following the tragic death of his mother and the dissolution of a relationship, he mourned on his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak, and his behavior became increasingly erratic. Most notably, this culminated in his storming the stage at the 2009 VMAs during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, causing a massive public outcry—even President Obama called him “a jackass.” Naturally, West retreated from the spotlight, perhaps realizing that whatever he did, good or bad, would only get him in deeper with the public, an inevitable, if unfair, reality. Then, seemingly suddenly, he returned with a flurry of singles and videos, building up an enormous amount of hype, all of it leading to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album visibly sweating under the pressure.
It’s clear, even from the first few seconds where Nicki Minaj recites a poem and a multi-layered chorus joins in, that this is a bigger and more ambitious project than anything West has ever produced, hellbent on proving to himself and to everyone else that he is back and better than ever. Recognizing his considerable strengths as a producer and collaborator, West emphasizes the music here more than any other of his albums, even including interludes and extended codas for good measure. He takes inspiration from each of his past albums—The College Dropout‘s old-school samples, Late Registration‘s elaborate orchestration, Graduation‘s electro-pop, the subzero starkness of 808s & Heartbreak—and mixes and magnifies each aspect to create something new. This is as evident on the tough, pummeling “Monster” as on the epic ensemble piece “All Of The Lights,” the latter of which features dozens of guest musicians and vocalists. Occasionally he indulges a bit too much—does the vocoder solo on “Runaway” really need to be three minutes?—but it never really detracts from the overall flow. Musically, few other modern hip-hop records offer this much to savor.
What gives this record its staying power, though, is West’s dissection of his personality and public persona. During his hiatus from the spotlight, West reflected deeply on his own actions and the fallout afterwards, taking everything in until he had something to say. On “Dark Fantasy,” he realizes where he’s gone wrong (“The plan was to drink until the pain over, but what’s worse: the pain or the hangover?”) and looks optimistically into the future, while he self-deprecates and sympathizes with those he’s hurt on “Runaway.” Yet at the same time, West’s ego is larger than ever, and the album suitably explores his fantasies and desires, whether it be the sexual recklessness of “Hell Of A Life” or the casually blasphemous “Devil In A New Dress.” Prior to the album’s release, West cited Thom Yorke and Trent Reznor as lyrical influences, and he indeed merges the former’s paranoia and the latter’s melodramatic menace throughout the album, even on the relatively lightweight tracks. Like in his recent work, West sometimes stumbles lyrically, but on Fantasy, he hits with far greater accuracy, perhaps because the dichotomy of his insecurity and confidence results in him writing with a great deal more honesty. Ultimately, this same dichotomy makes Fantasy a genuinely human record: it offers no apologies for the man West is but instead is a warts-and-all self-portrait, making it arguably the finest record of his career.
The Vaselines – Sex With An X
Though Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee’s recordings as the Vaselines in the late ’80s and early ’90s were quite excellent, the group seemed destined to remain a cult band, a footnote in rock history. Of course all that changed when Kurt Cobain became a vocal fan, even having Nirvana cover “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam” for MTV Unplugged In New York. This prompted Sub Pop to release The Vaselines’ collected works as The Way of the Vaselines in 1992 and, upon a reunion concert at the label’s 20th anniversary music festival, Enter The Vaselines in 2009. The success of these reunion shows and retrospective compilations was large enough to bring on the prospect of new Vaselines material. The result of all this was Sex With An X, released in 2010, two decades since the band’s first and only studio album.
But even though it’s been roughly twenty years, not a whole lot has changed. Their sound may be cleaned up a bit, but the songs still ride on twee, boy-girl harmonies; squealing guitars; and, as the title implies, a sustained obsession with sex. The difference is that where Kelly used to beg, “Rory, ride me raw,” now he only says “let’s do it again.” The same sentiment to be sure, but there’s a bit more restraint, reflecting their age. Thing is, while Sex With An X is certainly a fun record, the Vaselines try to have their cake and eat it too, attempting to seem older while recapturing the feel of their glory days. Sometimes, it works. “Sex With An X” is the best thing on here, a mindlessly catchy song about succumbing to temptation that is classic Vaselines. “Mouth To Mouth” and the bright, funny “I Hate the 80s” are two other instantly memorable songs that prove growing up isn’t the same thing as maturity. But while the group’s lyrical restraint is acceptable and even welcomed in some places, the band plays it a bit too safe musically. Aside from the occasional standout, the rounded edges of the album make many songs feel too similar, lacking a clever lyrical flourish or a catchy enough hook to make them worth their salt. There certainly is more than enough potential here to justify Kelly and McKee’s reunion, and as comeback albums go, this one is quite decent. But still it’s hard not to wish that next time the Vaselines should try shaking things up a bit, even if their tried-and-true formula can still be rewarding after a two decade absence.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Tightening up the excesses of On Avery Island, Jeff Mangum ended up creating one of the cornerstones of 90s indie rock with Neutral Milk Hotel’s second full-length, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. While still rooted in psychedelia, lo-fi noise pop, and folk, Mangum here achieves a greater sense of clarity in his songwriting, no matter if he is paring his arrangements down to solo acoustic work or allowing his band to play to ecstatic climaxes. This, in turn, puts focus on the most notable feature of Aeroplane: Mangum’s startlingly cathartic vocal style, which ranges from trembling whisper to unrestrained wail, emphasizing his abstract words. While his stream-of-consciousness lyrics have no concrete meaning, his imagery is consistently striking, whether it be depictions of sexuality (“Two Headed Boy”), life and death (“Ghost”), or religion (“The King Of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3”). All this can make the album quite demanding—casual listeners may be turned off by Mangum’s eccentric voice and lyrics—but it is one that profoundly rewards upon repeated spins. While In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is frequently harrowing, songs like the jaunty title track make it an ultimately life-affirming listen, one that greatly helped shape the alternative and indie scenes in the following decade.
Brian Eno – Small Craft On A Milk Sea
There’s a certain inevitability to Brian Eno joining up with Warp Records to release an album. The label has launched many an influential electronic musician’s career, and much of its output is often directly inspired from Eno’s pioneering ambient work in the 1970s. Considering he is currently been more notable for his production work (Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, or, Death And All His Friends, for instance) and collaborations (such as his 2008 album with David Byrne) than his own solo work, this was as good a time as any to begin to make waves with Small Craft On A Milk Sea, his first Warp release.
Recorded with longtime collaborators Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins, Small Craft is undoubtedly a largely ambient work, but it is also often more rhythmically aggressive than one expects from Eno. Not to say that he hasn’t explored more abrasive soundscapes in the past, but when Abrahams’ guitar slams in and all hell breaks loose on “2 Forms Of Anger,” Eno is clearly mining different terrain. Others like the shuffling “Flint March” and the jagged “Horse” follow suit. Still, it is the gentler and more atmospheric tracks where he truly excels. Sister tracks “Emerald and Stone” and “Emerald and Lime” are two gorgeous keyboard pieces that approach the same melody in different ways, while the eerie menace of “Calcium Needles” and the pensive closer “Late Anthropocene” bring darker, murkier shades into the mix. Occasionally the songs feel like underdeveloped filler—Eno has worked with short-form ambient compositions before, but here a few songs aren’t given the room to flourish. These tracks, though, even have their moments of beauty, helping to make Small Craft On A Milk Sea one of the best albums Eno has produced in his latter-day career and proof that the master can still get the job done.
Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer
In his days with Goodie Mob in the 1990s and his first two solo albums afterwards, Cee Lo Green had taken the career path of many of his alternative hip-hop peers: he remained rather critically acclaimed and only moderately commercially successful, deserving more widespread recognition than he ever received. But all that changed when he met up with DJ/producer Danger Mouse to form the neo-soul band Gnarls Barkley. Their 2006 single “Crazy” rocketed the group to international superstardom, leading them to two successful album runs. So, when Green got around to planning his third solo effort, The Lady Killer, in 2010, it was the first time he released an album with the privilege of having spent some time in the spotlight. And it’s clear that this album was consciously positioned to help Green himself crossover to a larger audience: it tones down his eccentric personality, focusing instead on the tightly constructed pop songs. Even if this has the side effect of making the music a little less interesting in spots, Green is still much more restlessly creative than your average artist. After all, who else could write and get away with the cheerfully profane, Motown-influenced single “Fuck You!”?
And if that song, which in its edited form became an international hit, suggested that The Lady Killer would also have a distinctly retro feel, this presumption turns out to be correct. The album positively shimmers with vintage synths, swinging brass sections, and soulful backing vocals, taking cues from psychedelic soul, hard funk, and big band swing. This, in many ways, plays like a streamlined version of OutKast’s The Love Below, taking fewer chances but using the same general sound palette. But where André 3000 used a Prince-like sex obsession as his foundation, Green often explores the more accessible, romantic side of soul (even if he is telling tales of heartbreak rather than love). “Fuck You!” is still the best and most immediate track on the album: funny, furious, and cathartic all at the same time, but there are many quality songs, beginning with the night-out anthem “Bright Lights Bigger City.” The aptly titled “Old Fashioned” takes a page from 50’s doo-wop, while “It’s OK” and the buoyant “Satisfied” are two of the sweetest (and catchiest) songs on here. But this being Cee Lo, the music here also sometimes has a more sinister bent, be it the dark, ambiguous murder tale of “Bodies” or the slinky spy groove on “Love Gun.” Unfortunately in the second half, a few of the songs tend to blend together a bit, lacking truly distinctive hooks or lyrics, but despite this, it’s a consistently enjoyable record. It may not be the best album he’s ever been involved with, but The Lady Killer should hopefully give Green some much-belated fame.