Monthly Archives: March 2012
Madonna – MDNA
The last time Madonna checked in was with 2008’s Hard Candy, an album that worked to update her sound but, in trying so hard to do so, sounded limp and lifeless. Ironically, only a few months later, Lady Gaga released The Fame, a star-making, blockbuster pop record that built its success on the template Madonna made over the last three decades. In other words, just as Madonna was trying desperately to keep up with the times, the times seemed to be doubling back to relive her glory days. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the Queen of Pop uses 2012’s MDNA to reaffirm her place on the throne, even bringing in modern pop duchesses Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. to bow before her and declare their devotion on a couple of tracks. At the same time, Madonna’s relatively recent divorce (as well as the added stress of directing a film) has given her a massive bone to pick, and she decides to address her issues head on throughout the record.
To her credit, all this ambition could have turned the record into an overwrought mess, but it’s actually shockingly cohesive, despite the presence of nearly a dozen producers. As the drug reference in the title implies, this is an album tailored to the nightclubs, but this isn’t exactly a retro DJ set like Confessions On A Dancefloor, though there’s indeed echoes of that album’s sound here. Instead, Ray Of Light producer William Orbit and the slew of other collaborators give this a cool, stainless steel pulse, fit for modern dance-pop radio. It’s so slick and clean-cut that when the first or second listen sucker punches you with a rush of beats and shiny synths, it’s easy to get intoxicated by the wash of sound. However, as repeated spins peel away the surface layers, MDNA reveals itself to have a number of rather mediocre songs. It’s not that tracks like the fluffy “Superstar” or the maudlin “Masterpiece” are bad, per se; they’re just undefined, lacking strong hooks and the polished songwriting Madonna’s known for. But even while the big-budget productions help conceal these lapses in songwriting, they also unfortunately strangle her emotional confessions. Sure, she fantasizes about shooting her ex-lover in the head on the throbbing “Gang Bang,” and there’s talk of custody battles on “I Don’t Give A,” but in such a slick, precise setting, there isn’t room for messy human feelings here, giving these songs an air of missed opportunity. Then again, there’s always the sense that Madonna doesn’t want to reveal too much about herself because to do that would mean admitting her age. And if there’s one thing MDNA is trying to prove, it’s that she’s a hip, major player in the pop market.
Understandably though, this album is still going to have its fans, and MDNA does have fits of brilliance from time to time, whether it be the roadtrip-ready “Turn Up The Radio” or the mindlessly catchy “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” This is especially true of the wonderful “I’m A Sinner,” which is the only the song here that hints at the greatness this album could have achieved. And that’s just it with MDNA: There are many fine elements at work here, yet they are executed improperly, resulting in a disappointing album that squanders much of its considerable potential.
OFWGKTA – The OF Tape Vol. 2
Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All’s star burned bright in 2011, the underground sensation moving a ways toward mainstream consciousness and sparking all sorts of controversy wherever they went. The thing about the collective, though, is that to everyone outside of their dedicated fans, there are only two or three real stars of the bunch: Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean. But since Ocean is known largely for his work outside of OFWGKTA and Earl was absent last year, all the group’s hype focused solely on Tyler, meaning that there hasn’t been a major, headline-grabbing Odd Future release since March 2011’s Goblin. So, it would appear, then, that the goal of The OF Tape Vol. 2, the group’s first collective album since Radical, would be to not only drum up some more press for OFWGKTA but to bring some attention to the under-recognized talent in the group.
To this end, Hodgy Beats and Left Brain come out the true winners. As the duo MellowHype, they get two songs for themselves—the abrasive rant “50” and the quasi-sincere love song “Real Bitch”—and as individuals, they still dominate the record. Hodgy raps on 10 out of the 18 tracks while Left Brain produces half the album, providing the tone and propelling some of the album’s best moments like the dementedly fun single “Rella” and the deceptively minimal opener “Bitches.” And though Hodgy’s raps don’t have the personality of, say, Tyler’s, he has style to burn, trading off gleefully profane wordplay with Domo Genesis, who features nearly as often throughout. Odd Future’s R&B projects also come up with a few gems, serving as smooth counterpoints to the confrontational hip-hop. The Internet turn in a delight with the futuristic soul “Ya Know,” and Ocean proves once again he’s a singer worth watching with the gorgeous “White.” The two jesters of the group, Taco and Jasper Dolphin, try once again—after failing miserably with “Bitch Suck Dick” on Goblin—to send-up modern hardcore rap with “We Got Bitches,” and fare much better here, though it still loses its novelty after one or two listens. Then, of course, there’s Tyler, the Creator, whose unpredictable growl, admirable production skills and twisted humor provide some of the most memorable moments, especially on “NY (Ned Flander),” “Rella” and “Analog 2.” He remains controversial as ever, even making room for not one but two jokes about the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. That being said, those who have been turned off by OFWGKTA’s extreme dark humor in the past should be relieved to know that they tone the shock level down quite a bit on The OF Tape, even if they are far from tame and light years away from radio-friendly.
If all this sounds erratic and overwhelming, it is; it’s a mixtape posing as a cohesive statement. Though there aren’t many obvious highlights, there aren’t many lulls either. But as an added bonus, the grand finale, the over-10-minute “Oldie,” gathers just about everyone up for one last, loose marathon, and, yes, Earl Sweatshirt returns for a few verses to show everyone what they’ve been missing. In the end though, it’s Tyler who gets the last word in: “Instead of critiquin’ and bitchin,’ being mad as fuck, just admit not only are we talented, we’re rad as fuck.” Well played. The OF Tape Vol. 2 will not be enough to turn their critics’ heads the other way, but for longtime fans and recent converts alike, it’s a satisfying entry to Odd Future’s catalog.
The Shins – Port Of Morrow
Who are the Shins? Are they the Albuquerque-born, Portland-based four piece made up of James Mercer, Jesse Sandoval, Martin Crandall and Dave Hernandez? Or is it just another name for Mercer himself, the sole singer and songwriter who just used other musicians to give the illusion of a collaborative band? Well, with Sandoval, Crandall and Hernandez replaced wholesale by new musicians, 2012’s Port Of Morrow attempts to finally bring an answer to this question. And with five years since the last Shins record, it’s certainly about time. Anyone worried that Mercer would push the band into more atmospheric territory after working with Danger Mouse on Broken Bells shouldn’t fear: Port Of Morrow is a Shins album through and through, with all the classic pop songwriting that entails. However, he’s picked up a few things from the time he’s spent on his other projects. From the moment “The Rifle’s Spiral” kicks in with its pounding beat, plinking pianos and menacing guitar groove, it’s clear that this is the group’s most densely and slickly produced album yet. Yes, Wincing The Night Away experimented with different genres, instruments and song structures, but everything still felt relatively stripped back. Here, the group (and producer Greg Kurstin) doesn’t so much experiment as pile arrangements and effects onto the Shins’ tried-and-true formula, which gives the songs a different feel. Even “Simple Song,” which is the closest thing to a typical Shins single here (and, not coincidentally, the record’s best track), feels like an epic, filled to the brim with jittery guitar, swelling backing vocals and a dreamy, keyboard-led coda. It’s true that this different vibe may partially have to do with the new, expanded lineup, which, if anything, proves that the original “Shins” did bring something distinctive to the table after all. But it hardly matters because, as it always does, the success of a Shins album falls squarely on Mercer’s songwriting.
Mercer’s great gifts are his wittily surreal words, his ability to write powerful melodies and his nimble, boyish voice. And when he lets those shine, the album does as well. “Simple Song,” with its ecstatic hook, is one of the group’s best singles; “Bait And Switch”‘s percolating pop showcases the album’s production perfectly, while the lovely, acoustic “September” feels like a lost cut from Wincing The Night Away. What keeps Port from reaching the heights of the other Shins records, though, is that it is top-heavy, with no highlights gracing the second side. Certainly, tracks like “For A Fool” and “Fall Of ’82,” whose chorus quivers with McCartney-esque pop-soul, sound fine as they play, yet they feel like factory seconds, hooky without ever truly taking off. Despite this, the fact that even the worst songs here are still pretty good is a testament to Mercer’s skills. The world may never know how all this would have sounded with the original band, but Port Of Morrow demonstrates that, either way, Mercer still knows his way around a tune and that even a sub-par Shins album makes for good music.
Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
If Clarence Clemons’ sudden passing sparked fears that the E Street Band’s days were numbered, then Wrecking Ball proves that it just gave them even more of a reason to fight. And though it’s no masterpiece, Ball is arguably Springsteen’s angriest, most explicitly political album to date, and with America slipping into an unsure future of extreme opinion and economic turmoil, it couldn’t have been more timely. Opening with “We Take Care Of Our Own,” he alternates between bitter indictments (“There ain’t no help/The cavalry stayed home”) and ironic “Born In The U.S.A.”-style proclamations (“Wherever this flag is flown/We take care of our own”). It’s a rallying cry that sets the tone for the rest of the record, where he takes aim at all manner of “fat cats” and politicians that shift unnecessary burdens onto the working man. Admittedly, this doesn’t sound too different from past Springsteen sentiments, but there’s an unwavering devotion to message here that differentiates this record from many of his others. (And if for whatever reason the lyrics don’t tip you off, titles like “Death To My Hometown” and “This Depression” definitely will.) While it’s hard not to wish Springsteen would sometimes approach this subject matter in different or more creative ways, it’s equally as hard not to be caught up in his passionate fury, especially when he offers words of hope as the album winds down.
But there’s a good chance Wrecking Ball will most likely be remembered for its music. Springsteen has rarely taken so many chances in the studio, at least not on this scale. At its core, the album is a series of communal country-folk songs, akin to We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, but Springsteen and producer Ron Aniello pile loads on top, throwing everything they can at the wall to see what sticks. At times it pays off: the bristling energy of “Death To Our Hometown”‘s Celtic folk turns a protest into a pub singalong; the epic “Land Of Hope And Dreams” borrows from Woody Guthrie’s “This Train Is Bound For Glory” and features one of Clemons’ last sax solos; “We Take Care Of Our Own” charges on like prime Arcade Fire, themselves disciples of the Boss. Yet, at the same time, the stab at rap on “Rocky Ground” feels tossed off, and as a whole, the record sounds a bit bombastic and overproduced, as if intentionally drawing attention away from the occasional dips in songwriting. As Wrecking Ball plays, it’s difficult not get the sense that Springsteen is sometimes trying a little too hard to sound relevant, but the album’s best tracks work against this notion, and in these moments, it feels like you’re right beside Bruce, fighting the good fight.
The Magnetic Fields – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
For three albums and 13 years, Stephin Merritt abstained from using synths on any Magnetic Fields records, releasing the so-called “no-synth trilogy” of i, Distortion, and Realism over the course of the last decade. So by returning to digital equipment for the first time since his magnum opus, 1999’s 69 Love Songs, and by using “love” in its title, Merritt unintentionally makes Love At The Bottom Of The Sea seem like a true follow-up to that record, as if the last three albums were specialist projects, and he’s finally getting down to the real work here. To a certain extent, that’s true, but it’s also misleading. Whereas 69 was massive in its scope and ambition, Bottom Of The Sea‘s goals are considerably more modest. Though the Magnetic Fields aren’t limiting themselves to certain instruments or styles anymore, this isn’t a return to the all-over-the-map genre-hopping of 69; rather, it frequently recalls the synth-pop of earlier Fields records like The Charm Of The Highway Strip. Also, unlike nearly every other Magnetic Fields album, there isn’t a discernible overarching theme here, unless you are counting various pitfalls of modern romance. (Though if you do count that, consider 95% of the history of pop music one giant concept album.)
So though Bottom Of The Sea may be slight, it still offers what makes the band so appealing in the first place. Merritt remains one of the sharpest (yet most underrated) songwriters around, crafting lyrics that cut deeply one moment and have you break up with laughter the next, even as he still refuses to write from the heart. Take, for instance, “Andrew In Drag” and its story of a poor soul who only has eyes for his friend—but only when that friend crossdresses: “I’ll never see that girl again/He did it as a gag/I’ll pine away forevermore for Andrew in drag.” It’s true that he doesn’t always hit the admittedly high mark he’s set for himself, yet what ultimately hinders the album is the music and production. While it’s understandable that the group was excited to take advantage of all the new electronic equipment that’s been developed in the last decade, the album’s dense amalgam of rippling noise, pulsing rhythms and robotic squelches sometimes threatens to overwhelm the simple, traditional pop songs at its heart. Merritt can never really be accused of sincerity, but many of his best songs and words feel stunningly emotional and true, like old standards begging for interpretation. Here, though, the weight of his words and music is too often lost in the new wave sheen. A few tracks like “The Horrible Party” and “Quick!” indeed benefit from this approach; however, many otherwise fine songs like “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” and “The Only Boy In Town” are left high and dry. Perhaps it was necessary for Merritt to indulge his synth-pop obsessions with this album—after all, he’d been holding back since the Clinton years—yet since he overdoes it and tries little else, the songs on Love At The Bottom Of The Sea don’t feel as smart, funny or pretty as they should. Still, even if it’s an easier album to admire than love, enough of it works for it to be a worthwhile listen for fans.