Monthly Archives: April 2012
Jack White – Blunderbuss
After the White Stripes went their separate ways, it was inevitable that everything Jack White did afterwards would take on new importance. Before, White’s side-projects like the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, along with his production work, were always seen as incidental to his main gig and, therefore, weren’t taken as seriously. But it doesn’t look like anybody told him that. Despite all the pre-release hype, it seems White didn’t take his solo debut, Blunderbuss, any more seriously than his other projects, in that it doesn’t sound like a major statement at all. (Indeed, the album started out as a friendly jam session when he and his backing band were waiting for the RZA to show up for a one-off single.)
Just like other singer/songwriters who step out to do solo work, White branches out here, trying things he wouldn’t be able to do in the confines of his former band. Ironically, since the White Stripes deliberately limited themselves, this solo outing sounds more like the work of a group, albeit one dominated by a singular voice. White plays a lot of instruments himself, like he always does, but he brings in guest vocalists and musicians, who give the songs a deeper, richer feel and help all the stylistic experiments gel. While White’s foot is still firmly planted in rock ‘n’ roll’s foundations, he takes advantage of all the opportunities afforded to him, making Blunderbuss gloriously messy. There aren’t any real out-and-out classics here, but it’s an astonishingly consistent set. “Freedom At 21” rattles on a tape-echo drum beat; steel guitar and strings soothe the anger bubbling beneath the title track; jazzy pianos sparkle throughout “Weep Themselves To Sleep;” shuffling country clashes with vaudeville on “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy;” and White remembers to slow it down for the lightly trippy, Beatlesque “On And On And On.” Even when the results are more expected, as on the thrashy “Sixteen Saltines” and the rollicking Little Willie John cover “I’m Shakin’,” he gives them a distinctive spin. (Plus, on “Shakin’,” who can resist his affected “I’m noivous!” line reading?)
What perhaps makes Blunderbuss most noticeably a solo album, though, is the tone of its lyrics. White has always cleverly played with the dynamics of relationships, but in the wake of his divorce, the words here are far more introspective, if not outright autobiographical. Tales of unshakable desire, power struggles and men and women who use and abuse each other run amok throughout, alternating between angry and somber. “When they tell you that they just can’t live without you/They ain’t lying; they’ll take pieces of you,” White laments on “Missing Pieces.” It’s the sort of soul-searching we rarely hear from the man, and if the wildly careening music unfortunately masks some of this emotion, it can be forgiven since this record isn’t meant to be simple blood-letting. Indeed, nothing on Blunderbuss approaches the gravitas of a “break-up album.” It’s purely an entertaining, unexpected romp from one of modern rock’s great living songwriters, a title that this album proves in spades.
Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
With Spiritualized over the years, Jason Pierce has earned his nickname J. Spaceman by taking intensely personal issues of love, regret and religion and elevating them to the transcendent. Angelic choirs, full orchestras, layers of white noise, tracks that roll on into the tens of minutes—anything and everything to make his songs feel less like songs and more like last chances for salvation. Even though this “more-is-more” approach to production and experimentation doesn’t always make his work accessible, his best songs, at their core, are simple and sincere, his melodies strong and moving. He never bettered his approach anywhere else than on 1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, which remains one of the few records to ever capture just how enormous and profound heartbreak can seem to the one experiencing it. Lately, however, Pierce had been scaling back: Songs In A&E, influenced by his time spent recovering from a life-threatening case of pneumonia, featured a more subdued, direct sound, the Spaceman making his descent down to earth. To an extent, he continues this descent with 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light, an album also crafted in the wake of medical crisis—in this case, chemotherapy for a degenerative liver disease—but Pierce’s recent Ladies And Gentlemen tour rubbed off on him, and there are elements of that album’s busy production and symphonic arrangements as well.
Pierce said that this would be the album where he would embrace pop conventions, but this is still Spiritualized, so that comment has to be taken with a grain of salt. And with lengthy excursions like the droning, psychedelic “Get What You Deserve” and the buzzing “Headin’ For The Top Now,” that grain might turn into a teaspoon. Of those tracks, “Hey Jane” is clearly the standout. Charging through its nine minutes, the Velvet Underground influence as prevalent as ever, the track rides on a sliding guitar riff before breaking away and building to a genuinely breathtaking finish. What Pierce said wasn’t an outright lie, though: “Too Late,” “Freedom” and “Life Is A Problem” are some of the simplest and most stripped-down songs he’s ever penned; the latter, the emotional punchline of the album, is especially moving, sounding for all the world like a prayer spoken on a deathbed. That spiritual streak runs through Sweet Heart Sweet Light even more noticeably than on Spiritualized’s past records, with a few songs taking on a hymnal, epiphanic tone. This leads to some revealing lyrics (“I’m lost, and I’m gone/and this life is too long/and my willpower’s never too strong), and if Pierce occasionally slips into phrases that would otherwise border on cliché (“Don’t play with fire and you’ll never get burned”), the sweep of the music makes them feel fresher. Sweet Heart ends fittingly with “So Long You Pretty Thing,” a slow-burner turned anthem that proclaims what rock ‘n’ roll means to Pierce and, more importantly, what it doesn’t. And if there’s anyone who truly believes that rock ‘n’ roll has the power to save, it’s him. Surprises may be in shorter supply here, but Sweet Heart Sweet Light proves that Pierce can make great music even as age and personal strife soften his edges.
Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
2008 ended up being a game-changing year for mainstream pop looking back on it. It’s not the style of the music that changed but its image. In June, Katy Perry came out of nowhere with One Of The Boys, whose single “I Kissed A Girl” stormed the charts, blending aggressive sexuality with an innocent naivete. Later that summer, Lady Gaga released The Fame, introducing her brand of over-the-top theatricality, ambitiously weirdo costumes and all. And only a few months later, Beyoncé offered up I Am… Sasha Fierce, adding some faux-conceptual undertones to her music by way of alter-ego, pop music’s go-to “I’m an artist now!” ploy, at least ever since David Bowie did it. The immense success of these records altered the landscape for up-and-coming pop stars, seemingly guaranteeing that if you ever wanted to take over the world, you would need some sort of flashy quirk to stand out from the crowd.
Many were quick to take up the call, with everyone from trashy, hard-drinkin’ Ke$ha and party-rockers LMFAO scoring major hits in the years since, but Nicki Minaj was different. It wasn’t just that she came from the hip-hop side of the pop equation (or the pop side of the hip-hop equation), it was in her provocative raps and hyper-stylized performances. Instead of just floating her eccentricities on her image and music videos, she was more willing than her contemporaries to throw these left turns into her music. It’s something that surfaced occasionally in her guest spots, her mixtapes and Pink Friday, her promising, if uneven, debut. (Ironically, in the midst of all this, Adele dominated the charts without maximalist productions and ambitions, getting by on simplicity and sincerity and leaving everyone else to out-outrageous each other.) So though Gaga may have attempted to make a sweeping statement with Born This Way, if there was anybody that was going to create something truly over-the-top (and make it work), it was Minaj. The fact that her sophomore record, annoyingly titled Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded as if it were a remix album, would explore her gay, male alter-ego, Roman Zolanski, only seemed to confirm that, for better or worse, the album would at least be some kind of spectacle.
The beginning of Roman Reloaded fulfills this promise right away. “Take your medication, Roman/Take a short vacation, Roman/You’ll be okay,” Minaj announces in an exaggerated British accent. This is supposed to be Zolanski’s worried mother trying to convince her son to change his ways. It’s a thread that doesn’t go anywhere, really, because just like most concept albums, all this talk of fictional storylines and imagined characters doesn’t end up amounting to anything: It’s more decoration than foundation. Plus, this is Nicki Minaj we’re talking about, not Pink Floyd. In the end, her M.O. isn’t driving home profound themes and weaving complex plots together. The joy of her music is in hearing her make amusing boasts on “Come On A Cone” or listening to her wave off other MCs on the cool, confident “Beez In The Trap.” And the first half-dozen songs or so maintain a pretty high level of quality, her wordplay entertaining, the production dense and memorable.
But then something odd happens. Somewhere around “Champion,” Roman Reloaded abruptly shifts from the delirious hip-hop of the first handful of tracks to a fairly generic (and overlong) pop album, full of predictable electronica moves and pitch-shifted vocals. There’s nothing obviously derivative of specific artists but, rather, echoes of nearly every dance-pop artist of the last half-decade. And it’s in this musical anonymity that the record falls on its face. True, this is anonymity with shining moments—”Starships,” in particular, is bound to get people on the dance floor—but there’s hardly enough of them to regain momentum as the album stumbles towards its conclusion, the polarizing “Stupid Hoe.” Yet like it or not, the deranged, stuttering “Hoe” has more boldness in its three minutes than much of what preceded it. Yet by then, it’s too little, too late. Minaj’s personality is integral to her success, and in trying to incorporate so many different voices throughout Roman Reloaded, she ends up losing her own. And in Nicki’s world, that is the biggest sin of all.
Rocket Juice & The Moon – Rocket Juice & The Moon
If James Brown hadn’t gotten to it first, Damon Albarn would have certainly scooped up the nickname “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business” by this point. For yet another new musical outlet for the prolific musician, Albarn teamed up with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen (whom he worked with previously on The Good, The Bad & The Queen) to form the curiously named Rocket Juice & The Moon. Given Albarn’s well-known fascinations with rap and African music, it comes as no surprise that he utilizes the gifted rhythm team of Flea and Allen for a groove-oriented record, which Rocket Juice & The Moon assuredly is. Though Flea and Allen’s presence suggests a more danceable, funky album, this record is more up Albarn’s alley, incorporating elements of dub, Afro-beat and funk, while settling into cooler, tighter grooves. Not quite subdued but not quite “party music” either. Yet, for a supergroup, this album charts a rather low-key personality; the three stars are often content to slip into the background while others take the spotlight. Most of the time, this works to their advantage. Erykah Badu drops by for the silky-smooth “Hey, Shooter;” rapper M.anifest shines on a few tracks but none more affecting than when he trades off lines with M3nsa on the sunny “Chop Up;” meanwhile Fatoumata Diawara and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble steal the show on “Lolo.” The one time when Damon takes center stage, though, he scores a winner with the lovelorn ballad “Poison.”
Yet, it’s this same modesty that ends up dragging the album down in places. It’s true that Albarn, Allen and Flea are all extremely skilled musicians, but for a record largely composed of deliberately-paced instrumentals, very few of these—namely “There,” “1-2-3-4-5-6,” and “Leave-Taking”—leave an impact. Most of these sorts of numbers barely scrape by the two minute-mark, and while this helps reign in indulgent jamming, grooves as subtle as these need time to build up and ingratiate themselves. Because of this, at 18 tracks, there are points where the album begins to meander and slide too far out of consciousness. Still, even if the merit of this group makes you wish this was a tad less slight, there’s not a moment here that’s unlistenable. Rocket Juice & The Moon is simply a quaint, summery gem.