Christina Aguilera
Back to Basics
(2006)

Christina Aguilera has identity issues; a couple of things remain constant, she’s convinced she’s black and she’s not big on being fully clothed. She’s been second banana to Britney her whole career, dating back to the Disney years. She’s the “talented” one (though that’s all relative) but gets no respect. This is her albatross: she’s constantly trying to remind everyone of this and tries REALLY hard. She kissed Madonna within minutes of Britney but who does everyone remember having done the deed? She strips and mud-wrestles and no one bats an eye, Britney merely dances with a boa constrictor and the world goes gaga. She did not, however, attempt a drug habit to keep up with Brit Brit but I bet that idea came up in a few brainstorm meetings.
Her identity issues also stem from her not being sure whether she’s an r n b singer or whether she’s pop. She’s afraid to stray too far into either territory because pop is lame but straight r n b could alienate her pop fans and the good Lord knows she’s no Teena Marie. Back to Basics demonstrates this dichotomy quite well; the album doesn’t take off because she holds back on the r n b but can’t just sing a straight pop song without attempting her Whitney impression.
The album starts out with 3 separate songs going on about how down she is with soul music—3 separate songs! We get it, Christina, you listen to Otis, and that’s like so cool and stuff. Do you want a placard reading “Christina Aguilera Will Forever Have Street Cred”? Where are you going with this? Downhill is where she goes with this; while “Ain’t No Other Man,” is popping and has nods to 90’s hip hop right and left, the r n b “side” of the album then doles out one snoozer of a tune after another. It confounds me that this is a double album, it hardly has one album’s worth of material worthy of releasing.
Disc 2 is Linda Perry’s disc; it starts with a Danny Elfman-esque intro and then proceeds to attempt a watered-down version of a bunch of other genres like blues, jazz, and the obligatory power ballad. Man, I hate Linda Perry. She should be playing state fairs with a bunch of ringers and still calling them “4 Non-Blondes,” not popping up on “tough girl” pop albums. An interesting observation, the song “Hurt,” was written by Aguilera, Perry, and this guy named Mark Ronson. Perry was replaced by Ronson as collaborator du jour not long after this….odd.
Strangely, Back to Basics was a critical smash; I mean, it’s better than a lot of pop albums that came out around that time but it’s not a solid album by any means. If the executive producer cut out a lot of fat and created just one disc of material, I might have been more understanding of the reaction. Aguilera went on to screw herself royally again by releasing Bionic which includes collaborations with Le Tigre (really, Kathleen Hanna? You disappoint), and MIA. It comes down to something that irks me about pop singers in this day and age: most people don’t need a record label anymore, it seems, so pop singers who want to “prove themselves” should just go all the way with it instead of dipping their toes in collaborating with “cool” acts, just freaking get out there and write the cool songs themselves. While pop is in this day and age about trying on other artists’ skins, we could do with more Robyn’s and Kylie’s and less with more Gaga’s and Aguilera’s.

 

Words Came Out To a Sound

October 14, 2010

My Bloody Valentine
Loveless
(1991)

I feel like the albums I pick from EW’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the past 25 years go in sequence nicely. My last review was of Elliot Smith’s Either/Or, an artist who went against the grain and recorded his material his own way despite the thinking that it went against what was popular at the time. My Bloody Valentine pretty much solidified shoe-gaze with Loveless; for those who don’t know about shoe-gaze, it’s loud, sweepy, and distorted. I saw the band at All Points West and they came on right before Tool. “You Made Me Realize’s,” ‘holocaust’ section nearly made grown Tool fans cry, it was so deafening. Never underestimate Irish people wielding guitars.
Like all legendary albums, Loveless has stories to go along with it: Kevin Shields was crazy, he bankrupted Creation Records, Bilinda didn’t even know what words she was singing half the time herself, etc. The band seems coy about confirming or denying anything in order to keep up the mystery.
The first thing I felt when listening to the album (via my older sister) was confusion. It’s fuzzy & earsplitting and it sounds like the vocals were recorded down the street from where the microphone was. Jump to like last year and now that I’m in my 30’s I have more of an appreciation for spacey jams and while one might not put MBV in the same thought as say, Grateful Dead, it’s certainly music meant for tuning out.
What to say about the songs individually? Some of slow, some distorted, most electric but some acoustic. All of them put style before substance but that was the point; they just sounded cool, it didn’t matter what the songs were about.

Loveless ended up being the last album My Bloody Valentine recorded; the pressure was all too much and Bilinda and Kevin broke up which didn’t improve matters.

Years later, Kevin was asked to compose music for Sophia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation; his music contributes to the atmospheric sequences and renewed many’s interests in the band.  They reunited for some shows and have flirted with the idea of recording new material. 

 



Elliott Smith

Either/Or

(1997)

            More in the “people who may have killed themselves in the ‘00s” department, Elliott Smith was more or less a shoe-in for suicide along the lines of Mr. Cobain.  The two men had other things in common as well:  both signed to pseudo-alternative labels hoping to make something of themselves only to have things go a little too well and both were responsible for popularizing “indie” aesthetics.  While Nirvana married metal and power pop, Elliott Smith combined modern rock with folk and created a sound that intrigued both Beatles fans and mopey kids alike.  Of course, Smith didn’t invent the sound but when one puts it in the context of Smith’s solo material having been around the same time as the birth of grunge, it certainly makes one realize what he was up against.

            Either/Or opens with the biting “Speed Trials,” which could be about heroin but that almost seems too obvious.  Other songs tell similar tales of frustration and disgust such as “The Ballad of Big Nothing,” and “Pictures of Me,” but the tunes are wrapped up in catchy packaging. 

            The ‘90’s seemed to be filled with tragic heroes and you couldn’t be cool unless there was something troubling about you.  If Smith were still alive today, chances are he’d be making the same music and people would have stopped caring.  Instead, the man lives in infamy.

Jeff Buckley

Grace

(1994)

 

            “At the record company meeting, on their hands a dead star,” is how the opening lines of the Smiths’ “Death at One’s Elbow,” go.  Morrissey was obviously not writing about Jeff Buckley but his posthumous career can be summed up as such.  Grace was his only proper album and has been reissued at least twice within the last 15 years.  He was had a decent following among those who caught him late night on MTV or on adult alternative stations until he drowned in 1997 while he was still working on his follow up album.  Then every somewhat “in the know” music fan/singer was claiming they’ve been heavily influenced by him since they was knee high to a Chihuahua.

        Grace is intense and on first listen, you can deduce that this may be some of the greatest performances put to disk.  ”Mojo Pin,” and “Grace,” the first two tracks, have a mystical transcendent quality while “Last Goodbye,” brings you back down to earth.  The album has three cover songs—“Lilac Wine,” which heralds back to his Billie Holiday loving early work, “Corpus Christi Carol,” a track that’s a tad self-indulgent for my liking, and the amazing “Hallelujah.”

            The pacing of Grace is inspired as well; slow and swirling tracks are followed by punchy rockers and then Jeff gets all introspective and soft again.  No wonder he was panicking about album number two; how does one follow up such an instant classic?   He ended up rerecording My Sweetheart, the Drunk after not being satisfied with Tom Verlaine’s production of the original version. He also tried out the material obsessively while touring incognito at small venues.  The album was not finished and we’re left with Sketches  which, no surprise, could in no way be considered near the level of greatness that Grace is.

System of a Down

Toxicity

(2001)

 

            For the kids who missed out on Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down may drop some knowledge listeners may previously be unaware of.  Did you know that America gives money to fund coups in other countries?  No way!  California’s prisons are like seriously overcrowded?  OMFG! and that’s just the first song!

            The band is “heavily influenced” by their Armenian roots meaning their melodies are sometimes in minor keys and sometimes the singer rolls his “r”s.  SOAD had the good fortune of their 2nd album, Toxicity, being released a week before 9/11.  The lyrics of “Chop Suey,” somehow were prescient “self-righteous suicide” and all that jazz.  Otherwise, the album is your typical teen metal fare complete with party jams like “Bounce!.” There’s really only one other highlight on Toxicity, the atmospheric ballad “Aerials,” but while the song sounds good, the lyrics are pretty dumb.  What basically was a band that was slightly a cut above the rest in 2000’s nu metal, ended up exploiting their more political side in their subsequent albums.  Michael Moore directed the first video for their album Steal This Album whose title is a wink-wink to Abbie Hoffman.  Once you graduate college and realize that making Yippie references and still bitching about the horrors of the Ottoman Empire (Ottoman Empire? Really?) is incredibly lame and a sign of a group of people trying too hard, you’ll move on to real music.

I Go Dancing In

September 18, 2010

So

Peter Gabriel

(1986)

            Some have declared the 1980’s the decade of Al Franken, really I would argue it was the decade of Genesis.  While their most beloved work was done in the 1970’s, the three main parts of the band—Mike Rutherford, Phil Collins, and Peter Gabriel were the Holy Trinity of Yuppie Pop.  Phil was the brooding, middle-aged, divorcee—the guy who realized marriage wasn’t what he thought it was going to be and now he’s lucky if he just get to see the kids on the weekends.  Mike was the happy go lucky one, the one who just needed his lady and a miracle.  Sometimes he and his Mechanics were down about stuff, like Paul Carrack’s dad dying, but in the end, if you believed in synthesizers and good times, you’d be all right. 

            Peter Gabriel was the older brother, the guy who had it all figured out and had weightier things to worry about like the environment, Rosanna Arquette’s eyes, and what was going on in Africa.  He was the artist who actually inspired other artists like Vampire Weekend and Damon Albarn (who was inspired by Mike & the Mechanics, I mean, really?)

            Before So, Gabriel was a favorite amongst the Patrick Bateman’s in the know; his status as a major star began when MTV aired on of the greatest videos of all time—“Sledgehammer.” A fun, funky song and totally out of character for Gabriel.  This was a sign to fans that Gabriel was ready to take it up a notch.  The album is a comment on the 80’s as well as an embodiment of it.  The track “Big Time,” is a great parody of wanting to be and have all things big:  “My parties have all the big names/and I greet them with the widest smile.”

            Of course, Peter does make sure his arty side show through as well—he collaborates with both Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson respectively and the classic “In Your Eyes,” introduced Youssou N’Dour to a larger audience.  (Fun Fact:  I was totally in the audience during the recording of the Jeffrey Gaines version of this song—at the time, I thought that was cool.  Now…I’m embarrassed for all involved…)

            After So, Gabriel got lost in the black hole of Todd Rundgren Syndrome.  He thought computers would take over the world and he wanted to be the first in line to befriend them just in case they enslave us all by 2010.  That didn’t happen so now he’s fucked and now has to live with a back catalog  of a bunch of pretentious, techy  crap that no one cares about (but they all came with enhanced CD ROMs!).  He’s looked back on this terrible mistake and has tried to rectify the situation with a covers album but that just made things worse.  The project was supposed to be him covering others songs and presumptuously these acts would do the same for him.  Except other bands didn’t want to return the favor…oops….Yeah, I think the lesson to be learned here is that artists shouldn’t partake in “projects.” Just make good videos with the Quay Brothers.

Destiny’s Child
Writing’s on the Wall
(1999)

While Destiny’s first album came out in 1998, it was the group’s sophomore effort that made Beyonce a star. In contrast to their self-titled album’s old-fashioned r n b, Writing’s on the Wall was ground breaking and influenced just about every girl group and female artist for the next five years. Don’t ask me why though; it’s not very good.
Produced by a slew of people including Missy Elliot, She’kspeare, and of course Darkchild, every track is heavy on faux-acoustic guitar arpeggios and Beyonce’s sassy staccato, rapid-fire delivery. The album as a whole is 90% style, 10% substance; most tracks sound the same (“Bills, Bills, Bills,” is “Jumpin’, Jumpin,’” is “Say My Name,”) and almost all portend to be “you go girl” anthems but they really don’t say much. They hit on one phrase that many can relate to but the songs don’t go much beyond that thought.
There are a couple of highlights; the opener “So Good,” while it has the trademark arpeggios, the song feels more complete than most others on the disc. As we all know, Writing led to mega-stardom for Destiny’s Child but it’s a shame a group like Blaque was creating similar music but ended up becoming less popular. Destiny’s music is enjoyable at a club but they are hardly mind blowing and had a limited palate. It’s a mystery to me why people got so hooked on this album in particular. Was it that we needed Spice Girls who could sing? Songs that weren’t written and produced by Babyface? Was it just a right place at the right time type dealy? Maybe we were fascinated with the fact that the group changed members about 5 times during the promotion of this album….In any event, Beyonce is now a living legend and them other chicks are lucky enough to still appear in her videos from time to time.

MEW

The Kiss of Death

September 3, 2010

Low-Life

New Order

For those two people who may be reading these (I think I’m actually inflating that number), my decisions on what albums to review are based on Entertainment Weekly’s Top 100 albums of the Past 25 Years.  I think this is one of those entries that bewilder me; New Order were never ones for strong albums.  Most people cite Substance, their greatest hits album, as their best and even that album has some low points.  Low-Life’s only bragging point is that it has perhaps the worst lyrics ever put to disc.  Fortunately, these lyrics are accompanied by great beats. “Love Vigilante,” while being a great folk song (try finding Laura Cantrell’s version) makes little sense….like how did the government screw up and tell someone her man’s dead when he was perfectly fine—that’s not a topic for a dance song, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen! “Perfect Kiss” is just a disgrace:  “Staying here and going out/Tonight I should have stayed at home/Playing with my pleasure zone” Really??  Things get better with the intense “Sunrise,” and the lovely (and instrumental!) “Elegie,” presumably written about Ian Curtis.  Speaking of Ian Curtis, he sure wasn’t inspiring anyone from the heavens to write anything close to his angsty poetry—he must have been too busy working with Robert Smith at the time or some such.  Strangely enough, if “Blue Monday,” gave New Order naysayers something to chew on, Low-Life somehow confirmed to critics that they weren’t just making money off of Joy Division’s reputation.  The album was well-received and the band went on to make 5 more albums that were equally respected. 

 MEW

Learning to Crawl

The Pretenders

1983 should not have been a good year for Chrissie Hynde:  her ex-boyfriend and Pretenders’ bassist Pete Farndon died of a heroin overdose, only a year after guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of a cocaine overdose.  If that wasn’t bad enough, Hynde had a kid with Ray Davies and then they broke up (don’t worry, she then started dated Jim Kerr of Simple Minds within the same year—oh wait, maybe that is cause to worry…).  While most bands would at least go on hiatus if not give up altogether with so much turmoil swirling about, Hynde hired some ringers and began recording again.  What she created encapsulated the joy, pain, and anger she felt and equaled the strength of the Pretenders’ previous works.

            “Middle of the Road,” is like an updated “Precious,” (the lead track of the band’s debut), a ballsy rant about age, gender, and trying to give a fuck.  This is followed by one of the finest songs the band has recorded “Back on the Chain Gang.”  A lament about her doomed relationship with Davies and the havoc the press reeked on the whole affair, it’s dynamic, nostalgic (lifting a riff from Sam Cooke), romantic, and bitter at the same time.  Most of the album works on these levels:  familiar rock hooks touched up with brazen yet observational lyrics courtesy of Hynde.  “My City Was Gone,” though somewhat hypocritical (hmmm, maybe if Hynde didn’t abandon her city and hightail it to London when the shit hit the fan, she’d have more room to talk….) could really be about any suburb taken over by Wal-Mart and strip malls.  The lame “Show Me,” and the depressing cover “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” are probably the only real misfires here.

            While the Pretenders continued to be more like Chrissie Hynde and Her Hired Help, they survived the glossy 80’s and even some ill-advised covers (yes, that is Ms. Hynde covering Donna Summer’s “State of Independence”—soooo rock n roll) they continue to chug along.  They surprised me with Viva El Amor in 1999, a complete rockin’ loud return to form but that’s the last time I had patience for them.  Like Johnny Lydon, Hynde continues to embarrass herself by ranting about how she’s more punk and legit than anyone on the planet but then goes and does something stupid, like claiming to be a vigilant animal rights activist and then saying that she has to wear leather when riding a motorcycle (if you don’t believe me, read the following Q & A:  http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/1999/07/11/PK83091.DTL&type=printable).  I’m sure they’ll continue to do well on national tours of the House of Blues and that’s great but I’d like to remember them as the band who played “Money (That’s What I Want)” at a benefit concert and sent it out to the bands who didn’t show up because they’re were getting paid enough. 

  MEW

Home

Dixie Chicks

            The Dixie Chicks’ sixth studio album was the album that most successfully placed them between pop & country:  pretty sentimentality mixed with bluegrass.  The opening, “Long Time Gone,” spells it out—the Dixie Chicks were out to shake things up by actually going back to good ol’ country the way Mr. Haggard intended.

            They tackle Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” and make the song, which was already pretty steeped in the West, even more so by adding banjo and fiddle.  “Truth No. 2,” and “Home” are melodramatic yet Natalie Maines’ voice makes you forget about the Lifetime TV-ish lyrics.  Some others such as “I Believe in Love,” can’t be saved—for 3 “Chicks” who boast a feisty attitude, Home is a pretty girly album;  “White Trash Wedding,” makes up for this somewhat. 

            In a way, it would be hard to imagine where the Dixie Chicks could have gone from this album.  With a little help from Natalie’s liberal mentality and the insanity that ensued, they made the intense Taking the Long Way produced by Rick Rubin.  The ladies say they are done with country.  I hope they haven’t painted themselves in a corner because their options look limited.  Either make a country comeback (which sounds quite difficult judging by the death threats, destruction, and name-calling that caused the rift) or be the next MOR, adult contemporary, folk-country act a la Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lyle Lovett.  That prospect is about as depressing as a bluegrass tune.