Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I've seen Men In Black maybe five times in my life. The first time I saw it, when it was in theaters, I thought it was great. The second time I saw it, I didn't like it that much. The third time, I thought it was great. The fourth time... etc. You may see a pattern developing.

Ignore the Ignorant is like Men In Black, but with extra Johnny Marr for flavor. Yes, The Cribs have been joined this time around by the former Smith, Pretender, Modest Mouser, Electronic(er?), none other than Johnny Marr. It's almost easier to list the people he hasn't worked with, to be honest. Come to think of it, he's been on every Pet Shop Boy since the mid-nineties, as well. But I'm getting off the point.

Ignore the Ignorant is, I suppose, good. The first time, I loved it. The second time, I thought it was thoroughly uninspired. The third? Well, it seems to be leveling out at "good." "Decent," maybe. The point is, if you like a punk attitude with slightly less-punk wrappings, this is the album for you. It's a step up from where they've been, certainly. But I probably won't remember it within the next six months.

I will most certainly remember the newest from The Flaming Lips, Embryonic. You don't really have a choice, honestly. From the moment Wayne Coyne starts talking about the difference between us on "Convinced of the Hex," this is clearly not the same Flaming Lips we've been exposed to for the last decade; they've cleaned up their act by getting really, really messy, and it's brilliant. It's haphazard, certainly, and overwhelming the first time, but once you sort it out, it's a great trip. Getting in a room and jamming it out suits these boys quite well. Not, by any means, for everyone, but if it were, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pure Pop for Now People

NOTE: The grading system has been eradicated. I began to feel it was too arbitrary, and when I was spending five minutes sitting at my keyboard deciding between a B- and a B, I knew it was a silly pursuit. Just read the reviews. They should give you the idea.

Thank you, patient readers, for waiting for me for so long. I apologize, it's been three weeks since my last post, but I have a pair of Power-Pop reviews, and this will be followed up in the coming days by reviews of the latest from The Flaming Lips, The Cribs, and Raekwon. Yes, that Raekwon.

My Old, Familiar Friend
Brendan Benson

Brendan Benson, for those in the know (and who isn't?), is the other leader of Jack White's Raconteurs project. He used to be, at any rate, before White did that thing he inevitably does where he takes control. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but it's a habit worth noting. At any rate, Benson is responsible for "Steady As She Goes," the best moment in the Raconteurs' collected output, and he was behind much of the first album. His is a very pure pop style; this is a man who listens to a lot of Big Star. The early Big Star, that is. Or, if he does listen to Third/Sister Lovers, he doesn't let it show.

At any rate, this is perky, perky, perky stuff. Emphasis on that last "perky." Opener "A Whole Lot Better" is a barnstormer of a single. It has the instant familiarity of a great single, sounding like it came out sometime around, oh, 1976. Yeah, that sounds about right. It also, as a perk, features a legitimately wonderful, simple lyric; "I change my mind every time that the wind blows," he sings with such enthusiasm that you can't help but think that may not be such a bad thing. It's on the radio from time to time, and you, yes, you, should check it out.

Unfortunately, for me at least, the album goes downhill from there. Not because it fails in its mission; far from it. I have a love-hate relationship with this kind of pop; the same influences that propel Benson forward are also responsible for Spoon, but Spoon had the sense to listen to some Pixies records once in a while, which keeps things, erm, grimy. It's too Pure, this pop is, which isn't really the problem; Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army" is a Pop record, no bones about it, but Costello included weird harmonies, and wasn't afraid to use "nigger" in a sentence. Benson would probably shrivel into a ball, which is to say his lyrics don't make up for the sugar. This is a problem I will undoubtedly be alone in having, as is often the case. A very good Pop record, then, but not something I'll listen to much. Well, "A Whole Lot Better" may prove an exception...

The Boy Who Knew Too Much

Let's be clear, "Grace Kelly," Mika's debut single from, what, 2007?, is brilliant. If you're its audience, it fills you with energy, enthusiasm, glee, vim and vigor, and if you're not its audience, it must just annoy the piss out of you. These are the things Great Pop is supposed to. Well, Great Pop which is aware of its existence as Great Pop is supposed to, anyway. This is why Coldplay are brilliant at what they do; Mika, Coldplay, U2, and Queen are all of a similar vein. Keep in mind, Mika is definitively the least deserving of that company, I'm not putting these people in tiers. I'm simply referring to the particular race they run; music written for the masses, not for the writer. There's nothing wrong with this, in principle. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is God coming through your speakers.

I bring up Queen because Mika and Freddy Mercury were cut from the same overtly melodramatic clothe, and Mika doesn't hide it. This is mostly because he finds the thought comforting, and a sort of Manifest Destiny. At any rate, his songs are Pop to the point where even I cringe. Listening to Mika is a lot like listening to an entire ELO album; when you're done, your brain kinda hurts, even though you're pretty sure you had a good time, and you think you want to do it again, but you don't know why. Each Mika album contains one ringer, though, and if his first had "Grace Kelly," The Boy Who Knew Too Much has "Rain," which is just Euro-Disco Pop, but better. It's all minor-tones, with whirling synths and a pulsing back beat which will get your feet moving whether you want it to or not.

Much like Mr. Benson, the album is immaculate in its construction, and every track is a technical ringer. Whereas Benson aims for guitar hooks which could land a whale, Mika uses everything, and there isn't an aspect of his songs which couldn't qualify as a hook; it depends on how you feel about hooks. I, for one, am cynical that way. Pure Pop is the hardest to pull off; you have to make it tricky while allowing everyone to think they could do it themselves. Both boys succeed wildly at that.

Friday, October 2, 2009

There is a stack of CDs sitting on my desk. I am falling behind. Thanks to work and academia, my rate of musical, literary, and cinematic consumption has dive-bombed into the basement. It is not a coincidence that my posts for this blog have dropped off as well, but beyond that, most of what I've listened to lately has failed to inspire. Here are two higher-profile albums I've listened to that didn't seem inclined towards a full-length review, and a book I know none of you will read, but I'm inclined to recommend anyway.

The new album by The Dead Weather, better known as Jack White's most recent project, goes by the ominous moniker of Horehound. Great name, but I'm not so sure about the album. It's more unusual than it is good or bad, which for some is a great thing. For me, that means it's alright. I don't typically appreciate weird for the sake of weird. It's a throwback to lo-fi sixties garage groups, combined with elements of straight-forward rock for which White is known, and while it succeeds spectacularly in that capacity, that's not a sound I necessarily needed back. So it could go either way for you, really. (Grade: B-)

The latest from Muse, The Resistance, is quite the disappointment. I enjoy not just the music of Muse, but their attitude in pulling it off. They take Over-the-Top to a whole new level, and firmly have their tongue-in-cheek while doing so. I love Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations, their last two, both of which served to provide the audience with a sense of the absurd mixed in with killer singles. Muse seem to have taken a step sideways with this one, and possibly a few steps back. Is it more grandiose than before? Unquestionably. The music is filled with the flourishing accompaniments of a real orchestra, and songs like "United States of Eurasia" are inherently ridiculous, as one expects from these space cases. But the lyrics are urbane where they used to be negligible, and the music is bland in places where it used to surprise. Not their best, then. (Grade: C-)

In books, I've finally finished volume 1 of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. It may have been written just short of 200 years ago, but this in-depth look at the American system of government as it came into adulthood is fascinating, and well worth the time. A balanced critic and admirer, Tocqueville never comes across as one-sided, always giving air time to all pertinent perspectives. None of you will read it, I know, but it's really rather brilliant. (Grade: A)