Thursday, November 25, 2010

Review: Robyn *Body Talk*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

No genre of music, not even pop, is more associated with frivolity than dance music. Dance artists are often seen as anonymous and their output disposable. Their purview, the club, is a hedonistic temple of drinking, drugs, and (ultimately) sex. Yet nothing damns the genre more than the fact that its purpose is first and foremost utilitarian – to move the human body.

Robyn Carlsson’s brand of dance music is not an exception that proves the rule, but a one-woman validation of the genre, of how great it can be (and sometimes is) when treated seriously. Her music demands that you dance, but also think, to feel the beat and your emotions, too. Robyn’s integrity, mastery, and playfulness make her devoid of any need for qualification. She doesn't make great dance music: she makes great music.

Her latest album, Body Talk, is the culmination of an almost year-long project. Eager to get her new material out to her starving fans (it has been five years since her last album, Robyn) she released two short albums, Body Talk Pt 1 and Pt 2, soon after they were recorded. Body Talk Pt 3, which will be released concurrently with the full-length Body Talk in many regions (including North America), completes the series with five new tracks. Body Talk, on the other hand, is a 15-track summation of this flurry of material. It features five songs off each of the three short Body Talk albums, resequenced into a new whole. It’s one-stop shopping for those sorry souls who have not yet gotten on board, as well as the official record of the Body Talk project.

There are two questions a review of Body Talk must answer: how good is the new material, and how well do all these songs fit together? The answer to the first question is – they are as consistently terrific as Pt 1’s first half, the high-point thus far. “Indestructible” get’s the full electro treatment, and while I prefer the acoustic version off of Pt 2, the song remains a gem. Its instrumentation cleverly augments the lyric. Robyn’s vocal melody is swallowed by the mix, while tracks and tracks of synths envelop her like a sonic armor. Indestructible, indeed. The sunny pop of “Call Your Girlfriend” hides a darker lyric. Robyn offers a new lover advice for how to ditch his girlfriend: “You tell her that the only way her heart will mend is when she learns to love again. And it won’t make sense right now but you’re still her friend. And then you let her down easy.” Even when she’s a homewrecker, Robyn has a heart of gold. On the delirious Max Martin produced “Time Machine,” she fires up the flux capacitor and speeds back in time at 88 mph to rectify her bad behavior. The best of the five is “Get Myself Together,” with a melody that rivals the album’s first two singles, “Dancing On My Own” and “Hang With Me.”

So how do these songs fit together? Surprisingly well, considering the somewhat disparate sound of each Body Talk album. Most of these tracks are anthemic, sing-a-long dance pop, with some more beat-oriented tunes thrown in for variety. However, none of the ballads from Pt 1 or 2 have made the cut, which means the album never gives you a breather. Body Talk has one major flaw: where the hell is “Cry When You Get Older?” The song is so far superior to most of the others that its exclusion is baffling. I also have some minor gripes about the sequencing of the album. “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” sounds odd as anything other than an opening track, as it was on Pt 1. On Body Talk, it comes after the early high of “Fembot,” and ends up slowing the otherwise breathless onward rush of its first eight tracks. Also, the album sags about three-quarters of the way in, with its two weakest songs, “None of Dem” and “We Dance to the Beat,” placed back-to-back.

Still, Body Talk is an embarrassment of riches. I prefer listening to the short albums, especially for “Cry When You Get Older” and the ballads. But no matter how you consume it, Body Talk matches Robyn's brilliance, and further shows that no one puts music to a beat as marvelously as Robyn Carlsson.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Rihanna *LOUD*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

What hath Madonna wrought? Over 25 years after her iconic VMA performance of “Like a Virgin,” we’ve finally reached the climax of the oversexed pop starlet. You can’t swing a bottle of Jack without hitting a female recording artist whose primary goal is to get laid. Even Rihanna, the Barbadian pop dynamo, got in on the act. On her last two albums, Good Girl Gone Bad and Rated R, she transformed from girl next door into an expletive-dropping nympho vixen. The often tuneful Rated R, with its guitar-laden mid-tempo jams, tried too hard to add menace and edge to Rihanna’s sound and persona. It was right there on its cover, Rihanna made up like the fifth member of the Misfits from the Jem cartoon, hand over eye and pissed off beyond belief.

What a difference a year makes. Yeah, Rihanna is still exploding f-bombs and purring about wanting to see you just in your skin, but she’s also relaxed a bit. LOUD, her competent fifth LP, is a halfway return to form. Take the album’s opening track “S&M,” an overt rebound back to the forward thrust of singles like “Don’t Stop the Music” and “SOS.” Even with its silly, shopworn lyrics (“I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it”), “S&M” is a fizzy joy. (A note to pop hitmakers: sadomasochism may have been titillating when Lou Reed sang about shiny boots of leather back in 1967, but today it’s about as tame as a stolen kiss.) In fact, “S&M” represents LOUD’s central flaw: moments of greatness are marred by egregious errors, and these songs vacillate between the two depending on your mood and generosity.

LOUD is best when Rihanna takes pop to less-travelled realms, particularly when her island influences show. “Man Down,” a reggae-infused mea culpa, is the album’s highlight. Rihanna pulls out a gun and shoots a man down with a wonderful “rum pap pap pum,” killing us softly with an effortless roll of the tongue. It’s a rare instance of enunciation elevated to art. “Cheers (Drink To That),” a celebration of imbibing complete with a (surprisingly killer) Avril Lavigne sample, wins this year’s award for Song Least Likely to Be Heard at an A.A. Mixer. The sequel to Eminem’s megahit “Love the Way You Lie” focuses on Rihanna’s portion and is all the better for it, giving up the goods straight-up and unadulterated.

If only the rest of LOUD were so assured. “What’s My Name” features a terrific hook in its verse, but is hindered by the inclusion of sad-sack rapper Drake (“the square root of 69 is eight something”). The generic Top 40 R&B tracks “Skin” and “Fading” are adequate filler, but filler nonetheless. “California King Bed” manages to best Liz Phair’s “My Favorite Underwear” with a central metaphor so bizarre that you almost forget its overblown melodic schmaltz. Almost.

It’s only been three years since Rihanna released the incredible pop anthem “Umbrella,” but the artistic distance between then and now seems vast. Though nothing on LOUD approaches that particular triumph, Rihanna still delivers some modest highs. To quote one of the album’s better tracks: I’ll drink to that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review: Taylor Swift *Speak Now*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. It was only a few days ago when I first discovered mine. I found myself bewildered, ashamed, and more than a bit unsettled. This kind of thing happens to regular people. Philistines, actually. I, however, am sophisticated, erudite, a Man of Good Taste. But, denial is futile. (As is resistance, it turns out.) So, in the spirit of the truth setting me free, I’ll say it: I love the new Taylor Swift album.

I’m being facetious, of course. Not about my high admiration for Speak Nowthat’s very real – but about the implied notion that there should be at least a dash of shame added to the enjoyment of twangy pop songs about boys whose names end with the letter “Y.” If you need the modifier “indie” slathered over the word “pop” to make it palatable, stop reading now. If layers of irony, distortion, and/or electronic beats are required to swallow a catchy melody, this review, and this album, is not for you. The rest of us will be perfectly happy to feast on Speak Now’s bounty of pleasures without you.

In 2006, while her 16-year-old peers were spending their free time trying to get laid, high, or, at the very least, a perfect GPA, Taylor Swift was busy crafting a brilliant country-pop tune called “Tim McGraw.” Using the eponymous country star as a totem for nostalgia was a masterstoke, a winking, postmodern novelty that instantly distinguished Swift from the chaff regularly spat out by the mechanized Harvester of Pop also known as Nashville. The rest of Swift’s self-titled debut had a few songs that matched “Tim McGraw” – the banjo-driven, middle-finger flip of “Picture to Burn,” the searing “Should’ve Said No,” and the spirited hillbilly anthem “Our Song” – but as a whole, it was more endearing than it was accomplished. On her excellent 2008 follow-up, Fearless, Swift delivered a record-shattering pop behemoth, albeit one with a country accent. It redefined her as a precocious geek, an outsider hero looking in. “You Belong With Me” exemplified Swift’s new persona, and its accompanying video earned her the award that prompted Kanye West’s ridiculously ballyhooed VMA stunt. (Which is nonsensically “addressed” in the otherwise great Speak Now track “Innocent.”)

Too much has been written about Speak Now’s supposed tell-all confessions, particularly the details of Swift’s failed celebrity relationships. Though her record company, Big Machine, is mostly to blame, the music media haven’t exactly turned away from such an obvious marketing ploy. Sensationalism will sell records, but it distracts from the fact that Speak Now is, song for song, Swift’s strongest album. What difference does it make if “Dear John” is about John Mayer or some fictional John Doe? Or that “Back to December” may or may not be about that Teen Wolf who shares a first name with Swift? I know, Speak Now is just a pop album, which means it will get more attention from US Weekly than it will from Pitchfork, but Swift deserves better.

Speak Now is a career-defining album. It not only lacks a dud, but it also reminds you that a radio hit can be held to a higher standard and still exceed expectations. The album’s first single and opening track, “Mine,” firmly plants Swift in the fertile ground between Shania Twain and Kelly Clarkson, though closer to the latter. Swift’s marriage of pop and rock, with just a bit of country, is effortless and thrilling. Lean verses lead to explosive and exuberant choruses, with one impeccably crafted melody following another. “Sparks Fly” may be your absolute favorite song right now, but “Mean” or “Better Than Revenge” will surely replace it in a couple of days.

The album suffers from a couple of flaws common to most pop albums. It’s exactly two tracks too long: “Enchanted” and “Last Kiss,” fine songs both, slow down the pace of the record. The far-superior acoustic versions of “Back to December” and “Haunted,” found on the deluxe edition of the album, underscore the fact that most of these songs are heavy with too many tracks of instrumentation. Still, griping about a pop album’s overproduction is like complaining that rap music is too misogynistic or that experimental music is too weird. Well, duh.

Speak Now was solely written by Taylor Swift, which seems completely insane. The impressive popcraft of these fourteen songs could have been created by a small army of career songwriters. Well done, Ms. Swift. Speak Now is a well-earned tiara atop of Taylor Swift’s blonde tresses, an album that deserves to sell zillions of records. As it no doubt will.