SECOND WAVE Part 4: 2003

2003

 

 

 

THE BLACK ALBUM | DE-LOUSED IN THE COMATORIUM | FEVER TO TELL | MICHIGAN | TRANSATLANTICISM  

 

 

 

THE BLACK ALBUM – Jay-Z

(Roc-A-Fella)

*** 1/2

Jay-Z is comically overrated. Perhaps he’s the Spoon of rap.

Encore\Dirt Off Your Shoulder\99 Problems

Interlude

 

The Black Album finds Jay-Z taking a shot at something which, at its time, had rarely been attempted in hip-hop, and even more infrequently with the kind of success this project brought. It’s intended to be a stark, personal, autobiographical album where Jay digs the skeletons out of his closet. But it turns out that his usual high-life rhymes outnumber the soul-searching material by a good amount, basically negating that aspect of the record. The direness of the few narrative tracks is marred by the freewheeling, success story splendor of the remainder.

A few of the songs are impressively introspective, but the only one that’s really bold and vulnerable is the first. “December 4th” is clever, unique and cute, having Jay’s mother recall incidents that shaped him as a child while he elaborates in the verses. The music isn’t half bad, but I’ve been spoiled by Outkast, MF DOOM and Kanye West and now expect what is probably an unfair standard of quality. Truthfully, these are regal, elegant loops which are still somehow more down-to-earth than the ridiculous opulence of The Blueprint’s backing tracks.

What’s even more encouraging is that Carter’s rhymes are more substantial and creative here, unlike the boring, faceless hustling boasts of The Blueprint. It’s a very classy set with reasonably dense lyrics, as Hova is wont to produce. His cadences and song structures are surprisingly tight and convoluted, though they’re far from the best in the industry. His writing shows he’s still mostly concerned with status and material things, but it, too, is more sophisticated than before. He goes about his “lifestyle rap” so cleverly and confidently, it’s hard to refuse. The way he delivered the lyrics on The Blueprint, anyone could have done it and sounded roughly the same. But Jay-Z brings personality to this material, actually intoning words differently instead of sounding like a rapping robot. He’s still not as expressive as Eminem at his peak, though.

I find it kinda silly and disingenuous how a lot of The Black Album is all about how it was meant to be one last hurrah before Carter retired… even though he came back to the game almost immediately, completely devaluing those sentiments. Those hype advertisements are too prevalent and distracting on the LP to begin with – he tells listeners this last set will be legendary so often that he doesn’t have time to say anything that would make it legendary.

Well, that’s only partially true: Jay still knocks off a few tracks that will give him bragging rights for years to come. Rick Rubin makes a majestic return to producing hip-hop with the standout “99 Problems”, to which Hova contributes his most immediate and intense lines. The Neptunes do a typically exemplary job as well – “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” contains one of the most recognizable and catchy rap hooks of the decade, and “My 1st Song” has a really nice background too. The two singles are the most melodically exciting here, which should have just encouraged the entrepreneur to make more ornate music. Still, the album as a whole is more listenable and interesting than most things the modern hip-hop market has to offer and the samples are pleasantly diverse. It’s not even close to being on the same level as Outkast or MF DOOM’s many projects, but it’s quite solid, if a little too indulgent in its own decadent glitziness.

The Black Album doesn’t have the fat and unnecessary skits that most rap records do, and I’m glad. (There’s only one interlude here; the rest of the LP is artistically viable.) Carter’s an excellent businessman, and as such, his tunes never bother with pleasantries – they get straight to the point. In turn, that makes them less personalized and more nondescript, but what are you gonna do? Once he starts treating his songs more like outlets of creativity and less like potentially profitable stocks, he’ll really be getting somewhere.

 

 

DE-LOUSED IN THE COMATORIUM – The Mars Volta

(Universal)

** 1/2

Send this back to the comatorium immediately, it’s still really lousy.

Drunkship Of Lanterns\Inertiatic ESP\This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed

Cicatriz ESP or Tira Me A Las Aranas

 

De-Loused In the Comatorium brings to mind a question I have a hard time answering for myself: which do I enjoy less – stifling, boring mediocrity or audacious, ambitious B.S.? This record adopts the latter notion and runs with it so far as to be unintentionally amusing. It is a dissociative, schizophrenic, spastic and unwelcome assault on the ears. It also takes everything wrong with progressive rock, artistic solipsism, and stoner culture and conveniently wraps them up in one tidy, abhorrent package.

In addition, I hate The Mars Volta as a group because they think they’re above grammar, above good taste and self-control, above coming up with feasible creative ideas and even above pleasing their audience if they feel they have more pressing matters at hand. To illustrate this, let’s examine the lyrics, shall we?

Most bad things are easily ripe for ridicule. De-Loused practically mocks itself – and I quote:

“And there are those who

Hadn’t found the speaking so wrong

Is it wrong

Of Pavlov lore

They ran rampant through the floors

Is this wrong

Feels so wrong

Happened on a respirator

In the basements

Are they gone are they gone

Stung the slang of a gallows bird

Rationed a dead letter pure

Trackmarked amoeba lands craft

Cartwheel of scratches

Dress the tapeworm as pet

Tentacles smirk please

Flinched the cocooned meat

Infra-recon forgets”

Um… so, yeah.

This is incoherent, juvenile psychobabble that cheaply passes for philosophizing and “a deep message”, always going for bloviating, elitist hundred-dollar words when ten-dollar ones would suffice (intentionally obscuring the already nonexistent conceit behind them), plus a “concept” that’s so tangential and convoluted it may as well not exist. It becomes hard to tell if their narrative, diction and syntactical mistakes are intentional and paradoxical, or if their heads are so far up their asses that words don’t matter to them anymore. When they cross that line so much it becomes blurred, it’s not a good sign.

Looking over the stanzas also tells me the band just learned Latin and are eager to employ it in song, no matter the context or how sensibly it’s utilized. Oh, look! These wannabe high priests also learned some big words from circumlocutory Victorian texts, although it seems they didn’t bother reading their definitions for proper use either. Why bother? Just throw them in, nobody will know the difference! Plus, teenagers who are similarly confused on the meaning of wit, moderation and sense will think it’s cool and adventurous instead of gaudy, unnecessary, cluttered and pretentious.

These compositions are sung in an overemoting, overbearing, over-everything screamo style by the blazed-out-of-his-mind Cedric Bixler-Zavala. His bleating-pig vocals sound like an autotuned Geddy Lee. If Beck rapped the accompanying lyrics, their tone would be appropriately absurd and goofy. But Cedric sings them on a supposed “concept album” with a sense of inexplicable conviction. Not to mention his baroque, self-indulgent, seemingly improvised, howling vocal parts.

More about those: instead of writing developed, natural-sounding melodies, TMV create the illusion of evolving, thought-out songs by constantly going from full-bore shouting incoherence to insubstantial mellow crooning, making the record sound dizzy and lurching, which just adds to its unintentional comedy and over-the-top nature. The tracks don’t necessarily go longer than they need to; they just give me a sense that they didn’t need to exist to begin with, except for a miraculous few toward the end that show some semblance of organization and harmony.

To an (admittedly unknowledgeable) observer such as myself, De-Loused isn’t even very proggy in the musically profound sense, other than occasional distracting overdriven drums. They do have ostensibly talented professionals dicking around like there’s no tomorrow, but that does not equal “progressive”. I will grant that A) It’s rarely boring (“Cicatriz ESP” being the major, excruciating exception) and B) There are, sadly, far worse albums out there (yep, my bell curve for sucky LPs once again steps in to somewhat save the grade here). So it’s gratingly hyperactive, but at least it’s more dynamic and deep than, say, Untrue. It’s usually fast and intense as well, something which would make the sounds of bands like Spoon more tolerable.

This record knows no restraint and has no scruples in its creative process. Its creators express zero maturity and even less profundity, preferring to wallow in their own impenetrable gobbledygook. It’s the sound of a band screwing around with their numerous effects pedals and studio gimmickry, yet still unable to obtain any ideas that don’t sound like a musical metric ton of nothing. I’ve made up my mind – I’ll take boring mediocrity (hello, early Coldplay!) over this absurd crap any day. De-Loused In the Comatorium is perversely fun to listen to once in a while if you convince yourself of the lie that these guys aren’t serious. It’s a wonderful joke; it’s a really dumb album.

 

 

FEVER TO TELL – the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

(Interscope)

****

 “Fever”? No kidding! Karen O. makes it abundantly clear she’s hot and bothered about something.

Rich\Maps\Pin

Tick

 

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are raw, but not in a shrill and confrontational way. They’re merely guitar rock, unhinged and playing it close to the chest. Fever To Tell is quite fun, even if there are no truly new aspects of the garage band to be explored. Lead singer Karen O.’s performances are unabashedly sexual, and her voice is quite interesting. She peppers each song with crazy vocalizations to aid the melody, not unlike Iggy Pop in his prime. If she wants to shriek or whine or coo rather than sing a song, she does and it works adequately. But most of the time, she keeps it listenable with oddly memorable vocal melodies. Nick Zinner has some different-sounding guitar tones and good riffs, and the drummer’s really professional and stylish, too. And sometimes those few attributes in tandem are all it takes to make skillful, entertaining rock. As modern-day analogues to the punk movement, I’d say these guys would be the raucous, sneering Clash to the Strokes’ strangely postmodern, soulfully simple Ramones.

The album’s early tunes have a few decent ideas each, and the band winningly rambles through them in a short amount of time. They then progress rapidly to the next track, just when things get predictable. This group belongs to the disorganized school of punk (as opposed to the simplistic category), wherein they basically stop and start different parts as they wish. “Get in and get out as quickly as possible” is their credo. They’re competent musicians, but confident enough to get a little sloppy and improvisatory from time to time.

The songs become a bit more moody and lengthy toward record’s end, but they stay in the realm of quality control. In fact, this section of the LP contains one of the decade’s best love songs, “Maps”. By the way, that power ballad is majorly misleading about how the album in general sounds; it’s quieter than most stuff here.

Fever To Tell is a modest, self-contained success. It’s perfectly enjoyable, but not overly ambitious or incredible. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are content to entertain, rather than change the world, and they can’t be faulted for that.

 

 

MICHIGAN – Sufjan Stevens

(Asthmatic Kitty)

***  

I can’t wait for Come To Montana! [Sufjan Stevens, 2043]

Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)\Romulus\The Upper Peninsula

Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)

 

Sufjan Stevens is big on excess. (Pun so intended.) Even though it’s a cool idea, his Fifty States project is something that’s pompous and bloated by definition. At least Michigan is shorter than the interminable Illinoise; plus, it lacks the unpardonable interludes (read: wastes of tape) that clogged that record up so badly.

But even the upbeat songs here are effete, whispery, and orchestrated. Every track seems to have the same haughty, fussy arrangement and sound. That arbitrary affectation is lamentable, considering the amount of skill behind writing all these numerous parts for a huge range of instruments. Truth be told, Sufjan’s hooks and songwriting are lost without those string and horn harmonies. They offer something tangible and entertaining that isn’t a bland, morose guitar line or tacky piano figure. And yet, the album sounds dreadfully samey. This is parlor music and chamber pop for the most part. It’s a great, anachronistic style for a budding composer to bravely bring into the modern age, but with records of this length, I’d prefer a couple other genres as well. Also, I’m seriously uncertain whether Stevens knows that not all pop has to be wistful and dainty. There’s no law against that, Sufjan. Really. I mean, I like quiet, contemplative music as much as the next guy, but you’re over-overdoing it here.

He continues (or chronologically speaking, begins) using the “melody in a round” style I described in the Illinoise review. Like I said, all the flutes in the world can’t hide the fact that those melodies, though acceptable, are secondary priorities and sometimes quite lackluster. Also, putting the longest songs on your seventy-freaking-one-minute album right at the end isn’t a very nice thing to do to the weary listener. The B-sides are decent and basically share these same problems.

Michigan thankfully doesn’t bother with the cheap, gimmicky history lessons of its descendent and instead implies the culture of the state through its inhabitants’ emotions and personal stories while suggesting location through atmosphere and instrumentation. But the record is still a boring, draining, unfulfilling experience. On the bright side, at least some of the arrogance and unrestrained bombast that would plague Illinoise isn’t yet present! (Except the grotesque titles – those are here.) It also mercifully lacks a lot of the manufactured, insincere quirk of that album, even as it piles on the ballads like a mofo. I thought it was impossible to have more ballads on an LP than Stevens’ paean to the Land Of Lincoln, but apparently the God of Slow Dance Songs saw fit to make a mockery of me with Michigan.

“Detroit…” is a perfect example of this project’s promise and the talent Sufjan has, while also being an unfortunate indicator of how his self-indulgence and lack of restraint ruin his work: a rousing, headspinning burst of creativity takes up the first two-thirds of the song, while an ill-advised, totally useless string quartet drone comprises the remainder.

Barring that, here’s the runner-up for “lazy writer’s use of synecdoche to generalize an album”: on the closing tune, Stevens comes up with a decent little half-vocal-melody and then repeats it ad nauseum, as if it had anything else to offer after the lyrics were done. It kinda doesn’t. That’s his problem in a nutshell. He needs garden shears to trim and trim and trim his irritating and contrived mannerisms until the massive overgrowths of his records become tolerable, tasteful works.

Basically, fans of fruity sissy-pop should totally check this out. Everyone else, proceed directly to the New Pornographers for cheery, enthusiastic pop that isn’t comparable to someone lovingly, gently and odorlessly farting in your face for fifty-six minutes.

 

 

TRANSATLANTICISM – Death Cab For Cutie

(Barsuk)

***

More farts. DAMN IT.

Tiny Vessels\The Sound Of Settling\Expo ‘86

Passenger Seat

 

Transatlanticism, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways!

First of all, what is it? That’s easy – a collection of cutesy statements that try earnestly to create self-satisfied witticisms and supposed “clever observations”, but come across as way too obvious and pointless. If you’re going to be this off-puttingly somber and coy, you’d better have extreme talent to back it up, and Death Cab is a distinctly mediocre band. All that emo effort for so little.

With the heart of a poet, the insufferably annoying Ben Gibbard writes glowing, smarmy paeans to his love. I guess there’s room for everything in rock and roll, but this drivel has no place in my musical vocabulary. I suppose his lyrics are just at the point of decency on a surface level, but the statements they convey are so overdone and banal, they’re without the slightest merit. There is very little dynamic change, no interesting song construction (each one’s essentially a directionless, overconfident vamp), and no diversity of style or mood to speak of. Gibbard is the sort of nincompoop who thinks that one nagging hook is enough to sustain a four-minute instrumental break (as demonstrated in the title track).

I can’t see the art past the artifice here. I mean, really – who writes tunes about interior decorators when the message behind the words could have been conveyed just as easily with a set of lyrics that’s less calculated to seem quirky? Even when there’s a catchy refrain or successfully witty line, they’re all attached to tales of self-interested melodrama that address all the worn-out topics of whiny musicians without adding anything new or deepening those themes.

Gibbard’s solipsistic, sniveling ruminations are the equivalent of an inside joke – they’re too personal, esoteric and menial (that right there is what primarily annoys me) to be of any interest or use to an outside audience. Not that he tried to make them exciting in the first place; they should have simply never been recorded. At their worst, they contain phony faux-philosophical trivialities, laborious metaphors and similes that don’t really add up to anything, presented with unbearable meet-cute characters in unrealistically moody settings and situations. The singer is the center of his universe and the most important thing in it, rather than being an insightful observer or using his individual experience to find deeper truths. He sings every bland stanza in a parodically solemn tone, overenunciating them in a supremely bothersome way as they express über-saccharine sentiments to ears that evidently don’t know any better.

Having tried to gain a deeper understanding of the group’s fanbase, I’ve concluded that Death Cab For Cutie present the boy-band-mania phenomenon from a different angle, so that insecure hipster chicks (who think they’re above teenybopper obsession and are afraid to like things unironically) can have a vaguely sensitive figure to lust after and/or relate to. This manipulative indie opportunist mostly caters to already heartbroken kids, his “tender”, unassuming acoustic leads providing a much-needed respite for the self-absorbed teenager. It’s basically lazy musical shorthand, milking the too obvious “sad” chords and arrangements for cheap resonance. When they need a sympathetic, mopey voice to convey their deepest superficial concerns, Gibbard is there. The record seems factory-manufactured for stadiums full of weeping snobby youths to sway along to in oblivious rapture. It’s written in a focus-grouped, catchall way that might as well have been copied from the overwrought poetry of a morose seventh-grader’s diary.

Sonically speaking, Transatlanticism isn’t much better; the LP isn’t so much pop as it is a dreary midtempo drudge whose creative aspirations seem to be “don’t make a fuss or bother anyone”. Now, this music isn’t so bad as to be offensive and painful, like, for example, the Black Eyed Peas. But it is so inauspicious and poorly done that it is not worth listening to and isn’t particularly praiseworthy. Some of these titles say it all – “A Lack Of Color”, “The Sound Of Settling”, “Lightness”, “Tiny Vessels”… These are ineffectual, pandering-to-the-maximum torch ballads to be played over the fake romantic interaction on The OC and The Hills. (If you turn on ABC Family Channel this very second, the chances are about one in three that you will immediately hear a vomitous clone of this band playing some terrible song on a show or commercial.) Each composition is a soundtrack for the trailers to diluted, unforgivable, beige tenth-generation rom-coms that gross little and disgust everyone. I think that’s as much as I can possibly debase it.

No, wait, let me try harder! If By the Way was musical Quaaludes, this is musical ether, or maybe a pillow – something comforting yet insubstantial for unadventurous, boring scene kids to lay on and weep. Most people use the phrase “musical wallpaper” to describe mood pieces, but I know better: I value some mood setters a great deal, especially when they’re thoughtfully written and present an intriguing atmosphere. Overall, Transatlanticism presents the overwhelming vibe of being bored and numb. Who wants that?

But, to Death Cab’s credit, they are the standout band among this horrible scene of manufactured sympathy dirges, the outfit that does it best. And yes, disregarding my personal abhorrence of the genre, they pull off a few really good songs. That is why I am, at long last, getting around to their positives. Though I may despise them on a surface, or theoretical level, their melodies could be decent if you don’t fall asleep during them. On another optimistic note, I’ve seen the booklet for the record and it’s actually pretty cool.

I’d like to thank DCFC for giving me this exquisite opportunity to hone my rage over their totally lame album. Everything on Transatlanticism has been said before, and said better, by so many more performers, that despite its moderate successes, it’s massively pompous, completely superfluous and not entertaining in any capacity. So it gets a ***. Wait, what the hell? Curse you, objectivity! 

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