Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

New York Dolls - Dancing Backward in High Heels: B

New York Dolls and R.E.M. should tour together. Both groups have released albums this year that would be bearable, if the people leading them did not take it upon themselves to try to be as clever as possible, telling inane parables that nobody could or would ever want to understand. While David Johansen does not reach the comical lows that Michael Stipe entrenched himself in on R.E.M.’s Collapse Into Now, far too often on Dancing Backward in High Heels, the third reunion album New York Dolls have released, the man overreaches his tongue-and-cheek digs at nobility and sexuality into the realm of parody that other critics have described as similar to Johansen’s work as Buster Poindexter (“Feeling Hot Hot Hot.” Yeah, he was that guy). Except I wouldn’t say Johansen sounds like his late-80’s outlier. To me, he comes off as more of a Bender from Futurama-type character, one devoid of any sense of irony or scruples as to what you can or cannot safely put on a record. With little to anchor his wild ramblings, Johansen is on the wrong side of ridiculous when calling Mari Antoinette an “old baguette” on “Streetcake,” stealing the drums from “Lust For Life” on “Round and Round She Goes” and naming a song “Funky But Chic” (Think about it).

The good news is that Dancing is a lot more easy listening than Johansen would allow. The group sounds best when they tone their shtick down, recalling the playful sinfulness of their prime in “Talk To Me Baby” and forgivably ripping off the melody of “Temptation to Exist” from 2009’s ‘Cause I Sez So to make the album highlight “You Don’t Have To Cry.” While Dancing does not sully the image that the Dolls so well established with their first releases, they’re on the verge of turning their unique style into a caricature of itself, and it would be a shame to chalk up the aesthetic of one of the best punk bands of the 70’s as a fluke.


Beady Eye - Different Gear, Still Speeding: B+

Somewhere along the line, I significantly lowered my standards for Oasis. I’ve never disliked an album they’ve released, and I still listen to all the work they’ve released in the past fourteen years with equal measure. I thought that Dig Out Your Soul was pretty good with one astounding track in “Falling Down,” Don’t Believe the Truth was excellent and Heathen Chemistry was a legitimate classic, one of my favorite albums of the 2000’s. I’m the kind of person that will like anything that Oasis puts out, because their sound makes me happy, and it takes a lot to phase that complacency out of me. I say this about Oasis albums, because Different Gear, Still Speeding, the debut album from former Oasis member Liam Gallagher’s new band, Beady Eye, might as well be an Oasis album. The only aspect of it that is unlike something the group would have released after Dig Out Your Soul is the absence of Noel Gallagher’s voice, which was unique enough to temper the group from full-on Beatles worship.

Other than that, though, there’s not much else to say about the album. Half its title is true, because, although Liam maintains the consistency of Oasis’s more pedestrian material, it’s hardly any different than what would have resulted if Noel had just left Oasis instead of disbanding the group. Fans of Liam’s mainstay will be satisfied. Those who particularly enjoyed Noel’s vocal contributions may find his absence and Liam’s at times questionable lyrics (“I get the call / You get hung up / I’m standing tall / We’re fucking tough”) grating, but will ultimately be thankful that the album isn’t nearly as bad as Oasis baiters have made it out to be.


Britney Spears - Femme Fatale: D

I know, I know, too easy right? True, Mrs. Spears has accrued quite a bit of derision from music fans over the years, but, when you consider that she’s been in a public spotlight that Kanye could only dream of for more than a decade now, it’s a surprise that Britney hasn’t been in more controversies in the past couple years since her “return,” which has been going on for almost five years. Perhaps it’s a good sign that Britney’s declined from the public eye, preferring instead to release chart-topping jams and touring after them every couple years before continuing her life as a mother, but any trace of humility that may be derived from that description is unequivocally demolished on her newest album, Femme Fatale. It is clear that people loosening up their obsession with Britney has not given way to artistic freedom, but a laziness of epic proportions.

It’s a bit of a specious point to solely characterize Femme Fatale, but there is something to be said about the fact that the album has twenty-six writing credits, and not one of them is Britney Spears. Pop extraordinaire Dr. Luke and Canadian producer Billboard helm the project, the latter famous for writing “Since U Been Gone” and most of the pop songs you enjoyed last decade and the former a co-producer on the third installment of Robyn’s Body Talk series. The rest of the credits go to people who have worked with pop luminaries like Kylie Minogue and Robyn and four out of the five people who wrote “Dynamite” (the fifth one is Taio Cruz). While these people have worked on some pretty excellent recent pop releases, Femme Fatale just ends up sounding like a shameless rehash of Kylie, Robyn and “Dynamite.” “Hold It Against Me” and “I Wanna Go” are blatant in their copping of Taio Cruz’s flagship track and “Big Fat Bass” and “Trouble For Me” sound like tracks that Kylie would (deservedly) reject for Aphrodite. The only reason “How I Roll” is the solitary saving grace of Femme Fatale is because it sounds like a decent Body Talk B-side (How convenient that it’s the only song on the album written by Bloodshy & Avant, the Swedish duo who wrote “Toxic”). To Ke$ha’s credit, (Never thought I’d ever write those three words), her co-written “Till the World Ends” doesn’t sound like one of her own songs, but it sounds a Hell of a lot like “Dynamite” and is just as boring and generic as anything else on Femme Fatale.

You may have noticed that I have not referred to Britney Spears as an actual musician by this point. Well, this is because, while in the past, Spears has at least emoted in her songs (“Toxic”, “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman”), Femme Fatale features a voice so monotonous and synthetic, it’s debatable whether Britney showed up to the studio at all. Her voice is manipulated into such an artificial coo that it could be the vocal work of Colin Firth’s King George VI in The King’s Speech for all we know (heyoo!). Femme Fatale’s only two interesting vocal performances are that of the male vocalist in “How I Roll” (Which is admittedly intriguing) and Sabi, who has a guest verse on “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” (“I don’t need your money / I just want your D.” Fucking poetry). Will.i.am is also on this thing, but he doesn’t view himself as a human at this point, so why should I?

Ultimately, I leave Femme Fatale with the same feeling I have when I learn about the in-depth workings of the movie industry: appalled and depressed about how many hands can mess with a project to make it far more disjointed and formless than anything the original makers could have intended. Do I think that Britney Spears is incapable of releasing (Not writing, don’t get ahead of yourself) a good song? Hey, anything’s possible. But I came into Femme Fatale expecting something processed and oversexed, and even I was surprised to find how uninspired the music industry can be. Remember when Britney was a trendsetter? Times change, I guess.


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong: B

My opinion of Belong can best be exemplified by my thought process when faced with the pause before the third chorus of “Heart in Your Heartbreak:”

“Ugh, I know exactly how this is gonna go. They’re just going to pause for a second to give a little bit of silent tension before they go back into the chorus of the song. I’m pretty sure I can guess exactly what they’ll do, too. The singer will go “She was the” and the drummer will hit the toms and snare three times before the rest of the band comes into the mix on “Heartbreak” and go through the exact same chorus that they’d been playing up to this point. Wait, the chorus hasn’t come in yet? Well I guess I—oh, no, there it is. That was a slightly longer than normal pause, though.”

While none of Belong is unpleasant, the album comes off as derivative and unoriginal far too often. The band is decent at writing pop songs, but rarely do they stick and the barely-there vocals of Kip Berman in addition to his tendency for lyrics of cheese-tastic John Hughes worship (“Everyone is gentle and gone / But everyone’s just everyone”) make it even harder to pay attention. I know a lot of people got a kick out of this group’s debut, but I don’t think anyone’s going to remember Belong any more than the majority of boring indie pop we are forced to sift through. There are some sporadic moments of greatness (the title track’s chord progression mostly), but I don’t think even the pseudo-prestige The Pains of Pure of Heart have gained will protect Belong from sinking out of the collective consciousness in a matter of months.