Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans
Elektra (2010)

Uffie is a genre-defying musician who straddles the lines of hip-hop, electro and pop. Most importantly, she doesn't have talent, and she admits this to her listeners up front (“I can't even sing, you know?”) – yet she isn't a comedy act. Instead, she wants to be respected by sheer force of personality and page views. And weirdly enough, she's been able to reach across the aisle to gain the admiration of both scenesters and hipsters, thanks in no small part to her killer Justice collab. In retrospect I realized that Justice can make anyone sound like cool incarnate. There have been comparisons of Uffie to Warhol, which would make sense, except that behind her surface shimmer there aren't subversive underpinnings, but selfish motivations. Genre-defying? Yes. Good? No.

As she's not exactly an “artist,” Uffie is about fleshing out a character, and sketching out a narrative to go with it. This would be fine, but it's very hard to like or care about the Uffie that's being shown to us. On “Pop the Glock,” the underwater auto-tune and rotund bass kicks entice at first, but the lyrics break the spell right fast. But they're supposed to be idiotic, I guess? “Time to get low / do the tootsie roll / That's how we do / Do it hot / And if you understood / would you / Stop hatin' and playin' hard / I got a loaded bodyguard.” And now imagine that she's half rapping, half singing these lyrics in a pseudo-British, French-inflected trainwreck of an accent. Is this someone whose narcissitic, demi-musical rantings you'd want to listen to for fifty minutes?

“Art of Uff,” the second song, has Uffie on the defensive already, trying to deflect criticisms about her self-obsessed sometimes-rhymes in a spoken-word intro: “I know, I know. You're so tired to hear about what I do, about what I smoke, what I drink, about what I cook for my husband [really?], all the travels I do, all the shit I got for free?” And then she falls back on her MySpace cred, which is never a good sign: “Me and my stupid flow, me and my MySpace with only three tracks a year, and they still talk about me? Damn.” Touché? Next the beat kicks in, a creepy lurching groove punctuated by choral stabs and plinking keyboards evoking a cartoon ghost-house. Her croaking delivery and silly lyrics push the silly vibe just far enough, and the conceit works well. Why couldn't she harness this persona so effectively elsewhere?

Continuing the hot-streak, “ADD SUV” is a cute dance-ready collaboration between Uffie and Pharrell Williams which overcomes its Top 40 production veneer through spunk and at least one clever line: “Minute to minute I feel like I'm in / The movie Memento but I don't have a pen.” And from precisely that moment the album goes to shit. “Give it Away” is an awkward breakup song which talks about subjects like “responsibility” without fooling anyone. “MCs Can Kiss” is a diss track, but since Uffie admittedly has no skills, she can only really rip on herself by definition (“I'm an entertainer, not a lyricist.”) And more MySpace boasting! (“I got nine million plays and twelve hundred friends.”) This is the moment where Uffie dares you to buy into her gimmick or not – can't you accept that she's just a party girl who found an honest way to get rich quick?

This is the kernel of what makes Uffie interesting in the first place: no skills, but no pretenses either. We're meant to accept her as she is, a girl that's all but ordinary except for her bravado and fame. What ruins this premise is: she'd be nothing without the star producers who build killer beats around her lyrics. I found that a lot of the songs on this album sounded great, especially without Uffie herself. The nauseous warbling vocals and tacky lyrics of “First Love” turned me off, but the track's backbone is sexy, a slow grind with deep bass and a careful DJ's hand which turns loops into throbbing syncopations and interjects record scratches for startling emphases. You get to hear the beat without Uffie for a full minute, and it's the best part of the album. Sadly, the reality of this album is an assault of bratty lyrics and brain-dead melodies.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles
Universal Motown (2010)

When Ethan Kath and Alice Glass released their first LP as Crystal Castles, they sounded like a candidate for the Future of Music. Listening to their glitchy chiptune funk transported me to an oddly alluring dystopia where cyborgs clad in neon tights, ironic t-shirts and stunner shades swayed semi-rhythmically back and forth at the cyber-disco while avoiding eye-contact with one another. While I wasn't entirely comfortable about the prospect in living in such a future myself, the music was slick and compulsively listenable. Other listeners hyped the album like crazy, and thus the Castles had to deliver on feverish expectations of an improved sophomore record. The final result is – brace yourself – not bad.

So what are the differences between Crystal Castles and Crystal Castles? More than the titles suggest. There are fewer straight-forward dance tracks, and if the original played like a party album, this one is better suited for coffee shops or mopey headphone trips. IDM, industrial, and shoegaze are clear touchstones on the album, and the best tracks all benefit from this hazier, dreamier approach. A good portion of the album still thumps along with stock house beats, but there are more “experimental” (read: “half-baked”) forays than before. Let's hope that if these are truly experiments, that the next version will patch the bugs.

Okay, that was a groan-worthy analogy, but really, the discrepancy between good and bad songs on the album is glaring. Spoilers! I'm going to list all the good songs here: “Celestica,” “Baptism,” “Empathy,” “Suffocation,” “Vietnam,” “Pap Smear,” and “Not In Love.” So, precisely half the album. Some of these songs are absolutely spell-binding, but the sum product is uneven and over-long. Supposedly 30 songs were written for the album (14 were used), and that's telling, because there are simply too many ideas competing for attention. A few dope tracks aside, the whole is less satisfying than its predecessor. But what about those dope tracks?

Occupying the coveted number 2 slot on the album, “Celestica” sets the bar high. It's a four-minute jaw-dropper that has Alice in her dreamy / druggy register swooning over pulsing waves of cosmic froth. The tunes are some of the most memorable on the album, and the blissful atmosphere will make you loath to move on to another track. “Baptism” is more of a groover, breaking out the familiar retro-game synths in full effect for a boss lead melody, giving way to head-banging hoovers and Glass' sickly yawlps. Another standout, “Not In Love,” is a cover that outright destroys the mediocre original by new wave oddities Platinum Blonde. Crystalline chords bend and sway, and the robot-chimpmunk vocals grow oddly endearing. The conclusion amps up the chorus, summoning an awe-inspiring blizzard of feedback and invoking what can only be called heartache.

Meanwhile, the filler / interlude tracks more often induce headaches. On songs like “Fainting Spells” and “Doe Deer,” Kath and Glass both crank up the noise influence – but songcraft and melodies suffer. These aggro riot-grrl spasms are intriguing, but never reach the heights of psycho delerium found in the anarchic sounds of groups like Melt-Banana or Fuck Buttons. Without verse / chorus structures, Kath tends to add and subtract loops like a bored guy playing around on FruityLoops – and fails to build songs through hypnotic progression, which is the trick every hardcore electronica programmer has mastered. All this adds up to a pretty obvious conclusion: the Castles have a better ear for pop than electronica. They thrive on solid chord progressions and dance beats, not chaos.

That said, the risks on this album could lead to greater rewards if Kath and Glass refine their sound on the third installment. It's fun to see the duo flex their muscles and try on new hats, but hopefully they either get buff or find some flattering headgear. Else, they'll be experimenting for experiment's sake without learning anything, which just leads to more and more awkwardness. This release gives the impression that Crystal Castles aren't as versatile as they think. Then again, we need engagingly flawed works as much as we do masterpieces.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Beach Fossils
Beach Fossils
Captured Tracks (2010)

In pretty much every conceivable way, Beach Fossils is a Generic Indie Band. I'm not even trying to be cynical – they've laid this trap for themselves. Reading their press release, it's clear that they know what cliches they want to embody: “sun drenched pop songs” which “radiate with a wild, youthful-sincerity.” Yet the band does not exactly “radiate” anything or come across as “wild” so much as they sound bored and play their songs by rote. No vocal tics, no sloppy playing, no improv, no solos, no fun. And what a wild and crazy thrill-ride of an album it isn't!

That's not to say that the band lacks talent. Dustin Payseur, frontman and songwriter, has a knack for pretty guitar melodies and chiming harmonies and counterpoint. It shows that this is the music of one man, because the interplay between instruments is so tight, baroque as Vivaldi. Song structures follow suit – refrains and guitar hooks are repeated just as much as they need to be, and each song ends just when you expect it to. This is reflected in the guitar tone and playing, too: plain, flat, twangy and without much bending or vibrato. From one song to another, the lilting guitar hooks outline the chords in a cheerful, if bland, way, like ditties piped out from a music box. But my major grievance is that the songs and riffs keep ripping each other off (and make you wish you were listening to The Pixies' “Here Comes Your Man” instead).

You have to admit that the songs capture their intended emotions of summer sloth well (see the gazey drone of “Lazy Day” which conjures up visions of heat waves and hammocks), but carrying that vibe across eleven samey songs means the affair gets stale quickly. All the familiar Summer tropes are there – blissful relaxation, aimless wandering, basking in life's quiet pleasures. Lightning strikes on tracks like “Vacation” and “Daydream,” which have rollicking wave-like riffs that border on infectious. Actually, in every song the guitars are the highlight, as they outshine the sleepy, far-off sounding vocals that could belong to any band, and boring drums made dry and brittle by lo-fi production. If you haven't figured it out from the monotone drawl of this review, the album is a goddamned snoozer.

But occasionally, the lyrics will surprise you with their candid emotion and insight. At heart, these songs are universal (first-world) narratives about finding oneself and giving meaning to life. On “Golden Age,” Payseur spins an endearing escape story and spouts a zen-like revelation: “We're droppin' it off, and we're not comin' back / 'cause we're trying to get lost, we both know that.” On “Twelve Roses,” he gets aloof and existential: “And I don't know what I'm doin' here / And I can't say why you would be here.” It's a question I asked myself while listening to the album, too. As the songs blurred into one another, I couldn't say what I was doing there. Stop the beach, please – I wanna get off.