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The Major Lift

by Erik Hage on January 14, 2010

As the mainstream record companies’ grip on music gatekeeping steadily loosens due to the egalitarian influence of the Internet and social media—as well as, well, taste—what’s most evident is that they have less of an idea than ever as to what will succeed. (Susan Boyle, up the charts with a bullet—yeah, like anyone predicted that.)

So it’s interesting to watch them formlessly ranging around, searching out new commercial avenues. Looking at the Island/Def Jam roster, for example, I’m befuddled: There are the big names of course (Bon Jovi, Kanye, Mariah, Rihanna, etc.), and then there are a slew of acts that I’ve simply never heard of—acts that, by all appearances, see Maroon 5 and Train as legitimate influences. Most galling to me, however, is the Bravery, an act most of us have heard of and who continue to inflict the most shallow, derivative, and largely stupid brand of dance-rock upon both suspecting and unsuspecting listeners, a point that Stir the Blood certainly drives home.

Bands such as these—that is, those who are mistaken in some quarters as credible due to the degree of downtown, boho posturing and “alt” sheen—are far more offensive to me than a room full of Jonas Brothers. Three albums in, the Bravery sound somewhat like the Killers—if that band were forced to share one brain. They produce a soulless, uninspired and inanely repetitive brand of music (whereas the Killers aren’t bad). “Slow Poison,” with its mindless dance drive, is not only one of the silliest singles in recent memory, but Sam Endicott’s vocal performance is one of the truly worst since the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis warbled about being “Under the Bridge” or Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath last stepped away from a microphone. Or take the delightful opus “Hatef—k,” which surfaces again and again on the refrain “there will be no tenderness.” But Endicott reserves his most yelpworthy performance for the spacey, synthed-out “I Have Seen the Future,” yet another unlistenable track.

Def Jam has a better album on their collective hands with Rihanna’s new one, Rated R. There’s an interesting range of ideas at work here, from the turbulent electronics and rap singing of “Hard” (with Jeezy as guest), to “Fire Bomb,” which is really a pure pop ballad (with nary a touch of R&B), to the slinky opening incantation of the techno-riddled “Mad House.” But what makes this album work is the humanity behind it—and that is often the all-too-important missing piece on hyper-subsidized and -produced albums of this ilk.

Rihanna has avoided commenting to the press on her relationship with Chris Brown in the wake of the much-publicized domestic-violence incident, but at times here she tackles it head on, giving the album a leg up on the typically insipid themes that crop up on many R&B albums. “I’m torn apart and you know/What you did to me was a crime,” sings Rihanna on “Cold Case Love,” while “Russian Roulette” uses the deadly title game as an analogy for an abusive relationship. This is by no means a great album, but it’s certainly a noble stab, and only a slight miss, in that direction.

As for Lady Gaga, her zany fashion sense and the crass debate over issues of her genitalia have largely obscured the fact that she is a fourth-rate Madonna, with the hourglass on her fame trickling away sand like nobody’s business. And this is a harsh truth that the new EP, The Fame Monster, does nothing to alleviate. For some, this is joyous disco trash; for me, it raises the question as to whether Madonna’s old stuff (circa 2000) is really worth revisiting period, let alone in someone else’s idiom.

Timbaland, the producer who for nearly a decade was a standard bearer for about as much credibility as one can muster in the greater hip-hop/R&B universe, also seems to have an expiration date on him. His newest solo release, Shock Value II, didn’t attract the kind of talent he can usually pull down (save a pallid Justin Timberlake being called in for a favor on the unconvincing “Carry Out”). He’s also apparently trying to tap into some of that preadolescent cash by having Miley Cyrus chirp along to the fairly innocuous and uninventive “We Belong to the Music.” Elsewhere, the Fray pretty much take over “Undertow,” making it sound like a Fray song and not a guest spot, while that despicable modern rocker Chris Daughtry howls all over “Long Way Down” and Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, uh . . . Chad Kroegers his way through “Tomorrow in the Bottle.” This is a surprisingly uninventive album from a producer to which that term has never applied.

I wish I could end on a lift this month, but I just finished listening to This Is War, the new album by actor Jared Leto’s band 30 Seconds to Mars. The iTunes review of this album is really my favorite bit of purple prose in a long time: “The star of this post-grunge/industrial/prog-rock hybrid is Jared Leto, who holds forth with messianic fervor amidst waves of synthesizers and volleys of guitars. Leto and his bandmates revel in spiritual extremes—songs like ‘Hurricane,’ ‘Kings and Queens’ and the title track depict ceaseless battles between the forces of light and darkness.” Hoo boy, that’s good stuff. But when I listen to this album, I get something altogether different—I hear a band crying for help. I hear a band saying, “Please, don’t hate us. We really don’t know how not to suck.” Top-dollar producers Steve Lillywhite and Flood only give the band’s cries more breadth and scope. Here’s looking to February.