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The Major Lift

by David King on June 15, 2011

It isn’t particularly important for a pop star to make sense—just to be catchy—but, unfortunately, on Born this Way from Interscope, Lady Gaga buries what makes her good at her job: catchy, dirty, grinding synth riffs and big beats, covering them with her convoluted mish-mash of amateurish attempts at being artsy.

Gaga and her design team/production squad turn out a mess of themes and poses that amount to one big distraction. Everytime Gaga tries to make some sort of “statement,” the song hits an awkward hitch. If “Highway Unicorn (Road 2 Love)” doesn’t make you crack up laughing, you are far too in-love with Gaga’s mystique to have any idea what you are listening to. I say this having been a fan of Gaga’s debut album and follow-up singles.

Gaga acts like anything she does is full of artistic merit. But she is human and sometimes artists make bad art; sometimes they cross over from art to self-indulgent, egomaniacal trash. And sometimes an artist is too scared to expose themselves and they hide behind silly tropes—like the fact that they can speak a foreign language. Yes, she speaks multiple languages on tracks like “Sheise” but knowing more than one language doesn’t mean she has anything interesting to say in any.

Born This Way’s tracks are weak, and the singles unbelievably so. The basis of the tracks seem to rehash her debut, Monster, backed up by the heavy influence of Madonna—and even Bruce Springsteen. See “Judas.”

Yes, she is a Catholic from the Northeast, but she says the same things her ’80s idols said decades ago. And on some tracks Gaga doesn’t even bother to add her own mark—like on lead single “Born This Way,” which is a blatant cribbing of Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” It is a crass commercial move.

In the end, the real shame of Born This Way is that I can’t bump the tracks during a workout. I won’t be adding any of the tracks from the new album to my wedding play list. Why? Because, unlike Monster, the album is just not dumb fun—it’s a personality crisis.

Speaking of artists who can’t live up to their artistic pretensions, the new Death Cab for Cutie disc, Codes and Keys on Atlantic, might be one of the most underwhelming releases in recent history. Lead singer Ben Gibbard announced that the band took deep inspiration from Brian Eno’s Another Green World. Some fans were excited at the prospect of Death Cab-plus-electronics. They thought it might equal something close to Gibbard’s side project Postal Service. Sorry to disappoint, but it sounds nothing like it.

Codes and Keys can be just as chill-inducing as Eno’s relaxing, enveloping soundscapes. But really, the influence seems to come mostly in the form of lazy electronic beats that barely prop songs up. Second track “Codes and Keys” apes Arcade Fire with a string section providing the hook. It is perhaps the most propulsive moment of the album with Gibbard singing, “We are alive.” “Doors Unlocked and Open” sounds the most like anything from 2008’s Narrow Stairs, clocking in at over five minutes with its rocky edge, but the album as a whole is nowhere near as cohesive as Narrow Stairs. Gibbard’s narrative storytelling is absent, and the emotional connection Gibbard usually has with his audience is obscured. First single “You are a Tourist” features a Modest Mouse riff, over-processed vocals and lyrics that are disturbingly detached and formulaic. There are very few heart-string-pulling moments on the disc. But album closer “Stay Young, Go Dancing” aches sweetly like the best Death Cab does. It feels like a warning from Gibbard—admitting that perhaps he has lost what once drove him.

Foster the People’s debut disc, Torches on Columbia Records, fits perfectly into the mold set by MGMT’s debut and recent releases by Passion Pit and Matt and Kim: undeniably catchy synth-rock with falsetto lead vocals. The band earned a bit of initial hype with their single “Pumped Up Kicks,” a trip-hoppish summertime crowd pleaser with a Rolling Stones vibe and a sinister chorus, “You better run, better run faster than my bullet.” The band’s choruses and hooks snap together like classic rock over disco beats; it’s got the retro vibe of Edward Sharpe and the dance beats of Bloc Party. The band may be a sugary sweet synthesis of current trends, but consider this sucker sold.

You may have seen videos and tracks from Lonely Island’s Turtleneck and Chain, released on Republic Records, on Saturday Night Live recently. You probably know about “Dick in a Box” and “I’m on a Boat.” Led by SNL star Andy Samberg, the group apes the most ridiculous aspects of rap and hip-hop; their videos are the last vestige of funny on the show. Is the album worth listening to without the crazy-ass videos? Well, opener “We’re Back” features the amazing rap: “I got hepatitis C from a horse/ but don’t confuse it/ it wasn’t from the sex but from a blood transfusion.” Samberg follows up the admission from his partner in rap by shouting, “Motherfucker’s got horse blood!” It pains me to say it, but the most exciting song on the album is made possible by Michael Bolton, whose chorus turns a hardcore gangsta track into a soaring admission of Bolton’s creepy obsession with the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks. “Keira Knightley, Jack Sparrow, yeah, yeah,” Bolton croons between lines like your mom’s version of Little John. If you need a laugh, this might be right for you—or you could pick up the new Lady Gaga album.