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The Major Lift

 

Since this is a column about the mainstream music industry, I’d like to debut by pointing out that one of the greatest, most poetically just moments in the history of the business recently went by largely unnoticed. Some of you may be aware that, due to continued media concentration in the United States, there are now only four major record companies (with numerous imprints under them).

Some may also be aware that Eliot Spitzer had been investigating these four behemoths to see if the way which they promoted their records at radio amounted to payola. Short story: In the face of subpoenas, the companies settled to the tune of millions, all of which was funneled into a trust and doled out to music-education and appreciation programs in New York state. Such Robin Hoodery has rarely been seen, but it was a drop in the bucket for a $40- billion-a-year medium.

And even the heroic Spitzer can’t solve the big problem: the anemic quality of the music (a major by-product of consolidation). There have been a few bright spots among recent releases from the majors, but also lots of the usual subpar fare—which seems like a natural segue into the new Diddy album, Press Play.

Say what you want, but the Did is an entrepreneur par excellence: He’s the Rupert Murdoch of bad taste. To understand the Diddy artistic process, put on a song you like, then say “yeah, yeah” over top of it. Then rhapsodize about your own talent or a friend who died. Then go back to creating a perfume or clothing line or reality show.

Diddy opens the album with an ad- nauseum loop of the piano line from Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” beneath his trademark marble-mouthed rhyming. The usually creative Timbaland sounds for most of the album like he’s fallen asleep at the console during one of Diddy’s inexplicable rhyming sessions. (To wit: “America, fall back, you can’t stop me/Got a thing for pigeon-toed chicks who walk knock-kneed.”)

Diddy’s is a career remarkably unblemished by irony, humor or self-effacement, and this album can’t be saved by guest spots from more credible folks like Big Boi, Nas and Mary J. Blige. The appealing, house-music-sounding “Wanna Move” is the sole bright spot.

A few notches up the R&B food chain is Justin Timberlake, who in my mind has enjoyed an unwarranted degree of credibility in recent years. His solo efforts truly are better and more sophisticated than N’Sync—but what are we really saying here?

Timberlake has been aiming toward the Prince model and is admittedly more funky and creative than you’d ever think, but beyond the hip-hop gestures, FutureSex/ Love Sounds (the biggest album in the country) smacks more of latter-day George Michael, and the über-sexual overtones become too much by the album’s midpoint. The falsetto also gets comical on “My Love” (which has a great Timbaland techno backing). The parable “Losing My Way” speaks for itself: “Hi my name is Bob, and I work at my job/But now I got a problem with that little white rock/See I can’t put down the pipe.”

On the rock side of the tracks, My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way is simultaneously the Tim Curry, Freddie Mercury and Liza Minnelli of emo punk-pop. The Black Parade sounds more Rent than Thursday or Saves the Day, but is nonetheless an impressively wrought effort if you think of it as high theater rather than punk: This band could write a better musical than Elton John, Billy Joel, and Paul Simon put together. The uncanny “Mama” simply won’t leave my head. (Imagine a Tex-Mex/Sondheim mash-up.)

With Friendly Fire, Sean Lennon, a young man on a whole other path, has released one of the best albums of the fall. This is intricately produced, melancholy pop with lineage rooted in Elliot Smith and Brian Wilson. Lennon’s effete voice comes off thin at times, and some tracks struggle vainly toward Bacharach-like grandiosity while coming up short, but the title track (admittedly a bit too Elliot Smith-sounding) is a particular highlight. “Spectacle,” on the other hand, is one of the most infectious tracks I’ve heard this year. Nevertheless, the fact that tacky fringe-kid scenester Bijou Phillips (Lennon’s unfaithful ex-girlfriend) could inspire a whole song cycle has to be symptomatic of a sheltered, iconic childhood.

An icon of a different stripe, Barry Manilow, found himself with an unsuspecting hit earlier this year when he released an album of ’50s cover songs. The natural fiscal progression was this: The Greatest Songs of the Sixties. (A dangerous trend: One more decade and Manilow will be covering himself . . . and Peter Frampton.) Here, Manilow (an artist I actually enjoy without a tinge of irony) does soporific versions of already soporific songs. “Blue Velvet,” “Cherish” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” are not the greatest songs of the ’60s. Manilow is wasted on this plush karaoke session.

In an altogether other world, underground phenoms the Decemberists are now a major-label band. But it’s not for me to question the wisdom of Capitol Records, who apparently see an alternative-rock version of Fairport Convention and smell “hit.” Nevertheless, beyond the willful folk weirdness, bouzouki playing and arcane references, this group pack some real melodic power into The Crane Wife, a set of songs based on a Japanese folk tale. This is moody, tuneful and subversive—and downright weird.

For more predictable weirdness, turn to Scientologist Beck. His new album, like most of his work, is pretty good and predictably jam-packed with errant, funky scraps of modernistic detritus. But frankly, it’s hard to evaluate a Beck album after you’ve heard a few. It’s got ’80s video-game bleeps and unique samples, cleverly funky shifts in feel, sunny pop lilts and smoothly clever rapping. Everyone says it’s great, so it must be, right? The key word with Beck is “clever”—no more, no less.

Less clever: Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas. One of the hollower paths to stardom has to be that from kiddie-show star to potty-mouthed, soft-porn-ish pop star (Britney, etc.). To that end, Fergie’s Fergalicious is one of the most ridiculous albums in recent memory. (See the title track, which sets the hip-hop clock back three decades.) Her asinine, profane, whiny, narcissistic “rapping” on the single “London Bridge” represents a vocal nadir in a genre that has seen a few.

Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” was one of the great garage-rock songs of the new millennium, and three years later the Australians are back with Shine On, which offers more paint-peeling, banana-in-the-jeans hard rock. There’s nothing here as immediately likable as their 2003 hit, but there’s plenty of testosterone, muscle and songs that would sound great blaring from the windows of a black GTO. The dewey-eyed ballad “King’s Horses” is saccharine and goofy. But the Oasis-meets-Black Crowes anthem “Skin and Bones” is dead perfect. A strong, enjoyable album that will more than likely be forgotten by February.

From balls to ball-less: Meat Loaf has released Bat Out of Hell III, which is a bad idea based on anyone’s standards (even the accountant’s). Loaf went ahead and did this without invaluable collaborator Jim Steinman (after their court battle over rights to the Bat Out of Hell “franchise”). So 30 years after the last BOOH, comes this effort, produced by cheese-rock baron Desmond Child. The opener, “The Monster Is Loose,” is a confounding burst of ’90s rap-metal, featuring Marilyn Manson’s guitarist and Nikki Sixx, that will leave you aghast. The Steinman-composed ballad “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” is at the other end of the spectrum of bad taste: It was originally recorded by Celine Dion—and sounds like it. These are apparently the hard and soft sides of Meat Loaf. May this Bat go back to the inexplicable hell that spawned it.

If there’s been a theme here, it’s the push-and-pull on the charts between the worlds of R&B and rock, so let’s end on a high note for each, with new releases from John Legend and the Who.

Legend was a piano prodigy who tapped keys for Lauryn Hill then industriously built his own sound over the years in New York City nightclubs. There are lots of star producers here (Kanye West, etc.), and Legend is a strange performer: Teddy Pendergrass one moment then Harry Connick Jr. the next. But this is a smooth, chilled-out and enjoyable album that you can slide into as comfortably as red satin PJs and a tumbler of Courvoisier.

The Endless Wire is the Who’s first studio album since 1982. Pete Townshend has a history of stretching himself so far conceptually and creatively that it’s sometimes at the detriment of the music, and this album is imperfect, true. But it also shows a band who, more than 40 years later, still are ranging about in a raw manner—and who still have something creative to say, unlike other groups of their ilk. (Mick, put your shirt on; Keith, stay out of the coconut tree.) Townshend even tosses in an ambitious mini-opera that works well. The burnished groove of the title track lacks Who bombast, but its lovely melodic simplicity and reflective sentiments are also stunning in their own way. If this is the band’s coda, consider it worthy.

—Erik Hage


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