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The Major Lift

 

By Erik Hage

Obviously, Kanye West and 50 Cent’s overhyped album-release jihad was primarily a press assault designed to not only help promote the two albums, but to spike a slumping industry. In short, it worked, with West’s Graduation having the best first-week sales of the year. (West moved nearly a million copies, while 50 Cent settled for an impressive first-week run of about 700,000.) No word yet on whether Fitty will stick by his promise to retire, having lost the battle to West. (Hope springs eternal.)

This was a battle of numbers, not artistry or creativity, but West would undeniably win both of those wars. And it really seems like an odd standoff, as the two are so markedly different. 50 Cent is the traditional hip-hop prototype, with the beefs and bullet-hole scars to match his ’hood persona. West is different: He wears preppy clothes, came up as a behind-the-console man under the tutelage of Jay-Z, and cites such surprising influences as Thom Yorke and Modest Mouse.

Furthermore, West understands music and goes to its fringes, using Can’s “Sing Swan Song” as a basis for the loopy and idiosyncratic “Drunk and Hot Girls” or creating “Stronger” out of whole cloth of Daft Punk. West is first and foremost interesting, and his approach to world domination is to try to entice a whole different stripe of listener into hip-hop, not to bludgeon them with the usual instruments.

50 Cent, seemingly aware that he had a stinker on his hands, had pushed back the release date of Curtis from June to September, after a couple of pallid singles. With eight new tracks in place, he finally saw fit to release the album, but he hits his audience not with inventiveness but star power, with turns by Eminem, Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, Robin Thicke (yes, son of Alan) and the “Tims”: Timbaland and Timberlake.

50 relies on his three-legged formula here—hard-ass rhymes contrasted with steamy love tracks, and the occasional shocking flourish providing the cherry on top (the latter represented most prominently by the censored-to-the-teeth cop-killing track “Man Down”). The album would have been something in 2003, but everything here sounds tired and uninteresting next to West’s landmark. But, as 50 told Forbes magazine, it’s never been about the music for him. With West, you get the sense that it’s all about the music and the catholic reaches of his own record collection.

As for James Blunt, he has a whole other kind of problem: Not since John Mayer declared your body a wonderland has an artist been more saddled with the success of a misrepresentative song. The sappiness of “You’re Beautiful” neutralized public awareness regarding the kind of songwriter that Blunt really is. But All the Lost Souls seems intent on righting that impression, kicking off, in order, with the AM-radio pop-soul of “1973,” the Bee Gees-style crooner “One of the Brightest Stars,” and the mid-’80s Peter Gabriel intentions of “I’ll Take Everything.” And that’s the rub: Blunt is a not-so-bland, just a bit quirky, fairly interesting pop songwriter. He’s still not afraid to show his sensitive side, but the feathery flights of “Same Mistake” and “Carry You Home” seem almost eccentric, and not designed to share the wedding dance floor with “You’re Beautiful.”

Speaking of eccentric, it seems somehow right that Sean Penn would direct Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s even-newer-journalism bio of the trust-fund idealist who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness in the early ’90s, his head full of Jack London, Walden and Kerouac. It seems even more right that Eddie Vedder would augment it with a soundtrack of stripped-back, rootsy tunes, far from the Sturm und Drang of Pearl Jam.

Vedder’s friendship with and worship of Pete Townshend shows through here, and every song is pitted too directly against the backdrop of cinematic intentions. Vedder is no Townshend, and this is no Quadrophenia, but “Hard Sun” seems cobbled from scraps of such Who fare. And just as Jimmy the Mod vacillated between the euphoria of his dream escape and the bland torture of his own unspecific angst, so too do Vedder’s songs attempt to propel this protagonist. I’m sure the songs will seem much better in the context of the film.

To finish off this month, I’d like to ask someone to put a moratorium on any more ’80s-style dance-pop bands fronted by guys with fake English accents. Louisville’s VHS or Beta certainly don’t add much to the renaissance with Bring on the Comets, which dissipates as soon as it hits the tongue. Strangest here is “Burn It All Down,” an attempt at “Planet Earth”-era Duran Duran that was probably meant to be much more dance-punk than it really is. The recognizable single “Can’t Believe a Single Word” is the kind of song that is vaguely likable upon first listen, but the obvious sweeps and gestures become intolerable beyond that. The best revivalists, such as the Killers, seem to put their own stamp on the past and transmute it into something real and current. Here, we have a simple swing and a miss.

 

 


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