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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

While listening to the new Morrissey album, Years of Refusal, I remembered what it was like confronting his music for the first time. Morrissey has become such a distinctive and iconic figure over the years, that it’s easy to forget his introduction to our culture. For me, it was as a high-schooler in 1986, when I bought the Smiths album The Queen Is Dead. As a kid growing up in a small rural town, where black concert T-shirts (Van Halen, Pink Floyd) and jean jackets with Sharpie-stenciled pot leaves were the predominant mode, Morrissey’s persona and music were completely exotic. His lyrics luxuriated in self-loathing and awkwardness and seemed shockingly literate, while the music seemed to have no clear ancestor. In interviews he even flaunted the fact that he was a celibate. Somehow all of this led to passionate devotion among fans, making him one of the most unlikely icons ever.

But as he grew more familiar, that exotic aura slipped away, and all we were left with was the music. He has produced some remarkable solo work along the way. The wondrous “Everyday Is Like Sunday” (1988) seemed to distill Nelson Riddle-era Sinatra, Ingmar Bergman films, and a depressive poetic tradition that coursed through Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. Your Arsenal (1992) toughened up his music with foamy glam-rock guitars. But his albums became spotty throughout the ’90s. Then he released one of his best efforts ever in 2004 with You Are the Quarry, which proved that Morrissey’s prime strength lay in his ability to offer a sense of mounting drama within the confines of a three-minute, hook-ridden song.

Something misses the mark on Years of Refusal, however. I can sense all of the dimensions of a great Morrissey effort—the biting wit, the guitar brawl of Your Arsenal—but, frankly, a lot of it sounds like Morrissey trying to sound like Morrissey. “I’m OK by Myself” is boilerplate Moz, while “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” seems to be pulsing toward that hook it needs, but never quite gets there. The cresting and euphoric “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” is the strongest track, but a lot of the album simply comes off as an assembly of familiar gestures.

One shouldn’t expect anything so predictable from another iconoclast, Prince, who has chosen to unleash a triple album, LOtUSLOW3R, on the world. (It’s really three albums bundled as one and sold exclusively through Target, for only $11.98, or at his Web site, lotusflow3r.com.) Here’s the kicker: one album is actually a Bria Valente LP. Who is Bria Valente? Yet another of Prince’s protégées. (Remember Vanity?) The Valente album, Elixer, lands somewhere between smooth jazz and Quiet Storm (more toward the former), and it’s a bland effort, while MPLSound is vintage Prince: funky and synthesized. Most compelling however is LOtUSLOW3R, a jazzy guitar odyssey that reminds us of the guitar-god side of Prince. But while MPLSound and LOtUSLOW3R are head and shoulders above Elixer, nothing in this package really jumps out. There are lots of great grooves, and this is an interesting album, but its prime accomplishment is to yet again show the world that Prince makes his own rules, often with little regard to commercial consideration.

One of the best recent releases is Mastodon’s Crack the Skye. This is a monster of an album—dreamy, thunderous, riveting, and melodic. I’m not so much into heavy metal, but this is not just for that niche of fans, as a recent leap to No. 11 on the Billboard album chart attests. The execution and songwriting are remarkably complex, and each song is a multifarious voyage with compelling shifts of feel—and not for the faint of heart. (This album apparently is about czarist Russia; I didn’t get there yet—I’m still wrestling with the music. Also, keep in mind that this is the band that did an album about Moby Dick.) “Ghost of Karelia” even seems to go to a place that is beyond heavy metal—a sort of genreless and powerful music that can’t be contained under a label. On the title track, I even feel like I can hear occasional traces of the Byrds in the cascading, prog-infused layers. Now that Metallica are installed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s time for another quintessential metal band. I’d like to nominate Mastodon, who, on their fourth album, enter regions that are inaccessible to Metallica.

And then there’s Kelly Clarkson. It was kind of interesting when the prototypical American Idol went against the grain of record-company desires in 2007, releasing what for her was a “dark” album with no recognizable smash hits. There’s none of that on All I Ever Wanted, though: This is an album that shoots for the kind of world acceptance “Since U Been Gone” enjoyed. Paradoxically, though, the first single, “My Life Would Suck Without You,” evokes a far different sentiment than that caustic firecracker of a hit, but the formula is all over it: teaser opening and then a crack wide open into a soaring, sing-along chorus on a fulsome production bed (that must have cost a mortgage to put in place). I have to admit that she’s gone way beyond the expiration date I placed on her, but there is not an engaging moment for me on this entire album.

Much more engaging is British popster Lily Allen’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. My interest in her doesn’t go much beyond the fact that her father is Keith Allen, a popular U.K. comedian who hit my radar when he collaborated with New Order on the 1990 World Cup anthem “World in Motion.” (He was also in the band Fat Les with Alex James of Blur and artist Damien Hirst, and I’m pretty sure I once saw him dance on stage with the Happy Mondays.) But daughter Lily’s second outing is an eclectic, quirky album full of great songs and sterling production flourishes. I’d start with the wonderful “Everyone’s At It,” which pretty much typifies the appeal of this artist. She puts most young American pop stars to shame

 

 

 

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