Music Diary Reviews: Welcome to the New Disco Era!

Welcome to another edition of Music Diary Reviews! This time around I look at a pretty broad mix of pop, rock dance & rap music. The title is a bit provocative, but recalling my recent article looking at the state of rock music relative to pop in 2010, it is pretty clear that dance-centric techno-pop ruled the airwaves last year. Listening to stuff like Ke$ha and the Black Eyed Peas really does hearken me back to the disco era of the late 70’s. I wonder if this music will suffer the same backlash as the music of that era?

I have also looked at a few other releases: indie darling Arcade Fire’s recording hit lots of ‘Top 10’ lists, and Kanye West’s newest ended the year with huge critical acclaim. But does either deserve the praise? I’ll look at these and the brand new release from Cake and legendary rock guitarist Joe Satriani’s new release.

So, with that … time for another quick look at some recent CD/MP3 album releases!

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Summary: On the indie rock music scene, Arcade Fire have been the critical darlings for the past few years. Their latest release wound up topping the NPR listener poll and also doing quite well on other ‘Top 10’ lists. They were the ‘poster child’ for the indie rock presence on eMusic, made even more notable as the group removed themselves from the service in response to changes made to get the ‘major’ labels to sign on! But back to The Suburbs …

In an record with 16 songs and a run time of over an hour you might expect some mis-fires, and there are. In fact a few songs in the middle pretty well drag, causing my wife to say that they were ‘sleepy’. But overall the songs are solidly written, evoking at once the 90’s era ‘new alternative’ like The Lilac Time or the Railway Children, even newer stuff like The Strokes, but for me particularly constantly dipping back into things like The Smiths, REM, The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, and on and on.

Many of the songs are very catchy but not in a shallow way. The production values are solid throughout, with some songs intentionally submerging the vocals in the mix, while others take on a bright and polished feel. There is never the feeling of pretense – throughout you know that these artists care about what they are saying and doing. The reminders of other artists is about the mark of influences, not about shameless ripoffs we see way too often.

In an era when popular music is made to hit the lowest common denominator and is often ‘product’ that is more about the packaging than the songs (e.g. Katy Petty), it is refreshing to see a pure song-driven band make such a splash. They need to mature more, work on unifying their identity, and allowing some of the songs to fall off the record if they aren’t up to snuff (actually on this one, it always seemed that part 1 of the two-part songs lagged!), but what I don’t want them to do is lose that edge, that passion, that sense of caring about great music. This is a great album, one of the better pop releases in a lackluster year for pop and rock music – all of my family now has at least one song from this recording on their iPod, and nobody complains when I play if on my iPod.

Choice Track (and why): Modern Man – I love this song because it has a feel the evokes The Smiths and REM, and a shuffle-stop rhythm that reminds me of 80’s era King Crimson. It has a great feel to it, and really gets you moving.

You Might Love This If: You like solid pop-rock music with solid songwriting, interesting harmonic feel, and a sense of adventure!

Here is a video of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs directed by Spike Jonze:

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Summary: My wife hates Michael Vick due to his animal abuse, and that hatred carries over to everything about him. I don’t think much of him as a person, but I hold that opinion distinct from my assessment of him as a football player. Similarly I have a very low opinion of Kanye West as an individual, but try to keep that opinion separate from my assessment of his music.

Unfortunately his public persona of being self-important, arrogant, big-mouthed and small-minded carries over into everything his does musically as well. Here is my quick take: this record is filled with interesting music that is utterly ruined whenever Kanye West opens his mouth, and even worse when he attempts what he tries to pass off as ‘singing’.

That is an oversimplification, of course, as there is some actual merit to why this record has gotten so much attention. Weighing in at nearly 70 minutes, it is a sprawling and self-indulgent effort. There are many uneven moments, even cringe-worthy bad parts, but in the vast expanse of the recording they are forgivable.

Musically Kanye West has regained his ability to put together funk & R&B laden tracks that are intriguing and form a cohesive thematic development … something that seemed to have diminished with each record since his début. The songs swing wildly from pop to rap to R&B to nearly theatrical, yet none of it feels forced or artificial. I had spoken of Eminem as ‘pop’ in my review of his record, and you need do little more than scan the breadth of music laid out here to see the stark difference between the musical depth.

Unfortunately, as I said earlier quite often Kanye ruins things by simply opening his mouth. It is too often the same predictable crap: misogynistic musings, racists epithets, talking about his own genitalia or fascination with women’s parts, self-obsession and so on. Shallow insights, forced rhymes that make little sense, cringe-worth analogies, and on and on. And his voice has an annoying quality that veers between sneering and whining most of the time – and it only gets worse when he ‘sings’. I have complained about Ke$ha and Katy Perry and their 6 note ranges … that is 5 more than Kanye!

But in spite of those complaints, I found that I was easily able to switch off my brain from listening to the words and just experience the music. The result was one of the more intriguing pop music records of the year. Uneven to be sure, grandiose more often than grand, but one thing is sure: ambition is not lacking in Kanye West, so despite falling short on many occasions, he certainly aimed high with this recording, and as a result it is something any lover of popular music should at least check out.

Choice Track (and why): Runaway – a simple theme, delicate harmonic structure and deeply ironic lyrics that lack so much of the swagger and pretension that color way too many of the other songs. While I rail against auto-tune as a crutch, his use of a distorted autotuned breathy as an instrument actually worked pretty well.

You Might Love This If: If you are a rap / R&B fan you likely already own this. Also, this provides some of the most musically interesting content in the genre since the early 90’s.

Here is the official video of Kanye West’s Runaway:

Cake – Showroom of Compassion

Cake – Showroom of Compassion

Summary: I remember hearing ‘The Distance’ way back in 1996 when Fashion Nugget was released. My wife enjoyed the song and so did I, so I bought the CD. Most of the other songs faded away quickly enough, and soon the CD was filed away with so many others as our life was filled with kids and activities and so on. A few years ago the song came back into our minds again, and since then Fashion Nugget has returned to occasional play. We tried other stuff from their release catalog, but nothing else measures up.

That said, when I knew that Cake was releasing a new CD on January 11th I went ahead and pre-ordered it, and have listened to it repeatedly for the last few days. I had to keep listening because I was pulled in two directions in my opinions. On the one hand musically this recording falls in line with their other stuff and sounds like an offshoot of their 2004 release rather than something from nearly seven years later! But let’s face it – their stuff IS distinct and catchy! That isn’t to say there are no musical changes – there are more layers, a greater harmonic depth, and some added interplay between the instruments.

But while musically they haven’t strayed far from their groove, Cake has certainly matured, which makes this an interesting record. The opener is rather blatantly political, followed by a catchy ‘made for radio’ Long Time, and so on. The problem is that this is a very uneven record – for every Sick of You or ‘Long Time there is a throwaway like Got To Move or What’s Now Is Now. This wouldn’t be too terrible except that the 11 track recording is a scant 41 minutes long.

Overall Showroom of Compassion is a ‘good’ recording, neither great nor bad – and distinctly better than the final two entries on the list! There are some solid songs, some interesting nuances that have changed, a maturing in some areas, but also some dreary filler and too-easy fall-back songs.

Choice Track (and why): Mustache Man – a great groove and catchy melody and total sense of fun make this the one I keep going back to.

You Might Love This If: You love the alt-pop catchiness of Cake and are looking to see the new directions they are trying while still getting plenty of fan service.

Here is a video of Cake playing Bound Away live from 2010:

Joe Satriani – Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards

Joe Satriani – Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards

Summary: Since Joe Satriani is well established as one of the great rock guitarists and creator of memorable and moving rock instrumentals, and has a solid body of work spanning more than twenty-five years, you would expect him to execute well on a new release. That he does. You would also expect him to show progression and creativity and inspiration. That … well, that doesn’t turn out so well here.

Sometimes success or failure is a matter of expectations, and I think that is the case here. If this was a début recording by a 20-ish guitarist I would be floored by the technique and remark at how well he had digested influences from Jeff Beck and Steve Vai and Joe Satriani and so on. I wouldn’t mind that the songs were superficial and derivative, and remark instead that it would be great to watch this young talent mature.

However, Satriani is a veteran guitarist, and we should expect him to set new standards for his playing and writing, and not simply whip out old licks and play songs that sound like he got table scraps from Jeff Beck’s work from a decade ago. Pyrrhic Victoria in particular sounds like a cheap clone of something from ‘You Had it Coming’. The rest of the recording is equally disappointing. You get a generic ‘hey, let’s do world music’ feel in The Golden Room. Then there is ‘solitude’, which sets what could have been an intimate and introspective piece, and then just suddenly ends as if Satriani realizes where he is going and says ‘nope, not doing THAT stuff here’. And on and on.

When I played this for my kids, they enjoyed it a bit due to the killer guitar lines Satriani lays down. But it never caught either enough that they wanted to get it on their iPod – and I attribute that to the lack of commitment and passion. I saw a comment on Amazon calling this a ‘contract fulfillment’, the music equivalent of a ‘paycheck movie’. That might be the case, or perhaps it was misguided fan service. Whatever the reason, the result is an uninspired outing from a man with loads of talent and a lot to offer … now we just have to wait for him to actually give us something worth listening to like he did back in the 80’s and 90’s!

Choice Track (and why): Wormhole Wizards – sleek intro grows into a solid backbeat, and then Satriani launches into a 3 minute bombastic solo better than anything else on the record. After an interlude the groove returns, and then Satriani and the band are off and running to the conclusion. Not much of a ‘song’ in terms of melody or harmony, but overall this is the only passion I found on the record.

You Might Love This If: You enjoy virtuosic instrumental rock music.

Here is a video of Satriani’s Light Years Away:

Black Eyed Peas -The Beginning

Black Eyed Peas -The Beginning

Summary: What does it say when the best song on a record is memorable mostly due to the overarching sample of a 23-year old song right as Jennifer Grey was winning Dancing With The Stars? It means this is not a very good album. I actually spent a while deciding whether to put this or Ke$ha at the bottom, but eventually decided it really didn’t matter, but since this has more music per $ I put Ke$ha at the bottom. Both are very narrow appeal records as these are very single-driven artists.

Once you get past the first song the album very quickly descends into a sea of same-sounding techno-beats and way-too-heavy auto-tuned vocals. Generic is the word that comes to mind – this is clearly not a recording to listen to in succession because the same-ness becomes mind-numbing before long. Perhaps dumping this stuff into a big dance playlist to use as background music for a party would work better.

Many fans have been asking ‘WTF happened to the Black Eyed Peas’? Well, they stopped making music for their hardcore fans and have moved to a thoroughly pop format with vapid vocals, generic beats, and only the multiple voices still more or less recognizable through the layers of auto-tuning mark them as the Black Eyed Peas. To me this sounds more like a generic clone of The END.

Choice Track (and why): The Time (Dirty Bit) – very catchy, in no small part due to the extensive sampling of the theme from Dirty Dancing.

You Might Love This If: You already love the Black Eyed Peas and have The END (which is superior to this), or perhaps you are just looking for some catchy club disco music.

Here is a video of Black Eyed Peas song The Time (Dirty Bit):

Ke$ha – Cannibal

Ke$ha – Cannibal

Summary: Apparently this is an ‘EP’, which is why it costs $7.99 rather than $9.99. Ke$ha hit big with a number of party-themed dance songs from her Animal CD in 2010, including the top selling Tik Tok. Cannibal is pretty much just more of the same. But whereas there were a half-dozen solid pop tracks on the first recording, here we get one song at that level (We R Who We R, which we heard long before the EP came out. Then there are ‘fillers’ like Cannibal and Grow a Pear which are catchy as always but not very memorable. Then there is the rest of the recording … which is pretty much garbage.

Just because I call it ‘garbage’ doesn’t mean these songs aren’t catchy or that the publishing company won’t pay loads of money to ensure you hear them over and over on the radio. Ke$ha is ‘product’, and so long as her stuff is being bought at this level you’ll hear it. What you get are simplistic tracks full of generic techno structures that will sound eerily similar to other songs by other artists written by the same songwriting team. You get heavily spliced up vocals dripping with saturated auto-tune. Everything is perfect to the point of sounding dehumanized, and if it wasn’t for Ke$ha’s flippant attitude and provocative swagger there would be no draw at all.

Around my house my younger son still enjoys some songs on the EP, but his listening has dropped off considerably. No one else has it on their iPod, and the radio over-exposure has worn the song We R Who We R rather thin with the family. At its best this is typical ‘pop sugar’ – cute and catchy but quickly gone and forgotten. At worst … garbage.

Choice Track (and why): We R Who We R – while most of the tracks sound like leftover filler from Animal, this one sounds like a new song written specifically for the EP.

You Might Love This If: The bottom line is this: if you liked her Animal CD, you will like this.

Here is a video of Ke$ha’s We R Who We R:

At the beginning of this review I wondered if we were entering a new Disco era. While I can’t answer that, when you listen to something like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack or any record of the Bee Gees, you are struck by the quality of songwriting – and realize that these were not calculated team efforts but songs written by the Gibb brothers … not to say that there wasn’t tremendous commercial calculation at play as with any major label release.

But for those songs you had the composers writing the songs, and then they had to actually sing them, and as a result they are unique – I always enjoy hearing the minor flaws from top to bottom on older recordings, something missing on many of today’s sterile recordings.

But as we see, there is always hope. Indie groups like Cake and Arcade Fire have taken their own paths to great success, and say what you want about Kanye West, his album is certainly not generic. That said, the numbers for 2010 had tilted even more away from rock and towards the sort of techno-dance-pop exemplified by Ke$ha and The Black Eyed Peas. So it really isn’t clear where we are headed!

All I know is I am headed on to new music! I will be issuing reviews of some really great (and not so great) reissues in the coming days, followed by a feature on what I consider to be two of the best and most unique recordings of 2010. And I have already started amassing new music for the next review – and I’m excited because I’d never heard of most of these folks before, but they are amazing!

Until next time, enjoy the great joys of whatever music you love!

Categories: Music Diary, Reviews


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