Saturday, November 3, 2007

MUSIC REVIEW: "Blackout' (Britney Spears)

‘Growing Pains’

Given the annus horribilis that this year is turning out to be for her so far, Britney Spears surely realizes that a new album now potentially adds to it and, as a result, can curtail what remains of her very high profile career. The word ‘career’ never seems as fitting to any other pop act besides her because that is what Spears is: a RIAA certifiable money-maker. She is at the fount of crass American obsession with artistic youthfulness, harnessing a pop persona that is as utterly disposable and interchangeable as the songs she spews out. Nowhere in the mix is actual talent and, more crucially, one never expects otherwise. As I go through her back catalogue of songs, I can scarcely believe how robotic a singer Spears is. Its one thing to hear her with different singles but it becomes downright unbearable in one sitting. She isn’t the only teeny-bop product that was unleashed on an unsuspecting public in 1999 but at the very least one never doubts Christina Aguilera’s pipes or Justin Timberlake’s insistence of bringing sexy back but Britney’s first two albums are total hogwash, with only ‘Born To Make You Happy’ hinting at something genuine or at least innate.

The glorious ‘Toxic’ did however signal a change, achieving critical praise and looking back on it now, ‘In the Zone’ isn’t a bad product, with its untested sense of rebellion. That
album features a variety of dance loops and beats that sass with experimental production. While critics didn’t pay attention long enough to care, Britney’s intent to break her pop princess mould is slowly becoming evident. When her marital issues spilled out into the open earlier this year though and was quickly followed by car accidents, a shaved head and her lost child custody appeal, it seemed a sort of karma had caught up with her finally. News of the finished album had critics out with pens ready to write about the final chapter of her career and exact a sort of triumphantly upturned nose at her. I am not one of them though I must admit my indifference to her is deliberate. Unlike, say, Popmatters, which gave ‘Blackout’ 4/10 and proclaimed it ‘forgettable’, I have actually listened to it without willing myself to damn it before hand.

That said, ‘Blackout’ isn’t the horrific vanity product many think it is. In fact, one clunker aside, the disc is fairly solid ground for pop music and is a natural growth for Spears who is settling into an artistic maturity that adds elements of the calculated critical backlash into the mix for her own purposes. Stunning to think she can craft ideas this exacting but there it is full blown in the bittersweet lyrics. If ‘In the Zone’ tinkered with a multitude of sounds but didn’t dedicate itself to one, then ‘Blackout’ chooses from the same domain and wraps its intent into one coat full of many colors. It is her upturning her nose to the naysayer who dares to write her off without at least hearing what she has to say.

And, make no mistake, this is twenty-first century pop music: a hybrid that assimilates dance and hip/hop, eagerly filtering them through a vocoder that distorts Spears’ vocals to the point of non- recognition from where she once was. While there’s nothing as instantly gratifying as ‘Toxic’ on the disc, the songs here take on new relevance given the current turmoil in her life, especial lyrically. So, the yummy ‘Piece of Me’ unfurls layers of defiant pop hooks while slamming her detractors (‘guess I can’t see the harm/ I’m working and being a mama’). Even more startling is the closer, ‘Why Should I Be Sad’ that actually attempts to overdub on hip/hop sounds while shooting poison at her ex-husband, Kevin Federline (‘Why should I be sad, heaven knows/ From the stupid fre-kin’ things that you do’). ‘Radar’ and ‘Break the Ice’ trample afoot the notion that her artifice cannot be harnessed to good use. Even ‘Freak Show’ is a slick rap effort that never embarrasses itself. In short, this is Britney assaulting the perception of herself as a person.

This is not to say she has come fully to terms with her past or, like, a totally relevant, soul-searching artiste now. It’s more like she’s at least acknowledging its dubiousness finally and re-arranging it before it’s too late. Britney has made enough cash for Jive to be able to afford anyone she chooses to work with and the money is well spent here because the various producers bring juicy sounds even if she hedges her bet. Of course, hedging a bet means working with what worked in the past, so in come Bloodshy & Avant (‘Toxic’) to the rescue. As far as the hip/hop beats go, it seems Timbaland was too busy to assist so he sends protégé Nate ‘Danja’ Hills instead. This proves the litmus test for Britney, trying to assimilate such fluidity on a continuous basis. To her credit, she doesn’t sink but the tracks are geared towards wild abandon and, like her idol Madonna, she shares a nauseating vocal consciousness, a lack of daring to sound too vulnerable on record. She comes close on ‘Ooh Ooh Baby’ is dew-eyed pop but for once cuts the manipulation for proclamations that seemingly ring trough. ‘Toy Soldier’, arguably the best track, powers up its groove with tight drumming and Spears bites into the bits decisively. Mostly though what prevents these songs from being total slamming is her concern with structure. She’s spent her career so defined by it that she cannot retain spontaneity for more than three minutes. Dance/pop gets stretched out more than any other genre so the effect these songs have is nothing compared to when club deejays start remixing the heck out of them.

The only really bad stuff, the embarrassing ‘Get Naked (I Got a Plan)’, fails because it stubbornly tries to cling to her robotic past. Not only is it shameless but it illustrates that for Britney growth isn’t going to come as readily as it should because she’s still so much of a product . Listening to the tracks that were left off (the American version anyway) prove that this hesitancy is one that is grounded in the market within which she is a major player still. ‘Blackout’ is a start towards a direction that she has no choice but to follow. Pop icons have a hard time growing up to the realization that they’re not fabulously endearing anymore (hello Michael Jackson!); life gets in the way and your fans either move on with or without you. Whether this disc tilts her career to a full blossoming of centralized ideas and getting her sh-t together is anyone’s guess but, thanks to the paparazzi, we’ll be able to track her every move. With the Madonna example as her motive, we await her next move to prove either her determination or cowardice.
RATING: 7/10

MUSIC REVIEW: "Overpowered" (Roisin Murphy)

‘Dubliner, Go Home!’

The chance you’ve heard of Roisin Murphy is as slim as you knowing of soul hipster Joi. Both women have advanced greatly underground pop music slanted through jazz and rhythm & blues respectively to critical acclaim but with little financial success to show for it. Record labels either fold before putting their stuff out or pass them on to others, exasperated as to what to do with them. Murphy, formerly of the duo Moloko, released a stunning solo debut, ‘Ruby Blue’, two years ago and no one paid attention. That disc, a natural successor to Bjork’s ‘Post’, showed clueless media darlings like Norah Jones and Joss Stone just how enthralling pop-jazz can be without having famous names associated with a project. Songs like ‘Ramalama (Bang Bang)’ and ‘Night of the Dancing Flame’ groove for days with pop hooks that feed on restless energy.

‘Overpowered’ was always going to have a hard time matching its predecessor but I never expected the end result to be so stymied. Just like Interpol, Murphy has found out that a move to a major label sometimes only succeeds to regulate what makes one interesting in the first place and to try regurgitating it on every record to maximize profits. As she reminds them of Robbie Williams (ugh!), her new bosses (EMI) have clearly decided to reinvent her into a dance diva. Indeed, reps have already been quoted as saying that her ‘indulgence’ is something she’s now over and her ‘true potential’ is now ready to be harnessed. Her fans won’t buy such spiel for a second but fake fans will no doubt welcome her into club land and won’t hesitate to ditch her once the next big thing comes along.

Which leads me back to Joi because no one outside of club divas runs the underground with as much funk, yet it’d be true to say that you’re never going to hear her. Well, to be honest, she has put in vocals on several brilliant Outkast tracks like ‘Ghetto Musick’ and the single ‘Lick’ from her oh-so-rarely-heard ‘Star Kitty’s Revenge’ somehow managed to leak long enough for even me to download it. This is the world Murphy must now penetrate in order to build a fan base. Of course, EMI doesn’t realize that the underground already listens to Roisin and will be insulted by their heavy meddling into her already brilliant sound.

‘Overpowered’ goes about its business calculatingly. When such a powder keg of an artiste is forced to tread cautiously, it can be frustrating to hear. Songs like ‘You Know Me Better’ and ‘Let Me Know’ are tame head bangers and only the titles suggest any form of intrigue. There is even a track called ‘Primitive’ that is, um, well, primitive coming from the woman who gave us ‘Ramalama (Bang Bang)’ just over two years ago. ‘Ruby Blue’ worked so well because her eccentricities were in collaboration with pal Matthew Herbert but there’s no sign of him here. EMI paired her up with producers like Seiji, Andy Cato and Ill Factor, persons totally unfamiliar with her vision. The result is a kind of strained, retro 80’s vibe that tries to channel Brit acts of that decade like The Eurhythmics but ‘Overpowered’ misses Annie Lennox’s wry and ambiguous relevance and dubs down Murphy’s own obvious star shine for cogency. Yes, EMI is hoping she’ll be another Kylie Minogue. Don’t believe me; well they even sourced one of Kylie’s regular writers to pen a track for the album but Murphy didn’t like it.

Ironically, while EMI wishes her to have such a high profile following, I wonder if they’re prepared to spend as long a time that it took an artiste like Minogue to reach such a level. Kylie isn’t nearly half as talented as Murphy nor is her song catalogue as impressive (although, I must admit ‘Red Blooded Woman’ is fantastic) but she’s durable and pretty harmless. Murphy does try to juxtapose this newly fitted outlook along with her quirky personality and these are the songs that feel most alive. ‘Checkin’ On Me’ has a relaxed, up tempo groove. ‘Movie Star’ actually works within the cloying restriction with a slinky reverb. ‘Dear Miami’, an ode to club land, sputters to life mostly although it patters out towards the end. Better yet are ‘Cry Baby’ and ‘Tell Everybody’ which manage to break free and rock out while sporting some bluesy riffs.

As long as she stays with EMI then I’m afraid it’ll be all downhill for her and that would be a shame given her immense talent. It’s a huge compromise most women in the recording industry have to face: being marketed any way the label sees fit to move big bucks or, like Joi, face the prospect of getting lost in the shuffle while retaining street props. Murphy may have to soon choose which path to follow and one only hopes she chooses the one that leads her back home…the sooner to leave EMI the hell alone.
RATING: 6/10