Sunday, April 15, 2012

MDNA (Madonna) (2012)

Vanity Affair

Two very Madonna-like events have occurred this year that have managed to highlight to me the reality of how she now views pop music and marketing. The first event (or, more precisely, non-event) was M.I.A’s flipping the bird during the Superbowl half-time show. I won’t defend it but it struck me as odd how much it upset Madonna, given that, twenty years ago, it’d be the exact type of stunt she’d pull off with the same disregard for good old American values. Her passing it off as ‘immature’ seemed as dated as the act itself but one really suspects the fumes were to deflect any harm to potential album sales. The other event—far more predetermined—was her publicity stunt of joining Twitter for one day…the day before her twelfth studio album, MDNA, was to be released.

The implications are clear: wherever the fans are—online or off—Madonna wants to carefully (and manipulatively) get invited to the party, be the cool older sister or bestie/hag as long as you’re buying her album. If that sounds harsh then consider just how many more fifty-year old pop stars are out there doing a hip/hop album (Hard Candy) or still dressing in cheer-leader outfits (video for lead single Give Me All your Luvin’).

She’s not content to just merely being younger on MDNA but, to be exact, she wants to be a younger version of herself, just not as risqué or musically daring. Instead, she wants to reference her past to connect to some current hot mess, trendy yet world weary at the same time. MDNA’s existence thus serves as nothing more than an excuse to dig through so much necromancy that even all the guest raps here are mini odes to her aged awesomeness. If its predecessor--Hard Candy—was a ridiculous move to embrace hip/hop, then this is the inevitable peeling away at her fabulous flesh in the hope of finding something that once was that can be again.

Whatever that ‘thing’ is, rest assured she hasn’t found it on MDNA because Madonna is best when she’s originating or highlighting a new trend, not whorishly copying something any pop diva worth her buck isn’t already doing. She is blithely unaware that her branding something or approval isn’t necessary to make it popular or listenable anymore. To make things worse, what she’s seeking to market is herself as relevant for a fourth decade in music. To accomplish this she’s teamed up with old pal William Orbit and invited Martin Solveig, Benny Benassi, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A for the ride.

MDNA starts off with Girl Gone Wild, a song that repeats the phrase ‘bad girl’ and ‘burning up’—two previous Madonna titles from better albums. The mid-section works but the corny lyrics throw off any serious artistic intent. If her aim was to just mimic the ridiculous vanity phase Rihanna’s career seems stuck at then she’s succeeded but that itself makes the track embarrassing on so many levels. The Lady Gaga-aping music video is shameless gay-bait, as if reminding homosexuals just who had their interests for so many decades and who now demands back their rapt attention. The tragedy of this situation is further compounded when one considers that the woman whose career Gaga draws from most is Madonna herself. Gang Bang sounds more truly avante garde—which surprises me because that isn’t a word I usually associate with Orbit—but, by the end, when she shouts out ‘drive bitch’, the whole this lusciously comes together. Nothing they worked previously on the overhyped Ray of Light album sounded as fierce but I guess she needed some therapy talk after divorcing Guy Ritchie. A real standout, Gang Bang is one of the last great singles I’ve heard from her in a while where she is pure evil-sounding. I’m Addicted is another highlight, a full out rave number where she slyly—and brilliantly—manages to spell out the album’s title mixed with the drug MDMA (Ecstasy) towards the end. I bet you hadn’t realized until now but will be sure to listen out for it because I pointed it out.

The much maligned Give Me All your Luvin’ isn’t totally irredeemable but it is Madonna’s parts that are the worst because of the bland lyricism (‘every record sounds the same/ you gotta step inside my world’). Nicki Minaj shines brightly on it while M.I.A gets the briefest of moments and elicits the sole risky moment on the track. How M.I.A ends up among all this froth will be examined when her own new album gets released later in the year but already the knives are out so no good will come of it, mark my words. Some Girls is egoism full blast but as she peels away one astounding Madonna-ism to unearth another, she finds special moments within it (‘some girls have an attitude/ fake tits and a nasty mood’) but eventually the cloying nature of her utter ripping off begins to bore. The other standout however is I Don’t Give A, which really is American Life Pt. 2 but here again Nicki Minaj steals her thunder with a wicked reggae-ish vibe that grooves for days. It’s so good that even Madonna rapping works (‘wake up ex-wife/ this is your life/ gotta sign the contract/gotta get my money back’). It functions not only as a bitch slap at Ritchie but to her haters that constantly dismiss her music and ageism.

Most of the other tracks elevate the level of problems on MDNA from “regular” to “worrying” however. Masterpiece, a bland effort lyrically and vocally, veers dangerously into the wretched adult contemporary genre that’s been all but banished since Michael Bolton’s last record. Falling Free fares better—indeed the mid-section is briefly interesting—but even with violins Madonna merely sits back within its five minute frame, content not to do much. The less said about Superstar the better. Alas, the horrible I Fucked Up and Bday Song, with its sing-along nursery rhyme and acoustic guitars are included on the deluxe version of the album. If Madonna’s aim is to recapture youth then these tracks go too young… they’re pre-teen stuff, and I don’t mean that in any good way. As you listen closely to Bday Song though, there is a second voice singing along. I suspected who it was before I scanned the credits, as if willing myself not to believe but there was M.I.A’s presence on the farce, masquerading as an actual creative duet. It is the sound of two bored, rich pop stars past their musical integrity and now only doing it part-time. Madonna has wisely kept this track for the deluxe edition but its creation is in itself perplexing. As is the perpetual blandness she continues to regurgitate as lyrics to match her still formidable pop production.

RATING: 5.5/10

Sunday, April 8, 2012

GCB (ABC, Sundays 9 pm)


When one conjures up images of Texas then cowboy boots, George W. Bush and the honky-tonk dance come to mind. ABC’s new Sunday night show, GCB adds an important element to the mix: women. The series is based on Kim Gatlin’s 2008 novel, Good Christian Bitches, and while such a title obviously couldn’t work for television without controversy, the implied bitchiness remains full throttle.

The target of the titular GCBs is Amanda Vaughn (Leslie Bibb, in literally a reprisal of her Popular heyday) a former high school cheerleader type whose husband has recently died spectacularly in a car crash while getting head from another woman. His accident brings a fraud scandal upon Amanda and her two kids, forcing her into bankruptcy and, more distressing for her, to head back home to Texas and, alas, to her mother Gigi (the wonderful Annie Potts).

Gigi is of course stereotypically fabulous: rich from her dead husband, in a big empty mansion and wears loud, expensive clothes. She welcomes back Amanda as one would a stray sheep…with the knowledge that such a reunion was always going to occur. What neither predicted though was the effect the coming home story would have on everyone else. So far—and I must stress the series is only three episodes—the only ones really distraught are Sharon (Jennifer Aspen), Cricket (Miriam Shor) and the new queen of the Austin suburbs Carlene (Kristen Chenoweth). These three women form the highest levels of social life in the town, all strikingly rich, blonde and devoutly Christian.

Their resentment of Amanda stems from the bad treatment she doled out to them in school but GCB is very much concerned with the present, not the past. The pilot, with all the irrelevant and patchy detail, clearly set to inform us not to expect too many surprises however. By overplaying its bejeweled hand so immediately, the show now sets us up for nothing more than a weekly exercise of penance and slow torture. Luckily, episode two (Hell Hath No Fury) fanned out more juicy detail, more in line with what we’re used to from executive producer Darren Star (Sex & the City ).

Amanda does have her eureka moment of regret but it’s too late. She realizes this once Carlene gets up to sing for her in church for the first time: past sins will be dealt with present actions. That see-saw battle of fitting punishment for the crime dogs GCB so far however. Amanda may have turned up changed from her bad girl past but it doesn’t erase the hell she made their lives. At a time where we’re focused keenly on bullying in schools, especially girl-on-girl intimidation, the series hasn’t yet found a realistic way to portray the issue. Instead, GCB holds up a flimsy status quo and runs with it, risking viewership now for a life-changing twist down the line.

It is a risk, especially as the characters aren’t exactly engaging or much fun. Potts is wasted as the mother hen and even Chenoweth—with the juiciest plot—has reached a dead end, limited by the very Christianity she champions at every opportunity. GCB makes these powerful women into basic extensions of their high school selves, with cosmetic surgery the only difference. All their focus goes into Amanda to the point where one wonders what they did with their time before she returned. We see proliferation of their wealth and scheming success but not the hard work and dedication. We can’t see their humanity either. Naturally there’ll be comparisons to Star’s most famous quartet (Miranda, Carrie, Samantha & Charlotte) but that’d be unfortunate. This Texan bunch aren’t concerned with equal footing with men but just to prove to Amanda that they’re her equal or even better.

Therein lies the rub for Carlene and Cricket though: besties because they had a united enemy but remove the common factor and all they’re left with is each other’s fierce ambition. As episode three (Love is Patient) showed, GCB’s real battle is between these two and both actresses are delightful in pockets. For now, the battle is being framed through their devotion to husbands—one suddenly impotent, the other gay but content for companionship—but soon I think the fake fur will be let loose. For GCB, the sooner the better because as enticing as Amanda in her tight Boobylicious work attire (Carlene’s business), that milkshake isn’t looking to bring the boys to the yard nor be a rival to these MILFs anymore.

RATING: 5/10

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Visions (Grimes) (2012)

Pagan Poetry

As a music critic, the discovery of a new artist headed for domination is an indescribable joy to watch. It isn’t a sound science but more like a gut feeling co-mingled with a steady appreciation of their art and more than a slight obsession with their every nuance. It’s a feverish clarity: think back to how Addison DeWitt, deadpan, tells Margo in All About Eve, that there are very few true stars in the theatre…she being one of them but, in time Eve, her understudy, would be too. Since the start of this decade the one name that has resonated across all music critics minds is Claire Boucher aka Grimes, the Canadian club denizen who has just released her debut album for 4AD aptly titled Visions.

Grimes first gained notice two years ago when she released a pair of minimalistic albums (Halfaxa & Geidi Primes) and followed up last year sharing a compilation with fellow Canadian d’Eon titled Darkbloom. The five tracks there showed vast improvement in texture, so much so that Vanessa was, without doubt, the best song released in 2011. When word circulated that she had a new album coming (confirmed by her personally to me via Twitter) then the countdown for her coronation began in the media. First there was the release of Oblivion and things went into overdrive once the Genesis video manifested.

Given the diversity of her music appreciation though, especially Mariah Carey pop ballads, it’s not surprising to hear Boucher actually singing higher notes on the album and succeeding. Visions opens with a breathless intro, the short but snappy Infinite without Fulfillment which serves notice of the art-pop brilliance to come. The aforementioned Genesis sees her best musical diversity yet, with its pre-programmed beats perfectly encapsulating her use of vocal tension and juxtaposition of rhythms. At four minutes, the length of the song is typical Grimes but there is no fluff added, just her voice being orchestrated into a beautiful result. It’s a stunning concept, a forward-thinking bridge between underground electronic music and pop, one of the best singles we’ll hear all year. Oblivion has no such aim, just good old fashioned pop, with slightly operatic vocals. Eight is straight electro-pop, replete with a robotic voice overlapping her own pared-down vocal work. Several lush shrieks are thrown in for good measure and I’m sure when M.I.A gets wind of this track she’ll curse her luck for not coming up with the idea first. Sadly, the track serves more like a tease and not a fully fleshed-out manifesto. Circumambient pleads for a lover to understand her weirdness, the electronic beats cracking at a smart 808 pace. Here is where Boucher achieves what is perhaps unique to her: a perfect fit between vocal urgency and beats, for at times its difficult to differentiate both tools amid such beauty.

Boucher’s star shine is evident mostly though on the remaining tracks, as incredible as that sounds. From Vowels=Space and Time to the end, she turns the versatility of her art up several notches. She comes down a peg but the full range of her influences begins to show and the closest approximation of her sound is clear: early Kate Bush. Just listen to the opening of the brilliant Nightmusic is proof enough that within her personal arsenal, Grimes can throw enthralling mysteries out in the open of her seemingly monochromatic bag. Each track gets painted in glitter and the type of night life aura that has backfired on other artists. When she brings fierceness to her vocals to match her beats then that’s when she can trip out into a whole other galaxy…taking us on the ride of a lifetime (the aforementioned Vowels=Space and Time). When she stays in cyborg-pop mode however then the result is still decent (Be A Body) but as we’ve already witnessed, she’ll be beyond such simple concepts from this point on.

The truism of Visions though is that Boucher has conquered her target: completing successfully a triptych by her love of twisting beats and rhythms. Now with the emergence of her voice as a strong point her oeuvre is so strong that she could have recorded bird droppings and still scored BNM from Pitchfork and anyone else. Her sights must now be to fully subvert sound into longer concepts for I wonder how much more fabulous Skin—the album closer—could have sounded if for once she had foregone the minimalism. Not to mention the scattered Nightmusic, a song that feverishly runs its gamut so effortlessly, one trembles in awe at the thought of what her next album will sound like. So, like Addison de Witt honing in on Eve, I’m terribly excited about Boucher’s progression of art, just as how I was when Janelle Monae surfaced five years ago. Boucher will possess full genius soon; Visions is but the best step so far in a pioneering career that won’t ever leave night clubs fully but rather pull everything else within that frame. Like Bjork before her, Boucher’s place is atop a genre in need of instant recognition. In short order she’ll be that somebody.

RATING: 9/10