New Releases: Eminem, M.I.A., Avril Lavigne, Celine Dion, Action Bronson
Every Tuesday, Dan Weiss runs down the week’s new full-length music releases, from charting hits to more obscure depths, the underrated and the overrated, from a critical pop fan’s perspective.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (Shady/Aftermath)
For the record, I do not accept this minor triumph as my all-time favorite artist’s “sequel” to my all-time favorite album of the 2000s. Let’s instead talk about the lack of virtuosos in popular music of the last ten years. Make no mistake, it’s fantastic that we’ve broken so many walls down, that a great rapper can be a bad lyricist, that pop musicians who don’t play or write their own songs or even sing without Auto-Tune can get respect for making great art, just like three-chord punks in the 70s proved you could make the world’s best rock and roll without guitar lessons.
But let’s survey how many prominent Great Players have achieved recent fame, in a world of ensembles like Arcade Fire and true singers relegated to hammy American Idol fates. Jack White, Marnie Stern and Marissa Paternoster (of the band Screaming Females) demonstrate the sort of guitar heroics that require virtuosity rather than a clever working knowledge of the studio, and you could maybe throw in Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend) as well. The low-key Earl Sweatshirt and Kendrick Lamar are dexterous if grayscale rappers and Lil Wayne a true unhinged genius, but neither as raw a breather as Nicki Minaj or Twista. tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus isn’t quite in league with peak Polly Jean Harvey or Corin Tucker but she does reach heights and find tones outside of most rock vocalists’ capabilities. And with all due respect to Janet Weiss and Joe Easley don’t start me on the “tastefulness” of current drumming in indie nor mainstream—when’s the last time you heard a drum fill?
There are plenty of great players but very few are pushing themselves to the limit like the above-named. In a year where rap doesn’t know what it is anymore, Eminem has decided to forego concepts, humor, even hooks (with the exception a happier-than-she-sounds Rihanna on the excellent “The Monster”) for the consistently pleasurable and surprising album Tech N9Ne and his Korny ways will never give us. Em twists himself into huge sailor knots and impenetrable thickets that earn the “Rap God” standing even if the “f**”-laced joke content is probably best noticed from a distance, while overseer Rick Rubin challenges himself to make “So Far…” an FM rock collage as dense as any prime Beasties and much more fearless about being cornier. Among other unlikely gambles, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 contains the only Lamar track anyone can call “sunny” and a Nate Ruess chorus making it hard to embrace even the one where he admits to loving his mom. But while the album won’t make you laugh once, it never stops fighting, with that blender-like rhyming reaching a peak in a streak from “Survival” to “Asshole” to “Brainless” to “Rap God.” Maybe for his next trick he’ll do it again without the joyless detachment that’s dogged him since people told him the great, insane Encore was too silly. That is, maybe he’ll bring back Slim Shady.
M.I.A. – Matangi (Interscope)
Spacy, ballad-heavy, tuneful and relatively low-tension, the companion piece to 2010’s incredible /\/\/\Y/\ is once again unfailingly rife with sonics that bang and clang and split and trigger and crawl all over the walls and rap and lose a turn in an NES game. M.I.A. both sings (following the bouncing bowl on “Come Walk with Me” and the Weeknd-damaged “Exodus” with sequel “Sexodus”) and raps (with near-Eminem precision on the clattering-console “Bring the Noize”) more. The wicked “Bad Girls” upstages anything else here. This is because of that beat, a 24 karat gold-leaf of sour strings more raï than filmi, and not because too many white rap fans love that “chain hits my chest” stuff. The synth line that guts the bubbly dub of “Double Bubble Trouble” isn’t far behind at all.
Musically she remains a DJ of dreams; Kanye merely wishes his jump cuts could be so unpredictable. When she says her name on the title tune and it’s electronically jarred to sound like “monarchy” and lands on an unexpected note, she’s demonstrating knowledge of dissonance more visceral than Darkside and Tim Hecker combined. As for the “vague” lyrics, sure, it’s a little goofy that she calls out Drake while sampling the Weeknd, but the difference is privilege; she started from the bottom and now she here. And Matangi is about being “here,” her most level album yet, balancing parties and indignant rage as a talent and mother who believes in herself and her theories about the way the world allows information to be received, while staying on top and not making too many compromises. People were sick of Public Enemy at about this point too.
Avril Lavigne – Avril Lavigne
She’s always paraded the willfully dumb but her last album Goodbye Lullaby was a sin: no fun. On this backtrack she sells out gleefully, with her first throw at EDM a Kawaii anthem called “Hello Kitty” and DGAF duets with her Nickelback paramour (at peak tolerability on “Let Me Go”) and Marilyn Manson (a fantastic hypeman on the “Missed me/ Missed me/ Now you gotta kiss me” brat-glam stomp called, what else, “Bad Girl”). She rips off T. Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together” on the identical “Bitchin’ Summer” and steals Katy Perry’s Radiohead-cheapening agenda for “Here’s to Never Growing Up.” The ballads are serviceable, the opening “Rock n Roll” is a highlight, and the excellent “17” fulfills that other quota: pop.
Celine Dion – Loved Me Back to Life (Columbia)
One of the nice things about no longer having a monoculture is being able to pretend Macklemore is as bad as things get, making Loved Me Back to Life a timely reminder that Princess Crap’s lungs are still alive and well, and possibly a little weakened if she feels the need to follow her fellow glass-shatterer Mariah Carey to the world of beats and rhythm about 15 years after we thought she was too rich and too Anglo to give a hairy f*** about art. Today is no longer that day. Instead we discover via the title song that in this mode Dion hilariously resembles a bizarre conflation of Rihanna and the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan singing Evanescence. Better is “Somebody Loves Somebody” and “Incredible,” which makes Ne-Yo the only man alive to duet with both Ms. Dion and Ghostface. But the Bacharach-y bile that wafts up shortly around “Didn’t Know Love” will remind even the most open-minded of pop students to hate her back to hell. I swear I didn’t actually know the Evanescence guys worked on her last album.
Action Bronson and Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2 (self-released)
This one brings the real party supplies, sampling uh, Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” and the Champs’ “Tequila”(!) for such A+ smirkery as “I eat dessert while your b**** flirt,” and rapping over “Sussudio,” “Jack and Diane” and “Big Time” among others for an 80s radio medley called “Contemporary Man.” But while “Strictly 4 My Jeeps” was some kind of airplay machine, the mean track length here is still two and a half minutes, which means he’s still not saving Good Rap from its songwriting issues despite his rare ear for beats that are both vintage and pleasurable—check out the piano flutter of “It Concerns Me,” which would not have been better in Dilated Peoples’ or Blackalicious’ hands ten years ago. Bronsalino’s flair for materialistic details may well develop into his closet idol Ghostface Killah’s gift for narrative yet: “Hide money in the Nintendo” scans even if “eating chicken parmesan in the holding cell” sounds unrealistic. And it’s a lot easier to love him just for lines like “I’m glad I ate lamb” and “put a hand up your a** like a Muppet Baby” when he actually kisses his sex object’s neck.