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: Katy B – Little Red (Sony/Columbia)
The last time the 24-year-old Katy B made a record, we weren’t quite clear on what dubstep was. Back when we thought she was the queen of it, a lot of it sounded like your above-average house diva with some updated sound tricks—those swishing back ‘n forth hi-hat stutters on “Katy on a Mission” for instance. This follow-up is both so much safer and so much easier to like, gunning for Kylie Minogue’s spot via Everything But the Girl’s dark-tinged glitronics, with hooks sprouting off every single track: her wraparound “before”/”adore” rhyme, the ghost of Aaliyah haunting and taunting her, the tear-stained ballad “for no reason.” Like Broken Bells (see below), she aims for a baseline where nothing means anything except the continuity of the beat. If you’re an indie hybrid and don’t know what you’re doing, this is vague. If you’re a dance maven, this is the key to locking swift and unflashy pop choruses into an album-length groove.
Broken Bells – After the Disco (Columbia)
Did you know that Broken Bells’ self-titled debut debuted in Billboard’s top ten when it came out, received a Best Alternative Album nomination at the GRAMMYs and fell only 100,000 copies short of Gold certification? I definitely didn’t, and I still defy say, half those 400,000 American buyers to hum me a few bars from James Mercer’s most, er, “Vaporized” album ever, or even describe what it sounds like. This doesn’t mean it was bad; Broken Bells, was the absolute horizon line for indie stasis, neither good nor bad, with a passable drift and only enough decor and professionalism to ensure its safety in the licensing department and history books alike.
What’s unprecedented isn’t the attention given this “supergroup” of once-genius Mercer and questionable interloper Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. It’s the fact that the Shins never got to be beloved and famous at the same time. Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, the two Mercer masterpieces that led Natalie Portman via Zach Braff to give them the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Endorsement in Garden State only reached the top ten of critics’ polls if anything, and not even new fans pretended Wincing the Night Away had more than three or four songs up to their caliber when it scraped the #2 slot seven years ago. Burton coasts as he has for years, gliding from moderately famous collaborator to mildly noticeable tunecraft in a shell game so no one notices it’s been almost ten years since he gave the industry a “Crazy.”
The good news is, after a disappointing Shins album and most expectations gone, After the Disco is ever so slightly a welcome surprise. As indie stasis is now heavily informed by dance and R&B, it’s a pleasure to hear Mercer’s falsetto stretching for Bee Gees levels on “Holding on For Life” and danceable bass bump pulsating from the speakers on “After the Disco.” Then after the funky stuff mellows out, a surprise again that the straightforward “rock” on the second half, like the Stones-paced “Medicine” and the garage ‘n soul of “No Matter What You’re Told” are even better. Even the six-minute opener has some locomotive to it. But these are the strategies of a gifted songwriter in freefall: there’s no “New Slang” or “Gone for Good” here, not even an “Australia” or “Simple Song,” and the terminally uncrazy Burton is not going to give it to him. At After the Disco’s best, you’re not reminded that its principal songwriter was a melodic genius, which can be good or bad. The music itself is almost exactly in between.
Toni Braxton and Babyface – Love, Marriage & Divorce (Motown)
I’ll be the first to admit there’s nothing as imaginative in this collaboration as Beyonce’s limo fantasies or rocketship innuendos. But it feels more lived-in, top-heavy with quotables aplenty, from “I’m sick and tired of going through changes” to “If you really want to fight we can take it to the bed tonight.” It’s also refreshingly uncalculated—Braxton’s “I hope that she gives you a disease” lets a crappy thing to say be a crappy thing to say. The music is catchier than Brian McKnight in its mezzanine-y way, with the discotheque-ready “Heart Attack” pepping up the back end, and the concept showing no seams. But for two-person combat, you wish they’d go rogue at some point—an “eat the cake, Anna Mae” or a “serfbort.”
Sun Kil Moon – Benji (Caldo Verde)
Word-heavy, music-light. Loads of reporting: “He had an aneurysm triggered by the strain in his hand he was putting on it,” “His head was shaved and he still wore bell bottom jeans.” Without much competition, Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) tacks a few upbeat numbers onto what’s by default his most extroverted record. And not just upbeat, openhearted, without a trace of irony in the funny “I Love My Dad,” which counts a Nels Cline impression among its lovable layers, or the meta setpiece “Ben’s My Friend,” which unloads rapid-fire internal rhymes in the folkster mode of Okkervil River’s “The President’s Dead.”
But as a whole, Benji is no easier to repeatedly consume than Dylan’s Tempest. This is still a guy who refuses to further arrange his pretty, one-chord fingerpickings, which get downright ten minutes long on “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same,” still a guy who breaks up the concrete with “I’ll go to my grave with my melancholy/ And my ghost will echo my sentiments for all eternity.” While his ear for the laundry-list detail is sharper than ever, it stays within demographic bounds. The Pitchfork review says he mentions death in every song; this humble reviewer would like to note that Adam Duritz soundalike Kozelek mentions Panera Bread in two. And why would you watch The Song Remains the Same twice?