EMA, Drug Buddy

Erika M. Anderson used to live in South Dakota, but then she moved to California; her first project, Gowns, released a single album, called Red State; “California,” from her new solo record under the name EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints, begins, “Fuck California/You made me boring.” It might be fair to say place matters to her—although no matter where Red State and “California” take place, they’re not too far from each other, because she writes and sings and, in a sense, composes about doing a lot of drugs, and doing a lot of drugs tends to flatten the world. Past Life’s sense of place mostly doesn’t extend much beyond a room or two and a stuffy head, but like drugs, it makes that place voluptuous and gorgeous, and like something better than drugs, it knows how to escape.

Anderson’s hushed, sometimes raspy voice is the clearest and often the loudest thing in the mix; she whispers an inch from your ear while her music churns around the two of you. Songs build a spidery rattle into a thick, guitar-drenched haze (“Grey Ship,” “Red Star”), or open in chaos and wriggle their way into melody (“Butterfly Knife”), or float delicately atop an eerie rumble (“Marked”), like David Lynch filming a parking lot. “California” is made of overlapping slabs of ridiculously loud hum and buzz, and every instrument in the song sounds gently Dopplered; Anderson stands still while the huge sounds crawl by like slow trains.

With luck, the above sounds at least potentially beautiful, but it might also sound like rough going—like the album is dreary, or too impressed by its own problems. In some ways, it is. Her music is exhaustively interested in investigating the feeling of lying on the carpet in a square of dusty light and trying to remember how long you’ve been high, and lyrically she prefers impressionism to detail; like lots of people, she writes best at her plainest, but probably doubts it. (The brief, playful “Coda” contains several of the album’s best lines, including a thesis statement, teased out for a laugh across a long and meandering line of melody: “These drugs are making me so sad/And I can’t stop taking them.”) But she has a huge talent for drama—when to build, when to break, when to whisper or coo or yell, when to camp a while in a looping melody and when to move on—and the album’s 37 minutes feel majestic and unhurried; lying on the carpet, you could loop it till you got confused. Near the end of the swelling “California,” Anderson slips into four bars of “Camptown Races”—a melodic flutter just before the song comes to rest. It’s a small climax, but generous, too; the next time you hear the song, you look forward to it.

Moments like these break the seal around an album whose subject and tone might curdle into solipsism. Sonically, Past Life is way more attentive to and considerate of its listeners than actual downer addicts usually are, and listening to it can feel intensely intimate, like listening to a fucked-up friend try to explain how much she loves you. There are lots of “you”s in Anderson’s songs, and she keeps trying to hold them closer, or feeling guilty that she hasn’t. “Butterfly Knife” opens with a confession of compassion (“You were a goth in high school/You went and fucked your arms up/They said you’d never do it/But I knew/I knew/I knew”); “Marked” builds toward the stuttered epiphany, “I know I wish/Sometimes just so I could explain things/Explain things/I wish that every time you touched me left a mark”). That last line repeats like a chorus or a prayer: Let me be changed by you.

Doing a lot of drugs makes you think about yourself a lot: how you feel now; how good you could feel if you got high; how much better you could feel if you got higher; how long, at your current rate, you’ll be able to stay high before you have to call someone. That’s why it doesn’t matter if you’re in South Dakota or California when you’re doing them—eventually, you’re just in you. What’s pretty and interesting and sometimes miraculous about EMA is how close she comes to that kind of nullity—how intensely she evokes the self’s close, warm stickiness—and how fiercely she claws her way out of it. This is a feverish, sulking, and extremely stoned record, but it loves you and wants to be close to you, because to mark and be marked is the only way out. At the beginning of “Coda,” sing-songy, a cappella, the creak and grit gone from her suddenly clear voice, Anderson makes a promise: “They say love turns to rot/But I’m gonna give him all I’ve got.”


Curren$y And The Alchemist Get Chilly On “Covert Coup”

The New Orleans-based Curren$y is a weed rapper, which means his job is to make something usually associated with directionless demotivation seem badass. The art of weed rapping is the art of bragging about surpassing low expectations, and there are a couple ways to do this: the current big mainstream WR, for instance, is probably Lil Wayne, but for Wayne weed’s just one of about nine zillion obsessive symbols of his own space-alien Otherness. (No other rapper besides Andre 3000 has spent more time getting high on spaceships, but Weezy never invites you up.) Then there’s the drifting, goofy warmth of Redman and Method Man, rap’s acting Cheech and Chong in the 90s; or of MF Doom, who raps in free-associative mumbles and cut an album with Aqua Teen Hunger Force. These guys welcome you in, the way people who are incoherently stoned on something mellow do: the albums let you sit down, hang out a while, accept that not a whole lot’s gonna happen, laugh hard. The stuff MF Doom mumbles turns out to be really clever, if you pay enough attention.

Curren$y spends lots of time bragging, but he never locks you out. Over four albums and several mixtapes, he’s perfected a slightly dreamy drawl, wandering through beats that are warm, loungey and a little distant, like someone who likes you but is having trouble focusing. He’s absurdly proud of small things–the size of his stash, his Call of Duty skills, the perfect Ritz cracker he just prepared. He talks a lot about getting stoned on planes, but he never says where they’re going. He’s not an egoist so much as easily satisfied.

Covert Coup, a 27-minute collaboration with The Alchemist released for free in honor of 4/20, is chillier than last year’s Pilot Talk records: the beats, like the title, are from the paranoid, metallic, CIA-history-obsessing end of being high. Choruses are either flickering, indiscernable samples or just someone repeating a couple of lines a lot. (One of the songs on Pilot Talk 2 had a chorus that consisted entirely of Curren$y saying the name of the protagonist of Knight Rider over and over; here, “The Type” circles around a repeated line from Outkast’s weediest album.) But it’s never insular, or truly cold: it spools itself out too curiously, spotted with piano doodles and snatches of psych-rock guitar, and Curren$y eases into songs, drawling distant “yeah”s as a beat’s first few seconds stumble into a groove. He brags about how high he is, how high his friends are, how high your girlfriend wants to get. His own girlfriend, he notes, can “carry her own weight financially.” He touts the importance of exercise. When he’s aggressive, it’s because he’s making fun of you for getting hit too hard by the pot.

Curren$y’s occasional unfriendliness is as much a part of being a good weed rapper as the chilly beats. He claims to be really cool, much cooler than you, but he’ll admit being cool’s not too hard, and he’s happy to hand out his secrets. He calls a song “Life Instructions,” and the first line is “Pattycake, pattycake / I’m baked, my man.”


The Iceberg Songs of Taylor Swift

Here’s an academic question: What do artists do, exactly? Tell stories? Advance causes? Or something trickier? If you’re, say, a 20-year-old Nashville singer-songwriter and newly minted tabloid superstar, what exactly should you be trying for with your lyrics about boys and breakups? What’s the best you can do?

Speak Now is Taylor Swift’s third album. Her second album was called Fearless, and it sold nine million copies. Consequently, its successor comes encrusted with gossip: You’ve probably heard that this song’s about that guy, and that song’s about this one, and “Innocent” is about Kanye West. Which is fine, but being told What Songs Mean is like having a really pushy professor. And it imperils a true appreciation of Swift’s talent, which is not confessional, but dramatic: Like a procession of country songwriters before her, she creates characters and situations—some from life—and finds potent ways to describe them.

All of Speak Now‘s songs are by Swift alone, and you can learn something about her talent from the gimmicks she likes. For example, she likes to attribute the first few choruses of a song to the narrator, and the last one to someone else—like, she’ll say she loves someone, and then at the end, someone will use the same words to say they love her. It’s a reliable thrill: The song’s emotional universe is suddenly shared.

This little tic is representative. Swift enjoys slipping in and out of identities, and her best songs are constructed from multiple, superimposed points of view. She also likes using a tossed-off phrase to suggest large and serious things that won’t fit in the song, things that enhance or subvert the surface narrative. She writes iceberg songs. Consider Speak Now‘s “Mean.” Not quite four minutes long, it’s made of handclaps, amiable banjo strums, and multitracked Taylor Swifts. It’s chipper and funny, because the narrator is predicting escape from someone she dislikes: “Some day, I’ll be living in a big ol’ city/And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.” And then, slipped in casually, a glimpse of the submerged shadow: “Some day, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me.”

These lines are from the chorus, which is in the future tense. The abuse, thorough and quiet, is in the present, and the narrator’s future is in doubt, and the word “mean” is a juvenile understatement—a trivial word, used because the narrator is imagining a future where the abuser will be trivial, too. Except, in a different vernacular, the word’s huge and contemptuous, and means “impoverished”: The guy in the song is mean of spirit, of soul, of manhood. In this sense, there’s no judgment more total than “all you are is mean,” which means that behind every cheerful repetition of the song’s title is a second voice, wise and compassionate, whispering like a ghost. So regardless of whether the girl escapes, she’s redeemed: She’s been observed, and her tormentor judged. The song is overwhelming.

Fearless had a few songs like this. It was gorgeous in places, but it also often sounded boxy and constricted, and even its best tracks were sonically unadventurous: strings when Swift was sad, banjo when she was peppy, sheets of anonymous electric guitar throughout. She’s more comfortable inside these new songs, and cleverer. “Speak Now” is light and cute and teases at being cloying; the giddy, bombastic “The Story of Us” plays around with glammy dance-pop; “Better Than Revenge,” full of bitchy emo-isms, sounds almost exactly like Paramore. (Twitter tells me Swift and Paramore’s Hayley Williams are BFFs, so I doubt this escapes either of them.) Swift’s voice isn’t a technical wonder, and on Fearless her phrasing could be bland and muddled, but that’s changed. She can still sound strained and thin, and often strays into a pitch that drives some people crazy; but she’s learned how to make words sound like what they mean. After those nine million copies, she can do whatever she wants; Speak Now proves her talent’s expanding in proportion to her freedom.

Of course, not everyone in the world is a Taylor Swift fan. Criticisms include: She’s a conformist stooge of the patriarchy (she’s now had two hits about defying fathers); she idolizes chastity (she’s coy about sex, but only the willful could miss the fucking in the new “Sparks Fly,” which includes the line “Gimme something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around”); and she sells girls corrupt and shallow fairy-tale notions of romance (one of the two fairy-tale songs on Fearless mocked a guy for trying to white-knight her, and the only mention of such things on Speak Now is “I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you”—note the tense). These gripes are shallow and gross, in that special way that things get gross when you cram shaded and living work through an ideological sieve like you’re mechanically separating chicken.

I mention them because I heard Speak Now the same week that a dutiful line of politicians and celebrities stepped up to entreat bullied gay teenagers not to kill themselves. So when “Mean” came on—a song about being utterly trapped, about keeping your head above dark water by promising that some day you’ll be “living in a big ol’ city,” about the strength of knowing exactly how mean bullies are—it was difficult not to think of Tyler Clementi and his tragic ilk. Unlike even the deftest and best-meant “It Gets Better” videos, “Mean” is huge, and hugely compassionate, and fearless in the way it bears its attached iceberg. It deserves these besieged people; they certainly deserve it. The political objection would be that Taylor Swift, a straight, white, blond girl currently enjoying unfathomable success and adulation, does not know how it feels to be an unfamous gay teenager daily being told that he should expedite his journey to hell. That’s true. But this might also be true: What artists do, at their best, is try to figure out how things feel.


The Calculated Rebellion of Miley Cyrus

On May 18, Miley Cyrus released a song called “Can’t Be Tamed,” the title track to her new album, out now. Cyrus, of course, is one of the Disney Channel’s recent brood of teenage multimedia moguls, the star of a sitcom called Hannah Montana, the plot of which is surprisingly complicated and will not be unpacked here. Suffice it to say that if you were an 11-year-old girl, your mother would not mind you watching this show, though she probably wouldn’t watch it with you. And you’d outgrow it quickly, even if you still sang the occasional Miley song into the occasional hairbrush.

Anyway, in “Can’t Be Tamed,” M.C. declares that 1) She always has to get her way, 2) This is because she is hot, 3) Said hotness ensures that she “always gets the 10s,” and, finally, 4) She can’t be tamed. Cyrus’s vocals are harsh and preeningly robotic in the rote code for Badass Chick—same goes for the squashed, menacing synth beat extracted from early Lady Gaga singles. (It’s not an imaginative song.) On June 3, Cyrus performed the song on Britain’s Got Talent and pretended to kiss a female backup singer. Several newspapers charitably announced that this had “shocked Britain.”

I would bet that you’re unmoved by all this. Not just because you probably suspect that Cyrus’s rebelliousness is just another stage in the marketing of a bloodlessly managed persona, but because you have seen this particular stage of persona-marketing about eight trillion times. It’s what Disney-affiliated pop stars do without fail when they hit about 18; it’s what Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake all did. Ashlee Simpson opened her debut album, Autobiography, maybe 2000s teen pop’s one stone classic, by claiming, “You think you know me,” even though this was her first album and most of us didn’t really think that. (She was rebelling not against her past but her antiseptic sister, Jessica, whom we did think we knew.)

We all know how this works. We know that to talk about these stars without using phrases like “market share” and “demographic management” is to be, on some important level, a dupe. We also know that the people buzzing thickly around the YouTube comment sections for Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” or Christina’s “Dirrty” or, indeed, “Can’t Be Tamed” are unanimously naïve: that the girls putting off their biology reports to type encomiums to Miley’s beauty and bravery, and the boys frothingly calling her a slut and a whore, are washing extreme emotion up against something no more emotional than a wire transfer.

OK, but let’s talk about Miley Cyrus. Who is, after all, a human girl not unlike one you may know or be. She’s 17—18 in November. From the age of 12, she has essentially been a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, according to whose mores she has had to speak, sing, behave, and (you could argue if you wanted to get all Orwellian about it) think. For this, she’s been rewarded with adoration and money; you’d be hard-pressed to consider Cyrus “unfortunate” from any serious perspective. But you’d also be hard-pressed not to admit that right now, in her position, you would yourself really want to play down your relationship with an oversize anthropomorphic rodent.

Which is the source of everything good about this stuff. Albums like Can’t Be Tamed are on their surface selling authenticity, and it doesn’t take a lot of sophistication to see that the resulting product is ruinously tainted. But there’s pleasure and nourishment in the friction between real and fake, between desperate and calculated. So: When Britney gets on the dance floor and says she’s a slave 4 U, she’s shedding one kind of subservience for another—except her new slavery is strange and menacing and exciting and may last only as long as the song. And the old slavery hasn’t really gone away, which makes the song a little like Juliet’s balcony, a place to stuff yourself with greedy kisses before your nurse calls from offstage. This is richer and sexier and more interesting than simple teenage rebellion or corporate accounting.

So that’s how this stuff can work. Can’t Be Tamed mostly doesn’t. A lot of its songs are ballads that ooze sap like an abandoned sponge; the only one that stands out is the really terrible one that goes, “The only thing that/Our hearts are made of/Are the acts of forgiveness and love.” (There’s also a cover of Poison’s perennial “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” which is itself stupidly sappy but really good at it, and just makes everything else here look worse.) The good stuff: There’s a song called “Two More Lonely People” that turns a second of country guitar into a dance-floor loop, which is cool in a New Order kind of way. There’s one called “Permanent December” with a part that makes good use of Miley’s freakishly mature sarcasm-voice. And there’s one called “Robot,” which is a good place to finish up.

“Robot” is co-written by John Shanks, who also co-wrote most of Simpson’s Autobiography, and there’s something of that album not only in the wailing, fuzzy chorus (which in Cyrus’s mouth blurs into noisy oblivion) but in the tense and brutal verses: “I mistake the game for being smart/Stand here/Sell this/And hit your mark,” and then, “There’s nothing left inside/Except rusted metal that was never even mine,” and then, “I would scream/But I’m just this hollow shell,” and I mean, Jesus. This turns out to be the only truly interesting moment on Can’t Be Tamed—the breaking-up-with-Mickey song to rule them all, more explicit and bitter about being a corporate instrument than anything else in its well-populated genre. It ends well, of course: Miley’s “not your robot/I’m just me.”

Which she is. But she’s also their robot. This is complicated, you see, even though it’s trivial, and I totally forgive you if you’d rather be thinking about something else. Don’t worry. The girls of the Mouse will still be down here, pacing a churned and muddy DMZ between feeling and marketing, between girlhood and the bottom line, hemmed in and doomed, singing into their hairbrushes.


David Byrne and Fatboy Slim Pay Homage to Imelda Marcos

Here Lies Love, conceived and composed by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, features 23 vocalists, 21 of whom are female, and one of whom is David Byrne. (The other dude is Steve Earle.) It narrates, in that usual patchy and nebulous rock-opera way, the childhood, upbringing, ambition, and political career of Imelda Marcos, first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Imelda’s husband, Ferdinand Marcos, declared martial law in 1972 and didn’t relinquish it until 1981, five years before his deposition by the nonviolent People Power Revolution, best remembered by most Americans for its discovery that Ms. Marcos had, in her flight with her husband from the besieged palace, left behind 3,000 pairs of shoes.

The two-CD set doesn’t dramatize all this. What it does, when it’s good, is compassionately illuminate bits and pieces of a life and personality characterized, allegedly, by a goodhearted but worrisome brand of nationalist messianism: “I’m a simple country girl who had a dream.” It’s also exactly the sort of thing you’d expect David Byrne to do in 2010, which is to say it’s ambitious and curious and socially responsible and vaguely annoying. Since the dissolution of Talking Heads, being a Byrne fan has felt like forcing yourself to admire the décor in a series of smaller and smaller rooms. He’s an extremely bright and engaging guy who, left alone, tends to dwindle away within mild, arch art songs; collaborating with Brian Eno for 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, he was more expansive and adventurous than he’d been in decades.

Fatboy Slim helps open Byrne up here, bolstering his stagy, flowery songwriting with drum machines and effects pedals and drunken disco strings, although this isn’t quite the Studio 54 album that’s been advertised. And that musty feeling never quite vanishes. It seems strange to look at an album with 23 singers and complain of a paucity of variety, but Here Lies Love slides from Florence Welch to St. Vincent to Tori Amos to Martha Wainwright to Nellie McKay, and though they all do fine, you wish Byrne had exercised his power as an un-turn-downable Great American Artist and corralled, like, Miley Cyrus or Erykah Badu or Debbie Harry to break up the monolithic program of quietly quirky indie-girls.

The standouts do deviate a little: the squelchy “Eleven Days” (laden with chintzy wah-wah and handed over to Cyndi Lauper), or “Dancing Together” (which Sharon Jones inflates into swaying, tottering faux-soul), or “A Perfect Hand,” (wherein Steve Earle stands out sort of unfairly, just by being the only other guy). The Earle track narrates the couple’s political rise, Imelda campaigning for her husband with breathtaking energy and the sociopathy of a born politician (“If you open the door for a lady/You open the door for yourself”), and it blends well with the idea that she saw herself as synecdoche for her country, the kind of gleaming good intention that hardens into what’s-good-for-me-is-good-for-everyone. But it also makes pervasive use of a hokey playing-card metaphor and dropped-G singing style that’s unmistakably American (“Who’s holdin’ aces/Who’s gonna fold,” etc.), which is, of course, how Steve Earle sings everything. It injects the song with all kinds of shadows of ideas about America and the American politicization of down-and-out, and the parallels between Imelda-Marcos-as-simple-country-girl and, say, the way American politicians seem to spend a lot of time competing to see whose father had the most demeaning job.

Here Lies Love isn’t always this fertile. But the adrift moments are justified by the good ones: Martha Wainwright swaying primly to “The Rose of Tacloban,” Natalie Merchant announcing martial law on “Order 1081,” or Byrne himself popping in for the near-totally-irrelevant and dorky “American Troglodyte.” There are precise and careful images to be found (“It’s amazing how the soldiers all know how to dance/It’s amazing how the soldiers keep the creases in the pants”). And to its earnest, studious, compassionate, occasionally dull credit, it never once mentions shoes.


Feigning Sincerity With the Magnetic Fields

These days, the once-revolutionary Concept Album is a bit of a joke, but Stephin Merritt, leader of metamorphic indie-pop group the Magnetic Fields, is so fond of the form that he dabbles in Concept Bands. His Gothic Archies recorded two albums of ostentatiously grim synth dirges, while the 6ths assigned the songwriter’s dolorous tunes to an assortment of mid-’90s underground luminaries whose total obscurity in mainstream circles made the project a weird parody of star-stuffed supergroups.

Even the Fields themselves are rarely allowed to maintain a musical voice. The band’s last album was called Distortion, because every sound on it was distorted; their new one is called Realism, because every sound on it is clean. Stripped-down, acoustic music is commonly perceived as more emotionally honest than heavily processed studio work, but it’s the earlier record whose words more frequently signify earnestness. Then there are the album covers—Distortion is a bold black men’s-room icon on a tacky Pepto-Bismol field, Realism is a ladies’-room icon on faux-recycled paper. The joke is that the obvious symbolism doesn’t mean anything.

This is all very dry. But the Magnetic Fields are more than academics because of the ways their chintzy disguises interface with Merritt’s immutable persona—melancholy, ironic, affectionate, arch. His trick is to make the deconstruction of earnestness earnest, to be romantic from behind a mask. So Realism‘s clarity is as much a put-on as its predecessor’s obfuscation. It’s bright and clear where Distortion was shadowed and stuffy, and draped tastefully with strings, like the pastoral, slightly goopy British folk of the mid-’60s, but it’s a deliberately thin, affected sound. He wears his new costume with mixed success: “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” and “Walk a Lonely Road” are some of the best-sounding Fields tracks ever, but “The Dolls’ Tea Party,” which sounds like its title, seems designed to try people’s patience.

As a writer, Merritt’s first love is still self-subversion. He spends almost all of “I Don’t Know What to Say” listing things he could say, and the reasons you might reject them; as the song fades out, he has just thought of an alternate solution: “I could try and shove you off the nearest cliff.” The hootenanny he advertises in “We Are Having a Hootenanny” pours on the friendly accordion and tinkling piano to disguise a Scientologist demand to “take our personality quiz.” “Seduced and Abandoned” uses a baby as a bathetic prop for several verses before the jilted lover closes by offering it alcohol. And “From a Sinking Boat” closes the record with wry apocalypse: A shipwrecked Merritt pens a final heartfelt letter as the waters rise, then admits, “The ink is sinking/The page is blurred/And I can’t read a single word.” So it didn’t matter what he said after all.

Realism is a slight record, and often so chintzy it’s obtuse, but it contains lovely paeans to insincerity. Merritt got compared to Cole Porter a lot around the release of 1999’s gargantuan 69 Love Songs, maybe because he was a gay man writing ode after rigidly structured ode to pretty girls, but he has said repeatedly that he prefers Irving Berlin. Berlin was the Russian Jew who grew up in Manhattan and wrote a song about how much he missed Midwestern Christmases. Sometimes, Merritt’s own greatest ambition seems to be to lie his head off on supermarket intercoms forever. But maybe “lie” isn’t the right word for this stuff. At the end of “The Dada Polka,” he drawls the realest line on Realism: “Do something a little out of character, it won’t kill you/Do something true.”

The Magnetic Fields play BAM February13 and Town Hall March 10–12


Eminem’s Comeback Neither Shocks Nor Amuses

First, let’s talk about what he did. Marshall Mathers once wrote a song called “Kim,” about killing his wife, and a lot of people got understandably worried: What’s the big idea here? Should our children be listening to this? Isn’t this guy just filling their heads with misogynist rage and passing it off as a joke?, etc. More sympathetic listeners used words like “storyteller” and “depiction” and “uncompromising” to try and explain to people who’d read Kant why they were so fond of a homicidal trailer-park rapper, and the whole thing was exactly the kind of ideological traffic jam that had become Eminem’s métier. On the subsequent State of the Post-Eminem Union masterpiece “White America,” he bragged about “creating so much motherfucking turbulence.”

But back to “Kim” real quick: Driving his wife out to the woods to stab her, Eminem was fearful and panicked, freaking out about someone driving in the other lane, scaring his victim with a frantic bark every time he felt small. It was hard to listen to this song and not be wrapped up, shaking, in a blanket by the end. It was a song about male rage, but it wasn’t some sanctimonious depiction—it was specifically about Marshall Mathers’s male rage and also, maybe, yours. With which you were now forced to engage. Eminem would not let you trust yourself—like the best essayists (like Socrates!), he sowed doubt.

Or maybe I’m just making shit up. Because Relapse, his first proper album in five years, couldn’t pull the rug out from under you if you left the room.

It was always going to be difficult. So much of Eminem’s work relied on his interplay with a rapt public—his innumerable celebrity disses worked because Marshall Mathers was a celebrity himself, a Loki in Valhalla. Now, Relapse is a dank echo chamber wherein he continues his “shock tactics” in pointless isolation. He has nothing to push against and no one to play with. Em slices up some hitchhikers and actresses—which, like, OMG—but it’s rote teenage cruelty: It can’t even summon the old, uncomfortable laughter. When he insists on “Medicine Ball” that “it’s time for you to hate me again” amid Silence of the Lambs references, it sounds like he’s pleading.

“Medicine Ball,” by the way, proceeds atop an exhausted boom-boom-CLAP Dr. Dre beat, which sounds a lot like Relapse‘s other boom-boom-CLAP Dr. Dre beats. With a handful of exceptions, Eminem has never bothered with samples, and his beats, whether homemade or solicited, have usually been simple, afraid of camouflaging the words. Which was fine, because this guy had a knack for internal rhyme so inventive that beneath sequences like “Mammals/Cannibals/Cantaloupes/Dead animals/Antelopes/Man and/Can’t elope,” anything more assuming might have seemed selfish. Now, though, infrequent sonic candies like the yelping horns of “My Mom” (which contains some of Em’s better lines) or the titular loop of “Bagpipes From Baghdad” (which doesn’t) are buoys amid a monotonous sea of what are basically Insane Clown Posse lyrics.

There’s an airless misery to this album. No more disorientation. Now, you know exactly what’s going on: You’re sitting in a cold little room listening to Dr. Dre clap every few seconds while a jumpy 14-year-old reads you the protected entries from his Xanga. (That’s kinduva dated reference, but judging by the celebrities he offs here—Lindsay Lohan! Britney Spears!—Eminem would approve.) Then there’s a nasty little irony: Several songs describe a ravaged childhood with such hysteria—Em’s never liked his mom, but, unless I’m missing some mixtape somewhere, this is the first time his stepfather has sodomized him with her blessing—that they seem to be begging for sympathy, a commodity Eminem’s never cared about before, and which he fails here to manipulate in any unexpected or interesting way. And Relapse is the first time he hasn’t earned any.


The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Bowery Ballroom Blitz

In July 2007, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, capping the night with “Down Boy,” from their then-current EP, Is Is. “Down Boy” is a dark, sultry song, and the band’s singer, Karen O, swayed in place with odd, theatrical movements, unable to keep a lipsticked grin from breaking across her face. When the band finished, Letterman took the stage to thank them, gave Karen O’s hand a courtly kiss, kept hold of it throughout his sign-off, and, as the credits rolled, gazed at her as if about to offer to carry her books.

Karen O(rzolek) is, of course, not the first rock star to be crushed on so intensely, but infatuation informed and sometimes devoured the critical reaction to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in their early years. Any rock band with a chick in it, let alone a chick with Orzolek’s theatricality and NYC-trashy sense of sex—in 2002, majorly hyped, the YYYs were nevertheless more famous for the beer baths she took onstage than for the 13-minute self-titled EP that was then their only recording—is going to have trouble escaping the nominative ghetto of Chicks Who Rock.

This wasn’t the band’s only extramusical problem. From the first sickly chord of their bad-sex anthem “Bang!” to more than half of 2003’s debut full-length Fever to Tell, the YYYs were saddled with a concept: Their songs were jolts of the kind of tinny, fuzzy, raucous New York City smut that was, at the time, Saving Rock and Roll (Again), and their live show was the best hypersexualized theater of the year. But as good as the YYYs were at channeling the hedonism of their hometown forebears, they were, back then, a kind of very advanced novelty band, writing and playing very advanced novelty songs—that is, songs that came loaded with nostalgia for when rock ‘n’ roll really was sleazy and frightening, back before “Sleazy and Frightening” was just one of the lifestyle sets advertised on television.

For a while, the trio’s peak was “Maps,” the chiming track toward the end of Fever to Tell, wherein Karen O suddenly dropped the ravaging-colossus act, looked you straight in the ear, and sang, “They don’t love you like I love you” 13 times. (Orzolek has always written mantras: She turned her first chorus—”As a fuck, son, you suck”—into an incantation.) “Maps” was melancholy and obsessive, a comedown, the sound of a party girl walking home. It was a great song. There was a video. Karen O cried in it. It was successful. I once saw it playing on a TV in an American Eagle outlet.

The trouble was finding a voice to encompass both the parties and the comedowns. The YYYs struggled with this for awhile; this week, they succeed. Their 2006 follow-up, the messy, lovely Show Your Bones, charged into the problem and fell short of being a great album, but It’s Blitz!, their third LP, finds a fusion between the self-conscious rock ‘n’ roll bravado of “Bang!” and the visceral melancholy of “Maps”—between Karen O as frightening, sexy put-on artist and Karen O as vulnerable, aching city girl. Both those personas are clichés, which is why Blitz‘s mix—a stew of the scary and the funny and the cocky and the sad—improves on Show Your Bones, which laid those poses out like vitamins to be swallowed in order.

I’m gonna try and get at this record’s achievement the long way. In the video for the Blitz single “Zero,” Karen O dolls herself up for a show that doesn’t happen. Instead, she and her bandmates wander playfully through empty San Francisco streets, doing standard music-video things—dancing on cars, pushing each other around in shopping carts, suddenly performing (with all their gear) in deserted convenience stores, etc.—a context in which Karen O’s makeup and snakeskin boots and studded leather jacket with “KO” on the back look less awe-inspiring and Olympian than just silly. They also look really cool—cool in a human way that has no place on Olympus. Thus, what might be a gimmick becomes a public game of dress-up, the kind you play when you’re confident and just a little proud.

All this matters because this is how the YYYs perform: with confidence, pride, playfulness, and originality. Nick Zinner and Brian Chase are as indebted to their influences as Orzolek, as fond of aping them, and as capable of transcending them. Zinner’s guitar, in 2002 an instrument of tinny, sawing New York Dolls bliss, has, over the years, been artfully subtracted, so that now it might appear only as an insistent ghost on “Little Shadow” or “Skeletons”; Chase’s drums are always restless, curious things, not so much leading the songs as turning every stone inside them. Blitz is heavier with synths than its predecessors: They burble above the stomp of “Zero,” pulse gently within the loose “Soft Shock,” and go chirpy but ominous (like an eight-bit Nintendo dungeon) for “Dragon Queen.” Rarely (maybe in “Zero,” whose synths are hard to fight) do the musicians vanish beneath their new lacquer, and never, even as they cede her the center, are Zinner and Chase reduced to Karen O’s backup.

Instead, all three members of this band achieve something tricky: They use sonics to sculpt personality. Zinner and Chase are always, somewhere, audible, and the tangible, charismatic, joyfully muddled woman at the center of It’s Blitz! isn’t revealed to us through the record’s lyrics, which are as gnomic as ever, but through attitudes, tones, put-on sneers, and audible grins. It’s the delight she takes in briefly fronting a menacing dance-punk outfit on “Heads Will Roll”; the meditative bliss with which she and her bandmates unveil the tonescape “Skeletons” (in which Chase does something close to a five-minute drumroll); and, best of all, the delicate delivery of this record’s best mantra—the moment on “Hysteric” when Karen O, swaying inside the stutter of Chase’s drums, repeatedly coos, “You suddenly complete me.” In moments like that, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs define themselves, not by shedding affectations, but by combining them. I’m as smitten as Letterman.


Clinic’s Do It!

Disappointment is easier to grasp than dogged consistency, which is why Clinic, the Liverpool quartet that’s released four albums since their feted 2000 debut, Internal Wrangler, are so peculiarly frustrating. Clinic never falter, never radically alter their blueprint, and parsing the hair’s-breadth differences between their records can seem unrewarding. The band’s strengths—a clenched, eerie nervousness always an inch from collapse; a fondness for punctuating garage roil with a reedy melodica, like a stoic ghost—were best exercised on 2002’s Walking With Thee, but only the devout have kept track since. Still, Clinic albums are not identical. Each has its mode, some modest extrapolation of the band’s formula hewed to for 30-odd minutes.Internal Wrangler was a swampy, primal prototype; Walking With Thee rose, keening, above the murk; Winchester Cathedral was warm and bloated where its predecessors were chilly and terse; Visitations guiltily dirtied its guitars and refocused on the groove. The albums were moods, facets, the same friend on different days.

Do It! finds our friend unusually relaxed. “Memories,” “Tomorrow,” and “Shopping Bag” feature plenty of frontman Ade Blackburn’s lockjaw chanting, which serves, in various timbres, as the meat of every Clinic album. But single “Free Not Free” softens tense Visitations-style fuzz with twinkling xylophones and an unusually gentle vocal; “The Witch (Made to Measure)” revisits the piston-like drums of Winchester Cathedral‘s “Country Mile,” but atop them, Blackburn is looser, less frenetic. The calm is intriguing—and the record peaks with “Mary & Eddie,” almost sensual save for the shattered-glass sonics—but Do It! is the first Clinic record that seems assembled from bits of old Clinic records, its personality the result of combined ideas rather than new ones. As such it could be their worst, but this band’s curve is so flat that it’s exhausting just trying to place it. See? Frustrating.

Clinic play the Music Hall of Williamsburg May 8


Britney Spears’s Blackout

Britney Spears’s title as leader of 1999’s teen-pop surge can make you forget that she’s never made a good album. She’s made singles, but her records have never cohered, which became a problem when 2001’s Britney pitched her as a real person: The album pretended at portraiture but was as fractured as the hit collections before it. By 2003’s In the Zone, as her contemporaries morphed into singer-songwriters with better guitars, a left-behind Spears sounded more diffuse than ever.

Add the escalating sideshow of her personal life and there was reason to dread Blackout, but Spears’s first album in four years dispenses with biography early and well. “Piece of Me” is the best song ever written about Britney Spears (she’s not responsible for the words, no, but she’s responsible for the way she deadpans, “Oh my God, that Britney’s shameless”—and it’s wry), and the rest of Blackout
benefits from abandoning her disastrous public face: It’s forced to focus as it crafts a new one. Spears’s writers present her with the goofiest, most vivacious productions she’s ever had, filling “Radar” with pinging noises and polishing Madonna’s dance-floor trash bright, while Timbaland protégé Danja, soberer, takes the “sensual” tracks—though he fails to save the tumescent, grimy ballad “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” from being the most white-trash sex song ever, and the only track here that sounds as exhausted as Spears must be.

Such tears in the façade make Blackout spotty and occasionally dank, but its good tracks are as infectious and aggressive as anything Spears has recorded (and more numerous—”Hot as Ice,” “Toy Soldier,” and “Perfect Lover,” three gargantuan choruses buoyed upon papery drums, would once have been spread across three albums). And though her soapy hiccup of a voice is as ProTooled as ever, it’s not true that it could be yours. Britney-the-singer, once a delivery system for fetishes, is at her most human and collected while Britney-the-person is at her messiest. You’re sick of hearing about her, but don’t worry. This record isn’t about her.