music criticism

Review Reviews: Memories… Do Not Open

Pitchfork

Review: The Chainsmokers, Memories… Do Not Open

“Despite the preponderance of sad piano across the album, the Chainsmokers remain preening arena hams who make videos that look like Maxim spreads.”

A remarkably sober evaluation from an image-obsessed tastemaker best known for pretentious writing, Pitchfork’s review of Memories… Do Not Open is a fair and balanced attempt to place this album in a larger cultural context. Since they abandoned the grating, self-involved type of criticism that was their house style in the early days, this sort of birds-eye contextualization is now the apparent goal of every review that Pitchfork publishes. And they’ve gotten quite good at it: in just two short paragraphs, longtime music critic and professional DJ Philip Sherburne effectively tracks the progression of the Chainsmokers’ music from mindless party jams toward “slower tempos, slinky melodies, and songs about bruised feelings,” a mix of legitimate evolution and cynical marketing that he deems “a canny move.”

Sherburne’s biggest problem with the album is that it’s neither fun enough to live up to the band’s reputation as EDM’s most hate-able party bros, nor deep enough to justify the shift towards more introspective songwriting. He accuses the album of “toggling between cheap thrills and bitter recriminations with all the emotional stakes of a drunken beach fight caught on Snapchat,” which is exactly the sort of culturally-relevant critical slam-dunk that Pitchfork was built for. But it’s far from the only Classic Pitchfork moment in the review: Sherburne describes the closing track “Last Day Alive” as “the musical equivalent of a poster of fighter jets,” which is hilarious, surprising, and the sort of dead-on analogy that can’t be written  without a deep understanding of the music being discussed.

Only a truly pedantic reading of this review could uncover anything seriously obnoxious. But even when Sherburne off-handedly mentions the number of credited writers on the album (in an attempt to casually discredit the group’s artistry) or, in his conclusion, implies that the Chainsmokers don’t deserve an in-depth critical reading because their songs are too popular, it’s still hard to hold it against him. If Pitchfork had reviewed this album fifteen years ago, it would have been next-level insufferable, like their review of Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American or any of their obnoxiously self-impressed ‘concept’ reviews. Pitchfork hasn’t lost their cultural cachet in recent years, but they’ve shifted their focus towards writing that is legitimately useful in today’s over-saturated musical marketplace.  Whether they helped initiate the move away from narcissistic music criticism or merely sniffed the shifting winds, it was, you might say, a canny move.

Spin

You Know Exactly What The Chainsmokers’ Memories… Do Not Open Sounds Like

“Taggart took a star turn on ‘Closer,’ the smash hit that briefly dressed the Chainsmokers up as the Postal Service, and is just about the only singer you hear on ‘Paris,’ the new smash hit that dresses the Chainsmokers up as the Chainsmokers dressed up as the Postal Service.”

Jordan Sargent opens his review of Memories… Do Not Open by invoking Bob Dylan, an outrageous decision clearly intended to catch the eye. The comparison between Dylan’s transition to a more rock-inspired sound and the Chainsmokers’ own creative evolution, as over-the-top as it is, could be an interesting starting point for a discussion, but ultimately, Sargent doesn’t justify this opening salvo with any particular insight. Unfortunately, this pattern of a joke feinting towards insight but failing to deliver is repeated throughout the review, which leans heavily on snark at the expense of any actual in-depth criticism.

The article’s thesis, and the one kernel of genuine musical criticism, is tucked away in the third paragraph, where Sargent claims that the Chainsmokers have a single, unchanging musical template, variations of which they repeat across the entire album. Considering the obvious similarities between their break-out hit “Closer” and the content of Memories… Do Not Open, it’s a fair criticism, and one that could be explored further. Sargent, however, undercuts this potential almost immediately, as he attempts to elucidate his main point: “The Chainsmokers have one song… that one song is that same sort of morose piano ballad refashioned for whatever wave of EDM we’re currently in, the one where the drops are more often like coos into your ear than bashes over your head. (Some people call this ‘future bass.’ I dunno.)”

Sargent’s casual dismissal of an entire sub-genre, is, one supposes, meant to be funny, particularly to the kind of person who reflexively laughs at what they consider the over-classification of music. But in reality, to boldly claim your lack of interest in the genre of music you are currently discussing suggest intellectual laziness or a lack of curiosity. But even a brief glance at his work confirms that Sargent is, typically, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic consumer of music.

This leaves us with only one possible explanation: because of the Chainsmokers’ status as widely-accepted targets of public ridicule, Sargent legitimately didn’t feel the need to critically examine their music in a manner that might illuminate their popularity (aside from a few half-hearted references to Taggart as a boy-next-door type). Instead, he wasted his time joking about the group’s awkward appearance on SNL and building tortured, half-clever metaphors around the group’s name, all in a misguided attempt to stunt on two guys who may already qualify as the most stunted-upon dudes in music. Some people call this “clever.” I dunno.

The New York Times

The Chainsmokers Find That Pop Is an Awkward Fit

“In the ecosystem in which the Chainsmokers have thrived — big-festival dance music and the pop that derives from its distillation — the album is a meaningless concept, and the album format underscores both this duo’s weaknesses and strengths.”

The New York Times just can’t help itself. Even in an article written with precision and clarity by longtime music critic Jon Caramanica about the two goofiest members of a scene that was, in Caramanica’s own words, “designed for ecstatic release, but also one that was easily parodied,” the Times, as a self-styled pillar of integrity in a chaotic world, must craft every article with the aim of being the final word on any particular topic, the be-all end-all for the rest of recorded time. For this reason, Caramanica must, regardless of his own feelings, begin his review of Memories… Do Not Open with the absolutely Biblical lede, “From the beginning, the Chainsmokers knew dance music was a joke.”

Caramanica, to his credit, doesn’t devote much time to the already well-covered issue of the Chainsmokers’ public persona, and instead looks at how their individual success reflects the state of pop music as a whole. This is perhaps too grandiose of a framework to hang on twelve songs about being drunk and sad sung over “the musical equivalent of bringing an amiable golden retriever along for an unhurried jog.” Still, it’s hard to argue with Caramanica’s claim that the pop-chart dance-music explosion turned out to be nothing but means by which to expand pop’s sonic palette to include the rhythms of EDM. Although, it’s hard to imagine what the alternative to this “long con” could have been: a complete abolishment of the Billboard Hot 100 and the ultimate ascension of the Dance Club Songs chart? One shudders to think.

On the whole, the Times review is competent and insightful, applauding the Chainsmokers for attempting something new but critiquing the ways in which they fall short of their ambitions. The article is sprinkled with the bite-size critical nuggets that often fill these sort of pieces: Taggart is “a capable but unexciting singer”; the tempo moves at “something more than a slog but less than a gallop”; the best songs on the album have “an emotional texture the others grasp for futilely”; a less-successful effort is “a twinkle with no diamond.”

And yet, for all the capable writing on display, it’s hard to ignore how futile the whole thing feels. Caramanica himself highlights how much of dance music is driven by irresistible feelings of build and release, primal physical and emotional sensations that have almost nothing to do with what you read in the ‘Arts & Leisure’ section of the New York Times. If you already understand the music, you don’t need a review, and if you need to read a review, you’ll never understand the music. In this ecosystem, the album review is a meaningless concept, and the review format underscores both Caramanica’s strengths and weaknesses. In the end, there’s just not that much to talk about.

Advertisements

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 7/22/2013

dispatchesjuly

Avril Lavigne – Here’s To Never Growing Up

Don’t-give-a-whaaat Ke$ha-style partying by way of Taylor Swift’s pseudo-countrified pop. Is this what it’s come to? I thought you were better than this, Avril! Actually, no, I didn’t, but seeing someone clinging to relevancy this desperately is sad, unless it’s someone truly heinous, which Lavigne never was. Did you know she’s 28? I’m not saying that to make you feel old—she’s too old to sell this kind of bubblegum and too young to get any pathos from the concept. It’s not surprising that she’s chose this path: while most of her music is general adult contemporary, “Girlfriend” is her biggest and brattiest song. Never growing up isn’t so much a lifestyle for Lavigne as it is a marketing ploy.

But the real issue here is that name-drop at the front of the chorus. What Radiohead song do you know that’s suitable to be sang at the top of your lungs? Ms. Perry’s “The One Who Got Away” raised similar questions last year, but Lavigne throws hers right into the refrain and forces you to really grapple with it. Which Radiohead album are these ladies listening to? Is “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” appropriate music for a Mustang make-out session? Is it even possible to sing “Kid A” at the volume Lavigne suggests? I have more questions than answers, obviously.

David Guetta – Play Hard (feat. Akon & Ne-Yo)

EDM is the musical equivalent of empty calories, but even by the standards of modern dance music, David Guetta’s work is dumb with a capital ‘d’. Moreso than Calvin Harris, David Guetta’s music is derivative and comically unsubtle, and some accuse Harris of making the same song over and over again, at least he’s doing it without ripping off Afrojack. Although, D. Guetta and Afrojack have a working relationship, so… maybe Mr. Jack is cool with it?

I don’t want Guetta to be a plagiarist because despite his obvious flaws and the role he played in transforming the charts into an across-the-board synth-fueled bacchanalia, I like his music. It’s big and loud and you can jog to it, and on occasion, it’s fantastic. (See: “Without You”). “Play Hard” doesn’t have a lot going for it aside from that famous synth line in the chorus, but at least this time Guetta credited the original artist.

“Play Hard” is dull—Akon can really suck the energy out of a verse, huh?—but it’s worth a listen just to hear the sound of pop music eating itself in some kind of substance-free Ouroboros scenario. “Better Off Alone” came from a different time, when electronic music was a rarity on the charts, sung by unknowns. Now it’s everywhere, with big-name artists of all genres ready and willing to jump on the train. Alice DeeJay is remembered fondly for their one big song; when David Guetta finally runs out of steam (around the time he samples the chorus from “Castles In The Sky”), he’ll be looked back on with exhaustion and annoyance. Alas, the perils of success.

Capital Cities – Safe And Sound

Here’s the argument against Guetta-style hedomism. This falls somewhere between “alternative” and “dance,” but wherever you place it, “Safe And Sound” is a great reminder that the synthesizer has more settings than “hedonism.” Even in pop music, it doesn’t have to be all build-up and release. Electronic sounds can be more soothing and inviting than a six-string if you use them right.

It would feel a little silly to call this minimalism, but it’s simple, for sure. All I can make out is a synth, a drum machine, a horn, and two guys singing—maybe a little guitar on the bridge, but only for accent. And it works! So much Top 40 is overstuffed to the point where you can’t identify the individual instruments, so it’s nice to hear something this basic.

It’s a bit repetitive and there’s one real groaner of a lyric—“hurricane of frowns”—but the message of the song is so uplifting that it feels more like a mantra, something you chant in order to encourage positive thoughts. The music just goes along with that: the synth line is warm and smooth, and the horn, oh, the horn. The horn is the great under-used instrument of modern pop music. It’s almost cheap how easily a horn signifies triumph, hopefulness or just sheer exuberance, but it’s used so sparingly in “Capital Cities” for what a major part of the song it is. I say we give them a pass. In fact, I say we give everyone a pass. Let’s throw a horn into every pop song we can until we’re all sick of it.

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 5/28/2013

 dispatchesmay2

Florida Georgia Line – Cruise [Remix] (feat. Nelly)

Call it a “remix” all you want, but I know a hastily-produced “pop” version of a country song when I hear it. To the best of my knowledge, Taylor Swift originated this practice when some backwards-thinking suits at the label got uncomfortable because “Love Story” had the barest hint of a steel guitar in it. Swift would later become the living embodiment of this phenomenon.

Anyway, the original version of “Cruise” was more already more rock than country, but it was a pleasant addition to charts and it fell more on the side of “simple” than “braindead,” which is a rarity in a lot of modern country. It was catchy and it didn’t get caught up in the “Countrier Than Thou” nonsense that started when Waylon Jennings made “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and has just snowballed ever since.

The new version of “Cruise” is dispiriting in some ways: do record execs still think we won’t listen to something that doesn’t sound exactly like everything else? The original didn’t have a lot of rough edges to smooth over, but damned it they didn’t find some. The distinctive guitar line is gone—hell, the entire instrument has been buffed out. If you really dig for it, you can still hear the rumor of an electric six-tring underneath the stuttering drum-machine beat and healthy drizzling of auto-tune, but don’t strain yourself.

But the inclusion of Nelly is a happy surprise. He’s always identified as a “country boy,” and his last foray in to the genre was “Over and Over” with Tim McGraw–which, in case you’ve forgotten, is just great. It’s been nearly a decade since Nelly went to that well, which says to me that this isn’t some crass cross-promotion gimmick: I think Nelly just likes hopping on a country song every now and then. His talk-sing croon fits nicely into any genre, and even if his actually rapping is pretty uninspired, “I can see you got a thing for the fast life/so come on, shorty, let me show you what the fast like” is so bizarrely lazy that I can’t help but like it.

Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines (feat. T.I. & Pharrell)

Does anyone know where Chad Hugo is? Should we send out a search party? Do you think Pharrell has him trapped in a well somewhere beneath the house?

Hugo was most recently spotted forming a DJ duo with someone that I’ve never, ever heard of, so I guess he’s not dead, but a quick scan of Wikipedia reveals an abundance of Pharrell-produced tracks in the past year and a lack of proper Neptunes beats. Nothing against Pharrell: he’s talented, and more than that, he’s fascinating—side bar: do you think I could write an entire 33 1/3 book about his terrible solo album? Bet you I could—but The Neptunes put together some of the best songs of the last decade, and while they’ve had a few missteps, I’d rather hear them in their synthed-out latter-day mode than listen to another empty-headed Pharrell beat.

The music behind “Blurred Lines” isn’t bad, but Pharrell must not have known it was for a pop song, because it sounds like a hip-hop beat. Actually, it’s too repetitive to even be a good rap song: there’s nothing there for a hook. Robin Thicke does the best he can (the way he drops he voice on that second “I know you want it” is the best part of the whole song) and Pharrell throws in some nice harmonies, but it’s a lost cause. The vocals go nowhere because that endless clanging gives them nowhere to go.

Also, T.I. stops by to do his slick-talking thing and drop a few come-ons that feel more like threats of sexual abuse.

J. Cole – Power Trip (feat. Miguel)

A strong showing from Jermaine Cole! I don’t know why I’m surprised that I like this song so much. I guess I’m still a little confused about Cole’s first album: I mean, what happened? Sideline Story debuted at number one on Billboard and got some love from critics, but it came and went without making much of an impression. J. Cole was way hyped up at that point, so anything less than the second coming of Yeezus would have been a let-down, but were those singles really the best you could do, J? That Trey Songz number was weak, and that dubstep-light mess you slathered all over “Mr. Nice Watch” wasn’t gonna win anyone over. “Work Out” was the most fun song on the album and it was about 15% J. Cole.

But “fun” isn’t really Cole’s thing. The other standout track from Cole World was “Lost Ones,” a devastating story-rap about abortion. “Power Trip” strikes a good balance between the two extremes: it’s loaded with real emotion, but Cole doesn’t succumb to his often-terminal self-seriousness. He’s honest and self-aware, like when he chastises himself for sending anonymous flowers (“coward shit”) and the way he flip-fops between boasting and admitting that he’s still stuck on the same girl, damn, Cole, really? The girl from “Dreams?” You need to get over that. “Homie, pull it together.”

Miguel doesn’t get enough to do, but he and Cole both make the most of his vocals. Cole drops out most of the beat and Miguel belts out his two lines with pure romanticism. Cole says that this song has a double meaning—that it addresses a real girl and a metaphorical girl, the latter being hip-hop. It’s a stretch, but with this hook, there’s no doubt that the song is sincere, no matter who or what it’s addressed to.

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 2/26/2013

Austin Mahone feat. Flo Rida – “Say You’re Just A Friend”

Newcomer Austin Mahone is the latest artist to build a song around an interpolation of Biz Markie’s greatest contribution to pop culture, and even though it comes out as 100% cooke-cutter Top 40, “Say You’re Just A Friend” gets a pass for the huge nostalgia buzz it gives me. Not because of Biz Markie—man, I wasn’t even born until 1989—but because “Just A Friend” by Mario was a hit when I was twelve years old and just getting into pop music. Most things that remind me of the seventh grade send me spiraling into self-doubt and confusion, so that should give you an idea of how much I liked that song.

But the real noteworthy part of this song is Flo-Rida, who continues his transition from rapper to singer with a guest verse that relies more on melody than lyrics. His work here is closer to rapping than his section of “Troublemaker,” but the melody is too prominent to be ignored. Hey, do you think people will buy it if I start referring to Flo-Rida as a “one-man Bone Thugs-N-Harmony?” Probably not, right?

Lyrically, this might be some of Flo-Rida’s best work ever. He plays the Ludacris to Mahone’s Bieber, reminiscing about a young love that went sour. When has Flo-Rida ever sounded this relatable? Even when he’s listing off a bunch of his singles, it comes off as genuine enthusiasm rather than self-aggrandizing. Maybe that Biz Markie interpolation just makes anyone seem charming.

Another thing: I don’t want to be mean to Mr. Mahone, because dude is only sixteen, but I think he and Flo-Rida are about on the same level of singing ability. It sure sounds like they’re equally reliant on auto-tune.

Will.I.Am feat. Britney Spears, Diddy, Hit-Boy, Lil-Wayne & Waka Flocka Flame – Scream and Shout (Remix)

Right, because the original wasn’t awful enough, why don’t we make it longer and even less fun? “Scream and Shout” was a club song that failed on every conceivable level: not only did the low-key, repetitive music have zero chance of getting anyone on the dance floor; it makes being in the club sound dull and irritating. That’s an accurate impression of my clubbing experiences, but I doubt it’s what they were going for. And now the official remix is out and I had trouble getting through even two listens of this six-minute song. That’s twelve minutes that I could have used to watch an episode of Adventure Time or go on Tumblr or listen to this one Morrissey song I’m really into five more times. A little gratitude would be nice, that’s all I’m saying.

Will.I.Am’s post-2008 musical output is across-the-board annoying, but it can sometimes be interesting to hear him try to shift pop-music towards low-fi chiptune. Anyone who remembers “The Hardest Ever” knows that it’s never interesting to hear him rap, and the fact that he gave himself such a prominent verse in this remix feels like a straight-up insult. I don’t know which part is more annoying: the blatant plug for his tacky iPhone add-on IAm Foto Sosho or his drastic misapplication of the term “rock ‘n roll.”

How does everyone else do? Even though he’s a thousand miles from his sonic home-turf, Flocka gets the best verse by far, and that’s coming from a late-period Lil Wayne apologist. Yeah, he’s been on auto-pilot ever since he got out of prison, and his verse here adds to our dangerous national surplus of “All Eyes On Me” references, but you can almost catch a glimpse of that old-school Wayne charm. If you squint.

Hit-Boy uses up the only semi-clever line he’s ever going to have, so I hope it was worth it, and Diddy’s contribution is laughable where it’s supposed to be exciting. His hype-man persona is surprisingly awful for someone who’s done little beside hype people up for decades. No one has ever made me want to “turn up” less. And then he ends the song by repeating the phrase “This is a super black man remix” over and over. I don’t know, man, this whole thing’s just a mess.

Maroon 5 – Daylight

Maroon 5 is going through a lot of trouble to distract you from the fact that “Daylight” is a dull song, musically listless and lyrically far too reminiscent of “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry. And I hate to admit it, but they’re doing a bang-up job.

The version that the band put together with the reliably awesome Playing For Change is especially successful at tricking you into enjoying a Maroon 5 song. Their best decision is keeping Adam Levine and his whiny voice off-stage for a full minute, and their worst decision is bringing the whole band in for the rest of the song. It’s not enough to totally ruin the song, but I do flinch whenever the video cuts from someone doing their thing with a cello or a didgeridoo to some cell-phone quality footage of those doofuses playing in a crowded arena.

The nine-minute “Daylight Project” version is less of a musical achievement, but anyone interested in seeing a cross-section of humanity represented through vlog should check it out. The breadth of the human experience this video contains is limited by the fact that it’s made up of Maroon 5 fans (a demographic that tends towards the young and female), but it’s still a fascinating glimpse into the lives behind the fandom. This song is a bizarre fit for the two world-spanning videos propping it up, but if you can ignore the extra-long instrumental playing behind this version, you’d be stupid not to be just a little moved.

And since it’s been a while since I reminded everyone what a mushy, emotional wuss I am, I’ll just say that I got choked up at what happens at 7:48.