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(Stripping the Gears is a new feature of this blog: two new music releases a week, one from the mainstream and one from the underground. Because the music industry is as polarized as everything else now.)

Taylor Swift
Red
22.10.12
Big Machine

Speaking of red. There are so many potential red flags in Taylor Swift’s fourth album you could organize a May Day parade with them: the teen pop star making her mature move, the embattled celeb proving she has a heart, the country superstar aching to rock out, the carefully crafted icon showing us her true identity. So it’s a good thing Taylor’s image —  the bubblegum Shania Twain, the faux-country Avril Lavigne — was never grounded in reality to begin with. For superstars like her, realism is almost a moot point. And more often than not, those who fake it until they make it reach their true potential when they stop making claims to legitimacy entirely and just go straight for the top 40 jugular. This is what happens on Red. 

If that sounds cynical, well, she didn’t get where she is without minding her image. The lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” released months ago, just happens to be yet another public kiss off to an ex-bf (zomg Jake Gyllenhaal). There’s a song called “I Knew You Were Trouble.” “Sad Beautiful Tragic” could be the theme to her redefinition. And she names the fifth track her age – “22” – just like she was Adele. In the middle of “Trouble,” she suddenly gets blindsided by a weak attempt at dubstep, which says a lot more about the end of that genre than the end of her and Jake. She does everything but cover “Gangnam Style.”

No matter. Getting swindled is half the fun of pop, and the big hooks are all here, less encumbered by the meandering midtempo banalities and shallow romcom lyrics that got her here. Aimed as it is at her peer group, the album’s backstory demands she cut deep when musing about the universality of heartbreak, and she does it in strokes as big as the choruses, her defiant stomps and desperate pleas serving the little details.

The big news on Red, aside from Taylor finally feeling comfortable in her own pop-diva skin, is the potency and, yes, depth of those details: “All we are is skin and bone trained to get along.” “The Autumn leaves falling down like pieces in their place.” “The saddest fear comes creeping in: That you never loved me. Or her. Or anyone. Or anything.” That refinement may even soon extend to the music: in “All Too Well” she actually finds the missing link between new country and r&b.

“We’re happy, free,  confused and lonely at the same time,” she declares in “22,” and who doesn’t feel that way when they’ve finally gotten over their teenage identity crisis? As a step towards showing us the real Taylor, Red is still tentative — the title track is everything her detractors hate, right down to the banjo window dressing. But whatever she is, she’s getting better at it.

Impact: 60. A less strident Taylor is, not so ironically, a more potent Taylor.
Innovation: 55. Red still works everyone else’s four chords, but it does more with them.
Integrity: 63. She’s having adult feelings now.

Black Moth Super Rainbow
Cobra Juicy
23.10.12
Rad Cult

Going in the other direction are Black Moth Super Rainbow, proving that selling out happens on a sliding scale. It’s the only way to describe how longtime fans have responded to their last two albums; last time out, on 2009’s Eating Us, they had a real producer (Dave Fridmann of Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev fame), and the result was a reconfiguration of their retro futuristic acid-lounge into regular verse-chorus structures, proving, as Beck had a generation earlier, that yes, there were actual songs buried under their selfconscious pawn shop aesthetic.

Now they’re on their own again, and everyone’s pretending that using Eric Wareheim to kickstart your Kickstarter is tantamount to a Nicki Minaj guest rap. I mean, you can make out the words now and everything! Suck. This has got to be doubly hard for the five-piece, who’ve always hidden behind their music the way their songs hid behind vocoder, chopped samples, and abrupt shifts in mood. These guys literally wear masks. And now they want to be stars?

The naysayers are right about one thing: the hooks in their psychpop are becoming more obvious every day. But they work in favor of the group’s legendarily distorted atmospheres: the breathy urgency of “Psychic Love Damage” perfectly compliments those shag-carpeted keyboard arpeggios and twisted pedal steel guitar spirals. The big fat farty riffs that anchor half the songs feel like some obscene nerd parody of alpha maleness, which of course makes them ironically sexy in their own hipster way. The off-kilter beat of “Windshield Smasher” is as unorthodox as any of their earlier stuff; it just knows where it’s headed now. And for every track like the wistful “Spraypaint,” which edges dangerously close to hummability, there’s a left turn, like the atonal electroclash of “Sunburnt Fudge,” to keep you from coming down entirely. The new middlebrow Black Moth is still pretty damn trippy, but it’s a smoother, cleaner hit, pure peyote for the wastelands of Clear Channel radio. Take it and puke up your bad old attitudes about indie pop.

Impact: 80. This whole album is one weird boner.
Innovation: 83. Hooks by MGMT, atmosphere by Air.
Integrity: 90. And yet, lead singer Tobacco, for that is his name, remains his own brand.

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