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willpowerwilliamwill.i.am
#willpower
Interscope
4.19.13

No one whores himself out quite like the man born William Smith; the fourth solo album from the Black Eyed Peas, uh, mastermind comes replete with a hashtag right there in the title. Look at that! This album’s already trending! Damn.

As that rather desperate move indicates, #willpower is will’s coming out as a true solo act; the Peas have probably ruined their last halftime show, which is why everyone from Britney Spears to Chris Brown to Justin Bieber to Miley Cyrus shows up to validate the viability of his new brand. Wait. Those guys are all three to five minutes ago, aren’t they? Yes. And will’s right in their corner: he hasn’t had a new idea, not even a received one, in about five years. Time passes when you’re on top of the world.

Actually, this party starts off with more promise than you might have expected, in the one-two velvet punch of “Hello” and the hit “This Is Love.” With their anthemic strings and piano, coupled with fake crowd responses like big flashing applause signs and David Guetta wannabe beats, they represent exactly the kind of shameless partystarting he used to excel at — club dance floor as glitzy capitalist nirvana and tribal love ritual all rolled together. But then Britney and Chris show up, and will loses his hooks; worse, his guest stars also sound tired and bored, as if they’d gotten will’s flop sweat all over them.

In his increasing desire to corner every single acre of the pop music marketplace, will leaves them behind and devolves into some Lil Wayne-style beats for a whole section of the album, a misstep from which it never recovers; like so much other bloated pop products, this one shuffles itself from style to style over way too long a runtime in an attempt to conflate excess with outsize talent. That also means will’s better pure pop ideas, like the Latin-tinged “Smile Mona Lisa” and the Europop near-triumph of “Far Away From Home” — proving he could be the next Abba if he wasn’t trying to catch up to Pitbull — are lost on the dance floor. It gets worse: he incorporates the trademark Intel sound into the melody of “Geekin'” and ends #willpower with a revamp of the Charleston — yes, that one — which he treats by adopting a bad Louis Armstrong imitation and some blackface banjo. He’s made goofier stuff work, God knows, but will picked the exact wrong moment to get bored with his universe. Nothing sadder than a dance floor after everyone’s gone home.

Untitled-1 copyImpact: 45. He’s not overproducing as much as he used to, but that’s because he’s out of ideas.

Innovation: 22. The new guests he drags in for street cred aren’t even good at propping this pop party up.

Integrity: 38. You actually feel the absence of Fergie, which is some kind of reverse-engineered miracle.

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phoenixbankruptPhoenix
Bankrupt!
V2, Loyauté, Glassnote
4.22.13

Some indie kids are going to be upset with French pop wonders Phoenix and their latest, fifth sampler of gooey confections, whimsically named Bankrupt! Now that they’ve gone from near-obscurity to Madison Square Garden sellouts in the space of just two albums, they risk artistic, well, bankruptcy, or at the very least stagnation. They’ve even offered up their back catalog to advertisers!

Snark away, snarkers. This is Phoenix, and they’ve always been pop, somewhat twee, anthemic, and perhaps more importantly, above it all. Bankrupt! comes with an exclamation point, as if it were some retro family night board game instead of a disaster, and it’s a vibe which happily courses all the way through these ten songs. If their latest ear candy tastes disturbingly diffuse, dialing the hooks back in favor of their equally famous atmosphere, it’s ultimately because they’re tinkering with pop structure before they get bored, not because they’re aiming for an opening spot with Coldplay. No longer flirting so overtly with Europop or the Strokes-like reincarnation they underwent on 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, these guys feel like they can drop a few we-oh-oh-oh chants into their leadoff song (and single), the also ironically-titled “Entertainment,” and still be fun, without turning into, say, fun. (.)

To that end, they spend a lot of time avoiding anthems these days. “Trying to Be Cool” tries to be cool on the multiple levels of MGMT, but it keeps veering left every time it feels itself about to close in for that pop-soul kill. The title track and “Bourgeois” flirt with outright pretensions, the former by opening with four minutes or so of prog-synth textures, the latter by taking the yacht-rock comparisons to near ridiculous (given the title, probably intentionally ridiculous) lyrical levels. And “Don’t,” the most uptempo track, turns out to be the most diffuse. If Phoenix weren’t so atmospheric, this sort of metagamble would fail hard, but it takes a pop obsessive to take on the arena and bend it to their aesthetic, and that’s just what they do. They’ve detoured for the den at the precise moment that they’re finally being carried into the cool teenage girls’ bedrooms.

Untitled-2 copyImpact: 76. There are no major anthems here, but the extra listens you’ll need are well rewarded.

Innovation: 84. The twists and turns are all subtle and structural.

Integrity: 81. The band’s secret weapon is their wistfulness, and it remains intact.

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