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The Major Lift

By John Brodeur

When this column debuted back in the fall of 2006, it was designed to sift through the dreck released by the major labels for the rare gem, and skewer a few sacred cows in the process. It was also meant as a commentary on the dreck itself, to show the state of commercial music through the prism of the most anticipated new releases, and show the folly of the industry in the form of some modern-day cut-out-bin fare. (There’s more of it than you think.)

None of that is about to change; we’re just changing captains. This month we bid farewell to my colleague Erik Hage, who is leaving The Major Lift after shepherding it through its first three years in print. His point of view and informed, colorful prose will be missed.

To clearly delineate the changeover, I’ve decided to jump in headfirst with a record that Erik, in his estimable tastes, probably wouldn’t have touched with someone else’s iPod: Animal, the debut album from Nashville-born singer (though you would never guess either fact from her “work”) Kesha Sebert, better known as Ke$ha. She’s already had the two biggest weeks in download history (her “Tik Tok” is No. 2; she sang on Flo Rida’s No. 1 “Right Round”), and landed “Tik Tok” at the top of the Billboard pop charts for eight weeks, the longest run for a female artist’s debut single since “You Light Up My Freaking Life.” Yet nobody seems to actually like her. I say, shut up tr0llz. Call her what you want—“the female Mickey Avalon” is a bit harsh; I prefer “Katy Perry on meth”—but when you’re one of the most reviled artists in popular music, you must be doing something right.

And, believe it or not, Animal has a better-than-expected share of pop thrills. Cheap thrills, sure, but whatever works. This collection of 14 glitter-covered trash-pop party anthems is by turns delectable and detestable, sometimes both at once, but rarely is it boring. Producer Dr. Luke is simply the best at making blown-out, to-the-max commercial pop fodder, and his force is strong here. Perhaps too strong: The biggest criticism here is the fact that the production is as much the star as the singer. There are enough electronic swooshes and white-noise beats to ensure that nobody over 30 will ever hear it willingly. And on most songs, Ke$ha’s vocals are autotuned to the extreme, played for effect but no more appealing than your average voice simulator. It works on “Stephen,” the vocals are rendered almost completely robotic, but paired smartly with the always charmingly robotic- sounding electric autoharp; it doesn’t click so well on, strangely enough, the singles. (Doesn’t help that “Blah Blah Blah” is a legitimately terrible song.)

But wait, you say—can she sing? It’s hard to tell through all the crap, but I think so. With Max Martin and Benny Blanco (credited as Benjamin Levin) on board as co-writers, there are some real hooks in here. Songs about dumb boys and dumb old men, and mostly just about being young and dumb, are lifted by scads of childish “whoa-oh-oh” and “nyah-nyah” choruses. “Dinosaur,” the album’s most ludicrous-slash-awesome track, sports the game-changing lyric “Dinosaur”(“D-I-N-O-S-A/You are a dinosaur/An O-L-D-M-A-N/You’re just an old man”); on “Party at a Rich Dude’s House” she sings with cheer about about “pissing in the Dom Peringon” and the time she “threw up in the closet” (which apparently really happened, at Paris Hilton’s place, so . . . right on, I guess?). This is the recorded equivalent of a blinged-out cell phone.

Elsewhere in pop music, this Tuesday finds two big-name collaborations hitting the proverbial shelves. After working seemingly nonstop for the last few years, superstar producer and musician Danger Mouse is back with yet another new project, this time billed under his given name, Brian Burton. As Broken Bells, Burton is teamed with James Mercer, leader of the Shins, for an stealthily infectious, compact set of organic, moody pop. For their self-titled release, the the pair play all the instruments, and though the production isn’t always a world apart from Gnarls Barkley, Mercer’s stoney vocals and strummy acoustic guitar make this more of a song-based, than groove-based, project. Not that there ain’t grooves—excellent lead single “The High Road” has a Beck-like folk-hop mope; the understated but outstanding “The Ghost Inside” is the happiest-sounding dance song about lost hope in an age, featuring a surprisingly confident falsetto from Mercer. An overall melancholy vibe permeates, especially on the intoxicatingly dour “Citizen,” which sounds like it could be lifted from Beck’s Sea Change. (There’s that guy again.) And as quick as it gets started, it’s over, and you’ll find yourself playing it again. A very strong start.

Another collaboration making major waves this week is the latest from a gimmick that turned into a monster: Gorillaz. Plastic Beach is the first record in five years from the “virtual band” who gave us two of the last decade’s most indelible, inescapable pop singles (“Dirty Harry” and “Feel Good Inc.”). Damon Albarn and company get stranger than ever with their guest spots, enlisting grime rappers Kano and Bashy and the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music on “White Flag”; Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals and “Feel Good” MCs De La Soul on “Superfast Jellyfish”; Mos Def and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble on “Sweepstakes,” one of the album’s standouts. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith gets a talk break on the bouncy synth banger “Glitter Freeze”; Lou Reed gets a throwaway track (“Some Kind of Nature”).

Somehow, through all this madness (did I mention Snoop Dogg?), this still sounds like one act, which is an enormous credit to Albarn’s vision. It’s also a credit to Albarn that the tracks he sings are among the album’s best, and that it’s all kept light without seeming tongue-in-cheek. That is, except for the album’s first verse, when Snoop raps, “The revolution will be televised.” Get it?

That brings us to the best release of 2010 thus far, I’m New Here, the first solo record in 16 years from protest-funk icon Gil Scott-Heron. This is a gripping, emotional recording from a man who’s been through some serious shit, to say the least. Long gone is that honey-smooth croon of his jazzy ’70s work; ravaged by time and misuse (or, the logical result of inhaling mountains of cocaine and chain-smoking for decades), his voice is now rough-edged with a bit of a whistle, a wheezy blues shout when he really digs in. This brings an additional weight to the words, which find him thoughtful and reflective in a way he’s never before been. He doth not protest so much here, but rather talks history—his own history—over a bed of ethereal beats from producer Richard Russell. He’s always been a bit elusive, but on I’m New Here he sounds like he’s found peace with himself and the world. Unexpected, but absolutely fascinating.

 


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