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Album Review: Britney Spears – Femme Fatale

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“But she doesn’t write her own songs!” the naysayers sneer, as though this invalidates Britney Spears’s career as a singer.

It’s a ridiculous claim, of course. Not because it isn’t true—Britney’s never pretended that she crafts her own music–but because some of the greatest singers of the 20th century didn’t write their own material. I’m thinking Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Nina Simone, to name a few high-profile examples. Nobody would deny their artistry, which came not from the creation of original melody but rather from the way they imbued others’ music with their own signature spirit. These legends made the songs they sang their own, and that’s why they became legends in the first place.

Now, Britney Spears is no Nina Simone. But it’s foolish to disregard her albums simply because she didn’t write the hits herself. Britney’s success has always come from the way she sold the myth of her sincerity; when she commanded us to “hit me baby one more time,” she sounded like she meant it. We believed her; we bought into the Britney pop juggernaut, and what we’ve gotten out of this cultural transaction has been an impressive collection of modern pop classics, culminating in the flawed, mysterious, and magnificent Blackout.

Then came Circus, and sure, “Womanizer” and the title track did well on the Billboard charts. But the problem with that album was that for the first time, Britney sounded as convincing as a karaoke singer after a couple Valiums and a whiskey soda. Even on the global tour supporting the album, Britney seemed to be going through the motions of pop stardom. The music was catchy, but the presentation was more than a little sad and empty.

Which is why I’m delighted to report that she’s back, for real this time. Not only are the dozen tracks on Femme Fatale catchy and joyous, they’re also some of the most sonically interesting of her career. From the skeletal, piano-driven house of “How I Roll” to the Yelle-inspired whistling on “I Wanna Go” and the flower-power flute on closer “Criminal,” Britney and her producers have made an album that never tries for Top 40 radio accessibility but achieves it on the merits of its charms.

Even a track featuring will.i.am manages to avoid sounding obnoxious.

The most memorable aspect of Ms. Spears’s music, of course, has always been the hooks; on Femme Fatale, they’re massive. Opener “Till The World Ends” apes the refrain from 80s MTV mainstay “Tarzan Boy,” but Britney somehow makes the song’s wordless chanting sound infinitely more expansive than Baltimora ever could. “(Drop Dead) Beautiful” takes about twenty seconds to explode into an 808-backed bridge as pristine as the Golden Gate. And we’ve already discussed why lead single “Hold It Against Me” is so successful.

Don’t get me wrong—Femme Fatale isn’t a perfect album; “Seal It With A Kiss” and “Gasoline” are pat but forgettable. But Britney makes up for these momentary lags with plenty of gems; the synth-driven balladry of “Inside Out” and relentless rhythm of second single “Till The World Ends” are both destined to become fan favorites.

But none of these songs’ catchy qualities would matter if Britney didn’t sound like she cared. Fortunately for us, she sounds more passionate on this album than she has since “My Prerogative.” On the aforementioned will.i.am-assisted “Big Fat Bass,” she tells the listener that “you can be my bass,” and she makes it sound like the most important role we can fulfill. The snobs will keep on hating, but I for one am more than happy to oblige her.

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Album Reviews

Album Review: Yelle – Safari Disco Club

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When Yelle arrived on the scene in 2006, it was with “Je Veux Te Voir,” an attitude-packed and hilariously vulgar diss track directed toward rapper Cuizinier for his misogynistic views. The 2007 debut album, Pop Up, spawned two more minor hits with “A Cause des Garçons” and “Ce Jeu.” The French trio, led by singer Julie Budet, established themselves as purveyors of summery electropop. Then, they all but disappeared.

To a certain extent, Yelle have kept busy since their first album, remixing Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘n’ Cold” and appearing on the Kennedy track “John and Yoko,” as well as covering “Who’s That Girl?” by Robyn. However, in such a fast-paced music environment, no one can afford to take four years between albums unless the result is something that could universally be considered a masterpiece. Yelle’s sophomore release, Safari Disco Club, is a good effort that falls short of legendary status.

They’ve grown out of the youthful spirit of Pop Up, though “C’est Pas Une Vie” packs a bright punch, while “Que Veux-Tu” and “Unillusion” make good use of ’80s pop references. Songs like “Chimie Physique” and “La Musique” are much more mature in tone than anything Yelle have released before. There’s also more actual singing from Budet, rather than the sing-rapping previously employed. Safari Disco Club showcases a more developed act, but it doesn’t sound like four years’ worth of growth. The more subdued approach makes sense, but the songs aren’t as engaging as established fans might expect.

The dance scene has changed drastically since Yelle’s debut. This isn’t to say that producers GrandMarnier and Tepr should have gone for a dubstep approach—it wouldn’t suit Budet’s voice, though “S’Eteint le Soleil” has hints of grimey bass—but in an environment where the fresh-faced Londoner Katy B is poised for a takeover, it’s difficult to see where Yelle’s role is now.

The album sounds solid, with plenty of agile synths to spare, but it’s difficult to see what role it plays; it’s not exactly more of the same, but it may as well be. Safari Disco Club is worth a listen, but it fails to assert itself as something that demands listeners’ attention.

https://youtu.be/c53iVBzdBiY

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Album Reviews

Album Review: Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record

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In the five years since Canadian chamber-rock band Broken Social Scene released its last album, lead Scenester Kevin Drew has ably stepped into indie-stardom, nurturing mass-anticipation for the collective’s upcoming opus.

Enter Forgiveness Rock Record. With the Toronto outfit choosing to explore every bit of the space that their physical largesse affords, the wait has been worth it—even if the album requires a bit of stamina in order to fully grasp the triumph.

Perhaps the group—composed of a fluid membership that often numbers well into double digits—is finally becoming exactly what it is they were likely always going to be: a dramatic, sweeping and engrossing baroque-rock troupe. Besides, it’s not often that a group that has featured a melodica in the past acts as though it’s a power-pop trio, which many of their earlier songs have suggested.

While a lack of sonic cohesion does make itself evident, as the result of a mixed bag of styles that can often distract rather than attract, the significant and unifying thread of Kevin Drew’s Jeff Tweedy-esque, achy vocals equip the entire proceedings with immense heart. Some sort of binding agent is necessary, however, due to the divergent styles showcased. By showing off their skills in Post-rock (“Meet Me in the Basement”), bombastic, arena-anthems (“World Sick”), playful prog (“Chase Scene”) and effective melody making (“Texico Bitches”), it’s quite clear that this is a group that is more comfortable stretching their musical legs than the average listener will likely be sinking their teeth into this album.

Given the amount of time between records, not only is Forgiveness Rock Record an example of good things coming to those who wait, but also, to those who also don’t mind putting forth a little effort to gain great reward.

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Album Reviews

EP Review: Dan Fisk — Bruises from the Backseat

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When an album’s liner notes list multiple banjo players on the same song, you know it’s going to be an enjoyable listen. Dan Fisk has two banjo pickers on“Life and Limb,”  from his new solo EP, but that’s not the only thing he’s got going for him on Bruises from the Backseat (out 6/28).

Fisk (an upstate New Yorker who’s spent the past decade in Virginia), has a radio-ready, slightly raspy voice and solid songwriting skills. Album opener “A Thousand Love Songs” is the highlight of the disc, and had it been released fifteen years ago when Vertical Horizon and Matchbox 20 were flying up the charts, Fisk would probably be blowing his nose with $20 bills right now.

The EP’s sole cover is a version of Paul Simon’s “Stranded in a Limousine,” which features fellow area singer-songwriter Ted Garber on harmonica. It feels a little out of place among the more mellow tracks on the record, but it’s definitely a fun listen.

Bruises from the Backseat is a promising solo release from Fisk. Let’s hope a full-length record is next.

Listen If You Like: Duncan Sheik, The Wallflowers, Joe Pug, Jason Mraz

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