The autumn rush has gone by, or so it seems to me, much faster than usual, and with less effect than expected. Partly this is because it’s been dominated by two artists, Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons, but also because much of what’s been released hasn’t been that impressive. Swift’s pop experiments are interesting, but many of them have been disappointments, and other highly anticipated records from big names—Rihanna, Bruno Mars, P!nk, Ke$ha—have been passable and nothing more. Whether they’re the fading old guard or suffering a sophomore slump, nobody is making much of an impact. Except Psy, of course. Psy is killing it.
Taylor Swift—“State of Grace”
Musically, “State of Grace” is impressive, and also unexpected. Working with her usual producer, Nathan Chapman, Swift has come up with something that’s so different from her previous forays into pop, including the rest of Red, that it throws her entire future up for grabs. That is, this isn’t country, but it isn’t teen pop, either, and it’s one of the best tracks on the album. It isn’t all that original, but at the same time the U2 connection everybody makes isn’t as direct they imply. The larger influence comes from near Swift’s birthplace, in the sound of Eastern Pennsylvania bands like The Ocean Blue and Riverside. Like too much of Red, however, the simplified lyrical style results in banality more often than not, and only occasionally does the music elevate the words into something more. I doubt this is a musical direction Swift will continue to pursue, but it’s good to know she’s capable of this sort of surprise.
T.I. featuring Lil Wayne—“Ball”
“Ball” is easily T.I.’s best record since he got out of prison, but of course that isn’t saying much. The beat is wonderful—playful and energetic—and though T.I. doesn’t have anything new to say over it, he sounds more alive than he has in years. I wish I could say the same for Lil Wayne, who now appears to be pursuing mediocrity as if it were worthwhile career option. He doesn’t embarrass himself, but he adds nothing.
Kelly Clarkson—“Catch My Breath”
I’ve complained about Clarkson’s mediocre material in the past, so I don’t see the point of doing it again, but why is she singing like Lady GaGa? The timbre and the phrasing are an almost perfect imitation; if the song showed any distinction at all you could easily mistake it for a track that got left off Born This Way. Except GaGa would have made sure the chorus had more punch to it, and would attack it with more intensity (which would be a mistake, but it would be the right kind of mistake). After over a decade, Clarkson has only rarely dared material that’s up to the standard of her vocals, and there’s no reason to think this will ever change. I’ll continue to enjoy her voice, and her personality, but she could be doing a lot more with both.
Jason Aldean—“Night Train”
Aldean’s latest records sound less overdone than his previous singles, and this one ambles easily and inoffensively along . He still likes loud guitars too much, though. Shouldn’t a song called “Night Train” sound like a train, and not like a rolling eighteen-wheeler crushing the romanticism of the lyric like so much roadkill?
Calvin Harris featuring Florence Welch—“Sweet Nothing”
Florence Welch makes this bearable, even enjoyable in spots, but Harris’s inability to create interesting music continues. This is as flat melodically and harmonically as all his records. It may even be worse. The only way you can tell you’ve reached the chorus is a change in Welch’s timbre and the cue provided by the banal drum machine crescendo, along with the sound in general getting louder. But you’d never know it by the music.
Bridgit Mendler—“Ready Or Not”
Like most Disney pop, “Ready Or Not” seems off at first, the sophistication of the melody and arrangement clashing with the goofiness of the lyric and the unpolished, naive quality of the vocals. Eventually it comes together, and though it still might not make complete sense, it does make for enjoyable music. The lack of polish is intentional, of course; the whole idea of Disney pop is to place its audience in a fantasy world where, even though they’re surrounded by surface glamour and the trappings of show business, at heart they’re still the same wide-eyed teenagers they’ve always been. They may be enmeshed, as Mendler is here, in a fantasy where the right guy equals both love and wealth, set to music that places them within calling distance of pop professionals like Bruno Mars or Natasha Bedingfield, but they’re still goofy, gangly teenagers. Their attempts at sophistication are always half tongue-in-cheek, and they’re determined not to lose their sense of innocence and discovery and the strength those things provide. “Ready Or Not” isn’t up to Disney at its best, but it’s another solid record in the same tradition.