Before we get started with this week, I just want to point out that despite the fact that I’ve panned the first two singles, Miranda Lambert’s Platinum is her best album since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, if not her best album, period. Both singles are buried fairly deep (“Automatic” is sixth, after a string of five brilliant tracks, and “Somethin’ Bad” is twelfth), and why Lambert decided to release the two worst tracks on the album as the opening singles is anybody’s guess. I suspect she’s merely playing the Nashville game: “Automatic” is a sop to traditionalists (when the rest of the album is anything but traditional), and “Somethin’ Bad” is good old brand leveraging. In other words, she not only knows how to make great music, she knows how to play the game, and she’s learned how to enjoy it. The chip on her shoulder was starting to become the beam in her eye, and she was smart to get rid of it. All the same, if the next single isn’t “Smokin’ and Drinkin’”, I’m going to be royally pissed.
One other short note: as always, I’ve avoided reviewing any of the tracks that have come out of The Voice. I wanted to mention, though, that this was a lot easier than last year, when I was impressed enough to consider reviewing one of Danielle Bradbery’s releases. There doesn’t seem to have been anyone on the show this year who could sing, and that includes Adam Levine. Most of the tracks I found impossible to listen to all the way through (I barely got past the intro to the Gotye cover; the arrangement—or the mix–is shockingly incompetent). Isn’t it time for this horror, this madness, to end?
Miranda Lambert with Carrie Underwood—“Somethin’ Bad”
Much like Lambert’s last single, “Automatic”, “Somethin’ Bad” is a decent idea waiting for a payoff that never comes. There are characters, and there are situations, but there’s no story. Two women meet, run off to New Orleans, anticipate raising hell. That’s it. As if to compensate, the arrangement is blown far out of proportion, much closer to Underwood’s style than anything you’d expect from Lambert. All the bombast does, though, is make it harder to understand the lyrics, thereby destroying any chance the song has of meaning anything. I’m beginning to think Lambert shouldn’t record duets; not counting Pistol Annies she’s yet to make a good one, largely because she always lowers herself to the level of her partner. For the moment, at least, she has no peers, and she shouldn’t pretend that she does.
Michael Jackson—“Slave To the Rhythm”
The arrangement and production get the twitchy, tic-filled late period Jackson perfectly, and the lyrics, though rough, are as weird and full of mixed-messages as anything he ever did. It’s not feminism, it’s a tale of sexual obsession, using the most mundane references. There’s no actual mention of sex, though, which leaves open the possibility that the rhythm the woman is a slave to is the rhythm of life itself, the insistent beat of the ordinary and routine, i.e. the life Jackson himself was never allowed to live. From anyone else’s viewpoint the woman is defeated, crushed by her responsibilities. For Jackson, though, this may have looked like a victory. Who knows? The more you investigate the more complicated Jackson gets (just like anybody else). You can dance to it, whatever the case.
Nicki Minaj—“Pills N Potions”
I get a certain absurd enjoyment out of watching critics tie themselves in knots every time Minaj releases another single. “Yay! She’s going back to rap!” “Boo! She’s turning into a pop singer!” “Gah! What is this thing!” The idea of a rapper also wanting to be a pop singer, and vice-versa, is so foreign to them that Minaj’s flipping back and forth strikes them as almost a personal insult. This time, after rapping hard on “Lookin’ Ass Nigga”, she comes up with a pop ballad that includes some softer, laid-back raps. The result is neither bad nor good, just mediocre and only slightly interesting; certainly nothing to get upset about. She’s supremely talented, but she isn’t a genius. Maybe that’s why her shifts in style seem so odd, willful instead of brilliant, driven by the desire to be a genius rather than genius itself. Critics, and Minaj herself, may be expecting more of her than she can deliver.
Christina Grimmie and Adam Levine—“Somebody That I Used To Know”
Christina Grimmie—“Can’t Help Falling In Love”
One thing that was missing from Jon Caramanica’s recent article in The New York Times about the growing influence of hip-hop in country music was women. Hip-hop’s influence was considered only as an an offshoot of bro-country, a place where women either aren’t allowed or apparently aren’t interested in. The reality, of course, is different: hip-hop’s influence on country is genre wide; it affects everybody, and “Bartender” is a case in point. In its structure and its vocal rhythms, the song is hip hop stuck on top of country backing. The influence is obvious, and the fit is perfect. In fact, the fit is better than most of the bro-country “rap” songs I’ve heard. That was the other thing Caramanica left out of his article: most country rap is terrible and reinforces the most deathless country stereotypes. This isn’t, and doesn’t. In fact, it’s the first uptempo Lady Antebellum song that’s any good at all. Which doesn’t mean it’s great, but it isn’t bad.
Sam Smith—“Leave Your Lover”
Unlike almost every other critic in the world, I like Smith, who has three other records climbing the Hot 100. “Leave Your Lover”, though, is close to terrible. The only thing that prevents it from slipping all the way to the bottom is the occasional baldness of the lyric and a hook that isn’t too cloying. He’ll get better (I hope), but this is a big misstep.
Shakira—“Dare (La La La)”
Bad EDM is bad EDM, no matter how big a star you are (were). You can hear the desperation on this one. You can also hear Shakira hating the song with every breath.