Fall Out Boy—“My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light Em Up)”
I’ve never been a fan of Fall Out Boy. Their songs, their playing, and their ideas always seemed muddled to me, and when you combined those with their obvious ambition and self-absorption you got a lot of pretentious mess. I was glad when they decided to go on hiatus (from which I assumed they wouldn’t return), because I could only see them getting worse if they carried on. But now they’re back, and the time off has obviously been good for them, because their comeback single is focused, imaginative, and even comes close to making sense (at least to me; I’m sure it makes perfect sense to them). Naturally enough, the song is at least partially about their time off. At least, I assume that’s what the “dark” of the title partly refers to (these guys love puns and multiple meanings). The best stroke is in the title itself, the idea of a songwriter being informed of mysterious goings on (by who or in what context we’re never told) by the songs he writes. It reveals songwriting as a kind of self-telepathy along the lines of Norman Mailer’s famous statement “I don’t know what I think until I write it down” (and yes, I had no idea what the song was about until I started writing this). These guys have obviously stored up enough anger to drive their songs without a lot of fancy ideas, but it’s good to hear them thinking. It’s even better to hear that thought making it’s way into the music instead of confusing it.
After the run of mediocre singles that followed the wonderful “Need You Now” (there were seven of them, in case you’re counting), I figured Lady Antebellum for one of those groups who have one great song in them, and then repeat the formula for as long as it takes for the magic to wear off and they disappear from view. But “Downtown” is a surprise in every way, a slice of stripped-down country funk that’s the polar opposite of “Need You Now” and just about everything else in mainstream country. It does have one predecessor: “Pontoon”, and I would be surprised if Little Big Town’s hit wasn’t a strong influence on this one. “Downtown” isn’t as sultry, but it’s funkier, and if the song and arrangement aren’t enough of a surprise, the guitar break sure is. The first great country single of the year, and it’s going to be a hard one to top.
Rihanna featuring Mikky Ekko—“Stay”
Adele having opened the door with “Someone Like You”, we’re starting to see a rise in piano-only (or near-piano-only in this case) ballads. Bruno Mars has one (and a good one, too) in the top ten, and now there’s “Stay”. I was impressed at first: the song moves nicely and shifts in ways that keep your attention, and Rihanna’s voice is looser and comes closer to real emotion than she ever has before. But then you have to deal with Mikky Ekko (ugh, what a name), and his “Ed Sheeran wasn’t available so they sent me” vocal. Ekko gets the entire second verse to himself and sinks the record. At at her most mechanistic, at least Rihanna has a voice that keeps your attention. Ekko couldn’t get you to notice him even if he was singing to you in an elevator—you’d mistake him for muzak. There are a lot of guest vocals and raps on Unapologetic, along with dance tracks with not much in the way of lyrics. This is Rihanna’s way, I suppose, of giving herself a break while making sure she doesn’t drop out of public view for more than 25 minutes. I don’t blame her, but if she’s going to do that she needs to find better singers.
Tim McGraw & Taylor Swift—“Highway Don’t Care”
Tim McGraw may be the most overrated country star of the last fifteen years. He’s got a voice, but he uses it for nothing but the usual country sentiment. He’s willing to experiment with sounds and styles, but he always lands in roughly the same place, and those experiments never extend to the ideas or the themes of the songs themselves. He generates a lot of buzz at times, but no heat. On “Highway Don’t Care” he teams up with Taylor Swift, who has already done her part to canonize him, and though neither one of them had a hand in writing the song, it may as well have both their fingerprints on it. Which means it leads nowhere new. Even worse, it takes its sweet time not getting there. The only revelation comes when Swift takes the part of the generic love song playing on the radio: if ever there was proof that it’s her voice as well as her songwriting talents that have made her such a star, this is it. She makes those banal words come alive. Too bad McGraw can’t do the same.
Drake—“Started From the Bottom”
“Started From the Bottom” is more a teaser for the new album than a legitimate single, but I’m impressed by the beat, and by Drake’s switching up of voices. Whatever you may think of him overall, there’s no doubt that he’s improved as a rapper. As for the lyrics, I assume that he means that he and his crew started out from the bottom of the rap game, not life itself. I’m willing to concede that point; how many people would take any teen actor—especially a Canadian one—seriously if he suddenly announced he intended to become a serious rapper? But that doesn’t mean he needs to devote every track to complaining about it.
Kenney Chesney—“Pirate Flag”
Chesney is coming off a string of above-average singles, but this is the fourth single off Welcome To the Fishbowl, and the inspiration doesn’t run quite as deep this time around. Certainly not deep enough to float his pirate ship.
Young Jeezy featuring 2 Chainz—“R.I.P.”
Is he talking about his career? Not yet, I guess.
Chris Young—“I Can Take It From There”
For assembly-line made country slap and tickle, not bad. But I’d have less doubt about his lust if Young didn’t use so many pre-formed parts to put it across.
Wale featuring Tiara Thomas—“Bad”
This is the first time a Wale record has gotten my attention since he teamed up with Lady Gaga on “Chillin’” nearly four years ago. Once again it’s the woman who makes the track worth hearing. When Tiara Thomas announces that she’s never made love but she sure knows how to fuck, the record is essentially over, at least as far as Wale is concerned. Who pays attention to anything else after that? Thomas also outs herself as a cheater who’s guaranteed to break Wale’s heart, which I guess makes her whatever definition of the recently controversial term “bad bitch” you care to apply. The word “bad” applies to Wale, too, but in only one way that I can think of.