Jason Aldean—“Take A Little Ride”
If it weren’t for Brantley Gilbert, Aldean would be the king of country overkill, so it’s nice to hear him tone it down a notch (half a notch, anyway) on this ode to driving around in a pickup with his girl and watching the (ahem) corn grow. I was irritated at first by the news that he had altered the lyrics to match his new endorsement contract with Coors, but aside from setting a lousy precedent I’m not sure it matters. For one thing, Aldean doesn’t have much in the way of artistic credibility to lose. Second, this song is more of an an advertisement for Chevy trucks and the stereotypical rural lifestyle than it is for Coors. The beer is nothing but set decoration. I do wonder, though, what kind of deal he has with Chevrolet.
No Doubt—“Settle Down”
Even if you assume that the subdued Bollywood string section at the beginning and the dub section at the end will be cut for radio airplay, this is still a weird comeback record. In some ways, such as the obvious influence of M.I.A. and the occasional reggae tinges, it tries to be forward looking and a continuation of Gwen Stefani’s cut and paste solo work. But it also sounds laid-back, soft where Stefani’s stuff was all hard edges and in your face. She talks tough, but the music doesn’t back her up. Is that the band’s fault, or does Stefani not care anymore? Or did the explosion of weirdly dressed, brash pop divas that appeared in the wake of “Hollaback Girl” make her try too hard to keep up? Whatever the case, this feels more like an organized retreat than a comeback.
T.I.—“Go Get It”
Is there anything more boring than a successful rapper bragging about how rich and comfortable he is? At least when Jay-Z and Kanye West do it you get the feeling that they’re aware of the illusory nature of it all. They wonder why they made it and others didn’t, wonder about the racial and cultural implications, and sometimes sound defensive about it (especially West), well aware that luck was a major element in their elevation. Rappers like T.I., though, take it for granted, or don’t think about it at all. T.I. worked hard. (Right?) He paid his dues. (Uh-huh) Now he does a reality show (what?), and lives the easy life. The fact that his dues consisted of doing time for illegally buying all the crap he brags about owning on this record is an irony that either escapes him or he doesn’t consider important. He still has his talent, still has the flow and the gift of wordplay, but it all comes so easy to him now that he doesn’t take the time to think through what he’s saying or do anything that would challenge him or his audience. This is the street rapper’s version of easy listening, if such a thing is possible.
After a few listens, the Springsteen influence seems to fade (though of course it never completely goes away), and you realize this is a real Killers song: anthemic, with a good beat, and Brandon Flowers trying his damnedest to convince you that what he’s singing about is important. That’s the problem. Flowers’s sense of the importance of what he’s doing creates a barrier between him and whatever he’s singing about. You never once get the feeling that he knows or understands anything about the struggles of working class kids with children of their own, no matter how hard he tries to empathize with them. Springsteen sings about the working class because that’s where he grew up, and though he avoided the same fate as his characters, he came close to not making it, and knew lots of people who didn’t. Flowers sounds like he chose this subject almost at random, and the difference is like reading a story by an author who has actually lived an experience and one who’s trying to imagine what that experience would be like. In most cases, only geniuses can get away with that. Flowers is talented, and he’s smart. But he isn’t a genius, and he shouldn’t try to be.
Dave Matthews Band—“Mercy”
As someone who has never cared for Matthews’s music, I’m almost afraid to admit how much I enjoy this record. There’s less emphasis on showing off the band’s chops, which for the first time gives you an idea of how good they can be (the percussionist almost steals the entire record). It also sounds like Matthews has been spending some time listening to Curtis Mayfield. The influence isn’t direct—no borrowed melody lines or chord changes—but the atmosphere and overall feel are the same. The lyrics are the usual well-meaning mush, but at least they show some connection to reality. They’re so down to earth in their call to action, in fact, that I wonder if this might be intended as an answer record to John Mayer’s “Waiting On the World to Change” (that was a while ago, I know, but in the slow-moving universe Mayer and Matthews inhabit these things take time). Of course, that could just be me savoring the ridiculous idea of a battle of the bands between the kings of easy listening, blues-tinged pop. Why, they might even have to raise their voices.