What’s happened to these guys? Can a change in label—from the Disney-owned and now defunct Lyric Street to the Nashville giant of independents, Big Machine—make that much difference? Or is it that anyone, no matter what their history, can make good music once in a while? Odds are it’s the second, even if I’d like to think it’s the first, but whatever the case, I have to say it straight out: this is a great record. It’s as if Rascal Flatts had suddenly learned that all those country-pop clichés they’ve been trading in can be used to create truthful, emotional music if you twist them the right way, illuminate them from the inside, and are careful not to overplay your hand. This gets big, like all their records, and the middle eight is a disappointment—just when you hope they’ll dig a little deeper they come out with facile banalities—but overall this is as fine a piece of country gospel as you’ll ever hear. It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.
Neon Trees—“Everybody Talks”
Starting off with a rip of “At the Hop”, the most mechanical of the great early rock records, this proceeds to become at least as mechanical, and even more of a pastiche. When Bruno Mars trades in fifties styles he does so because he lives and breathes them—it may not be original, but it’s organic. These guys, on the other hand, are dabblers playing at cut and paste. But just like “At the Hop”, sometimes being mechanical works; this moves fast and hard, and never lets up. It’s as shallow as they come, but it’s also exciting. Wonder if we’ll hear from them again?
One Direction—“One Thing”
One Direction want to have it both ways: they want their pop to be simple enough to appeal to young girls, but they also want it to be hard and modern enough to appeal to girls who are a few years older. The instrumentation here sounds like it comes off a modern dance floor, but the song also uses pop tricks that are so old they probably seem fresh to anyone under the age of twenty (I haven’t heard the stutter beat they use in the chorus for over a decade, at least). The problem is the modern part of is so heavy-handed and leaden that it kills the older, poppier bits. If they want to last more than six months they (or their handlers) need to come up with better stuff than this.
Eli Young Band—“Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
In the main, the shift in influence in country rock from The Eagles to Tom Petty is an improvement: the songs are faster, the grooves stronger, and the sense of self-satisfaction is more manageable. But even at his best Petty had his own pretensions, to say the least, and most of the bands that are influenced by him tend to lean on his trademark hits rather than his better, more eccentric numbers. They all want to be “The Hardest Part” instead of “American Girl”. Eli Young is no exception, and sings about his early days learning his rock and roll over a backing band that may as well be The Heartbreakers jamming the usual changes. It isn’t terrible, but streaming your personal perspective through clichés doesn’t break the clichés, it reinforces them. Which, come to think of it, is almost exactly what Petty did most of the time.
Young Jeezy featuring Ne-Yo—“Leave You Alone”
Ne-Yo didn’t just write a hook for Jeezy— it sounds like he gave him a whole goddamned song, one that he had a chorus and a bridge for but no verses. This shouldn’t be a surprise; lyrics have always been Ne-Yo’s weakness; he’s melodically gifted, but he has a hard time making words both flow and mean something. What he should do, instead of handing songs to rappers like Jeezy, is find himself a decent lyricist and finish the songs himself. Easier said than done, I know, but this is just sad.
The lyrics would sound dated even if this song had come out two years ago, and the music it draws on is even older, but that could be said of just about every piece of Disney pop, and nothing could stop this from being a joy from start to finish. If that sounds corny, so be it. Real joy is always in short supply on the pop charts, viewed either as manipulative or childish. The only place you normally find it is in music made for tweens and pre-teens, where too often it sounds simplistic or condescending. This is neither. It will never make radio aside from the Disney Channel, and most likely will never hit any real dance floor, which is a greater loss than most people would think. Imagine an ecstasy that isn’t based on sex or chemicals. If you can’t I suppose you should move on to something else, but it’s your loss.
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