Every Tuesday, Dan Weiss runs down the week’s new full-length music releases, from charting hits to more obscure depths, the underrated and the overrated, from a critical pop fan’s perspective.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks (Columbia)
Trent Reznor feels old, which is great because some of us have been waiting for him to grow up for years. Whether his sound matured is another matter. Nine Inch Nails‘ new album is the musical equivalent of the lyrics on Eminem’s Recovery, a whiz kid rediscovering his ambitions through the lens of no longer needing to be the best/biggest/loudest/most shocking. The result? Kinda sexy actually. Palm-muted Thom Yorke-style laptronica kicking the walls with My Bloody Valentine-style detuning. Subtler sound effects. Voice nearly content. Reznor’s fatherhood and marriage are as integral to the piece as Jay Z’s on Magna Carta Holy Grail. But Reznor will never lose his regular-guy sneer, no matter how many times he makes Lindsay Buckingham overdub.
The Julie Ruin – Run Fast (TJR)
The misconception is that Kathleen Hanna’s one of the many artists who could stand to lighten up—that the synthed-up “Party City” is the natural comeback from Le Tigre’s academic titles like “Fifty Years of Ridicule” and “What’s Yr Take on Cassavettes?” But she’s never been less than funny or fun; the most important white girl in rock and roll history had the balance right from her first EP. It’s important to know what she’s coming back from isn’t musical, it’s debilitating Lyme disease. So for the love of Vaginal Creme Davis, let her have fun in a new wave band that really gets it together in the second half. “South Coast Plaza” belatedly justifies the inclusion of the annoying bursts of Kiki and Herb’s Kenny Mellman, while the halting delivery on “Girls Like Us” sells lines about inventing Wendy’s. Hanna might be making “performance art in the alleyways of Chinatown” but she’s doing it for fun itself. Le Tigre’s second album ended with “Keep on Livin’,” and this album’s the result.
Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (ANTI-)
“I’m a man/ You have to deal with me,” sings the hyper-intelligent Neko Case on the reasonably rocking “Man,” whose belated feminism in interviews is more than welcome for contextualizing this tuneful, clever, unconventional album. From her Lennonesque taste for the bizarre (“I shot him through his jelly eye”) to the confessional (“My brain makes drugs to keep me slow”), the woman who’s now sang the word “pharaoh” twice in ten years is always engaging and never settles for the conventional singer-songwriter bull, which leads to lines like “you never hold it at the right angle” being sung as a hook, and occasionally those irresistible politics seeping in. Opening question: “Hey little girl would you like to be/ The king’s pet or the king?”
John Legend – Love in the Future (G.O.O.D.)
This openhearted, expansive thing is John Legend’s most generous melodically and—if “Have a baby even if the world is crazy” or “What would I do without your smart mouth?” is any indication—his most thoughtful lyrically. “Open Your Eyes” remakes the tune his padre Common sampled for his semi-famous “The Light” 14 years ago, while “Who Do We Think We Are” is so liquidelic you almost expect his stupid sales-buffering guest Rick Ross to ask if anyone’s ever been to Electric Ladyland. Legend conceives soul as a duty to arrange a melody to its fullest potential. Honest work if there ever was.
Bastille – Bad Blood (The Extended Cut) (EMI) / The 1975 – The 1975 (Dirty Hit)
These two English arena threats are gunning for the same prize: U2 because they think Coldplay could’ve done it bigger. The 1975 at least have the inkling that M83 could use more songs, so they abandon the stoic-synth-rainstorm thing halfway through their self-titled debut and focus on melodies and, well, “Sex,” a winner that’s followed by the most gorgeous thing here, a “Talk!” distinguished from Coldplay’s by an exclamation point for a reason. Think Glasvegas’ debut album a few years ago, that belted its anthems out like the Earth was splitting in two.
But far richer is the earnest Bastille, who’s already dominating the charts despite nothing about the synth-reggae of “Bad Blood” (reprised in this edition in an even more lively piano rendition) or the New Order replica “Pompeii” or the shuffling “Flaws” (“without them we’d be doomed”) meshing on paper. But from the excellent production to the phenomenal singing and actually unpredictable dynamics, they don’t half-ass a thing. Their keyboard programming actually touches Vampire Weekend territory. And the attitude helps distinguish them from the usual mire of British alt-sort-of like Editors: “I’m gonna be an optimist about this.”