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: Avicii – True (PRMD/Universal Island)
Here’s a phenomenal reversal of pop’s flaws for most of 2013: someone who’s actually trying hard enough and lacks the ability to do more. Tim Bergling (aka Avicii‘s) bag of tricks may be limited, but he makes up for it with an exceptional sense of melody that go on like the decimals in pi, which explains why the floor-filling opener “Wake Me Up” isn’t the only country-derived tune on here. His singers are the highlight, or maybe it’s because they find his infinite beat so uplifting that it evaporates all questions of how “forced” it is to get Incubus’ guitarist on here, or the guy from Alison Krauss’ band, or Imagine Dragons for that matter. In case “Shame on Me” sampling the opening drums from “Ballroom Blitz” didn’t clue you in, this is an album in love with pop history—and pop’s tradition of toying with pop history. It gets old no faster than Disclosure or Daft Punk, who could learn a few tricks from Skrillex themselves.
The Naked and Famous – In Rolling Waves (Somewhat Damaged)
Like Avicii, this Kiwi duo’s second album sells unabashed if chart-friendly melody over identity, though they’re less boxed in. The excellent, thundering title tune has guitar chimes worthy of the Edge circa Achtung Baby, while “The Mess” directly after is a perfect Tegan and Sara-circa-The Cucumbers (“My Boyfriend” is one of the best songs of the ’80s, period) romantic ills duet. The minimized synths in “Grow Old” are worthy of Arthur Russell, while the closing tearjerker goes all the way with six minutes of Steve Reich-level orchestral repetition deployed for “Hear You Me”-era Jimmy Ear World emotional manipulation. Unlike Avicii, The Naked and Famous‘ sense of history is so ingrained because foregrounding tunes makes them bound to cross paths with history anyway. I mean, there’s only twelve notes.
MGMT – MGMT (Columbia)
Loathe as I am to refer to a guy who couldn’t grasp what tUnE-yArDs was doing, Chuck Klosterman’s theory of Advancement is perfect criteria to judge the band who longs to be our weirdest. An artist who is Advanced makes records that we don’t understand, without a motive of deliberateness or irony. It simply is. At the time Klosterman’s essay on this was published, it called Lou Reed easily the most advanced artist of all time. Considering Lulu, his ill-fated spoken-metal collaboration with Metallica, hadn’t even been released yet, it’s safe to say he still holds the title. By contrast, an artist who does anything at all to be weird on purpose is Overt, not Advanced. Which makes MGMT a good candidate for the most Overt band of all time; everything they do is an attempt to escape from under the shadow of three accidental hits from their debut album, “Kids,” “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel,” in descending order of greatness. They’re easily the best songs Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden will ever write. This isn’t because they’ve gotten too overtly weird. It’s because they equate weirdness with avoidance of pleasure. Their third album is actually better and safer than their choose-your-own-adventure second—actually gives credence to the “joke” that Columbia was gonna ride them hard for a hit again. And “Introspection” and “Your Life Is a Lie” are indeed catchy, albeit in a Frank Zappa sort of way. Zappa wouldn’t have passed Klosterman’s test, either.
Elvis Costello and the Roots – Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs
Speaking of which, Elvis Costello is more Advanced than a Flaming Lips satellite band could ever be. Whereas Neil Young’s weird moves all have some kind of motive, whether political (2009’s excellent, much-savaged Fork in the Road was actually a timely document of going green) or musical (the vocoded Trans and slicked-back Everybody’s Rockin’ were intended to take full advantage of his new Geffen contract’s creative control), Costello’s larks don’t follow an arc that can be summed up in the first line of the one-sheet. He’s gone classical and New Orleans jazz, collabed with McCartney and Bacharach, dropped by Fall Out Boy and Jenny Lewis sessions. So right on schedule, here’s his Album With a Rap Group, funky and weird, with buzzing synths here and sincere balladry there. He balances it almost too well because he never stops sounding like himself. Or because working with The Roots is just about the least shocking thing anyone could do in 2013.
Jack Johnson – From Here to Now to You (Universal Republic)
“One day I’ll be running this place” sings a Jack Johnson with a far bigger regular-guy reality disconnect than Bruce Springsteen. “I’ve been washing dishes and singing from the bottom.” The song’s in Johnson’s upper percentile but you do wonder how the world’s premier Green-energy acoustic troubadour could possibly feel inferior to moralists nor rich pop stars alike. Maybe he’s bitter about never getting his critical due? Jimmy Buffett’s carbon footprint is bigger but at least he’s eccentric.
Sebadoh – Defend Yourself (Joyful Noise)
Does it surprise you that Lou Barlow didn’t age well? Does it count as a disappointment if you expected nothing from it 14 years after Sebadoh‘s underrated “last” album? 14 years is a long time for Barlow to not make any good albums, and his evolution isn’t much different from say, Dallas Green’s: make a lot of noise, then don’t. His relationship with melody has always been reluctant, and his sole moment of sustained urgency, Bakesale, turns 20 next year. So slot this with the last Built to Spill or Stephen Malkmus albums and call it a folk implosion.