Neon Neon’s curious Stainless Style seems to have been slightly overlooked (over here, at least; it was a Mercury Prize nominee in the UK); if nothing else, it’s some of the most flawless ’80s pastiche I’ve heard (I don’t do Chromeo). The convincingly New Wave vocals come from Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, who proves, oddly, to sound exactly like someone who would have had one hit single sometime in 1983. The music is done with Boom Bip: Casio keyboards make tinny choruses, abetted by electronic drum pads and handclap machines. Beyond production tricks and aping long-discarded structures, opening instrumental “Neon Theme” has a Liquid Liquid-style bassline with Gary Numan synths and chord progressions; on “Racquel,” Rhys straight-facedly says “Shine on!” to end choruses. If you like unashamedly artificial ’80s synthpop creations ironically ambivalent about their hedonistic connotations, you should probably hear this.
Stainless Style’s excuse is that it’s a loose concept album about John De Lorean (I’m reverting back to the familiar spelling, even though this is technically correct); these are supposed to sound like songs that would’ve been floating around Delorean’s glossy life, and they mostly do. Slip them into a bar on ’80s night right after ABC or Depeche Mode when everyone’s had too much to drink and people would probably fall for it (and enjoy it in roughly the same way, rather than as the pointless technical stunt the album begs to be confused with). There’s some hip-hop exceptions reminding us this is from the present: frantic coked-up “Trick for Treat” (featuring Spank Rock, exactly as crude as I’d been told) and summation “Luxury Pool,” where Fatlip gives an admiring portrait of Delorean as your prototypical street entrepreneur, working hard to ensure his family would never go hungry like he did as a kid. The real joy, though, isn’t in the story, but in the details of a song like “I Told Her On Alderaan,” some kind of space age nonsense about meeting a girl on Princess Leia’s home planet. For retro-paranoia, try “Michael Douglas,” with our now Gekko-ish protagonist fantasizing “you’ll see my reflection / In Michael Douglas’s mirrored sunglasses / You’ll see my perfection / In Michael Douglas’s mirrored sunglasses.” (Neon Neon’s ’80s fetish has a reflexive wit: in the “I Lust U” video, that translates to using Simon Le Bon’s daughter for the hook. Old yet new!) Like the music it emulates, Neon Neon is both disposable and surprisingly durable.
Because Brian Eno’s production activities in recent years include an apparently unremarkable Paul Simon album and making Coldplay really boring, I was a little nervous about his reunion with David Byrne. But David Byrne & Brian Eno’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is as warm, welcoming and tuneful as most of the fine solo material Byrne’s put out since 2001. The music is Eno’s, the lyrics and vocals Byrne’s, and no one screws up. Occasionally, they aim for edgy and end up being just pleasing: “I Feel My Stuff” has Byrne trying on new strange voices, no pop hooks, and a TV On the Radio breakdown, but it won’t disturb you. This might bother all the “music that isn’t confrontational sucks” types, but I’m really not expecting two late 50somethings to school us in how to provoke. Mostly, they aim for warmth and hit it: “Home,” “Life Is Long,” “The River” and “Strange Overtones” rank with Byrne’s best solo work.
“Home” is pretty much what you’d expect lyrically from a man who’s spent a lot of time humorlessly, dully blogging against the Bush administration: “Home—with our bodies touching / Home—and the cam’ras rolling” (obnoxious apostrophe not mine, but straight from Byrne’s site), meaning presumably either people taking photos of themselves with family (or having sex) or a touch of surveillance paranoia, all conveyed lightly enough that it doesn’t have to annoy you as heavyhanded if you’re not on the same wavelength. “Strange Overtones” perhaps works so well because it takes a sweet genre (light, frankly appropriated funk guitars) and doesn’t embarrass itself: “This groove is out of fashion,” Byrne sings,“These beats are 20 years old.” True, but he takes it for one last good spin. Sweetest of all is “The River,” yet another example of Byrne making his own version of an operatic aria/duet (his duet with Rufus Wainwright on Bizet’s “Au Fond du Temple Saint” remains as unexpectedly undisastrous foray) and an unexpectedly perfect post-election Obama victory lap: “A change is gonna come / Like Sam Cooke sang in ’63.” Sure enough, it did. This is musical comfort food done with rare intelligence even when it tries to provoke. Take that how you will.
T.I.’s Paper Trail is predictably a blast. This is T.I.’s big summation before heading to jail, which means we get both the exciting “Ready For Whatever”—a typically swaggertastic track made very weird because T.I. repeatedly protests he understands that he was wrong in breaking the law, but also notes umpteen examples of how crucial it is for him to be strapped to protect his family (why he needed silencers as well remains unclear)—and the deadly dull “My Life Your Entertainment,” which is every bit as self-pitying and bathetic as its title and isn’t helped one bit by Usher lending some of his confessions angst for the chorus. There’s a host of well-produced, essentially minor tracks (this doesn’t come close to King for cohesive impact, but what does?) that are quite entertaining on their own: “Porn Star,” for example, is produced by one Lil C, who appears to have spent two years holed up in a basement with the complete Neptunes catalogue and stolen most of their keyboard and drum settings, complete with freaky narcotized chopped-up vocals. Play this back to back with “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and marvel. (Am I complaining about this influence? Not one bit.) Unlike the faux-sobriety of T.I. Vs. T.I.P., Paper Trail is pretty self-consciously trashy party music: track names like “What’s Up, What’s Haapnin’” pretty much tell the whole story, so you’ll know if you’re down or not. As always, I am.
The key trifecta is “On Top Of The World,” “Life Your Life” (this is some kind of abridged MTV performance version, but you get the idea and Rihanna is surprisingly awesome live) and “Swagga Like Us,” which extend T.I.’s production comfort zone in new and mildly surprising directions. I wondered a year ago, when Graduation came out, if that (plus the popularity surge of Justice) meant gay-friendly French dance electronica would become the new couture sound for rap; lo, it has come to pass, and not a moment too soon. I don’t recall the instrumental outro vamps ever lasting this long before, even though T.I. has always been appropriately aware of how heavily he leans on top-notch beats. Both “On Top Of The World” (featuring some typically entertaining Ludacris bullshit about eating Singaporean lobster; thank god he’s still enjoying himself) and “Life Your Life” spend at least as much time letting the dance track play out as they do on the rapping. They also feature sung hooks (male/female respectively) backed up by a cheerful chorus of men singing things like “woah-oh-oh” like a distaff redux of Seven White backed by drunk dwarves; they’re pure fun.
“Live Your Life” is particularly awesome, assuming you have a soft spot for would-be magical-night dance tracks a la Paul Oakenfold. It’s based around a sample of the (personally inexplicable) YouTube sensation “Dragostea Din Tei,” a truly unremarkable Romanian dance hit that sounds like typical Eurotrash club night to me; at least T.I.’s song gives us, once again, the chance to contemplate in a thousand banal think pieces the speed of viral sound. Just Blaze slows it down a little, drops the silly backbeat and gives it a replacement majestic stride. This track has been hated on all over as vulgar and stupid and tinny or something, but it’s pretty awesome, never more so than when Rihanna just vocoder-doodles over a minute-plus outro. “Swagga Like Us” successfully completes—via “Paper Planes” sample—M.I.A.’s way-overdue mainstreaming. I love listening to T.I. at least in part because his brag-heavy persona always contains some interesting contradictions. (They’re still here: cf. “Slide Show,” a sappy but effective John Legend track: “If I only knew back then what I know now, how much better life it would have been if I slowed down / Maybe I have been Kanye, instead of seeing gunplay.” T.I. spends a lot of time rapping about his haters, per usual, but he’s been remarkably friendly with his guest spots over the years, and his self-conscious anxiety about his place in the current rap pecking order is second only to Kanye’s.) Paper Trail, though, really is mostly about the music. He really is the best thing we have for solid, workmanlike, expensive crossover rap.
I overthought Los Campesinos!’ first album earlier this year, but not by much. The crux of the matter was that LC! are a punk band who think they’re twee, or that they can make themselves twee by piling on violins and references to indie musical arcana, but that they’d delivered an album that was way too long, shout-y and monochromatic, draining all the excitement out. Their follow-up We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed is a big step back towards their true potential. Who would’ve guessed that working with the dude from Broken Social Scene was not the best way to create subtle instrumentation, helping to differentiate one breathless and loud marathon from another? John Goodmanson, a stalwart and inconspicuous kind of producer, steers them well: opener “Ways To Make It Through The Wall” has the violins in and out within 30 seconds, runs through some exciting loops and ends with some kind of ghostly piano that leads into the next track. (The band has also discovered sequencing and, thank god, broken things up with a few shorter songs that, in their excitable world, almost qualify as ambient.) Lead writer Gareth is getting funnier, even if he’s sometimes unabashedly self-pitying: “I identify my star sign by asking which is least compatible with yours,” he announces on “Ways,” which is pretty much a perfect one-liner. They’re far from perfect: there’s probably no song here that’s suitable for a mixtape. But I like their vibe, and I enjoy their sarcastic ethos, which is both impossibly arrogant and self-mocking, and if they don’t break up too soon (the title is their way of acknowledging that their band, just like most, is ultimately doomed to fall apart), they might make a classic album yet.
The long-suffering Clipse seem, for the first time in a long time, to be having fun, which is totally fair; while waiting for their third album to drop, they have a clothing line to promote (Play Cloths; I don’t know much about fashion or clothing in general, let alone hip-hop fashion, but this is a fun site with some cracked-out bright Flash animation, and the clothes are colorful and fun; this isn’t just another rapper’s vanity fashion line IMO). Hence the excuse for Road to Till the Casket Drops, a breezy 36-minute mix that’s easily the best thing they’ve put out since Hell Hath No Fury. “The coke that I push is as pure as a child’s heart,” announces the intro, but Clipse seem to not be too interested in being menacing this time around; Hell Hath No Fury can be really scarily convincing at times, but this is more of a pre-victory lap. In between repeatedly reminding you of their upcoming hoped-for commercial breakthrough, Clipse throw away many terrific punchlines and similes. “I’m sick like leprosy, I’m that ill,” Malice announces on “Numb It Down,” which is about right. “I hangman these words together pouring passion into every letter” is Pusha’s equally adroit description of himself on “Big Dreams.” How much money do they have? “Voted for Barack, McCain was my tax bracket though.” Etc. etc. ad infinitum. Not amused? Don’t listen. (They also attack Lil Wayne again, which is pretty pointless.) This is a blast for fans though; all due respect to Tom Breihan (follow a fascinating review-rebuttal-response kerfuffle in the links), this is really pretty excellent.
Better late than never: I put off listening to In Rainbows (CD 2) to the point of irrelevance, because there’s only so much Radiohead I can take in a while. It turns out to be fairly staggering though, trumping the main album itself. After Hail To The Thief, Thom Yorke went around making bratty comments about how the band might just retreat into EPs rather than full albums; this doesn’t make a difference now, but five years ago I wasn’t capable of downloading everything as easily as I am now, so it seemed like that would be a pain to keep up with. But he might have had a point: shy of half-an-hour, it contains what may be their best song, period. “Down Is The New Up” is a brilliant example of why Radiohead should never quit working with Nigel Godrich; it starts off like a stripped-down acoustic jam, all piano and guitar tone, but there’s been enough space left in the mix for Blonde Redhead’s string section to show up. Nothing gets louder, but by the end of the song there’s a staggering amount of stuff going on, but the illusion of a band playing live hasn’t been punctured; they make it sound completely natural to suddenly launch into their version of a lush soul anthem. As for the rest: in a remarkably snotty review, the normally hagiographic folks at Pitchfork suggested this was for really desperate fans only. They’re wrong; this is the best thing they’ve done since Amnesiac.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.