More than a decade into her career, it’s still unclear what Britney Spears brings to the table, and before delving into her latest album, Femme Fatale, it felt necessary to try to understand, once and for all, the pop singer’s appeal. Britney seems to conjure the kind of blind allegiance typically reserved for superstars who have seemingly better-earned such fawning fanaticism—either with their unmistakable technical talent or their socio-political import (Mariah and Madonna come to mind, respectively). Comparisons to the latter have always been utterly absurd; Britney has never possessed the creative endowment or self-awareness to deserve that mantle. Her appeal is no doubt generational, at least in part: The early-to-mid aughts produced few strong female pop icons, and Britney served as a kind of placeholder between the Queen of Pop’s heyday and the arrival of Lady Gaga. (The only other contender may have been Christina Aguilera, but her career has since been horribly mismanaged.)
I wasn’t satisfied with that explanation alone, though, so I decided to ask around. The answers swung wildly between “Britney is God”—which, though funny, is also totally arbitrary, general, and delegitimizes all of our gay icons (have we no criteria other than blond hair, big breasts, and a dance beat?)—and ironic fascination with Britney’s lack of talent and cognitive faculties, but nothing in between that even remotely resembled at actual attempt to defend her as an artist. I still hadn’t found an answer.
Many of those Britney fans will no doubt accuse me of admitting to outright bias against her, thereby rendering my opinion of Femme Fatale irrelevant. On the contrary, I’ve always liked Britney and have enjoyed many of her songs, and even a few of her albums. And in my quest to unearth her inexplicable appeal, I kept coming back to the music, which is all that really matters, right? The thing about Britney’s music, though, is that she seems to have very little to do with it, particularly on her last few albums, and this one is no exception. The success of a Britney song rests almost entirely on the quality of other people’s songwriting and production, and every track on Femme Fatale succeeds or fails on that basis.
Longtime collaborator Max Martin and his partner in auricle-crime, Dr. Luke, produced the bulk of Femme Fatale, and their contributions are mixed-to-shoddy. The album’s lead single, “Hold It Against Me,” makes good on the failed double entendre of “If You Seek Amy,” but the rest of the lyrics are comprised of cheesy pickup lines strung together atop the kind of generic Eurotrash beats and dated trance synths that are sadly all the rage right now. The follow-up, “Till the World Ends,” is so similar to Ke$ha’s “Blow” (Ms. $ebert co-wrote both) that I can’t decide which one I like more—or if I even like them at all. If not for its infectious pre-chorus whistle, “I Wanna Go” would be just another song off the Max Martin assembly line, and “Gasoline” is, for better or worse, not a topical screed about energy independence and the rising price of crude oil.
The album’s best offerings, then, are the ones produced by other big names in the pop biz: “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” helmed by Dr. Luke cohort Benny Blanco, sounds enough like Christina’s thumping “Desnudate” to make one forgive its lyric about catching the flu, and the will.i.am-produced “Big Fat Bass” is an amped-up “When I Hear Music” for the 21st century. It’s Bloodshy & Avant, who made their name with Britney’s “Toxic,” who leave the biggest mark though: Their “How I Roll” is a bubbly, playful pop song, and “Trip to Your Heart” finds the duo applying the glitchy synth-pop, pitch-incorrected vocals, and sugary hooks they’ve been trying out on newcomer Sky Ferreira of late. In fact, Ferreira could be singing these songs and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, which once again raises the question: What does Britney bring to the table? Maybe it’s just a brand name that sells.
Label: Jive Release Date: March 29, 2011 Buy: Amazon
Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule
The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.3.5
Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.
It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.
If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.
While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.
Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead
The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.3.5
Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.
Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.
“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.
Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.
At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.
Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Ariana Grande Embraces Her Flaws on Thank U, Next
The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album.3.5
Ariana Grande doesn’t care if you like her. The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album, Thank U, Next. She fantasizes about her ex while her lover sleeps beside her on “Ghostin,” she picks fights with him for the make-up sex on “Make Up,” and she glibly coaxes a guy into dumping his girlfriend just for kicks on the plainly titled “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”
As Grande recently proclaimed on Twitter, “Life is full trash,” and it’s this willingness to reveal herself warts and all that makes it easy to forgive her various indiscretions. She isn’t afraid to admit that she’s “Needy” and—on the very next track—that she simultaneously requires her personal space. “Been through some bad shit, I should be a sad bitch/Who woulda thought it’d turn me to a savage?” she declares on “7 Rings,” which finds the singer boasting of her financial prowess in the key of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.”
Today’s pop stars typically rely on rappers to deliver the kind of braggadocious verses that would otherwise dirty up their squeaky-clean personas, but Grande spits her own rhymes throughout Thank U, Next, and they’re so slick that Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy have both accused her of biting their flows. There are no guest rappers on this decidedly lean follow-up to last year’s Sweetener, and while one might expect it to be filled with at least a few stale leftovers from that album, the songs here rarely sound like sloppy seconds.
Thank U, Next is easily Grande’s most sonically consistent effort to date, even if that means some of the album’s sleek R&B tracks tend to blur together. Aside from a wealth of trap beats and finger snaps, the album’s most notable characteristic is the recurring use of orchestral flourishes. The opening track, “Imagine,” is a dreamy midtempo ballad, with Grande pining for an Instagram-perfect romance that comprises sharing sexy baths and pad thai. The song takes a sudden turn in its final third, as it builds to a hypnotic climax filled with cinematic swells and Grande’s euphoric, Minnie Ripperton-esque whistle notes.
That same tactic makes slightly less thematic sense on the reggae-inflected “Bad Idea,” on which Grande espouses the temporarily amnesiac virtues of casual sex. Elsewhere, the use of a sample by the late soul singer Wendy Rene on “Fake Smile” initially smacks of misappropriation, followed as it is by seemingly mindless lines like “Another night, another party, sayin’ hi to everybody.” But by the end, the song reveals itself to be a modern expression of the blues, about a young woman trying to navigate life in an era where privacy is virtually nonexistent. Grande ultimately earns the use of that sample, and it’s her refusal to fake a smile that proves to be what makes her so damn likeable.
Label: Republic Release Date: February 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon