Not all pop music is popular. Not all popular music is pop. This week's album review roundup takes on bestsellers both good and bad, and highlights one indie musician who retools pop sounds in her own niftily idiosyncratic way.
Sir Babygirl – Crush on Me
Kelsie Hogue manages her unmanageable desires by colorfully exaggerating their scope, flinging herself into extremes of knowingly delirious indie-pop and treating every slight, sexual slipup, and thwarted crush like the end of the world. Shouting “You don't know me anymore. I changed my hair! I changed my hair! I changed my hair! I changed my hair!” at an ex isn’t just more fun than moping at home with your guitar—it’s healthier. I just hope that same manic, pastel aesthetic is equally therapeutic when brought to bear on whatever inspired “Haunted House.” It’s an astonishing track regardless, with Hogue’s voice sliding up and down the scale like a penny whistle while lyrics like “no one knows the difference from my laughter and my screams” suggest a desperate failure to exorcise a genuine trauma at its core. GO
Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next
Yes, I realize that pining for a “cohesive pop album” in the see-what-sticks era is as backward-looking as searching Yelp for your town’s finest blacksmith. But I swear, just ditch two of Max Martin’ four productions here—the electroskanking return to his Ace of Base roots “Bloodline” and the unfortunately Gotye-redolent “Bad Idea”—and you’ve got a near-flawless, possibly autobiographical(ish), playful and thoughtful and silly and heartfelt song-cycle about a young woman’s romantic miseducation. (Call it a “playlist” if that makes you more comfortable.) “Imagine” indulges in a double fantasy of intimate kink, but that soon gives way to an IRL push and pull: First she’s “Needy,” then on “NASA” she’s demanding space, finally she comes full circle on “In My Head,” where she realizes her lover is just the sum of her hopeful projections. “7 Rings” felt a bit pinched and mercenary as a single, but here its retail rebound suitably sets up the title track’s graceful lessons learned, which are in turn upended by “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” where our restless heroine sets off to mess her life up all over again. That coda is also Martin’s sole production coup here—it’s Pop Wansel (on three tracks) and Tommy Brown (on five) whose shimmery, soft-focus trap-pop productions are the distinctive, not quite uniform, possibly ideal setting for Grande’s pillowy enunciation and bottle-rocket high notes. GO
Backstreet Boys – DNA
This is one of those comebacks that dares you to decide whether it’s good or merely not disappointing. The BBs were a moment as much as a sound—a moment I recall fondly even though I was sadly too haplessly hetero-male and post-teen for it to be mine. But they were also a vibe as much as a moment: their harmonies, balanced perfectly between active and passive, embodied a spirit of yearning, a less demanding strain of sexual expression than R&B pleading. And that vibe they recapture here, even when they get aggressive on “Passionate,” even when they’re figuratively on their knees hoping you’ll take them back, even when embracing material Max Martin wouldn’t even have signed off on for filler 20 years ago. As the many sweet tweets about long ago Luke Perry crushes reminded me this week, nurturing a formative strain of desire you’ve matured past isn’t the same as nostalgia for a mythic state of purity at all, it’s just acknowledging the source of your adult sexuality. Sometimes "not disappointing" is good enough. SLOW
Weezer – Weezer [The Black Album]
Weezer – Weezer [The Teal Album]
Old enough to have never expected anything more from these hooky hucksters than four minutes I wouldn’t have to hear Blind Melon on the radio, I simply avoided Weezer for a good chunk of the 21st century. Then it became fashionable to mock them, at which point, the internet being the stupid thing that it is, Weezer became unavoidable. So let’s get this over with. As much as anyone, Rivers Cuomo established the contours of the modern-rock hit as we know it, and as punishment he’s doomed to dopily haunt its commercial confines forever. Despite his aptitude for tune, Cuomo’s lyrics have always stumbled, and their gawkiness only simulates a vulnerable charm if you first encounter them at a particularly susceptible moment. So maybe schtick-rock throwaways like “Zombie Bastards,” “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” and “The Prince Who Wanted Everything” (somebody’s surely rolling in his Paisley-Park-shaped urn) aren’t exactly unworthy of the auteur who once sang “Flip on the telly/Wrestle with Jimmy” after all. Maybe you’ve just outgrown him.
As for the covers album, its blank competence aggressively dares you to justify its existence. Say what you will about “Africa” (actually, please don’t), but at least the session guys in Toto sought (in vain, yes) to achieve personalities. Maybe Cuomo thinks his refusal to interpret these songs is some kind of Warholian stroke—you know, like distinguishing your albums by colors instead of titles. Whatever gets you through the night, pal. NO
NOW That’s What I Call Music, Vol. 69
Baffled as to what purpose might be served by a consumer good as out of place in the digital age as a coin-operated pay phone, I dove in, hoping for one of those epiphanies that good mixes promised long before we called them playlists. And instead I sank deep into an enervating post-genre puree of styles that nothing or no one—not Ariana or Camila, not “Shallow” or “Taki Taki”—could fully extricate me from. This is the elecromush of an anti-pop blowhard’s worst nightmare, with track after track of voices that sound like brands and producers who act like project managers combining as joyfully as the participants on a 6 a.m. conference call. How fitting that this item’s volume number suggests a (dare I say neoliberal) sex act that prioritizes efficiency over satisfaction. Remember, you can’t spell NOW without NO
Go Slow No is a weekly survey of new, newish, and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty self-explanatory: GO means listen to this now, SLOW means check it out when you get a chance, and NO means run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.