The Proclaimers are known in this country mostly for their one hit “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”, but they are quite seriously one of the most underrated bands of all time. Their best-known song, of course, is an eloquently simple celebratory love song, but they are perfectly capable of tackling weightier subject matter when the situation calls for it. This song serves as a kind of companion to one of their biggest hits in the U.K., “Letter From America”. In that song, this quintessentially Scottish band describes the experience of the Scottish people who immigrated to other lands. This song, on the other hand, is about all the people who have immigrated to Scotland from all the other countries in the world. It speaks with admiration of how they managed to build a life there and how much they contribute to their newfound home, and ultimately concludes “They’re all Scotland’s story, and they’re all worth the same”. Given recent real-world events on both sides of the Atlantic, I thought it was an appropriate time to shine a spotlight on this relatively obscure effort by the band, since its message seems particularly important in today’s ideological climate.
Archives for October 2017
2016’s Anti has a reputation for being Rihanna’s first completely successful album release, but this isn’t entirely fair. While it’s true that Rihanna’s albums have a seriously uneven track record due to her insanely busy release schedule prior to 2014 (she was basically releasing an album every single year for most of her career), she did have a couple of fairly consistent and coherent albums prior to Anti, and 2009’s Rated R was one of them.
For the very few of you who might need reminding, Rihanna’s entire public life at the time was revolving around a scandal where her then-boyfriend, fellow R&B singer Chris Brown, put her in the hospital. I am well aware that, by now, that scandal was already yesterday’s news four years ago, but I am seriously considering adapting my album reviews into a book on Pop music in the 2010s, and that incident did have a great deal of impact on the music of that period, so bear with me.
Rated R was conceived as a kind of vague Concept Album through which Rihanna could directly address what happened to her, and even if Rihanna isn’t really a singer-songwriter, she seems to have found the means to select songs that conveyed her emotions on the subject. The lyrics on the album tended to be rather opaque and confusing (although that might well have been a deliberate choice), but their mix of bittersweet love ballads like “Crazy, Stupid Love” and “Photographs” and the violent imagery on songs like”Russian Roulette” and “Fire Bomb” was certainly possible to interpret if one knew about her circumstances.
In any case, the album as a whole had a dark, brooding atmosphere that suited its nominal topic well. It actually bears a strong resemblance to Anti in many ways…the subject matter of dysfunctional relationships, the sullen, somber ambiance, the frequently biting lyrical content, even the presence of an out-of-place Pop single than was little more than a bid for an easy hit and wound up the album’s primary calling-card despite sounding nothing like the other tracks. It makes a certain kind of sense, in a way…Rated R received a fair amount of critical respect, but its quality was overshadowed by its connection to her personal life. So in 2016, after everyone had more-or-less moved on from that scandal, she made another attempt in the same style, and got attention for an album for the first time in her career.
The album overall is built on Electro-Pop influences, a change of style for Rihanna that would influence much of her later career, although it does include one Rock song and one Latin-flavored track. The Rock song, featuring legendary Guns’N’Roses guitarist Slash, is in a Grunge vein rather than the Eighties Hard Rock style Slash normally favors, and was criticized by some for not making good use of its famous guest star. However, Rihanna manages to give it a real sense of swagger and menace, and it is she, not Slash, who really carries the song. As for the Latin song, “Te Amo”, it is a deeply bittersweet narrative about a Spanish-speaking girl who falls in love with Rihanna but is rejected, a kind of sadder, more mature alternative to Katy Perry’s hit “I Kissed a Girl” the year before.
The album’s singles had some success in the international market, and the striking Electro-Hip-Hop anthem “Hard” gave Rihanna her thirteenth Top Ten hit on the Billboard charts. However, the album didn’t produce as many hits in the U.S. as her previous work, and by far the most successful song on it was “Rude Boy”, a raunchy, overtly masochistic sex jam quite out of style with the rest of the album. After this song wound up becoming a Number One hit, her record label apparently decided that trying to milk what had happened to her for masochistic sex appeal sold more records than seriously addressing her story (which probably says something very disturbing about popular culture at the time, but I digress).
That brings us to the other subject of this review. 2010’s Loud consisted almost entirely of songs in the vein of “Rude Boy”, except that many of them take its questionable concept much, much farther. This is why it’s probably her worst album…granted, it contains two good tracks, while her next effort, Talk That Talk, would contain only one, but the bad material here is the worst to be found on any Rihanna album.
The primary problem with the songs on this album is not that they’re offensive (although, to be honest, they kind of are). No, the primary problem is that they’re loud, abrasive, overly strident, and would come off as more creepy than sexy even without the added real-life baggage. They fall very much into the trends of the ’09-’10 “Club Boom”, and like most songs of that era they have the sole redeeming element of a catchy beat, but there’s certainly nothing else good about most of them.
“S&M”, where Rihanna is literally singing about how she likes to be tied up and beaten, is easily the worst offender, but songs like “Only Girl (in the World)”, where she invites the listener to “Love me like I’m a hot ride”, or “What’s My Name”, which features an absolutely disgusting Rap verse from Drake with jokes about “The square root of 69”, aren’t much better.
On top of this, for perhaps understandable reasons, Rihanna delivers every one of these songs like she’s dead inside. It’s like hearing a robot trying to sing about sex, and it multiplies the album’s unintentional creepiness by a factor of ten. She’s also in absolutely terrible voice here, making horrible use of her Caribbean vocal inflections and giving what might be the single worst vocal performance of her career on “Cheers (Drink to That)”. This song’s worthlessness is particularly highlighted by fact that two infinitely better songs which are both about exactly the same subject, Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” and Halestorm’s “Here’s To Us”, came out at around the same time.
Probably the strangest item on the album, “Man Down” is about Rihanna actually killing a man who wronged her—there was probably a way to make this song concept satisfying given the circumstances, but this extremely awkward attempt isn’t it.
Even the two aforementioned good songs only serve to make the record as a whole more of a travesty. “California King Bed” is a gorgeous and heartbreaking ballad, and “Love the Way You Lie (pt. 2)” is Rihanna’s collaboration with Eminem (arguably the best hit song of 2010) reworked as an R&B ballad for Rihanna with a single guest verse by Eminem. Her performance is a perfectly fulfilled expansion of her incredibly nuanced delivery on the original, and the result is one of the best songs of her career.
Unfortunately, both these songs are blatantly out of place next to the other songs on the album, and serve not only to highlight the inadequacies of the rest of the material, but to turn the overall flow of the album into a disjointed mess.
There are a couple of other attempts at ‘serious’ songs, which try to mine similar territory to the songs on Rated R, but they don’t really succeed. For example, “Fading”, a breakup ballad very possibly aimed at the aforementioned abusive ex-boyfriend, is too lightweight and bland to make any real impact, coming off as forgettable album filler. And “Complicated”, another breakup song that resembles a serious version of Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold”, might be the most unlistenable song on the album, with its skin-crawling beat and nails-on-chalkboard vocals.
Given the utterly ridiculous furor the internet raised over the far more innocuous “Blurred Lines” in 2013, I imagine that, had this album come out a few years later than it did, the reaction to it would probably have been much harsher. In any case, Rated R still ranks as a minor classic, but Loud is a bad album as well as an offensive one, and even those who no longer care in the slightest about the years-old scandal that wound up birthing it can find an abundance of reasons to hate it based on the music alone.
If you want to know why I’m reviewing Kesha’s first album and its accompanying bonus EP jointly, it’s because they are so similar in style and theme that covering either of them individually would be redundant. Now, this year Kesha released one of the best Pop albums of the decade, so people are beginning to “re-examine” this album, attempting to convince themselves that it wasn’t the horrific disaster it was seen as at the time. However, there’s a reason that most people were initially convinced that Kesha was the worst Pop singer of all time. While Kesha is hardly the first great artist to make an embarrassingly bad first impression, and while I’m not sure how much of this is Kesha’s fault and how much can be blamed on the notorious Dr. Luke, who was basically managing her career at this point, her achievements since then don’t magically turn this album into a misunderstood masterpiece any more than David Bowie’s mature work turns “The Laughing Gnome” into a classic.
The official claim is that the songs on this album are intended as a satire of glam rap’s materialism and sexual objectification, but the people behind the album haven’t actually put any humor, or any commentary for that matter, into this supposed satire. Reproducing typical glam rap songs with a female singer doesn’t really make you some kind of outrageous visionary, and writing songs where the message comes across as “Women are just as stupid and shallow as men” is more degrading than empowering. This is why I never really bought into the argument that Kesha’s early work was intended as a ‘stealth parody’ of the Pop-music world. I’s not necessarily that I think the claim was disingenuous…I just don’t think it makes any difference, because her ‘parody’ here doesn’t really have a point other than being deliberately worse than any of the things she’s supposedly parodying.
If Kesha is indeed going for stealth parody, the album’s lead single “Tik Tok” is virtually the only time she achieved it in any real sense. The intensely annoying “Valley Girl” accent she affects here is still definitely an issue, but the song features a catchy chorus, and the lyrics, while still poor by normal standards, are at least amusing in their stupidity. I can’t really call “Tik Tok” a “good” song, and I definitely think it’s a bad sign that it was the Number One song of 2010, but I can understand why it was a hit, which I can’t say about most of her other singles from this period.
On this album Kesha is deeply entrenched in her performing persona as a shallow, mindless party girl—I’m well aware that this is nothing like who she is in real life, but that just makes this album even more uncomfortable to listen to today. It’s just hard to listen to someone who has since proved to have real talent and intelligence being forced to sing lines like “I threw up in the closet/but I don’t care!” Items like the idiotic and horribly mean-spirited “Grow a Pear” were supposedly intended as ‘female counterparts’ to songs by male singers and rappers that objectify women, but most of them wind up being about on the same level of subtlety and dignity as “Tonight I’m Fucking You” and Akon’s body of work, and I don’t really think we needed another edition of the aforementioned excesses, feminized or otherwise.
There are also a few emotional (if excessively self-pitying) ballads (I know Kesha’s situation at the time was pretty bad, but even “Crawling”-era Linkin Park would probably find “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” too melodramatic). But most of them are done in by Kesha’s overprocessed vocals…I don’t have a problem with auto-tune if it’s used well, but the production on this album does very ugly things to what turned out to be a perfectly good singing voice.
Then there are some items that are just ridiculous, like “Dinosaur”, a collection of groan-inducing puns and stupid, juvenile one-liners about the elderly, or “Cannibal”, the title track to the bonus EP, which was presumably meant to be a piece of innuendo, but goes into way too much disgusting detail about its chosen metaphor in the lyrics to come across as remotely sexy.
The low points of this album rank with some of the worst Pop music of all time…the unlistenable and flagrantly inane “Blah Blah Blah” is easily the worst hit song of 2010, a field that does not lack for competition. Her vocals on this song are off-key, overprocessed wailing with the added annoyance of a stereotyped valley girl accent. The lyrics are as unutterably inane as the title suggests, and the music itself is abrasive, sloppily produced garbage. But above all of those things, the one thing that really enraged people about this song was its transparent sense of contempt for the audience. In the post-“Friday” pop world, things this stupid are often done with the intent of picking up an ironic following (e.g. “#Selfie” by the Chainsmokers), but that’s not the vibe being let off here. This clearly feels as if Kesha (or rather, her producers) had such contempt for the general pop-music listener base that they truly thought they wouldn’t know any better, and the fact that for the moment it appeared to work had a lot of people panicking and quoting Idiocracy. The panic has died down, and after Adele, the Indie crossover boom, the development of popular dance music from generic Club crap to sophisticated House, and the rise of the ironic subculture, it’s almost been forgotten, but at the time, this song seemed to embody the demise of Western culture, and frankly, in retrospect, it’s bad enough that listening to it now, you can see why they believed that.
“Take It Off” is yet another obnoxious, flip-off-the-listener single from this album. I’ll give it this, though…it’s not as bad as “Blah Blah Blah”. The beat is actually quite good, and this might actually have succeeded in being an uninspired-but-competent Club banger (much like Britney Spears’ more tolerable material) if not for the choice of sample. For those who don’t know, this song lifts its melody from “The Streets of Cairo” (a.k.a. “The Snake Charmer’s Song”), putting it in the same category as “Swagger Jagger” by Cher Lloyd (which samples “Clementine”) and “Play That Song” by Train (which samples “Heart and Soul”), which is not company you really want to be keeping. Granted, the Marcia Ball classic “Snake Dance” is based on the same theme, but it was a complex Blues gloss on the melody, not just a straightforward recycling of a musical cliche. “Take It Off”, on the other hand, reduces this overexposed snippet to its tiredest, most inanely simplistic level, making what might have at least been enjoyably stupid come across as unbearably annoying.
“Sleazy” combines the single worst producer in all of modern R&B, Bangladesh, with Kesha at her most inane. This combination of the Worst Producer and the Worst Singer (okay, she certainly didn’t stay that way, but you see my point) works about as well as you’d expect, with Kesha delivering lyrics like “Rat-a-tat-tat on your dumb, dumb drum/The beat so fat, gonna make me cum”, over one of Bangladesh’s bizarre noise collages that sound both painful to listen to and terrifyingly surreal.
“Your Love Is My Drug” was one of Kesha’s awkward, creepy attempts to write a love song that was compatible with her original persona, here combined with one of her unconvincing attempts to pass herself off as a rapper. It’s not by any means the worst item on this album, but it was still an unwise choice both as the opening track and the third single. It certainly isn’t as decisively horrible as the three above songs, but frankly, it sounds like album filler. This raises the question of why it was released at all, especially given that there was another creepily clingy love song on Animal called “Stephen” that was pretty similar to this, except for being one of the few items on this album that was both listenable and disturbing in a way that was actually intentional. This deeply creepy stalker ballad combines the prettiest melody on either of these discs with a truly unnerving lyric of twisted obsession…it’s the kind of love song that says, “I want to skin you alive and wear you like a suit”. Why didn’t they release that as a single, if they wanted a song in this vein? It would have been easily the best single from the album, and even given that album’s apparent goal of shocking and offending its listeners with every single, “Stephen” is still a much more disturbing and attention-getting song than the cheesy piece of radio background filler they released in its place.
To be fair, though, there are a few songs (of which “Stephen” is one) that show, at least in retrospect, that Kesha actually had the potential to do good work, though most of us missed it at the time. The title track of Animal sounds much more like a track from the Warrior album than like anything else on the album that bears its name. Then there’s “The Harold Song”, an emotionally devastating song of lost love that offered one of the first hints at the tragic depth behind Kesha’s shallow party-girl facade. Even the two singles from the Cannibal EP, “We R Who We R” and “Blow”, are both pretty solid and striking Club tracks that show the template used for her early singles could have actually produced good music.
But despite these flashes of genuine potential, this is still easily one of the worst albums of the decade, and while, in retrospect, I don’t entirely blame Kesha herself for that fact, the fact remains that the negative press this album got at the time wasn’t really unjustified. Being a ‘stealth parody’, or ‘subverting’ the trademark sexism of rap by gender-flipping it, isn’t as interesting or creative an idea as this album’s defenders seem to think, and in any case, so much of this album is terrible as pure music that it almost doesn’t matter. Just remember that just because Kesha herself has been vindicated by history doesn’t necessarily mean this album has, and the damage it did to her reputation still hasn’t been fully repaired.
Charlotte Church spent her childhood and teen years recording Classical and Semiclassical pieces, and while she was very much part of the Pop-Oriented “Classical Crossover” market, she really was exceptionally good at it (they didn’t dub her “The Voice of an Angel” for nothing). Unfortunately, the moment she became old enough to make her own creative decisions, she abandoned her Classical repertoire for teen-oriented Pop music. This might not have seemed like such a step down if her new songs had been on the level of, say, Taylor Swift, but this flagrantly inane Bubblegum is the kind of thing you’d hear from Cher Lloyd, or maybe Selena Gomez on an off day. This fiercely embarrassing song, which was the lead single from the album, features idiotic lyrics that sound like a female version of Dierks Bentley’s “5-1-5-0” married to production that Justin Bieber would have rejected as too cheesy. The fact that Church went from singing Puccini arias to this schlock is mortifying, and her “change of style” might well be the saddest case of a musician ‘selling out’ in last twenty years.