Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Candy with a dark center

The Raveonettes
In and Out of Control
Score: 8

With a surfeit of pop hooks and a greater emphasis on the chorus, Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have wrought a compulsively listenable album. On the surface, In and Out of Control breezes along, all lightness and brevity and fuh-fuh-fun. But the candy coating encases some heavy subjects. Gang rape, suicide and domestic violence feature, along with The Raveonettes' staple, drugs. How they sing about these things makes all the difference.

In the most striking juxtaposition, "Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)," Wagner and Foo and overlay their vocals and stagger them, somewhere between an echo and a call-and-response pattern. They start the song with the chorus (the entirety of which appears in the song title), then go verse 1, chorus, abbreviated verse 1, chorus, instrumental bridge, and they repeat the chorus while fading in an a cappella version of it whose stuttering is more bubblegum than doo wop. The song's lyrics are bleak, with a girl forever haunted by rape, but by putting it in the mold of a catchy, happier song, The Raveonettes are accomplishing a few things: They're making sure the song's message gets heard and they're increasing the likelihood of it sinking in through repeated plays. And the multiple vocal tracks of Sharin Foo could be seen as representing feminine solidarity, almost like a support group.

That sympathetic tone appears again on "Suicide," which follows a "little runaway girl" whose life at work and at home has left her desperate to escape. The verse goes from one receding strum of surf guitar to a full-blast chorus of pounding snare, multiple electric guitars, bass and layered vocals, personifying the girl bolting out the door.

But the sympathy ends in "Break Up Girls!" Marrying squalling guitar carnage to an orgasm of distortion, the album's penultimate track introduces itself with two minutes of breakneck terror, before easing into the lyrics. Targeting "bunny girls" and the men who abuse them, Foo and Wagner implore the ladies to LEAVE. "Break up, girls," they urge, "You might like it."

Still, is there a wrinkle of hypocrisy on In and Out of Control? Or perhaps songwriters with slightly different stands on rough trade? Wagner, who wrote "Break Up Girls!," claims, "Sadistic girls, I don't get you" (even though he obviously means masochistic), yet in opening track "Bang!," co-written with producer Thomas Troelsen, he says, "Bang! When you whip me, baby / Bang! When I scream now, baby / Bang! You know I love it all the time."

Of course, the album would function just as well if lyrics were changed. "D.R.U.G.S.," which Foo and Wagner spell out in the eighth track, gets its wings from the incursions of reverbed uh-oooh-wha-uhts and ooo-wooing.

This food for thought doubles as dessert.

Now Scything: Doom, Al B. Sure!,

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Born Like This
Score: 6

The man behind the iron mask (or whatever metal it's made of), has always been a jester, turning lyrical somersaults through subject matter that had little potential for menace. Food, cartoons and comic books, all underrepresented topics in hip-hop, served as frequent inspirations. So it's disappointing to hear him strike such a hard tone on Born Like This, injecting cynicism from a Charles Bukowski reading and otherwise letting the fun whoosh out like air from an untied balloon. "Yessir!," one of two songs with a Wu-Tang Clan guest (in this case, Raekwon), throws in some gunshots, symbolic of his passage from busting a gut to busting a cap. His collaboration with Ghostface Killah, "Angelz," which luxuriates in spy movie horns and strings, clutters the escapade with unnecessary beats, and both emcees gave a superior delivery of the song on the 2006 Nature Sounds comp "Natural Selection." On one level, "Batty Boys" is gay-bashing out of left field; on the other, it could be seen as a dis track (and a meta one, at that): Doom the "supervillian" rapper (patterned after Marvel Comics' Doctor Doom character) stepping into the world of the superhero Batman, a flagship star of the rival DC Comics brand. Hope it's just a bad joke.

Al B. Sure!
Honey I'm Home
Score: 5

Now here's a guy who might have some idea how Portishead felt. Al B. Sure! stepped away for 17 years, focusing on business and recovering from a car accident. He's a different man now, natch, but it's a shame that he no longer carries the virile spark of yesteryear. His voice is pleasantly creamy, aged delicately, but there's a bit of a Rip Van Winkle-ism here, as he covers both Michael Jackson's "Lady in My Life" (1982) and Sting's "Fragile" (1987) -- and remains faithful to the original versions of each -- almost as if they were little-known and contemporary compositions. Both songs are near-standards by now, so a faithful approach was an unpropitious road for him to take. The result is better than karaoke, but his renditions don't improve the album. In fact, the tightness and inherent hooks of those songs help to point out where Honey I'm Home's originals are lacking.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Night Castle
Score: 4

Night Castle is PG-rated symphonic metal that seems all Europe, yet it came from New York. Also, it's 120 minutes long!! Save yourself! (Kidding. Kind of.) This double album has riffs, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a bugler's requiem, "Nut Rocker," "O Fortuna," a children's choir, pseudo mook rock and Broadway theatrics. It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet thrown into a 50-foot blender.