Good MusicNote 6.19 mirrors JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE

A reflection of earlier successful singles.

single: “Mirrors”

artist: Justin Timberlake

As this rather ancient chart-dweller (the single, not JT) enjoys a resurgence in position, likely due to the buzz surrounding part two of The 20/20 Experience, I relish the opportunity to catch a quick review on the way down the charts.

“Mirrors” is yet another installment in JT’s Dead-Serious-Mid-Tempo-Well-Written-Reflective-Heartache series. His first record had “Cry Me a River;” the second had “What Goes Around Comes Around.” And now there’s “Mirrors.” Apparently, JT and Timberland keep a track template handy to recreate the magic every five years.

Although I like the gotcha! element of uncovering this trend, I have no complaints. “Mirrors” is every bit a goose-bump song as the first two. Justin handles melancholy in an inimitably commercial fashion, managing to draw emotion from the listener without making him depressed. Timberland’s familiar underbrush of polyrhythms mimics the complex series of thoughts and feelings JT describes.

(Disclaimer: I realize that “Mirrors” is ultimately a happy song, but the rumination involved in getting there is bittersweet at best; ergo, it’s still a heartache record in my eyes.)

The overall effect is a gem of a record. Insanely catchy without being gratuitous. Well-written without being self-conscious.

And entirely fresh in spite of being hopelessly derivative of his past work.

Gotcha, JT.

Good MusicNote 5.13 the fox YLVIS

…I think it says, “Cha-ching!”

single: “The Fox

artist: Ylvis

“The Fox” sounds like what would happen if Bjork sold out and got a lobotomy. It’s a wondrously wide-eyed, full-blown EDM version of the See ‘N Say, except there’s a wildcard animal in the henhouse: “What does the fox say?”

What follows that hook… is hilarity: a wide array of guesses about what noise we could assign to the fox, each more absurd than the one before, all set to propulsive dance breakdown synths.

Ylvis is a Norwegian comedy duo, heretofore unknown to Americans, who were innocently shopping around for a silly song for their TV show. In an absolute coup, they enlisted fellow countrymen, production team Stargate (as in Rihanna, Beyonce, and Ne-Yo–yes, THAT Stargate) to produce the parody ditty.

The result: a comedy record cloaked in such a convincingly deadpan earnestness and pristine production values that it actually is more musically satisfying than the “real” songs it’s parodying. Remember how Weird Al Yankovic’s backing tracks always sounded like a cheap karaoke version of the original? None of that here.

“The Fox” is a testament to a remarkable development in music: the democratization of the pop charts, now that YouTube tallies are included in the Billboard Hot 100.

It’s also a tribute to the power of music. Although the parody here is dead-on, it teeters on the verge of imploding; half of me was doubled over in laughter, yet the other half was becoming quite absorbed in Ylvis’s quest for the fox’s voice, sheerly on the strength of the excellent arrangement.

 

Good MusicNote 5.12 work bitch BRITNEY SPEARS

…Britney said to her producers.

single: “Work Bitch”

artist: Britney Spears

It is perhaps the biggest testament to the clout Britney Spears holds that she can continue to release such production-reliant singles and not need to give the producers a featured artist (or heck, LEAD artist) credit. In the pre-EDM days, when singles like “Toxic” were heady, forward-thinking pop records, it was practically unheard of to give a producer/DJ any billing. So call her a slave 4 tradition.

I may have to snatch the “levels of meaning” prize from Miley (see review 4.1) now that “Work Bitch” has landed. Except most of the levels of meaning here are ironic.

Britney spends the entirety of this song dangling the material carrots of cars, attractiveness, and high-end beverages before her listeners, then informing them that if they want these things, they should, you guessed it, “work, bitch.”

First, by means of damage control, let me say that I admire Britney for turning her life around and re-emerging as a successful artist who smartly plays to her own strengths. I have consistently rooted for her continued success. I also do not mean to say that she hasn’t worked hard.

Now for the damage.

Britney speaks most of the vocals while the production does most of the work. And–she co-wrote the song, but it could easily be argued that she’s about 20 years too late on the concept, behind RuPaul’s “Supermodel.”

A pop diva following the lead of a drag queen (or any number of drag queens) in the content and execution of a high-profile lead single is a bizarre reversal of the usual artistic sequence. And it doesn’t lend itself to the concept of hard work paying off.

But as any good diva knows, “work” means more than sweat of the brow. It means using what you have to your best advantage. And Britney can certainly give advice on that.

Good MusicNote 4.16 get lucky DAFT PUNK FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS

They certainly did.

single: Get Lucky

artist: Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams

Electronic music icons Daft Punk hit the jackpot this time. And to my ears, it is quite a bit like the jackpot: random, not necessarily unearned, but could just as easily have gone to someone else.

The issue here may be how to evaluate a by-the-numbers classic disco song in the midst of the post-disco EDM era.

Pro: there’s something refreshing and straightforward about a smooth vocal (courtesy of Pharrell, in this case) gliding over a percolating, sparingly embellished dance beat, when EDM dictates abrupt halts, dramatic breakdowns, and frantic synth flourishes.

Con: it can come off as old-fashioned and two-dimensional, given the layers that today’s DJs have built on the foundation that groups like Daft Punk laid years ago. As a matter of fact, this record is quite restrained by Daft Punk’s standards, not just EDM’s.

I’m not terribly impressed with “Get Lucky,” but I’m quite happy that a duo of dance music innovators are cashing in on their own legacy.

Good MusicNote 4.15 that’s my kind of night LUKE BRYAN

Better not invite Randy Travis to this night outing… just sayin’.

single: “That’s My Kind of Night”

artist: Luke Bryan

Country music is an anomaly as far as contemporary music goes. It’s the only genre that reflexively rejects technological advances and gee-whiz production gimmicks. Each decade brings a trickle of fresh sounds, but tradition is king in country.

However, Luke Bryan is here to change that. Right now. “That’s My Kind of NIght” is the type of obvious pander that you feel guilty for liking even when you’re not a country music fan. It’s uncomfortably contemporary; it makes Taylor Swift look like Loretta Lynn.

I for one appreciate the sacrifice Luke Bryan made here, because this song cannot possibly win (except for the fact that it’s very popular and will make lots of money). On the one hand, Luke Bryan as a country artist is held to the Hankocratic oath: he will not be funky, use anything resembling a hip-hop beat, or push buttons in the studio that make those dance-music sound effects. He breaks the oath mightily here. I’m quite sure the Grand Ole Opry has plans to burn him in effigy.

On the other hand, someone like Nelly couldn’t have released this record because the tongue-in-cheek country-isms that Luke gets away with (jacked-up pickup trucks, catching catfish as a dinner date) would be seen as derisive in the hands of a non-country artist. Luke himself barely gets away with it.

But if you ignore all the genre tension permeating the record, it’s thoroughly enjoyable, like any self-respecting pop hit should be.

Good MusicNote 4.1 wrecking ball MILEY CYRUS

Heard any good similes lately?

single: “Wrecking Ball”

artist: Miley Cyrus

It’s almost unbearable. The levels on which we can take the central simile (strictly speaking, not a metaphor, because she uses the word “like”) of our nation’s new number one single are more numerous than any record I can recall.

Of course, there’s the literal level of the song’s narrator, apologizing to her lover for coming on too strong. Then there’s the real-life level, since the song appears to be parallel to Miley’s romance with Liam Hemsworth. Hot on the heels of her VMA twerkfest, it could be seen as a self-reflection on the outrageousness of that performance. (One would have to presume she had planned that performance well in advance for that to be a purposeful meaning.)

Finally, and most striking to me, is the idea that Miley (as she looks directly into the camera and cries in the music video) is talking to us, the public, saying (and I paraphrase): “I didn’t want to have to cause such a stir, but by being known as Hannah Montana for my entire public life, I had to shatter any preconceived idea that you had about me in order to show you who I am beyond that Disney character.”

All conjecture aside, this second single off her upcoming Bangerz is an abrupt U-turn from the languid R&B vibe of “We Can’t Stop.” Here, she is intense, intimate, and decidedly pop-rock–sonically, closer to the Miley we know, but still much more adult than she left off with her last project two years ago.

In what appears to be yet another homage to the 80s (please see just about every review I’ve written so far), “Wrecking Ball” leaves the listener scrambling for a lighter to wave; its arena-rock ambitions are as bare as Miley in the aforementioned music video.

Direct and well-executed and perfectly placed, “Wrecking Ball” accomplishes quite a bit in its four-minute span. Just when the Miley buzz is both deafening and about everything except music, she shows she has talent, not just scandalously-garnered attention.

Good MusicNote 4.14 clarity ZEDD FEAT. FOXES

One thing that isn’t clear is where these artist names come from.

single: Clarity

artist: Zedd featuring Foxes

Anton Zaslavski featuring Louisa Rose Allen. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Yet these are the given names of the two artists responsible for this latest emo-EDM smash. I think it’s fair to say that the hip-hopping of pop music is complete. Remember when it was considered odd that rappers never used their real names?

But enough of that. “Clarity” is a fine example of EDM’s current chart domination. Take a well-executed series of DJ techniques, which before five years ago would only be heard in the context of a club remix; apply a highly melodic, earnest vocal  track.

Then mix well. Pun intended.

Foxes gives a good vocal performance, channelling Bjork via Katy Perry. Zedd shows he can mix and direct a beat like any self-respecting DJ. It’s good stuff, thoroughly dramatic and cathartic.

It does suffer a bit in comparison to the stunning “Wake Me Up.” But, then again, so does just about every other standard-issue EDM track now that Avicii has opened up that door.