25 July 2011

2010: M.I.A., Male Bonding

/\/\ /\ Y /\ (Maya)

Released July 13, 2010

Short Notes: Or: On The Value of Lowered Expectations

Brandon: B-

It’s not at all surprising that critics were wildly divided over this record. It’s a radical departure from her quirky but club-ready sound on her first two (outstanding) records, more abrasive, processed, and artificial. I’ve only followed parts of the story of M.I.A. the artist, who’s global fame has put her artistic decisions under a new, intense kind of critical scrutiny. And like Kanye, she’s responded by pulling into herself, with tinny beats and processed vocals evoking a new distance between her and the listener. Mainstream critical outlets have responded much as they did for Kanye--heaping praise on this record as the statement of a more mature artist. But with the exception of the AV Club and Bob Christgau (who draws the comparison explicitly in his favorable review, suggesting that, as an insular, fuck-up record, Maya accomplishes its goals with “rather more success than Kanye West on 808s and Heartbreak) , the indie press that brought M.I.A. her first attention were rather brutal (Pitchfork calls it a “shambling mess.”)

As always, the truth is closest to Christgau. /\/\ /\ Y /\ is neither shambolic nor a masterwork. It’s not a fun record (no “Sunshowers” here), without much of the humor that made her so endearing on Arular, but the industrial crunch of tracks like “Meds and Feds” is reasonably interesting in its own right, as is the synthy “XXXO.” Even if half the songs here are duds, she’s still making challenging, original music that’s clearly aiming for capital-A Art, with all that comes with being that kind of pop musician. For better or worse, I’d rather hear M.I.A.’s take on krautrock (“Illygirl”) than the second half of the Lucky Soul record, which tells you something.

Lin: B-

For me, M.I.A. is in the same category as pre-Dark Fantasy Kanye: a popularly loved and critically respected artist that I just don't get. I mean, "Paper Planes" is a burner in every sense of the word, but easily my favorite version of it is the Diplo Remix with Bun B and Rich Boy which minimizes M.I.A.'s own input. I've not been impressed with any of her previous work; the albums are good enough to throw on for background noise or, presumably, dancefloor grinding but even the relatively intricate beats rarely force attention. /\/\ /\ Y /\, for all the comparisons to Kanye, is no My Beautiful Dark Twisted Family. It seems like more of the same, though those with more familiarity to her back catalog could probably point out the differences.

My favorite track here is "Lovalot," eschewing the bang of everything else with a more subdued, tense and paranoid beat the slithers it way through a story of terrorism or freedom fighting or whatever. "Believer" comes close to the same, but lacks any payoff -- all tension with no release. The rest of the album isn't a mess (as Brandon points out) but it's a chore to get through. Only "XXXO" and, to a lesser extent, "Tell Me Why" work in the more club-friendly format that most of her work trades in.

Male Bonding
Nothing Hurts

Released May 10, 2010

Short Notes: More shoegaze/lo-fi pop that doesn’t reach the heights of other shoegaze/lo-fi of 2010

Brandon: B

Fitting right in with the noise-pop of bands (I don’t like all that much) like Vivian Girls and No Age, Nothing Hurts is a stomping, echo-y barnburner that veers between the nearly Husker Du/early Dinosaur jr /first Nirvana record (“Your Contact,” “Crooked Scene,” “Paradise Vendors”) and the more plodding drone of their contemporaries (“Franklin”). I’m not particularly into shoegaze when it’s not cut with equal or better parts of pop sensibility, and for the most part, this album holds my attention with solid riffs that overcome the affected, echo-chamber vocals. At 29 minutes, the shoegazy parts of this record I find less compelling never really subsume the punk I like much more. Not my favorite fuzzed-out record of the year (Dum Dum Girls and Ariel Pink write better songs, and balance their fidelity affects with more compelling pop), but not bad.

Lin: C

Like Brandon, I’m not particularly into shoegaze -- except when it’s an accent to a heaping pile of metal. And since I have this growing, well, ‘hatred’ is the right word, I guess, of muddied lo-fi pop music, my favorite thing about this album is its short short length. This strikes me as far more generic than the albums Brandon mentions (Ariel Pink, etc.) which also makes it worse, committing the dual sins of being bad and uninteresting. “Pirate Key” almost piqued my interest there for a second, making it my favorite track on the album, but the rest of it is like driving through Western Nebraska, trying to find a radio station with a strong enough signal.

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