The newest release from Madonna finds the aging pop star continuing the artistic fire sale she began with 2000's Music. While 2006's Confessions on a Dance Floor offered some hope of relevance with mainstream ravers like "Hung Up," Hard Candy reverts back to the mediocrity that's by and large dominated her career post-Y2K. The record is peppered with guest performers and producers--Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams and Timbaland all have a turn with the queen of pop, but the only thing that emerges from each encounter is another wholly unimpressive radio single that wants to be dance, wants to be hip-hop, wants to be soul, but sounds nothing like Madonna. Mostly, it sounds like a waning artist asking for help from her younger, hipper friends. Sadly, all the production tricks and guest appearances in the world can't help shake the nagging feeling that it might be time for her to admit her age (she's nearly fifty), write some folk songs and call it a day. --Josh Kline
Anywhere I Lay My Head
I'll reiterate: Zooey Deschanel is the exception to the rule.
This time out, we have Scarlett Johansson covering a handful of Tom Waits songs against cheap Cocteau Twins-knock off instrumentation and production. I'm not exactly a Waits loyalist, but man... Surely the celebrated troubadour deserves something more than an actress whose voice is so under-developed that they have to bury it in oceans of reverb before it's passable. What makes even less sense is David Bowie's occasional vocal contributions. He must have been paid well.
Everything about this endeavor feels wrong, forced, insincere. These aren't real songs (well, they were, before they got into Scarlett's hands), and Johannson's not a real musician (or vocalist). To be sure, its a few steps above Paris Hilton's debut, but nothing can change the inescapable truth that Anywhere I Lay My Head is, at the end of the day, just another vanity project from a performer trying to diversify.
Skip this mess. -JK
My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges takes the by-now perfected My Morning Jacket aesthetic--eclectic, barn-burning southern rock with Neil Young roots--and turns it on its head by processing the band through synthesizers and exploiting lead singer Jim James' at-times Wayne Coyne-esque quivering falsetto to echo 21st Century malaise with the kind of whimsy that made the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots so memorable.
This time around, 70s disco and 80s new wave play equal parts alongside the already-established My Morning Jacket roots rock sound. Songs like "Evil Urges" and "Highly Suspicious" showcase a new technology-friendly production palette. On the former, James sounds less like Young than Michael Jackson; on the latter, the band sounds less like My Morning Jacket and more like a Devo-loving retro super group. For as many stylistic flourishes, there are an equal number of familiar old-school moments, as seen on tracks like "I'm Amazed" and "Librarian."
It all makes for a somewhat schizophrenic experience, and while the progression is certainly admirable, the result is a mixed bag that sounds like a band in the midst of a stylistic transition. Their previous album, Z, is an untouchable example of a band at the top of its game. Evil Urges may represent a step forward, but it'll take a few more steps before they reach the brilliance of the past.
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