Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 84)


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PICKS

They Might Be Giants, Nanobots     (Idlewild Recordings)

Parents with young children can attest to the quality of the kiddie music Johns Flansburgh and Linnell have been pumping out over the last decade - if you need any reminders of how dreary the genre can get, look no further than Natalie Merchant’s cobwebbed 2010 “project about childhood” Leave Your Sleep. But as the primary caregiver for a music-loving two year old who’s already been instructed on the supremacy of ABBA and the Ramones, I welcome the Johns’ return to quote unquote adult realms, if only because the absence of any educational framing device allows them to indulge their absurdist tendencies. So we get a Fountains Of Wayne-styled tribute to a friend’s “Circular Karate Chop” (“You’re so proud of your….”), a pitch-perfect David Byrne parody on the quizzical “Stuff Is What,” and the uproarious fifteen seconds of “Decision Makers,” perhaps their best joke since the forty-seven seconds of “Minimum Wage”. Unapologetic white geeks, they can’t help tossing out facts and figures alongside their peerless hooks, be it a lullaby to Nikola Tesla or ruminations like “to summarize / this whole planet is elliptical”. And Flansburgh/Linnell retain an emotional range that would be the envy of their peers if their peers didn’t look so askance at inanity - a portrait of loneliness turns on somebody glumly “taking your name down from the Jumbotron,” a man-child with abandonment issues does the Oedipal frug, somebody advises “amputate the thought that says / you shouldn’t ever amputate a thought,” the black ops critique calls out drone warfare in the face of liberal silence. Plus, a love letter to a “Too-Tall Girl,” “with her magazine / dressed in aubergine,” “deleterious and delirious,” who “knows more etiquette / than Connecticut”. Admit it, this is what you wanted from that last Magnetic Fields album.

Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park     (Mercury)

Everybody eventually reaches their ick limit on this album - for some it’s Musgraves’ non-ironic dandelion metaphor, for others it’s cliché extravaganzas like “I Miss You” and “Silver Lining”. I kind of like the way she fearlessly belts out adages, bedecking her prosaic verse with hackneyed symbols and homeroom poetry (just try and count all the four-leaf clovers sprouting everywhere). And her rhymes sometimes benefit from the enforced cutesiness, like the “bore/whore-able person” trick that’s as creaky as a Child Ballad to the “Mary Kay / mary jane / Mary two doors down” litany on small town anti-anthem “Merry-Go-Round”. Yet that song is also where I go ick, courtesy of a place-holding “Mary, Mary quite contrary” that doesn’t belong even if it serves to set up the final verse’s Jack and Jill hitting literal rock bottom. You could argue too much is being made of Kacey’s middle finger to Nashville tradition, especially by unsympathetic outsiders secretly hoping country radio rises to the bait and closes out inclusion anthem “Follow Your Arrow”. You might even counter that the scourge of rural America isn’t “mary jane” but meth. So, fine, ick. Yet beneath her feel-good bromides and casual country-folk-pop lies a carefully cultivated cynicism, one that concludes blowing on a weed is a waste of time and breath when you could be puffing, thinks lemonade congeals back into lemons, constructs a chorus around massed voices shouting “stupid!” and correctly deduces “you probably think you’re too good to take the trash out”. Which brings us back to “Merry-Go-Round,” in which the twenty-four year old Musgraves taps into the same ennui that moved twenty-two year olds Jagger/Richards to pen “Sitting On A Fence” way back in 1965: “We get bored / so we get married”.

BOMB

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience     (RCA)

Track length alone isn’t the problem here, not in an r&b world where both James Brown and Donna Summer once knew how to ride a song hard for fifteen minutes when the beat commanded it. The problem isn’t even the many intros and outros and formless middle sections helping balloon seven of ten thudding tracks well past the seven minute mark. This deeply pretentious album stumbles for the simple reason that its showman has decided his talents signify outside the limitations of the pop single. Twice he slips into something comfortable, and surprise surprise, they’re the two shortest tracks of the project - the breezy pop of “Suit And Tie” (dig those horn charts straight of Steely Dan’s “Peg”) and the old-school soul of “That Girl”. What else you got? Certainly not the ludicrous imagery and sex squeals of “Spaceship Coupe” (7.17) or the epic schmaltz of “Mirrors,” sure to accompany wedding reception photo montages for the foreseeable future (8.04). And while waking up each morning next to Jessica Biel is no doubt delectable, surely one’s partner deserves a less adolescent metaphor than “Strawberry Bubblegum” (or, good christ, “blueberry lollipop”). Which brings us to perhaps the most remarkable thing about this ponderous document - this is Timberlake’s honeymoon album. Can you imagine the Here, My Dear?