First Take: New music from September 10th

I think John Legend‘s “Get Lifted” is one of the great records of the current millennium. It could be classified as neo-soul, a genre that is meant to appeal to grown ups drinking wine (or even better champagne) and talking just a little dirty while waiting for the hot tub (or lube) to warm up, but the thing is that the songs are sexy, the sound starts with old soul and gospel and, surprisingly, surprise. The words flow full of new ideas (or old ideas cleverly reframed) and often a hint of edge or menace that make the mix of rhythm and melody sound fresh, redolent of musical and lyrical pleasure. Perhaps no subsequent record could stand up to that monumental achievement, but on first listen the new Legend, “Future of Love,” is a mess of cliche and sappy melodies, with treacly arrangements and tired melodic and lyrical ideas. Legend was a singer songwriter who seemed early on to have the chops and sensibility of Sam Cooke, smooth melodicism, sexy charm, and a bit of righteous indignation, but in hindsight perhaps the excellent taste might be better attributed to his producer and partner, Kanye West. “Wake Up,” Legend’s elpee of protest song covers with the Roots released last year is mostly charming, if too often a little staid, but after the excessively polite third album, “Evolver,” offered welcome affirmation that this was a man with a political, socially-engaged heart. But this new disk made me question my love (is the future of love disdain?) for his first two albums. A quick relisten to “Get Lifted” again confirms its greatness. The new record has none of that going on at all.

I was never a Nine Inch Nails fan, so I’m not qualified to compare the new record, “Hesitation Marks,” to the rest of their/his oeuvre. What is striking here is that these songs are very much songs, full of electronic textures and details in the background, but with plaintive simple vocals on top. It isn’t that the vocals or the arrangements don’t relate, but they have very distinct and different aural profiles. The music is hard edged and polished, machine music, even when it careers toward the emotional, while the vocals are plaintive, all too human, the opposite of hard. Not out of tune, but a bit warbly and textured by throat and tongue. The contrast has the effect of foregrounding the lyrics, which unfortunately all seem to be rhyming couplet cliches. I remember the driven sense of NiN’s MTV hits back in the day that some powerful interpersonal dynamic was at stake. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, though I wouldn’t mind hearing vocal free versions of some of these tracks. They might work well in a soundtrack.

I’m one of the few people in North America who just doesn’t get the appeal of Arcade Fire, who have a new single out called “Reflektor.” I’ve tried to get into them a number of times and just can’t get past the superficial similarities with Talking Heads, whose “Stop Making Sense” live album seems to be a huge influence. In any case, I listen to Arcade Fire and I often hear the Heads, only not nearly as good or interesting. Maybe that’s because the vocals are sludgy and dull, regardless of the lyrics. I’m not someone who needs lyrical meaning to make a song, but I do need the vocals to somehow sound like they deserve to be there. I can’t judge the lyrics of Arcade Fire, I haven’t been able to get into them, but I can judge that the singer doesn’t make we want to hear more. If you like Arcade Fire you’ll probably love Reflektor, it has the big textured sound of the band, but be aware that it also has the prosaic vocals that smudge into a blur running through the middle. I get the impression they’re supposed to signify passion, but I hear anything but.

According to Mick Jones this is the last package of product the Clash will be releasing. It’s primary raison d’etre is complete remixes/remastering of all the old records. This particular linked package of “Sound System” has a bunch of video which may be worthwhile to you or not, and you may or not have most of these tracks. There is a bunch of live and studio stuff that is “new,” though the band never held much back, so it’s unlikely (I haven’t listened to it all) that it’s essential. The bottom line here is that this is one of the greatest of bands of all time, and if you don’t know about all that they did, you should.