Body Language (Capitol) Everything at the top of the pops should sound as good as Kylie Minogue’s “Slow.” The usually clinical-sounding shimmers of electro are warm, even radiant, and by the end, as the waves of sound nearly overtake Minogue, the effect is something like—to borrow a phrase from Aphex Twin—an “analog bubble bath.”
Though most mimic its sound, none of the other songs on Body Language comes close to the achievement of “Slow.” No matter. Body Language is blissfully free of pop’s twin plagues, self-help (Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”) and the confessional (Pink’s “Family Portrait”). And the rapturous sonics of “Slow” should be a template for pop singers who fancy themselves aesthetes. “Slow” is an authentic heir to transcendent pop like Madonna’s “Into the Groove.” You can’t help but get lost in Minogue’s music.
America’s Sweetheart (Virgin)
Sandra Bernhard once compared Courtney Love to smudged lipstick. That sense of spent glamour is what made her former band Hole’s second album Live Through This so compelling: Love sounded ragged and drawn, but the songs were perfectly constructed (Love’s late husband, Kurt Cobain, probably had something to do with that, given the vacuousness of Hole’s next record, Celebrity Skin).
On America’s Sweetheart, her first solo album, Love is her smudgy self again. Its sound is purposefully lo-fi, and Love’s growls—suppressed on the falsely sunny Celebrity Skin—become an incomprehensible slur. It’s full of Love’s obsessions: drugs, stardom, and Los Angeles. Fans of pre-Hollywood-makeover Love (I count myself among them, though I can’t stand the squall of Hole’s Pretty on the Inside) will cheer their return.
But unlike on Live Through This, Love isn’t able to make the mess matter. The songwriting is scattershot (“Mono,” for example, takes on everything from the death of rock to ecstasy-fueled drug binges), and the sound strains for punk-on-a-budget but is as three-chord conservative as other retro acts like Rancid and the Distillers. America’s Sweetheart should remind us how Love made her shambling, tattered realness work; instead, it’s an accidental lesson in how the drugs don’t.
Bows and Arrows (Warner)
Bows and Arrows is only the second album by New York’s Walkmen, and outside the city most know the band merely from their song “We’ve Been Had,” which was featured in a car commercial. But listeners will find much that’s familiar here beyond lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s purposefully slow, declamatory singing style, which recalls U2’s Bono in his October days. The Walkmen’s music—all shimmering strings and echoing spaces—has a cozy familiarity, and not just to those who’ve heard the band’s first album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone.
That the Walkmen have nailed a sound so early in their career proves that they are thinking deeply about the kind of music they want to be making. But it’s restrictive, too; the carefully constructed sonics, though beautiful, can be so snoozily contemplative. And if the oceanic tides of sound of Bows and Arrows never really pull you in, the songwriting is even more frustrating. Nothing takes off like “We’ve Been Had” or “Wake Up” from the band’s debut, and even the most memorable songs (“New Year’s Eve”) feel fragmentary.
What holds the Walkmen back is their isolation (since 2000, they’ve made much of their music in a Harlem recording studio). Sealed-off sonic spaces—think Brian Wilson—can produce works of shocking genius. But for mere mortals like the Walkmen, the result is more often than not a dull conservatism. They need to get out more.