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It should come as no surprise that Ima Robot’s debut has a distinct time-machine flavor—their bassist and drummer spent the last decade backing Beck as he danced slipshod through 40 years of popular music. Whether mugging as Prince’s band or channeling Os Mutantes and Nick Drake with dead-straight faces, the two helped breathe new life into seemingly incompatible tropes.
Here the grave-robbing limits itself to a single era, the early 80s and the peak of new wave. But without Beck’s consistent songwriting behind Ima Robot, the results are far more mixed. The band’s revival of choice is not as fresh as it might have been four or five years ago. By now, The Rapture and their fellow hipsters have pilfered the 80s in much more innovative ways, with considerably more sincerity. Hysterical, high-pitched vocals, stinging guitar lines and echoing Duran Duran synths are old hats in late 2003.
But no matter how tired their schtick looks on paper, the band does have a knack for turning out energetic, compulsively danceable numbers. For all Ima Robot’s gimmickry, there’s a desperation to “Scream” and a coked-out lunacy to “Song #1” that make you forget that these Reaganomic moves have already been mimed by every “dance-punk” troupe this side of Park Slope.
Ima Robot’s emphasis on style over substance produces a handful of nearly unlistenable missteps, sunk by empty lyrics and flat, repetitive song structures. But the high points of the 39-minute spree suggest that if these professional impostors learn a few new tricks, their expiration date might be extended a while longer yet. —Simon W. Vozick-Levinson
Clad in a fur coat with his brim tilted, Sir Mix-a-lot returns to the rap scene with a bold statement. Without question his single “Baby Got Back” remains a party favorite, but is the rap game prepared for this Seattle rapper’s grand re-entrance?
Mix was once famous for getting many a party started, and the veteran rapper and producer spends much of Daddy’s Home proclaiming himself a hip-hop messiah. On the title track he impeaches the skill and street cred of today’s rappers: “Baller crowns are earned / they’re never bought / Nowadays you got cats who will rent a look / rent a pimp, rent some big booty hoes for your video.” But Mix’s lack of lyrical dexterity won’t leave many shuddering.
Renowned producer Timbaland might have been the person who coaxed this self-proclaimed pimp out of the music industry’s one-hit wonder dumping ground. Tracks such as “Candy” and “Party Ova Here” poorly imitate the musical heavyweight’s signature irregular beats, forcing us to wonder why Sir Mix-a-lot should ever have been liberated from that quagmire.
Daddy’s Home could easily serve as a Saturday Night Live parody of modern hip-hop. Though the messiah fails to deliver us from the sinful and tiresome world of flashy cars and hollow lyrics, his caricature only accentuates these absurdities. What’s more, his own glorification of pimps and hoes is hardly removed from today’s most popular rap songs. At best, Mix’s comeback will give rappers cause for introspection and change as they see themselves through his lens. —Cassandra Cummings
Death Cab for Cutie
Like its predecessors, Death Cab for Cutie’s new album Transatlanticism is a relaxed ode to disillusionment. Opening with the lines “So this is the New Year / and I don’t feel any different,” the album pulls no lyrical punches. Guitarist and lead singer Benjamin Gibbard delivers his vocals so tenderly and with such fragility that, along with the hook-laden accompaniment, one cannot help but feel cheered in spite of the lyrics’ gravity.
Nowhere is this clearer than in “The Sound of Settling,” undoubtedly a peak of the album. As its title suggests, the song’s subject matter is gloomy—but in a beautiful irony, it employs a cheerful, anthemic pop melody that imbues the song with an energy completely belied by the lyrics.
Also evident in the album are traces of new influences from Gibbard’s recent side project The Postal Service, a collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel which yielded a masterwork combination of indie pop and electronica.
This is especially clear in the tracks “Lightness” and “Expo ’86,” whose ambling bass line distantly cousins the song to house music.
Although there are times when Transatlanticism does slip from its careful balance of gloomy lyrics and upbeat music into a maudlin oblivion, for the most part it strongly maintains the sweet melancholy upon which Death Cab for Cutie have built their reputation.
—Steven N. Jacobs
The Dresden Dolls
The Dresden Dolls
(8 ft. Records)
Since winning this year’s WBCN Rock and Roll Rumble, the Dresden Dolls have ridden a wave of anticipation. Proving the duo’s staying power, the unique Brechtian songwriting of their self-released album holds its own without benefit of the decadent face paint and cabaret costumes that the band flaunts onstage.
The Dresden Dolls’ theatrical flair and atypical setup break indie rock conventions. With Amanda Palmer (keyboard, vocals) thrashing to Brian Viglione’s uncommonly emotive drumming, the two capture a haunting sensuality that is hard to resist.
Palmer’s songs tell gripping fairytales that are at times angry, often sad and always smart. She knows the importance of a singable hook, as in the bittersweet “Good Day.” But she isn’t afraid of straying from the typical pop song format in “Missed Me” and “Coin-Operated Boy.” The former, a song about statutory rape, relies on Palmer’s impressive vocals—which range from warm and frothy to agonizingly tortured—to carry the song from subdued despair to blatant antagonism. Meanwhile, “Coin-Operated Boy” begins as a playful children’s song, only to change mood abruptly with a dramatic bridge that includes the line “This bridge was written to make you feel smitten / with my sad picture of girl getting bitterer.” The use of a toy piano and various vaudevillian percussive instruments makes the song even more appealing.
More than the typical rock band, the Dresden Dolls demand to be viewed as artists in their musical approach as well as overall vision. Look no further than the album’s gorgeous sepia-tinted artwork to see how well they pull off the artsy rock’n’roll shtick. even more appealing. —Sarah L. Solorzano
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