By Aaron Richter
As we all know by now, new releases hit record-store shelves and digital-download services each Tuesday. That’s why self-titled presents the following every week: a new release you’d be stupid not to own (Buy It), one worth checking out if you’re the curious type (Burn It) and something you might have heard about but probably should avoid (Skip It). Simple, ain’t it?
Guns N’ Roses: Chinese Democracy (Geffen)
Bless this mess. Yes, Chinese Democracy is ridiculous. Yes, it’s pompous. Yes, it’s over-produced. Yes, it samples Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, it’s loaded heavy on power ballads (particularly at the end). Yes, it’s a swollen fossil riddled with surgery scars from more cosmetic uplifts, enhancements, tucks, stretches and deveins than Amanda Lepore. But this long-awaited and much-mocked Guns N’ Roses return is 14 tracks of genuinely entertaining hard-rock excess. And all of its absurd faults are as much a part of its charm as are its finest moments.
Best exemplifying the record’s blunt and bloat is â€œThere Was a Time,â€ which begins with horns, a chorus of singers, deep rumbling drums, a string arrangement, a drum machine, subdued guitar and Axl, of course. The track quickly explodes into a bombastic shout of a chorus that, after a swift repeat, is disregarded as the song swells to an overwhelming weight–propelled by righteous guitar solos and Axl’s sustained falsetto reaching higher and higher–that will bring you to your knees. Nothing else on the record is quite as visceral, but Chinese Democracy rides other strengths. Brutalizing a ferocious With Teeth dance groove, â€œShackler’s Revengeâ€ turns demonic noisemaking into arena-rock grandeur (and one totally wicked guitar solos). “Better” is a vicious, slobbering beast that’s probably most thrilling to hear performed live (fingers crossed). Clunky at first, “Streets of Dreams” transforms at the mention of “stardust on my feet” into a soaring piano-driven ballad that strikes somber cascading tones and features Axl’s first real opportunity to let loose on vocals. Seemingly docile, “Catcher in the Rye” often appears ready to tear itself apart from within. “Riad N’ the Bedouins” unleashes a pair of uncouth guitar solos that best capture the spontaneous spirit of Appetite for Destruction. And “I.R.S” is memorable for its basic simplicity amid the madness.
Say what you will about the state of Guns N’ Roses (and more specifically Axl Rose’s sanity), but every song on Chinese Democracy contains at least 15 to 30 seconds of undeniable brilliance–an admirable feat that would be difficult for any artist working today to match. I’m not yet prepared to call this a great album. No, certainly not. And it might not be the Guns N’ Roses you remember. (Throughout, you’ll catch echoes of Justice, Death From Above 1979, Marilyn Manson, Robert Fripp, Spinal Tap, My Bloody Valentine, Vlad III the Impaler, The Killers and U2, among others.) But I will readily admit that it’s some of the most pure fun I’ve had between two speakers all year. And that’s definitely worth something.
The Killers: Day & Age (Island)
What the fuck is frontman Brandon Flowers talking about? And is that a saxophone? Do I hear steel drums? Why is it so hard to hate the Killers? On the group’s third record, Day & Age, Flowers appears stuck on the dirt-crusted American mythology of Sam’s Town, while the rest of the group strives for the strobing glitter of the band’s debut. Producer Stuart Price (Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor) does little to remedy this schism, instead poking it with a stick until the disjunction widens and Flowers’ vocals occasionally brush with such rich urgency as if they’d be better matched for another record entirely. This unbalanced dichotomy is most apparent on “A Dustland Fairytale” with Flowers spewing excitable verses filled with references to a “blue jean serenade” and “slick, chrome American prince” as the track glistens and floats perpetually upward until we’re left shivering among the twinkly stars, the neon city lights below, far from the vibrant world he’s obsessing over. But to Flowers’ credit, he is miraculously masterful with a chorus. “Spaceman” and “Losing Touch” are unforgettable anthems on par with “When You Were Young” minus the grit. Lead single “Human,” despite its brainless lyrics, channels the super-fun sing-along hedonism of “Somebody Told Me.” And check â€œJoy Rideâ€ for a Virgins-by-way-of-Some Girls groove. It’s all sorta silly, sure, but as per Killers usual, you probably won’t realize how much you like this album until several months from now. Until then, it’s best to keep Day & Age tucked away in your iTunes library for future listening desires.
Kanye West: 808s and Heartbreak (Roc-A-Fella)
Poor Kanye. The guy had a fantastic, career-turning lightbulb with “Love Lockdown”–synthesized, gushing emotional loss atop head-nodding bass, hypnotic piano and brief flurries of cathartic drums–and simply took it too far. 808s and Heartbreak drips with genuine, touching inspiration, but too often Kanye’s, well, Kanye-ness gets the best of him. The record plays as if it could have used a good editor to slice out the goofy blubber, at least least six more months of hard, critical thinking on Kanye’s part and a strong contingent of his crew simply questioning some of his more awkward decisions (“Really, man? Robocop? Really?”). Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from hearing early, leaked, unfinished versions of these songs is that ‘Ye aims to please and, when pressed, recognizes and looks to fix his faults. Though not everything here was treated with such a careful hand. â€œSee You in My Nightmares,â€ the record’s weakest track, retreads the chord changes of Young Jeezy’s â€œPut On.â€ The “spoiled little LA girl” ending to “Robocop” verges on Shwayze-style corniness. The “Dr. Evil” reference in “Heartless” tarnishes the somber mood. And “Paranoid” and “Say I Will” unnecessarily repeat themselves for minutes longer than they’re welcome. Listening to 808s and Heartbreak is like listening to an album full of Track 1’s and intros, each playing as if it will usher in the main course. But we never get the lobster, never approach anywhere close to dessert. And you know, maybe that’s exactly the point: Broke-down, rumpled Kanye struggling to get past life’s hurdles can’t quite rise beyond his mental shackles. But the record’s shortcomings and questionable decisions bear heavily upon its directional ambition and emotional depth. Tracks spin brilliantly, until they don’t. Kanye’s words ring true, until they don’t. And this record might not get its proper shine until we all feel just as confused and vulnerable as the artist himself.