Missy (Misdemeanor) Elliott: No Ho, No Go
The press-generated notion that the eclectic, sex-obsessed duo of Timbaland and Missy Elliott may be this generation’s answer to Prince is something I’m almost willing to grant–if you factor in that Ms. Elliott’s world view is self-loathing, where Prince’s is self-celebratory to the point of insanity. For now, I’ll take Missy–despite the mere above-averageness of her third release, Miss E … So Addictive (Elektra)–with the hope that she’ll soon go off the deep end, as Prince did long ago.
It’s just a shame that Miss E isn’t the album on which she does it. Ms. Elliott’s last album, Da Real World , sounded as if it was going to be massive, but fell short. There is always the risk that the artist will then either return with something lousy to please the punters or–worse–sound defeated. But withdrawal has its perks: Brian Wilson’s post- Pet Sounds releases are as brilliant as they are defeatist. Prince’s masterpiece, Sign o’ the Times , is filled with a resignation culled in the wake of the commercial failure of Under a Cherry Moon . These albums shine no less brightly for their sense of self-immolation.
And though there are parts of Miss E that drag along in the manner of the aforementioned artists at their worst, at its best the album exposes Ms. Elliott’s personal insecurities like a broken gel-cap. The metaphor of addiction to “Miss E” runs throughout the album, along with the not-so-subtle underlying message that without the aid of some outside substance or force, a woman not shaped like a Coke bottle will undergo cruel torment in the world of hip-hop. In “Dog in Heat,” she has to get her lover drunk. The clubby “4 My People” has her dancing with a guy before slipping him an Ecstasy-spiked glass of orange juice in an attempt to get a little play. “Step Off” has her begging an ex-lover to sleep with her, promising to cook and clean. R&B is filled with ditties melismatically howled by women trying to win over diffident men, but these are usually male-penned wish fulfillments. Here you have an overweight woman of considerable musical talent who’s trying to get something in a sexist world (the 300-pound Brian Wilson, losing his marriage as he suffers in his sandbox, comes to mind), and it’s starting to get her down.
The dance-driven beat of “4 My People” is a rare example of a successful hip-hop-dance-club crossover. Producer Timbaland can pull this off better than anyone in hip-hop, even as his influence has become so ubiquitous that anything he touches immediately sounds like 1998. Ms. Elliott also seems a little desperate to prove her cutting-edge status in a crowd of sexier imitators. When a pretty good tabla beat comes in on “Get Ur Freak On,” she has to mutter “new shit” behind it. (If it were, she wouldn’t have to tell us.) Perhaps this is just more evidence of the insecurity that makes Miss E feel so likably vulnerable, even if the album has to compete with stronger past achievements. Ms. Elliott may think she’s keeping her doubts to herself, presenting a stiff (if well-glossed) upper lip. But you know how the truth usually comes out after a couple of tabs ….
The Go-Go’s: Vacation’s Over
“Hello world, we’re here again / Living life in La-La Land,” sings Belinda Carlisle, spelling it out for you at the beginning of the Go-Go’s comeback album, God Bless the Go-Go’s (Beyond Music). It’s a good indication of the low-level self-knowledge and irony to come.
Still, it’s a testament to something–whether it’s Ms. Carlisle’s staying power, a record executive’s shrewd assessment of the need for a “fun” pop album in 2001, the band’s dwindling bank accounts or that, 20 years after they brought us a beach-cooler full of peppy summer anthems like “Our Lips Are Sealed,” and 16 years after the breakup, the Go-Go’s have been redeposited into the pop-cultural pool. There they are, giving revealing interviews in magazines, confessin’ and undressin’ in a highly entertaining VH1 Behind the Music and, oh yeah, putting out this new album, which might as well have been the soundtrack for their VH1 turn.
The Go-Go’s are still their chipper punk-cheerleader selves, offering catchy, high-energy tunes based on girlish harmonies and Ms. Carlisle’s overworked vibrato. But Ms. Carlisle, no longer a party girl, now presents herself as a wise big sister, a New Age spiritual adviser who’s “Always trying to clean up my catastrophes / Taking full responsibility.” Gee, Belinda, that’s so … mature!
Back in the 80’s, the Go-Go’s youthful energy worked wonders when applied to youthful themes. But middle-aged perkiness, when buoying themes of self discovery, is another matter entirely. It rings false, not unlike Ms. Carlisle’s late-80’s transformation into a sensitive adult-contemporary star hugging herself on the beach (“Circle in the Sand”). Somehow it never mattered that the original Go-Go’s were pre-fab, having toned down their California-punk roots for mass appeal. It was a pleasure to be duped.
This time around, though, their desire to please isn’t nearly as rewarding. The album’s best numbers, like “Apology,” “Unforgiven” and “Daisy Chain,” have Ms. Carlisle singing in full range, from soaring ooo -ing to a husky cooing over hummable, grrrl-powered songs. The band’s few forays into modern-sounding production, at the hands of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (producers of Radiohead and Hole)–such as the Beatles-like backwards strings on “Here You Are”–sound anachronistic and clichéd. The cover depicts the five band members as saints (or are they martyrs?), but God Bless the Go-Go’s proves that while these women may have suffered over the years, it’s never been for their art.
– William Berlind
Mogwai: Not Quite Instrumental
Moody Scottish post-post-rockers Mogwai first made a name for themselves in the U.S. around 1998, when Kicking a Dead Pig/Fear Satan Remixes , a double CD of outsider rethinkings of the band’s early work, came out. The electronica and intelligent-dance-music crowd creamed themselves, particularly for the Kevin Shields remix, as needlework had long since aborted Mr. Shields’ legendary My Bloody Valentine and fans had given up hope. When a proper Mogwai album finally made it over here, the rapturous attendants found they had been utterly misled. Mogwai were, in fact, an above-average Slint copycat, not unlike Don Caballero, the Delta ’72 or countless other slow-fast-slow instrumental bands coming out of the Midwest at the time with their angular meanderings. Denial ensued. During the band’s 1998 Bowery Ballroom show, one was confronted with several hundred expressions of feigned excitement that soon became cautiously optimistic disappointment, as many sheepishly cleared out. The outfit once deemed “the band of the 21st century” by Stephen Malkmus ended up sounding like a group standing on the edge of tomorrow, looking backward. They were good, but they were also pointlessly derivative. And the cardigan-wearing fan boys were already moving on to clicks-and-cuts, death metal and other sonic obscurities.
But Mogwai were young–and still are. These days, no one gets a chance to fill one’s head as an artist before critical Ozzy Osbournes bite it off. On Rock Action (Matador), their fourth album, they have expanded their instrumental palette and added some prominent vocals as they move down the epic, cinematic path that most of their contemporaries and influences have taken. But they don’t dip into the overblown orchestral syrup that Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, Spiritualized and the unavoidable Radiohead have oozed as of late. Oh, there are strings and mellotron on “Take Me Somewhere to Sleep” and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” (which also features a de rigueur vocoder and some banjo near its never-ending end). But Rock Action mostly manages to avoid the pomposity and preciousness of the aforementioned bands by favoring small gestures, even when they grow expansive. Their restraint is a relief–until their next album, which will probably feature a 50-piece orchestra.
– D. Strauss
Natacha Atlas: A Wail of a Tale
World music has found a curious niche outside the WOMAD circle. Since the slithering sounds of Middle Eastern music entered trendy night spots like Paris’ Buddha Bar, New York’s Casa La Femme and London’s Momo in the late 90’s, it’s no longer uncommon to see models belly-dancing along in recognition. Natacha Atlas has shown the Western world that you don’t have to speak Arabic to understand her evocative mixture of traditional Middle Eastern sounds with England-bred electronic flourishes. On Ayeshteni (Mantra), her fifth album, Ms. Atlas has done it again. Her gently wailing voice, laid over synthesizers, trilling pipes and driving Arabic beats, produces a music dreamy and compelling enough to charm many an inner snake from its basket.
“Ayeshteni” means “You gave me life,” and the album reflects the diverse influences of the 36-year-old singer’s background, which include Morocco, Palestine, Egypt, England and Belgium. She sings in French as well as Arabic; her 1999 single, “Mon Amie la Rose,” launched her to stardom in France. In England, she’s best known as the former lead singer and belly dancer of the Transglobal Underground, as well as for her work on Jah Wobble’s dubby Rising Above Bedlam in 1991. Although Ms. Atlas’ style has been culled from a long list of musical traditions–reggae, dub, dance, psychedelic rock and fado, to name a few–her sound is whole, distinct.
Ms. Atlas’ plaintive, sometimes thin voice spirals and coos through the dramatic rhythms and melancholy melodies that give the album its hazy feel. The title track hypnotizes with repetitive invocations and swelling strings, accented with bongo breakbeats and flamenco guitar. “Soleil d’Egypte,” written in French, exemplifies the strengths of Ms. Atlas’ work. It is at once Egyptian and European, lonesome and flirtatious, contemplative and accessible. Her cover of “I Put a Spell on You” is a foolhardy misstep; this generic world-dance interpretation inspires nothing so much as fondness for Nina Simone’s growling rendition. But on “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” her mournfulness combines with sinuous instrumental undulations to triumphantly revisit Jacques Brel’s chestnut, bringing it refreshing nuance for the modern, internationally attuned ear.