Norman Brannon is a pop critic, musician, and author based in New York City. He presents a weekly music update here on Towleroad and writes regularly at Nervous Acid.
Follow Norman on Twitter at @nervousacid.
The big Britney breakdown of 2007 is mostly a memory four years later, and Femme Fatale is, on some level, her first post-skinhead album to really escape that ghost — which is to say that, gratefully, Britney Spears has just gone back to being Britney Spears. But what exactly does that mean? It begins with the early assertion that Spears wanted to make a "fierce dance record" — and that is, for the most part, what she delivers: The album's first two singles have set the tone with their loyalty to the filtered rave-synth, whose prominence persists throughout. "Trip To Your Heart," for example, transforms that harsh filter into a skillfully gentle club track and "I Wanna Go" plants a subtle nod to "Blue Monday" before giving in to the album's overall Euro-club aesthetic. But as true to her stated objective as it may be, listening to Femme Fatale still begs the question: Is this an album that only Britney Spears could have made? That's harder to assess. A song like "Big Fat Bass" says more about producer Will.I.Am than it does about Spears, who plays Fergie's role in what sounds like a jettisoned Black Eyed Peas track. And for all the positive accolades surrounding the rather spectacular dubstep break in "Hold It Against Me," it seems the credit is somewhat misplaced — unless we are to assume that it was Spears who introduced Magnetic Man to producer Dr. Luke. (Possible, but improbable.) So while Femme Fatale is technically Britney Spears' strongest album ever, it's still not likely to carve any new niches for the 29-year-old elder stateswoman — and, in that sense, her best album yet is also something of a missed opportunity: The album's executive team, Dr. Luke and Max Martin, already wrote and produced pretty much every major pop single from 2010, and by staying on that course, Spears chose to be contemporary over innovative. It's good. But she could have had it all.
The 2009 self-titled debut by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart was at once universally acclaimed and backhandedly derided; notions of the band's sound as "collegiate" or "twee" were meant to describe their sincerity, but in context, also came off as a critical shrug. How could it not? As part of a Brooklyn landscape that seems to value irony and detachment, the band's dissonant diary confessionals provided resistance to the stone-faced standard. Unexpected to everyone, then, this was rewarded when even Pitchfork said they "could be the most promising indie pop group around." This week's release of the Pains' follow-up album makes good on that promise in similarly unexpected ways: If their first record was a reticent launch, then Belong marks a noisy return from the outset of its sensitive, but sinewy title track — using a wall-of-guitars approach borrowed from '90s American indie bands like The Swirlies and Velocity Girl — to the more Anglophilic "Heart In Your Heartbreak" and "My Terrible Friend," which take some cues from The Primitives and The Cure, respectively. The approach is thoroughly modern: By refining the occasionally maudlin execution of their first record with a more tempered sentimentality, Belong is — in so much as an album with lyrics about "waking up at your parents' place" can be — refreshingly heartfelt.
After a year in which Justin Vernon's name became less associated with pastoral indie folk and more entangled with Kanye West, he's finally ready to step out of the hip-hop shadows: A new album by Bon Iver will be released in June, and Vernon's collaborative forays have seemingly affected the tone. "I brought in a lot of people to change my voice," he says, adding, "not my singing voice, but my role as the author of this band."
Virgin Records passed on David Bowie's 23rd solo album, called Toy, back in 2002. It's been missing for almost ten years now, but unsurprisingly, the Internet has found it.
If you're anything like me, a new Depeche Mode album is as exciting for the new influx of remixes as it is for itself. This week, Mute Records announced a June 7th release date for a triple-disc set called Remixes 2: 81-11 — spanning 20 years of reinterpreted Depeche Mode tracks including work by UNKLE, M83, Trentemøller, Vince Clarke, Röyksopp, and super-producer Stuart Price under his Jacques Lu Cont guise.
Final Fantasy's Owen Pallett — whose other job as a string arranger has him working with Arcade Fire, Duran Duran, and Grizzly Bear, among others — recently called out Morrissey in the press as "the best example of someone I really admire but align myself in opposition to." His reasoning: "[Morrissey has] allowed himself to stay in the closet, or at least be ambiguous for so long as if it's not a big deal," Pallett explains. "Basically, I decided early on that I was always going to be candid in interviews."
LCD Soundsystem's final performance ever will take place this coming April 2 at Madison Square Garden. The show sold out almost instantly, but the band has green-lighted a live webcast of the show.
As Adele's insanely successful new album continues to rule, her peers are lining up to sing praise — literally. This week John Legend released an angelic acappella version of "Rolling In The Deep," available HERE as a free download.
Hot on the heels of his inexplicably Auto-tuned New Order charity single, George Michael tweeted details for a follow-up single called "Every Other Lover In The World" — produced by openly gay Sydney-based producer Stereogamous. It's a "full on house track," he warns.
Their early association with electroclash didn't hurt, but Ladytron certainly outlived the trend: Always more than just an '80s throwback, the Liverpool-based group has been incorporating elements of disco, krautrock, and art pop into their sonic palette for ten years now, and today marks the release of their first anthology. Best of 00-10 includes early analog synthpop like "Playgirl" and "Seventeen," as well as practically synth-free classics like 2008's "Ghosts." But what's most memorable about this collection is the fact that even in its stylistic diversity, there is a singular, but familiar identity that clearly emerges. As it turns out, in the province of modern pop, Ladytron's influence may be underreported.
It's kind of impossible to listen to Credo, the ninth official full-length album by the Human League, without conjuring up some memory of their celebrated past — from the dark German-influenced electro of their '70s output to their ubiquitous, and frequently sunny 1980s chart anthems — but in fairness to the present, their latest record only warrants such recall in brief flashes: The kind of irrepressibility they once mined with, say, "Open Your Heart" does not reemerge here, and even more confusingly, the album's current single, "Never Let Me Go," rescinds the Human League's actual futurist credo with a decidedly present-day Auto-tuned pop vocal. You almost get the feeling that their recent admissions of depression and desperation have seeped into the record — if not in its lyrics, then certainly in its psyche — and that works in some places, to be honest. But this probably won't be the prodigal album they were hoping for.
Considering that this project was originally conceived with a Svengali–like desire to assemble a teenage girl band, Too Young To Be In Love — the first proper full-length by Hunx & His Punx, featuring former Gravy Train!!!! member Seth Bogart — finds a gritty lo-fi aesthetic surprisingly elevated by its reverence for Phil Spector and the American vocal group. Bogart's self-admitted strategy of singing tales of female teenage heartbreak through a gay man's lens renders a real sweetness to these songs that resists irony; the unfeigned sentiment of songs like "If You're Not Here" and "Lovers Lane" nearly transcend the trope-cum-campiness of it all.
Also coming out: Radiohead — The King Of Limbs (TBD Records/XL), George Michael — "True Faith" Single (Aegean), Broken Bells — Meyrin Fields EP (Columbia), The Mountain Goats — All Eternals Deck (Merge), The Sounds — Something To Die For (Side One Dummy), Peter, Bjorn & John — Gimme Some (Almost Gold), Yelle — Safari Disco Club (Downtown)
SOUND & VISION:
Big Freedia — "Y'all Get Back Now"
If you have yet to run into the Sissy Bounce scene from New Orleans, a quick synopsis: The sound originated back in 1998 in a New Orleans housing project with a transgendered woman (and former prostitute) named Katey Red, went on to somehow infiltrate the city's straight hip-hop clubs, and is finally going national with the recent success of gender-bending Big Freedia — whose latest video precedes a self-titled EP sponsored by Scion A/V.
Maritime — "Paraphernalia"
The post-Promise Ring project of Davey von Bohlen and Dan Didier, Maritime are set to release their fourth album, Human Hearts, on April 5. Until then, it seemed like a good idea to take advantage of one of the snowiest winters ever by filming the video for lead single "Paraphernalia" outdoors — in the middle of a snowstorm. It's like nature's special effects.
Alex Clare — "Too Close"
For all Alex Clare's being touted as London's next great soul singer, "Too Close" is a lot more Jamie Lidell than Sam Cooke. But that might have something to do with the fact that Diplo and Switch — the producers behind Major Lazer and much of the first two M.I.A. albums — are behind the boards for this churning, dubstep-tinged track. Clare is also Amy Winehouse's ex-boyfriend, so read into his lyrics at your own risk.
Mr. Fogg — "Answerphone"
The third single for Mr. Fogg's forthcoming debut album, Moving Parts, is a modern electronic interpretation of the pop anthem — a song that draws from stadium groupthink and bedroom isolation in equal measure. It's appropriate, then, that Fogg would allow this dichotomy to exist throughout this one-take, self-made video; its soundtrack is also the best new song I've heard this week.