I’ve noticed something of a disturbing trend. In every installment of this “Pirate Guide”—the Sonic Boom feature wherein I offer brief reviews of a host of new records—my reviews have been, with a few exceptions, almost uniformly positive. It’s not hard to understand why this occurs: I listen to much, much more music than I could ever possibly hope to review, and I have the option to listen to much, much more music than I could ever possibly hope to consume. Because of this, the music I listen to enough to actually review tends to be music I like. Why would I spend my time with music I don’t like? Yet, conversely, how could I responsibly review music I don’t spend some time with? This doesn’t mean I’m an easy mark (necessarily); it just means I’m not likely to hand out especially low scores on a very frequent basis. I am aware of this, though, and I am trying to change this trend. In that regard, I am listening to music I do not like for you, dear Reader, so you don’t have to.
In a column that regularly focuses on contemporary American black metal and depressive post-shoegaze-Spanish-classical-influenced folk, dissing on someone like Katy Perry might seem a little obvious—a little cheap, maybe—but it’s not that simple. I have publicly championed lots of artists who might be considered Katy Perry’s peers: I have written at length about my appreciation for Kelly Clarkson; I think Ke$ha has released at least two of the year’s best singles; I was the only critic to include Lady Gaga’s The Fame on my 2008 Pazz & Jop ballot (and Rachel Stevens’ Come and Get It on my 2007 ballot…); and I’ve long expressed my fondness for the pop songwriting/production work of Max Martin and Dr. Luke. So I’m not predisposed to disliking Katy Perry—just the opposite, if anything. In fact, I expected a lot from Teenage Dream, because I loved (and still love) its smash first single, “California Gurls.” That track is bizarre, overstuffed and opportunistic, saying almost nothing at all about its ostensible subject—“Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top” is relevant and specific to California how exactly?—yet is utterly infectious and wonderful, featuring a little disco guitar lick seemingly stolen from Stardust’s classic “Music Sounds Better With You” and a timeless, indelible Swedish melody. I think, actually, that “California Gurls” is so good because it’s so weird. Problem is, the same can’t be said of much else on Teenage Dream. Some of it is very weird, and yes, very good: The cheeky “Peacock,” for example, is built around an inane and vulgar single-entendre playground chant but it’s also layered and fun and very, very catchy. Perry fares well when she does floor-fillers, and poorly when she does ballads and/or emo pop: “The One That Got Away” wouldn’t be fit for the likes of Ashlee Simpson (to be clear, that’s not a good thing); “Hummingbird Heartbeat” attempts to update Rick Springfield’s Working Class Dog for the Jersey Shore crowd but the song’s soul gets lost in gloss; “Pearl” is a dreary sub-Imogen Heap bore. Fortunately, most of Teenage Dream is upbeat, but not enough of it reaches (or even reaches for) the amazing heights of “California Gurls” or “Peacock.” And during those moments—the majority of the record—it lacks any identity whatsoever. Strange, I think, for an artist with such an outsized personality (or, at least, an artist who claims to have such an outsized personality). [5/10]
The Arcade Fire’s debut is largely considered a classic, and its follow-up cemented them as arena-worthy, but I found both those records to be a little bombastic and consequently difficult to love. The Suburbs is thus the best Arcade Fire album, in my opinion, because it is also my favorite Arcade Fire album, and the only one I listen to out of enjoyment rather than obligation. It’s not perfect—moments here try too hard, are a bit too cute, a bit faceless—but the large majority of this thing is ferocious and haunting and flat-out great, finding a perfect place at the center of a Venn diagram featuring The Cure, Springsteen, Big Country and My Bloody Valentine. I don’t know if it’s the simplicity of these songs or merely the fact that the band are now just better songwriters than they used to be, but this thing is 16 songs long and I’d say at least 12 of those songs are totally emotionally and aurally arresting. That is an insane, almost unfair ratio. I don’t even want to like The Arcade Fire at this point, on principle, and I definitely don’t want to be getting on a bandwagon after two critically beloved records, but this one is—as Katy Perry claims California girls to be—“undeniable.” [9/10]