Taylor Swift, Red, Big Machine * * *
Give Taylor Swift this much: She has moxie.
The singer-songwriter risks her lucrative brand by moving completely away from country-pop — a style that made her contemporary music’s sales giant (until Adele’s 21 set a new bar) — to full-on pop. On Red, her fourth album, Swift collaborates — among others — with song doctor Max Martin and producer Jeff Bhasker, who has worked with Swift’s award-show nemesis Kanye West. Swift’s first recorded duets feature Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and English folk singer Ed Sheeran .
Artistically Swift also sets herself up for a challenge by calling to mind Joni Mitchell’s landmark relationship album Blue. (Swift has been in talks to play Mitchell in the proposed Girls Like Us biopic.) As Mitchell did with that 1971 confessional, Swift uses the Red title track to detail a relationship on the rails using color as a metaphor for feelings. “Losing him was blue like I’ve never known/Missing him was dark gray, all alone/But loving him was red/Oh, red, burning red.”
Swift’s songwriting is maturing. Throughout Red her lines, and her reading of them, have grown more assured. On Sad Beautiful Tragic, which reveals evidence of some newfound vocal ability from a formerly weak singer, Swift delivers her moodiest song. “You’ve got your demons/And darlin’, they all look like me,” she sings in a resigned, hushed voice as the music leisurely flows along in time.
Even better, on two of her finest songs yet, the acoustic guitar- and drum-driven I Almost Do and All Too Well, she captures longing and regret from an adult perspective that, for the first time, has resonance for an audience well beyond her teen fan base. Swift has never allowed emotion and vulnerability to color her delivery as effectively as she does on I Almost Do . Here, she sings about missing someone with whom she once had a deep connection. “It takes everything in me not to call you/And I wish I could run to you/And I hope you know that every time I don’t/I almost do.”
To be sure, Swift still has considerable growing up to do before her work can be seriously assessed with that of Mitchell or her insightful ‘70s singer-songwriter contemporaries. Sometimes it feels as if Swift enters into relationships solely to find fodder for a hit song and her observations feel manufactured, callow and surface deep as on the one-note smash, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, which is ostensibly about Jake Gyllenhaal, but who really cares?
That said, though quite long at 65 minutes (90 on the Target exclusive that features a closing acoustic rendition of State of Grace) Swift’s music also improves upon her previous formula of sing-song verses and colorless choruses. These are well-crafted pop songs, every bit as infectious as the best pop/rock from P!nk and smarter than Katy Perry. Country fans might cry foul, but Red is Swift’s most listenable, cohesive album.
Download: I Almost Do, All Too Well, State of Grace (Acoustic Version).
Jason Aldean, Night Train, Broken Bow * *
Jason Aldean is another artist, like Taylor Swift, who is only tangentially country but who nevertheless has come to commercially rule the current crop of hat acts in Nashville.
Night Train doesn’t depart from the Georgia singer’s usual country lyric tropes — small-town pride, trucks and drinking — and he sets his nondistinct nasal voice against stereotypical songs that are aimed at the arena rafters with Bon Jovi/Mellencamp-style rock guitar crunch.
You’ve heard it all before. But while Wanted Dead or Alive rewrites like the admittedly catchy Wheels Rollin’ dominate and the 15-track album seems to go on forever with little variety in subject or sound, Aldean scores with the vivid Black Tears, a story song about a downtrodden stripper with a cocaine jones.
Download: Wheels Rollin’, Black Tears.
Kiss, Monster, UMe * *
Kiss’ 2009 album Sonic Boom, its first in 11 years, was a surprising return to ‘70s form, a decided and successful bid to replicate the hook-filled, Neanderthal rawk of 1976’s Rock and Roll Over.
Monster, Kiss’ 20th studio album, features the Sonic Boom lineup of founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley and two hired hands who aren’t Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. The album is like the Rock and Roll Over follow-up Love Gun in that it’s a bit bigger and heavier in sound, with great avalanches of hard rock guitars and primal bass recorded in primitive, warm analog. But unlike the killer Love Gun, the songwriting — even by Kiss standards — is dreadful.
Stanley (who produces) and Simmons haven’t a fresh idea and merely repeat sex and fire-spewing themes that they could get away with in their 20s and 30s but which now sound tired and ridiculous as they approach Medicare age. Simmons, for the second album in a row, even commands a conquest to “let your backbone slide,” a line that was gross the first time around.
The music, though suitably loud and proud, similarly has little traction and it’s telling that the two best, most classic-Kiss songs — Outta This World and the cowbell-clanging All for the Love of Rock ‘n’ Roll — are sung by the Frehley and Criss imposters exactly as Frehley and Criss would approach them.
The influential Kiss certainly commands respect for nearly 40 years of enduring hard rock staples and deserves long-overdue inclusion in the still clueless Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But Monster, which takes its space on the bottom shelf alongside Kiss misfires like Hot in the Shade and Asylum, doesn’t make a case for continued existence.
Download: Outta This World, All for the Love of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
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