Overhyped, Overrated, and Underwhelming: Ten Disappointments from 2008
Part 4 of The Hurst Review’s eight-part end-of-the-year musical wrap-up, which will continue off and on through the first half of December, culminating in the Top 15 Albums of 2008.
There are a handful of them every year. Albums by beloved artists that fall a bit short of the mark. Much-hyped and over-blogged debuts that don’t live up to expectations. Weird, experimental indie records that get the Pitchfork set foaming at the mouth but don’t make any sense to the rest of us. So, in the middle of The Hurst Review’s celebration of the best music of 2008, we pause to offer one final shrug of the shoulders and roll of the eyes to ten albums that, for whatever reason, just didn’t impress. These are in no implied order, other than alphabetical.
Patricia Barber – The Cole Porter Mix
Patricia Barber’s last album, 2006’s mesmerizing Mythologies, was a concept album inspired by the writings of Ovid– perhaps a hard sell for a jazz album, and certainly enough to let listeners know that this singer and pianist ain’t trying to win over the Norah Jones crowd. It was arguably the most eccentric and strange album in a career that’s been full of them, but the strange thing is, Barber’s albums have never come across as overly academic or esoteric; they’re actually very tuneful and accessible. Which makes it seem strange that she would release a new album– comprised mostly of Cole Porter covers, plus three originals that impressively replicate Porter’s sound– that’s being billed as a straightforward, accessible album. This implies that her last album was difficult, which it isn’t; meanwhile, this album emphasizes simple melodies and uncluttered arrangements for a slow, mellow, reverent tribute to Porter that, while certainly easy to listen to, doesn’t linger in the mind nearly as much as Barber’s other, more sophisticated albums. As a result, it simply feels dumbed down, a pleasant but uninteresting diversion from a great artist who’s capable of much more.
T-Bone Burnett – Tooth of Crime
The acclaimed producer follows fourteen years of silence as a solo performer with two albums in as many years– and that’s certainly a welcome development, but, if the long-overdue concept record Tooth of Crime is any indication, Burnett’s years of producing other artists and curating soundtracks has left him a bit out of touch with his muse, as these songs lack the bite and the melodic gift of his earliest, best albums. Actually, one is almost uncomfortable calling them songs; based on a Sam Shepard play, this album is more like a cycle of moody soundscapes and theater pieces, all of them very harsh and dissonant, boiling over with anger and caustic wit. So while it’s a technically impressive work, it’s also very unpleasant to listen to, and, because the songs aren’t as deep or as funny as Burnett’s finest, the rewards it offers are pretty minimal.
Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
As boring as its title suggests, Narrow Stairs feels very much like a transition– or maybe the album that comes right before the transition. Its sound is a natural continuation of Transatlanticism and Plans, but it’s neither as dramatic and gripping as the former nor as warm and soulful as the latter. Instead, it just sounds like by-the-numbers Death Cab, solid but never inspiring, well-crafted but never anything to get excited about. The lyrics are forced, the melodies forgettable, and the performances surprisingly rote. It sounds for all the world like a band that’s lost its inspiration and needs a new muse. Here’s hoping they find one for the next time.
Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse follow up their blockbuster debut with a very serious album— but then, St. Elsewhere was serious, too; they just tempered it with a huge spoonful of humor, imagination, and, well, craziness. Their sense of craft is still very much on display throughout their second album, but their sense of humor, of imagination, and of fun are largely missing, leading to a decent set of songs that add up to a somber, lamentably monochromatic listen.
Scarlett Johansson – Anywhere I Lay My Head
Okay, so the prospect of a Hollywood starlet(t) recording an album isn’t that promising, but hey, it worked for Zooey Deschanel. And Scarlett had a pair of aces up her sleeve: Her producer was David Sitek (TV on the Radio), and her songwriter was Tom Waits. But what could have been an interesting, audacious project turned out to be just plain weird, with Waits’ excellent songs being the only part of this album to escape with an untarnished reputation.
Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak
A breakup album in which the celebrated MC largely forgoes rapping in favor of crooning through an Auto-tuner. It sounds exactly like you’d think it would.
No Age – Nouns
This indie duo wrote a batch of so-so pop/punk songs, then covered them up with so much guitar feedback and noise that they’re almost indecipherable. Of course, Pitchfork loved it. Mastering neither the dynamics and melodicism of Sonic Youth nor the tonal control of Yo La Tengo, No Age have created an album that’s simply monotonous.
Marnie Stern – This is It…
Boasting a mile-long title that would seem pretentious even to Fiona Apple, Marnie Stern’s latest album is filled with more of what she does best– Malkmus-esque guitar noodling, all of it raw, raucous, and uninhibited. But where Malkmus marries his guitar dexterity to sophisticated compositions, Stern simply rambles on, without any sense of musicality to set her endless guitar noodling and banshee wail vocals apart. Any sense of songcraft is lost, and while her lo-fi guitar pyrotechnics can be fun, the lack of dynamics or variety makes the whole affair come across as indulgent nonsense.
Times New Viking – Rip it Off
See No Age. To this band’s credit, though, their hooks are much sharper and their songs more interesting– in fact, their songcraft is solid enough that the extreme lo-fi production feels like a gimmick, doing more harm than good on this otherwise decent garage rock set.
Lucinda Williams – Little Honey
Time once called her the greatest living American songwriter. Then she got her heart broke, and her writing went down the tubes. Then she found true love, and things just got worse. A mixed bag of halfway-decent blues-rock songs and embarrassingly simplistic odes to new love, the best tracks here work thanks to Williams’ sense of humor and her understanding of blues and country conventions. When she bombs, though, she really bombs– just get a load of her honeybee sex metaphors for Exhibit A.