Like much of the rest of the country, I fell in love with Destiny's Child over the radio. "Bills, Bills, Bills" may have made them sound like what they looked like -- lab-created TLC wannabes -- but the irresistibly horny and sassy teenpop of "Bugaboo" set them apart. And that breakthrough was only a set-up for the megaton bomb to come, one of the most beautiful singles ever made: "Say My Name." After that, the world was theirs -- the very jumpin' "Jumpin' Jumpin'" and the rousing sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves anthem "Independent Women I" completed a historically pleasurable pop trifecta.
But even though I think the sound of Beyoncé Knowles saying the word "question" has been the most exciting thing on the radio for months now, the Charlie's Angels-themed "Independent Women" went down with an aftertaste: I don't like to take my pop pleasure in the form of cross-promotional product for a crummy movie. So I was really hoping that when "Independent Women" showed up on Destiny's Child's own album -- as opposed to the Charlie's Angels soundtrack -- it would be in a remix that dispensed with the film references.
Instead, the very first words spoken on Survivor are "Lucy Liu." It's a crass moment that, disappointingly, sets the stage for the rest of the album. I got off more on Destiny's Child than pretty much anything else in pop music in the last year, but Survivor just pisses me off. It's an after-the-gold-rush record that comes across catty and preachy, self-righteous and hypocritical.
On the second song, the ubiquitous title track, one of Destiny's children announces, "If I surround myself with positive things I'll gain prosperity," implying that Beyoncé, Kelli, and Michelle are rich and famous because they're better than the have-nots, not just musically and physically but morally too. It's that kind of vain self-regard (Jeez, "Destiny's Child"? We should have seen this coming) that leads them to follow the sexed-up dance-floor winner "Bootylicious" with an unbecoming bit of woman-bashing -- "Nasty Girl." These women sell sex as much as anyone, so who the hell are they to attack a woman for showing "cleavage from here to Mexico." To call the song's subject "trashy," "sleazy," and "classless" because she needs to "put some clothes on"? Or, most irritatingly, to preach to her, "You make it hard for women like me/who try to have some integrity"?
On "Fancy," they attack another woman for trying to steal their "shine" ("Where's your self-esteem?/Try to find your own identity"). They end the album with a uselessly indulgent "Gospel Medley" (God's on their side too) and an "Outro" that lets them tell each other how great they are ("I think you got angel wings," one Child exclaims to another).
"Apple Pie A La Mode" is sexy and eccentric like a good Prince record, and a few of the more conservative cuts ("Bootylicious," a cover of the Bee Gees' "Emotion") could sneak up on you via radio, but outside of "Independent Women I," I don't hear anything here great enough to overcome Survivor's ugly, self-loving, empathetically bereft attitude. A major disappointment. -- Chris Herrington
In the current mope-rock sweepstakes, Mississippi singer-songwriter Neilson Hubbard isn't as conventionally melodic as Elliot Smith, as literary as Ron Sexsmith, or as intense or singular a talent as Conor "Bright Eyes" Oberest, but he does have his niche. More than anyone else working the beat, Hubbard evokes the brittle beauty of mope-rock milestones such as Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers and Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos. In fact, Why Men Fail conjures those records so much that Hubbard might be to late-period Big Star what Teenage Fanclub once was to early, power-pop Big Star.
Recorded locally at Easley-McCain Recording, this second Hubbard album lays his breathy, emotive mumble over a great batch of bent melodies and a jangle-rock foundation -- with R.E.M. comrade and Continental Drifter Peter Holsapple and Nashville guitar ringer Will Kimbrough lending essential helping hands. Why Men Fail is aurally invigorating, moving effortlessly from the sweet crunch of the rocker "The Last American Hero" to the downbeat piano balladry of "The Girl That Killed September," but it takes a while (perhaps due to those affecting but at times near-impenetrable vocals) for Hubbard's songs to sink in. -- CH
Neilson Hubbard will be at the Hi-Tone Café on Saturday, May 19th, with Jennifer Jackson.
Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe and his Nigerian Soundmakers
One of the giants of Nigerian highlife music, Osadebe was a gold-selling pop star in his homeland from the mid-'60s well into the '80s, but his music has been almost entirely unavailable in the U.S. This collection, which condenses a 40-year career to seven tracks -- none under six minutes and one almost 20 -- recorded between 1970 and 1985, is likely as good an introduction as we're going to get.
Osadebe's highlife -- a West African pop music with roots in calypso, samba, and jazz, among other sources -- is more polite than that of his more famous countryman, Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, but you can hear the roots of Fela's sound here. Each song has a bright, shimmering flow driven by wah-wah guitars, clattering percussion, and jazz-like horns. Relaxing without being tepid, exploratory without solos -- this is "jam" music for those who scoff at the concept. -- CH
The Ladybug Transistor
The Ladybug Transistor got a big boost last year when they co-starred in the movie High Fidelity. They didn't actually appear in the film per se, nor was their music included on the soundtrack. But there on the end of a shelf holding volumes of vinyl in John Cusack's entryway, appearing in almost every scene in his apartment, hung a poster from a Ladybug Transistor live show.
It seems odd that the group was so closely identified with Cusack's confused character. The band's agreeably retro sound would be a much better fit for the shy-but-sweet Dick, who might play the band's latest album, Argyle Heir, first thing in the morning -- before Barry arrives to blast Katrina and the Waves.
While it occasionally veers into Ren Fest territory, Argyle Heir is full of inventive, thoughtful, collegiate pop music that splits the difference between flower-child psychedelia and '60s retro pop. The Ladybug Transistor place equal emphasis on songwriting and sound, so songs like "Perfect For Shattering" and "Nico Norte" are both lushly orchestrated and nicely catchy. And concise: Only one track, "Going Up North (Icicles)," exceeds four minutes.
Placid and unobtrusive, Argyle Heir is ultimately a perfect soundtrack for any early morning. -- Stephen Deusner
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.