Babyface: A Collection
of His Greatest Hits
A lot of blame can be indirectly attributed to Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and his track record as a producer for artists such as Boyz II Men, Sheena Easton, Bobby Brown, TLC, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Brandy, and even that old geezer Eric Clapton. His silky yet clattery production formula has become something of a template for the screechy teen-pop that has infested the charts and the airwaves these last few years. And that doesn't even take into account his own tepid work as a solo recording artist, which is chronicled on this estimable greatest hits package.
So if his production and solo work are slick and formulaic then how to explain the undeniable attractiveness and, um, soulfulness of his singing? 'Face, as he is known in music biz circles, has a very expressive voice: quavery, melismatic, full of feeling, kind of like Little Anthony's (of the Imperials) without the pop drama and sissyman blues quotient. Babyface always turns in a solid vocal performance in the midst of forced funk beats and overly lush production. Edmonds has a well-known affection for '70s singer/songwriter material (a la James Taylor and Bill Withers) and this shows even on these bloated tracks. However, when he does go for a more stripped-down production style, the instrumental track becomes more grating because there are fewer melodic instruments to cover up the clattering percussion and clichéd drum machine programming.
He sells millions and has arrived as a biz insider who can be depended on to shore up the sagging careers of aging veterans or smooth over teen pop's rough edges. Kenneth Edmonds' dream of having a successful, long-term career in the music industry has certainly come true for him, but his sound is mainly headache-inducing. Shame about the wasted voice though. -- Ross Johnson
Bow Down to the Exit Sign
Movies with "found" soundtracks are often great (Tati's Playtime, Altman's California Split), but soundtracks seeking films are often dicey (Eno's Music For Films, anything by Radiohead). The underlying aesthetic of both ventures is the same, though: the attempt to conjure one medium through the imaginative use of another. Only it's more successful in movies than it is in music, because a movie rarely plunges the viewer into darkness to concentrate on sounds. In contrast, records are often incidental soundtracks that complement the lives of their listeners but rarely stop them cold. I mean, who has time for staring into the blackness and contemplating imaginary images backed by bass, drums, and keyboards?
Dublin, Ireland, musician David Holmes does, but based on the drippy imaginary "trailer" description in the liner notes, here's hoping he sticks to making music. Besides, the concept grounding Bow Down to the Exit Sign (as well as 1997's Let's Get Killed) is plenty rich and evocative: The Foreigner Bears Witness To Bizarre Tales of the City. His second attempt to draw a chalk outline of urban America through unlikely samples and found hepcat conversations is coarser, less campy, and meaner than its starry-eyed predecessor, which might signify Holmes' growing discontent with the quality of life in our big cities. Then again, it might signify an attempt to reach down into its concrete heart for a little bit of old-fashioned film noir menace, which Jon Spencer aptly approximates on "Bad Thing." But who cares if the film part of the equation is ever completed when Holmes gives you actual songs as funky as The French Connection, with lyrics and riffs and propulsion and even a chorus on the first track ("Trying to keep it real/but compared to what?") that I've wanted to hear my whole life? -- Addison Engelking
The New Pornographers
An ad hoc act composed of musicians from various indie outfits, the Canadian-heavy New Pornographers play a decidedly lo-fi brand of pop music that might be compared to the cream of the Elephant 6 crop. But as the smart, driving, vaguely retro Mass Romantic proves, the Pornographers' tunes are more accessible and direct and less willfully esoteric than those by many of their Southern counterparts.
Sharing vocal duties are critical darling Neko Case, former Zumpano singer Carl Newman, and erstwhile Destroyer member Blaine Thurier. Newman has an athletic voice that bops along with energetic melodies like the new-wave "The Body Says No," and Thurier sounds like the Canadian counterpart to Britain's career eccentric Robyn Hitchcock. But the real standout on Mass Romantic is Case, who belts just a few songs, most notably the title track and "Letter from an Occupant." Still full of sass and spirit, she displays surprising versatility as a vocalist, shedding the torch-and-twang of last year's stunning Furnace Room Lullaby and re-creating herself as a pop chanteuse of unexpected power.
The Pornographers half-bury such dynamic vocals and well-developed melodies in guitar buzz and production distortion. But it all works: The effect is a slow revelation of the songs' many charms over several listens. -- Stephen Deusner
The Doves are an almost entirely organic three-piece band that rose from the ashes of not-so-organic Sub Sub -- stalwarts on the British techno scene for a good 10 years. Displaying a backward logic in modern rock, Doves shed any and all hint of electronica, falling squarely between dance-pop like the Happy Mondays and sonic blueprinting a la My Bloody Valentine, making for a House of Love living in a Radiohead world, if you will. So, yes, there is that inevitable ghost lingering about, but any topical, semi-underground British pop is going to have a hard time avoiding such a cultural icon.
Now that the name-checking is out of my system, I will say that the songs are built around some inescapable hooks, and when all is said and done, that is what's paramount, not whom you've borrowed a sound from. The guitars are affected but kept in check, no matter how much it seems they want to display some serious histrionics. Instead, underhanded somberness, or maybe even menace, prevails ahead of just showing off a pedal selection. Vocals are spot-on and avoid heavy-handedness -- a welcome stance in a world filled with Brit-pop Freddie Mercurys. Kudos are also in order for the subtle Raging Bull-ish cover art. Hey, it could have been the standard abandoned airport imagery, which is becoming a little hard on the peepers. Whenever Radiohead decides to give it up, they can rest easy knowing that bands like Doves are making confident pop in their wake. n -- Andrew Earles
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.