Tuesday, March 31, 2009


From the new issue of Signal-to-Noise:

The Teen-Pop-Noise Virus

Kanye West
808s and Heartbreak

Vocal distortion technology is inherently contradictory; its use can either suggest that whatever ideas or feelings the performer seeks to impart are so extraordinary that filtering effects are indispensibly essential to get the point across or that the performer is making sport of those who subscribe to the first notion. Of course, Autotune and its bastard(izing) kin can also serve as masks for talentlessness, laziness, or creative bankrupcy. But for the purposes of this review, let's play Devil's Advocate and give Poptastic and Kanye West the benefit of the doubt: let's posit that they opted to shred, puree, and otherwise distress their voices for legitamite artistic reasons.

The Teen-Pop-Noise Virus is what its title and the grayscale paintings of young adults and tacky, lovelorn grayscale portaits in the liners suggest that it is: a cut-out rack Pop R&B album. The twist? Its co-ed coterie of makers and performers - experimental producers Chris Fitzpatrick and Thomas Dimuzio among them - aren't teenagers, and their would-be hit singles are sonically shocked and waterboarded within an inch of their precious bitrates. It's an interesting idea in theory, isn't it: flipping the vapidity of adolescent-emotion-as-imagined-by-studio-execs into noise art, funnelling fluffy tripe like "I can't escape the memory of yesterday when I held you in my arms" and "Somehow, someday I will bring you my love/It was sent from above for you, and for me" through an aural meat grinder for 50 minutes, the cavalcade of overtreated voices wrapped around the saccherine hooks, dripping with acidic digital static. Poptastic tip their hand too far in terms of harshness, turning Virus into a brutal slog: the album's too catchy to work as noise yet too ugly to work as actual pop. But even that would be forgivable if the record didn't suffer from a nasty case of vertigo that makes it impossible to get a solid handle on either aesthetic, let alone sit through it all without reaching for a Britney Spears or Merzbow disc for some much needed palette-cleansing. As a concept Poptastic is worth expanding upon - the liners alone are more worth the price of admission - but only if the wizards behind this particular curtain don't pursist in urging the listener to puke up her lunch.

West's engrossing 808s and Heartbreak is equally tough to stomach, for different reasons. Somehow, over the course of 4 or 5 years, rap's Great Polo-shirted Hope has gone from hotshot hip-hop producer to ballin' with a backpack to self-obsessed and vexing to a whiny diva-dude willing to devote an entire record - where he sings, for Christ's sake - to castigating an ex for a breakup he himself was largely responsible for. There's no denying that the guy's an out-and-out asshole, and his plaints about throttling a lover and about claiming that female adultery is worse than male adultery aren't going to endear him further to Oprah viewers. But - and this is a big "but" - if you make it past that roadblock, there's a lot to savor here. Vocal filters blur his unstudied croon into a tragic narrative sneer where cocksucker bravado disguises an undercurrent of self-disgust, the blearly, titular synths melt together into a regal, downcast rue: "Robocop" cracking wise about living in the shadow of female suspicion over mechanized whirs, "Amazing" attempting to steamroller sorrow with outsized self-aggrandizement, doleful pianos, and Young Jeezy, and on, deeper into a den of Austin Powers references and abject misery. One suspects that for West, this Heartbreak is less about a defunct relationship than about the death of his mother; some emotional experiences are impossible to process, let alone, convey in song, and it's very possible that his ex acts here as a surrogate punching bag for outrage at one of the few things he can't control: mortality.

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