Sunday, November 25, 2012

The genie has long since been out of the bottle, but is she still interesting?

Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears both rose to prominence in the late 90/early 2000's on the same teen pop wave, but Christina has been consistently more interesting to listen to.  The reasons come around the fact she can sing far better, and while she does have plenty of help and has a good eye for the current producer-talent to tap for her discs - she comes out with music that feels like more of "her" is found within it (where Spears is more just letting the studio magicians do the work and trilling while they play).  "Lotus" arrived recently and has been described as something of a backtrack after the disappointing performance of "Bionic" - so with that in mind, taking a look.

Some of this impression surely comes from hearing her sing "second wind/second skin" on first track "Army of Me" - easily the "Phoenix" track of the album - an affirmation to all those who were worried by the robotic Gaga-esque distortions of "Bionic" that yes, this lady can still spin a fine pop tune.  "Red Hot Kinda Love" rides a bizarre combo of sped-up R&B drum beat with a barrage of techno synths slathered underneath it.  Not the best track on the album by sure, but it's an interesting enough experiment.  The following collaboration with Cee-Lo in "Make The World Move" might seem a little calculated, but their voices blend well together, wrapped up in the neo-big-band swells floating around in the [again] very techno-influenced beat.  The speed-sing/almost-rapping comes within inches of wrecking the whole thing - but passes by because she can pull it off (unlike some others who try the same trick and fail miserably)

"Your Body" leads into a shuffling, party-hearty mid-section of the disc - followed up by "Let There Be Love" which unfortunately buries Aguilera's soaring voice beneath a generic latter-day pop-techno beat that could have come from any one of half a dozen pop acts out in the current day.  This points out a glaring problem of pop music today - even if an artist has the skill to add their own stamp to the tracks, the fact is many of them use the same people from a not-very-large pool of "hot producers" - so there will be some bleed-over in how things sound when this happens.  After this generica, "Sing for Me" rescues things a great deal with a slight, trip-hoppy beat - almost something you would expect to hear on an earlier Rihanna disc, back when she actually knew how to be reflective.  This is the kind of track that shows off that Aguilera does have a voice - and yes, she does still veer into histrionics now and then, but it's better to have a musical backdrop that lets the sound of that voice breathe.  This trend keeps on into "Blank Page" - which easily fits among the ever-growing catalog of "Songs that seem tailor made to urge a live crowd to raise their lighters up and sway along as they play" - and the aforementioned histrionics are toned down a great deal - making the listener wish she had kept that restraint in focus on more tracks besides just this one.

The end result is a listening experience that feels like a mixed bag.  It is pleasant listening for pop fans, sure, but when she shows that she knows how to reach beyond the context of standard-issue pop, it makes one wish the entire album was as forward-thinking.

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