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This time: Hits, many about the drama of romance and finance, including a couple you’re probably already sick of. Next time: Not.
DAFT PUNK “One More Time”
The James Brown trick: Say “one more time” one hundred times; see what happens. Hence, a repetitious disco song about repetition, like “Running in Circles” by Gino Soccio or “Here Comes That Sound Again” by Love Deluxe. On record, it’s too much house-diva “Music Goes Better With You,” not enough punk-daft “Da Funk.” But crossing its tick-tocking Bee Gees chirp over to Top 40, it’s pop muzik, and all the funnier for it.
PINK “You Make Me Sick”
Funny how she looks so much like Karenna Gore, funny how she makes the title a compliment, and funny how this sounds exactly like her previous two hits: minioperatic breakdowns and the hardest teenpopgirl vocalizing anybody’s yet sassed over post-Timbaland beat-science. Redundancy you can dance to, one more time! Pink’s pinnacle, though, is still “Most Girls,” the one about not needing a man with the mean green ching-ching bling-bling, and the one whose egalitarian economic policy thus ended the “No Scrubs” era and paved the way for double-Dutch treats like “Independent Women” and “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” Young MC’s old got-no-money-got-no-car-got-no-woman-and-there-you-are algorithm no longer holds!
No attorney fees, but easily the Here, My Dear of the year, with a funky space reincarnation of electric Teddy Riley rhythms underneath to boot. Dense, gurgling, male-harmony blues; very adult. At first I assumed it was a solo singer (R. Kelly, to be precise) working some 1973 proto-disco deep-soul thing; now I notice the oily harmonies behind him, plus tattoos and torsos inspired by D’Angelo. Starts and ends with a conversation between a couple guys, sort of like in “What’s Going On” or “The Message.” The main guy goes to buy himself some shoes, and when he gets home catches Wifey “screaming ooh ahh” with another man. He’s awful polite about it until you hear the gunshots, though the chorus preceding them is fucking intense: “You’re a liar, a cheater, deceiver, heartbreaker. . . . I’m taking the house, the car, the kids, the dog.” Come to think of it, his last words to his friend at the beginning were “I’ll call you, dog.” Makes you go hmmm . . .
SHAGGY FEATURING RICARDO “RIKROK” DUCENT “It Wasn’t Me”
Finally, the male-bonding equivalent to every girltalk classic since the Shangri-Las—a flat-out boy-boy relationship-advice record. Dig if you will a picture: Buck-naked on the bathroom floor with the babe next door, and your fiancée with that extra key catches it all on camera. The message, as Britgrrrls Fluffy put it a couple years ago, is Deny Everything. By now you’ve memorized the plot even if the goofy kinetic energy of Shaggy’s ragamuffing will take your ears years to translate, but to whom do you compare the marginally West Indian early-’80s tinge of Rikrok’s gentle soul tenor? Junior? The guy from Linx? Dancehall toasting, like metal, gets respect mainly when it’s harsh and self-important. So Shaggy’s considered a sellout, a shame since he’s the one going against the grain, and his two huge hits right now have more “Earth Angel” in them than any reggae crossover since Chaka Demus & Pliers did “Murder She Wrote.”
BACKSTREET BOYS “The Call”
Her telephone rings, and he’s got a napkin over his mouth. He’s in a noisy club, her voice is fading because his cellular batteries are running out (he tells her repeatedly); he’s blurting “say again” as if communicating by walkie-talkie from the jungle. He says he’s gotta go ’cause his boys are heading somewhere, so don’t wait up for him. But a few of his buddies they sure look shady, and when one backstreet backstabber clues his girl in to the truth, it’s too late. Max Martin’s music rocks harder than even in “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” or “Larger Than Life,” opening with flamenco strums then raising the Latin-rhythmed garage-band-stomp ante of ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” via Destiny’s Child tempo changes and Bee Gees somebody-help-me-I’m-going-nowhere night moves toward a tragic-tryst darkness somewhere in the vicinity of the Jacksons’ Triumph. Compute in the unjustly maligned Black and Blue‘s only slightly less brutal “Get Another Boyfriend” and “Not for Me,” and it’s clear Backstreet are carrying on rock’s great double-standard tradition of wanderers who won’t stand for Runaround Sue.
OUTSIDERZ 4 LIFE “College Degree”
White (though note label) boy band, five voices as usual, all bad boys who look like dangerous thugs (though one kid’s cheekbones also link him to Hampton the Hampster)—what a smart concept. Potential audiences: (1) white girls who’ll soon outgrow ‘N Sync; (2) white boys; (3) black people. Timbaland carries their first single over the top with crooked plinks and plonks and open spaces and drunken classical strumming and sour New Orleans funeral-wake tubas or foghorns or whatever; the rap part has a low sluggish flow that’s a ringer for Biggie’s, and the mournful blues guitars on the album hint at Afghan Whigs. These guys sound loose, and the lyrics’ lesson—basically, drop out of school!—is not to be to be taken at face value; money doesn’t really fall from trees onto scrubs bragging about leeching off Mom and Dad with their GEDs, after all. So make sense of “They say that drugs kill/I’m still standing stable.”
DREAM “He Loves U Not”
Riding David “Don’t Disturb This Groove” Frank’s blatant drum’n’bass ripples as they dodge cute piano arpeggios and funk-rock guitar raveups, plucking petals from daisies their rival has picked to help her cherry lips and batting eyes steal the Boy, Caucasian chicks financed by Puffy (and photographed by Billboard in New York Dolls and T. Rex T-shirts) make like Destiny’s grandchildren. They’re not sending anybody to fist city. But the Boy is theirs anyway.
JANET “Doesn’t Really Matter”
Janet Jackson was always just a “normal” substitute for people who never understood how Michael’s strangeness was intrinsic to his genius; big sis Rebbie’s vocals in “Centipede” had way more personality. But this is Janet’s best single since (Lemmy from Motörhead’s favorite) “Black Cat” in 1990, if not ever. Somehow the melody’s subliminal Asianness makes the nothingness of her piddly voice pretty—fragile like rice paper. Or like Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” the 1963 chart-topper that set the table for Masanori Murakami breaking Major League Baseball’s Japan barrier a year later.
SHEDAISY “Lucky 4 You (Tonight I’m Just Me)”
When we last noticed them, they were kissing off a beau by confiscating his Dodgers cap and Buddha statue and TV and leaving behind the VCR. Their new one is Three Faces of Eve country: “Number five just cries a river a minute/Seven wants to tie you up and drown you in it/14 just wants to say so long, bygones/32 wants to do things to you that’ll make you blush/10 would key the El Camino that you love so much/And there ain’t nobody wants to mess with 23.” If the Dixie Chicks are Let It Bleed, SheDaisy are Exile on Main Street, or at least their muffled sound is. So the first time I heard all those numbers on the radio, I assumed they were ages. Schizophrenia is taking them home. And it’s gutsy how the personality who ties the guy up isn’t even the one doing blush-worthy things.
JO DEE MESSINA “That’s the Way”
From an album that may well have received the intelligentsia support it deserves had it been marketed as adult-alternative instead of as Nashville, by a woman who consistently matches the heat if not the eccentricity of her transplanted-Northern-urbanite predecessor K.T. Oslin, more Shelby-style post-Sheryl Crow country, all the way down to the life-as-winding-road metaphors: Bend when the wind blows, roll with the punches (to get to what’s real?), you live you learn, you crash and burn. Jo Dee’s follow-up single, also about burning, seems to be sung in the voice of the devil, exchanging job opportunities for souls. And on both hits, Tim McGraw’s production crashes and burns just enough: In the ’70s and ’80s, that sneaky little disco-ish keyboard lilt halfway through would’ve pegged “That’s the Way” as pop or rock, not country. But these days, if you’re a white woman over 25 with powerful pipes, Nashville’s your refuge. Even if you’re Italian, and from Boston.
MATCHBOX TWENTY “If You’re Gone”
Dudes still have rock stations. And once in a blue moon, might still hitch their forced soul to some horns and miraculously find a way to help pristine powerballad-vulnerability schlock build and chime. “If You’re Gone” ‘s tune and tics borrow from John Waite, Lou Gramm, Kevin Cronin, somebody; it’s a huge improvement over the hookless-with-guitar-solo Pearl Jam imitation “Bent,” Matchbox Twenty’s most forgettable (was it ever actually on the radio?) single ever. I love the conditional of the title: He doesn’t know if she’s gone? And if she’s not gone, maybe it’s not time to come home? And who’s coming home, anyway? Her? Him? His dog?? He spends the whole song practicing what he should say to her, overanalyzing a cloud from both sides now, then finding five or six more sides. Tells us he thinks too much; no shit. Not so much a breakup song as a maybe-we’re-gonna-break-up-soon song. And the more room Rob gets, the less he can move. How smooth.