Reviews: Mariah Carey's "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel" and Monsters of Folk's debut

September 25, 2009


"You a mom and pop; I'm a corporation," Mariah Carey sings on "Obsessed," the groovy ode to a stalker that's been released as the first single from her 12th album. Ostensibly a dis of Eminem, who's been taking shots at her on his last few discs, it's actually an apt statement for her entire career, which is more often lauded in terms of sales--160 million albums sold worldwide, the best-selling female performer of the '90s, recipient of an $80 million mega-deal with Virgin Records that was the biggest record contract ever, etc.--than artistic accomplishments. Now we can add the crass marketing of her new disc, which finds the CD packaged with a 34-page insert crafted with Elle magazine featuring ads from upscale fashion, champagne, jewelry and tourism brands.

"The idea was really simple thinking: 'We sell millions of records, so you should advertise with us,'" said Antonio "L.A." Reid, chairman of Carey's current label, Island/Def Jam. In other words, the star with the infamous five-octave range essentially is a commodity, so why not use her to sell other products besides her recordings?

Carey's boosters in the media (Elle included, of course) and the legions of self-professed "lambs" who comprise her fan base are hailing "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel" as a return to her R&B roots and a move away from the transparent and base attempts to score street cred and appeal to the teeny-boppers with a more hip-hop-oriented sound on "The Emancipation of Mimi" (her 2005 comeback after a series of flops and a much-publicized personal meltdown early in the new millennium) and "E=MC2" (her last release in 2008). This is true to a point: Working with producers the Dream and Tricky Stewart, the once again happily married Mrs. Nick Cannon delivers an overall smoother sound this time, much heavier on brash ballads and genteel slow jams than dance-floor groovers, with the first single a notable exception.

But to consider this a great R&B record requires one to think of the likes of her favorites Jodeci as the pinnacle of the genre, because the fussy, soulless, airless vibe that dominates the album doesn't have much to do with true R&B greats from Aretha Franklin to Erykah Badu. Carey's former and present chart rival Whitney Houston actually comes closer to tapping that storied vein on her latest.

Though the 39-year-old Carey boasts of distinguishing herself from other divas by being the driving force behind writing her own songs--unlike Houston--that isn't necessarily something to be proud of, given the predominance of saccharine melodies and clichéd true-romance lyrics. "We would walk in the park every Saturday/Brand new, all in love, kissing time away/You was all up on me, it was plain to see/That I was your girl," she coos in "Candy Bling." Yet even that dreck is better than her choice in covers here: a version of the hoary FM-rock radio staple "I Want to Know What Love Is" that strips away almost everything but piano and vocals but still manages to sound more bombastic, phony and over-produced than the Foreigner original.

Through it all, as usual, Carey over-sings at every opportunity, needlessly trilling up and down the scales as if we needed one more reminder of why she's the favorite virtuoso of the "American Idol" crowd substituting skill for soul. Eminem isn't right about much, but he's spot on when it comes to dismissing this butterfly.

1.5 out of 4 stars


Monsters of Folk

Throughout rock history, one of the rarest entities is the supergroup that succeeds at being more than the sum of its celebrated parts, and it doesn't help that this one--comprised of Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of emo heroes Bright Eyes, M. Ward of M. Ward and She & Him and Yim Yames (a.k.a. Jim James) of My Morning Jacket--has one of the goofiest names of any of them, reportedly bestowed upon the hipster heroes by a roadie.

The casual spontaneity that may have characterized these musicians' original hootenanny-like collaborations in 2004 is replaced by necessity with a more formal, hence joyless approach on their first studio album. Yet while there are scattered moments of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-style cohesion--with Ward in the role of Neil Young, contributing the strongest songs made even better by the others' vocal contributions--these are far outnumbered by weaker toss-offs (with Oberst's "Man Named Truth" standing as the nadir) which gain nothing from the assembled star power.

Faced with a song that pretentious and abysmal, you'd think one of Oberst's fellow songwriters would have suggested canning the tune. But if the monsters stayed mum about the more lackluster fare presented for this disc because they were over-awed by one another's talents, they've given us few reasons to be similarly impressed.