The Gossip, "Music for Men" (Columbia) [2 OUT OF 4 STARS]
The fourth album and major-label debut by rural Arkansas-to-Olympia, Wash. transplants the Gossip has been one of the most anticipated releases of the last few years: The irrepressible dance-punk trio broke out of the underground and achieved a measure of mainstream success with the undeniable grooves of "Standing in the Way of Control" (2005), and in the process, frontwoman Beth Ditto--a funny, flamboyant and endlessly quotable opponent of sexism, homophobia and sizism--has become a left-of-center star, recognized for her charming outrageousness as well as for possessing one of the most powerful and soulful voices to appear on the rock scene since the alternative era.
Unfortunately, en route to more exposure via the still sadly retrogressive major-label system, the Gossip was paired with superstar producer Rick Rubin, who's helmed recordings by artists ranging from Slayer to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash. With the latter, he wisely played a minimal role and simply paired the rock pioneer with good material and the most simple and direct of sounds, the better for him to shine. He should have taken a similar approach with Ditto and her bandmates, but the relatively minimal core of her vocals, the rhythmic guitar lines of Brace Paine and the propulsive drumming of Hannah Billie is needlessly polished and over-produced, cleansed of all of the grit of the band's live shows and robbed of almost all of its character.
There is clearly another set of solid Gossip material below the dated radio-friendly sheen that Rubin hoses all over these tunes, with tracks such as "Dimestore Diamond," "Heavy Cross" and "8th Wonder" struggling to escape the gloss. But in the end, too much of the character we've come to love about this band has been obscured, and the Gossip has to take some of the blame for being seduced--and declawed--by the star-making machine.
The Flaming Lips, "Embryonic" (Warner Bros.) [3.5 OUT OF 4 STARS]
The 12th studio album from Oklahoma's fabulous Flaming Lips represents the sort of radical surprise and unexpected departure that was commonplace from these long-running psychedelic rockers through the first two acts of their career, from their origins as a sort of "Replacements on acid" during the indie-rock '80s through their hard-hitting mainstream breakthrough in the alternative-rock heyday of the'90s. But since their reinvention as a digital orchestral-pop band with "The Soft Bulletin" in 1999, they've become both less prolific and more predictable, with each new release boasting flashes of brilliance but ultimately taking a backseat to their increasingly shtick-filled low-budget multi-media stage shows.
Simply put, longtime fans were growing increasingly impatient waiting for the Lips to quit being cute, retire the armies of plushies, the space bubble and the group sing-alongs on "Happy Birthday," and finally hit us with some truly twisted, thoroughly mind-blowing rock 'n' roll again a la the early epic "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning."
"Embryonic" is not entirely successful in this regard--it's not nearly in the same league as "In a Priest Driven Ambulance" (1990) or "Transmissions from the Satellite Heart" (1993)--but it is freakier, more expansive, more willfully noncommercial and more surprising than anything Wayne Coyne and company have given us in 14 years.
Favoring space-jazz rhythms that split the difference between electric Miles Davis and Krautrockers Can, with wild bursts of distorted guitar that evoke gonzo Frank Zappa crossed with punked-out mid-period Pink Floyd, the 18 tracks comprise what would have been a great headphone-friendly double album back in the day. Songs such as "I Can Be A Frog" (featuring delightful background animal yelps from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's), "Scorpio Sword" and "Sagittarius Silver Announcement" are about creating a surreal and otherworldly mood rather than playing to the crowd that loves to sing along to "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1." The mistake the Lips made with their last album, "At War with the Mystics" (2006) was trying to split the difference; here, they're unapologetically weird once more.
How will the festival crowd that has come to think of this group as the ultimate party band react to this material? And will the group boldly push further into this stratosphere in concert, or will it just throw a few hints of these sounds into the increasingly hoary stage show? (That's what it did at the Pitchfork Music Festival last summer, incorporating the catchiest of the new tracks--"Convinced of the Hex" and "Silver Trembling Hands"--amid the expected greatest hits.) The answers to those questions have to wait until the group's next U.S. tour in the Spring. Meanwhile, it's given us new cause to dust off the bong and the blacklight, and that's cause to celebrate.
Kiss, "Sonic Boom" (Kiss Records) [1/2 OUT OF 4 STARS]
Of the many generational gaps and stylistic schisms that fester as rock rolls through its sixth decade--from those who'll forever favor Elvis over the Beatles to those who'd champion Britney over Madonna--none illustrates a more rigid, unforgiveable and unbridgeable divide than the one between the legions who were brainwashed as youth into becoming members of the Kiss Army, seduced by its fire-belching cartoon reduction of true heavy-metal hell-raising, and the rest of us who cannot abide the simplistic stomping, redundant riffing and brain-dead sexism of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and their current greasepaint-wearing cohorts even as satire or a guilty pleasure.
Such is our distaste for these pandering huckster boors that we still hold it against Paul Westerberg and the Replacements for covering "Black Diamond" on the otherwise flawless "Let It Be" (1984).
For us skeptics, it makes perfect sense that for their first album of new Kiss material in 12 years, Simmons (age 60) and Stanley (57) have wound up with an exclusive deal at a big-box retailer that shares its charmless, vulgar, neo-fascistic "bigger is better" aesthetic, neatly summed up here--and repeated for the umpteenth time over the last 35 years--in the new track "Never Enough," which finds Stanley wailing, "Give me life for the takin'/Give me love 'til I'm shakin'/Give me rules just for breakin'/'Cause it's never enough! Never enough! Never enough!"
Actually, it was enough with "Destroyer" way back in 1976, the point at which Bob Ezrin's bombastic melodrama forever blurred inside-joke and shameless self-parody, as the packaging of this release makes clear. In addition to a CD of the 11 new tracks--more titles that tell you all you need to know: "All for the Glory," "Danger Us" and "I'm An Animal"--the bargain-priced three-disc package also includes a live DVD and a greatest-hits collection, though concert staples such as "Detroit Rock City," "Shout It Out Loud" and, yes, "Black Diamond" all have been re-recorded by the unremarkable current lineup completed by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer and lacking the original "spaceman" guitarist Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, a.k.a. the drummer who sang "Beth," who departed for the most recent times in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
As soggy and soulless as these new renditions of alleged Kiss classics are, even these are preferable to the trite and formulaic new product of the Kiss Corporation circa 2009. Never enough? More like, "Not again--please!"