The above is a particularly powerful Christina Aguilera vocal performance, recorded live on Letterman yesterday. Co-written by the singer Sia, it's one of the more subdued and soulful tracks on her new album, Bionic, and proof that no one has pipes like Christina does. For all the charges of thievery from Gaga (from people who apparently never heard of Madonna), this is really what it boils down to: Gaga can't sing like that.
I got my ultimate fan edition of Bionic yesterday. A box set with the CD, a triple-vinyl record, and two photo prints, it features the main album plus five extra tracks (a.k.a. the deluxe version). iTunes has the same album for download, plus another extra song called "Little Dreamer"--which they at least sell on its own, not just as an album-only perk. It's actually a pretty good song. "Little Dreamer" is built on a nice 1980s riff, with a climbing vocal in the verses and an "up" chorus. Think the band When in Rome. I like the handclap beat after the first chorus and then the breakdown that comes immediately after.
Overall, I like Bionic. No, it's not Stripped [full review], nor is it Back to Basics--though it's probably closer to the former than the latter, with its more dance-based sound and the dirrty lyrics. Even some of Christina's public outfits hearken back to that bad-girl era in her career, though now with a more '60s-sci-fi futurism in the design. In fact, for as disappointing as Hype Williams' appropriation of the Madonna videography for the "Not Myself Tonight" video was, the robot fetishism of the album artwork on Bionic is really well done and presented as a cohesive package. It's like no one showed this stuff to Hype. Likewise, "Not Myself Tonight" is the most conventional Christina pop song on the record, and given the fact that it was recorded last, smacks of the record company demanding a single. Sandwiched between the breaking-plates beat of the lead title track and the ragga-inflected "Woohoo," it actually works just fine and makes for a solid opening. (Let's just hope when they do the next greatest hits package, they don't stick it right after its older twin "Keeps Gettin' Better.")
Structurally, the album is like Stripped in that it's a little beat heavy up front, and more ballad heavy in the back. "Lift Me Up" debuted as a soft and quiet torch song on the Hope for Haiti benefit, but the clarity it takes here, with a slighly jazzier instrumentation, makes the song more forceful. (Unsurprisingly, this is the Linda Perry track.) "I Am" is the kind of self-declaration that is Christina's bread and butter, and then there is "You Lost Me," which is just incredible.
The tracks between "Woohoo" and "Lift Me Up" are probably the least memorable. They've got some good beats and the electronic squiggles work, but none of them jump out. Things actually get the most interesting after the ballads. Bionic proper is rounded out by a couple of pro-lady stompers, including "My Girls," Christina's collaboration with Le Tigre and Peaches. The bonus tracks get even more interesting, with a pair of songs co-written by Santigold ("Monday Morning" and "Bobblehead") and one produced by Ladytron ("Birds of Prey"). Both artists make their stamp on these, but the results are somewhere in the middle between their regular output and Christina's--which is what makes Bionic a pretty cool contender even if it isn't a TKO. To stretch the Madonna analogy further, this is the equivalent of what Madge used to do, identifying a hip dance sound that was just outside the mainstream and making a mainstream version of it. In addition to Sia, Santi, and Ladytron, Christina also reached out to M.I.A. ("Elastic Love") and Goldfrapp and even covered Ladyhawke during the recording sessions. This is how pop music evolves. (According to this article, it could have also evolved further. The killer album we hoped for may have actually existed once upon a time.)
Bionic is now in heavy rotation, trading spots with Janelle Monáe's The ArchAndroid to make it a pop-music A.I. summer.
For those who haven't picked up the Monáe record yet, you really should do yourself a favor and seek it out--though you need to get her EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite, as well. There are three parts to Monáe's Metropolis fantasy so far, and really, the EP played with the album is the best way to hear the singer's crazy vision. Her style is all over the place, encompassing everything from Outkast to Prince to James Brown to Love. It's space-age hip-hop soul. I'd kill for a Janelle Monáe/Christina Aguilera joint tour, a full-on robotic musical experience.
Here is another Letterman performance to close this post: Janelle Monáe doing "Tightrope."
Current Sountrack: Christina Aguilera, Bionic; Massive Attack, Heligoland
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All text (c) 2010 Jamie S. Rich