Sunday, July 18, 2010

Kylie Minogue - "Aphrodite" (Album Review)

Fembots (Have Feelings Too) - Part 1
Kylie Minogue's Aphrodite

In recent years, pop and dance music has been infiltrated by robots, from the playful European electronic duo Daft Punk (who even dress as robots for live performances) to the digitally manipulated sounds from hip-hop crossovers like T-Pain, Lil' Wayne, and even Kanye West, who not only sampled one of Daft Punk's robo-hooks on his hit "Stronger," the rapper went and recorded an entire album of himself singing, with more than a little help from a now much reviled technology known as Auto-Tune. Even back in 2006, the last time there was a bonafide male dance-pop star making waves, Justin Timberlake was dropping tunes from an album half of whose title referenced the future.

But this is 2010: JT is on a Sade-like hiatus, hip hop is dying out, and the girls have taken over pop music in a way not seen since the late '80s-very early '90s. A lot has changed in the past year, that's for sure, but at least one similarity remains: robots. In a genre increasingly defined by its gleeful exploration of the role and effects of technology on music, robots represent the extreme (or is it the ultimate) of such exploration: a working, functional being that operates entirely without pesky limitations placed on living things (and, presumably, one that can be controlled by a certain living thing). In musical realms they're also, theoretically and demonstrably, the nightmare of the flesh-and-blood artist, who almost certainly knows the pain of being out of work. And since music, as any art form, is as often inspired by fear and doubt as anything else, it makes sense that so many of the major artists working in 2010 have flirted to some extent with the robot idea, some embracing it more than others but few of them entirely unmoved.

Summer 2010. To briefly lay the scene, the reverb from Beyonce's cyborg-armed Sasha Fierce may finally have died down, though the Black Eyed Peas were still fighting CG robots amid robo-chipmunk  Fergie's exhortations to "rock that body;" new bad girl on the block Ke$ha had brought electronic pop into the mainstream with smash single "TiK ToK" and the accompanying album hadn't left the top 20 since its January release; the barely human double-track vocal line known loosely as "Rihanna" was enjoying another rather perturbing wave of chart success; and four of the more celebrated female veterans in pop music were lined up and ready, after lengthy absences, to drop their latest concoctions on a music scene that had grown almost unrecognizably different since their last appearance.

The one who, arguably, had it the easiest was Australian pop queen Kylie Minogue, nothing short of legendary in Europe and Down Under but historically largely unappreciated in the US until her first ever North American tour, in 2009, proved a rousing triumph. The success of the tour and the adoration of a whole new continent of fans was among the inspirations behind Minogue's first new studio album since 2007's tentatively received X. As one of the common complaints about X was its sprawling lack of coherent style, bouncing from new wave to urban R&B to old-school disco with seeming disregard for the preferences of the current fanbase (whatever those may have been), it makes sense that for Aphrodite Minogue has called on veteran dance producer Stuart Price, the man behind Madonna's 2006 album Confessions On a Dance Floor, to produce ten of the twelve tracks (tellingly, the two outliers prove distracting misfires for different reasons). (Right: Promotional poster for Minogue's first ever North American tour)

But while when Madonna's collaboration with Price was meant to serve as a one-time musical statement, an exercise in a genre with which she was familiar but not committed to, Minogue has been, for most of her career, a dance artist. It is telling, although I'm unsure what it is that's being said, that Aphrodite seems to fit smoothly into the Kylie Minogue repertoire to an extent that it suggests that this is the kind of music she's been making all along, when in reality Minogue hasn't been as unerringly electro-dance-centric since the one-two punch of Light Years and Fever in 2000 and 2001. Gone are any remnants of the smoldering mid-tempo tracks like "Slow" or the naughty, beat-driven pop of "Nu-di-ty," and even the pure upbeat joy of "Wow" has been shelved for the moment - and any recollection of them, too. Flawed though it may be, Aphrodite is easily the most cohesive, convincing album Minogue has put out, and that is indeed a feat worth noting.

Minogue atop her mountain of sluts in the music video for "All The Lovers"
As with Madonna's Confessions, the whole album has a sort of melancholy undertone despite occasionally good-humored melodies and more frequently positive lyrics, and Minogue, like Madonna, comes off distant and a bit cold on much of the album (lead single "All The Lovers" and the delightful "Better Than Today" being two notable exceptions). But Madonna is never much warmer than the arctic, while a large part of Minogue's enduring popularity is due to her quality of being just so damn likeable, so what works for (or at least doesn't detract from) Madonna's effort has a rougher effect on Minogue's. It's not a fatal flaw, but more a minor side effect of everything that makes Aphrodite good dance music, as dance music is not interested in emotion nor meant as a comfortable aural blanket; it's interested in beats and tunes that make one want to shake one's posterior.

That task is carried out to good effect by solid tracks like "Get Outta My Way," "Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)," "Closer," "Cupid Boy," and the fantastic closer "Can't Beat the Feeling," all competent, better-than-average dance tracks as would be expected from veterans like Minogue and Price. "Closer" in particular is easily one of the most interesting tracks on the album, experimenting slightly with form, meter and style while sticking to traditional rhythm and relative melodic style, and it is therefore extra disappointing that the forgettable ballad "Everything is Beautiful" (one of the non-Price tracks) follows it and nothing from the album's second half successfully takes up the experimental baton. The exception, if there is one, is the title track, which opens with a breathtakingly incredible beat that suggests something truly sensational about to blow the speakers up; sadly, the song that follows, while decent enough, left me feeling I'd witnessed the depressing waste of a fantastic beat. (The other non-Price track, "Too Much," breaks molds and explores in ways one usually leaves on the cutting room floor.)

"'s all I wanna do," Minogue croaks in the opening seconds of "All The Lovers," and she's not kidding (I lost count of how many life/love/dancing analogies were thrown around over twelve tracks). And since the 41-year-old has been dancing, and making people dance, for so long now, it's undeniably thrilling to surrender oneself to the presumed wisdom of someone who's been there and done that, and for the most part Minogue delivers, acting her age with knowing wisdom and not rueful jadedness, with the exception of "Illusion," an age-old "love/a boy made me lose my balance" fable suited for young naifs like Miley Cyrus but frankly unconvincing coming from a seasoned vet like Minogue. Interestingly, the singer's voice gradually gets higher and higher as the album progresses, and by "Cupid Boy" and "Looking For an Angel" it's unclear whether Kylie has discovered the Fountain of Youth or is ascending on a cloud higher and higher above the mortals on the ground, channeling her namesake goddess of love.

Either way gives me hope that Minogue will not now be hanging up the towel: Aphrodite is solid, good Kylie Minogue; not the best Kylie Minogue, nor even is it great Kylie Minogue. What it is, however, is a good penultimate or ante-penultimate album in a lengthy, storied, artistically and financially successful career for which any pop singer not named Madonna would give her right arm. But there's a bit more in this diminutive Aussie left for the dance-pop future, and until that comes and caps things off the way Minogue can and should, Aphrodite will do just fine in the meantime, thank you.

Listen below to my favorite track from Aphrodite: "Closer"

Next in the "Fembots" series: Christina Aguilera's Bionic................
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