M.I.A., R.E.M., and more

Sounding out new releases, including the pop rapper's much-anticipated "Maya," an exercise in nontuneful defensiveness.

The first sounds heard on M.I.A.'s new album Maya (Interscope, **) - M.I.A. being the agit-pop provocateur Maya Arulpragasam - are made by fingernails tapping on a computer keyboard.

Then a bass-heavy beat starts to rumble, air raid synths sound an alarm, and, over the sound of M.I.A.'s own distorted voice, some dude repeats this digitech twist on a children's song: "Headbone connects to the headphones, headphones connect to the iPhone/iPhone connects to the Internet/Connects to the Google/Connects to the government."

The song is called "The Message," in a portentous echo of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's 1982 rap classic. It strikes a note of broadband paranoia not surprising coming from the British rapper-singer and sound collagist of Sri Lankan descent. She recently got into a kerfuffle with a New York Times Magazine writer who implied that munching truffle fries was a sign of faux-proletarian hypocrisy, and she fleshed out "The Message's" message when she told the magazine Nylon that "Google and Facebook were developed by the CIA."

"The Message" is less than a minute long, but its half-baked attempt at provocation, straight out of the Malcolm McLaren and Madonna school of controversy courting, is a good indicator of the frustrations to come as the grimy Maya unfolds.

A global street-beat cut-and-paste artist who continues to do some of her best work with Philadelphia DJ producer Diplo (her ex), M.I.A. was as challenging and exciting a postmodern pop star to emerge in the late '00s.

Arular (2005) remains her best album. Not only was it a grabby, hyperkinetic, smart-mouthed shout-out on behalf of the dispossessed, it was also full of memorable songs.

But it was "Paper Planes," the Diplo-produced Clash-sampling, gunshot-riddled single from 2007's Kala, that turned up in Pineapple Express and Slumdog Millionaire and turned her into a pop star known to the mainstream as well as the multiculti indie nation.

On Maya, however, self-confidence turns to self-importance, and M.I.A. seems strangely defensive against an army of haters, real or imagined. (Not unlike a lot of successful rappers, come to think of it.) And she builds a determinedly nontuneful wall of alienating noise between her often manipulated voice and the listener, to make clear that pop success and engagement to Benjamin Brewer, heir to the multibillion Seagram's empire, doesn't make her a sell-out.

M.I.A. has some fun with that topic, dropping perhaps Maya's best line with "When I met Seagram's/Sent Chivas down my spine." That's the highlight of the unfortunate, overlong, and nearly unlistenable "Teqkilla." And on "Born Free," a caterwauling and compelling blast of fury built on a sample of 1970s electro-punk band Suicide's "Ghostrider," she raps: "I don't want to talk about money, 'cause I got it."

"Born Free" is also the song whose Romain Gavras-directed video featured redheaded youths being blown apart with frightening CGI verisimilitude by U.S. paramilitary forces. The song insistently declares Maya's purported reason for being: "'Cause I got something to say."

But what exactly? Maya is unsure of itself on that question.

On the one hand, it's a growing-pains album for Arulpragasam, an attempt by the mother of baby Ikhyd to address tender matters of the heart with new vulnerability. On the latter half, she sometimes succeeds, with the dub-reggae "It Takes a Muscle," and the almost lovely but oddly distant "It Iz What It Iz."

On the other, Maya means to critique American imperialism and consumer capitalism with an unkempt barrage that reflects the overstimulated way we live now. But the cacophony she creates with producers like British dubstep knob twiddler Rusko and Derek Miller of electro-rock duo Sleigh Bells is too often aimless and curiously cold.

She once again works most effectively with Diplo, who samples a cappella sacred harp singing on the single "Tell Me Why." It's not nearly as fabulous as "Paper Planes," but is nonetheless a rare melodic standout.

Last week on Twitter, Diplo dismissed with an epithet the songs he didn't produce on Maya.

An overstatement, if he meant it seriously. But Maya is a dispiriting letdown that's often flat and contentious to no particular purpose. "You know my name," M.I.A. proudly declares. "I fight those that fight me," she petulantly snarls. I liked her better when she was making her name by fighting for others, rather than acting like everybody is out to get her.

 


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://Philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.

 

R.E.M.
Fables of the Reconstruction 25th Anniversary Edition
(EMI ***)

Fables of the Reconstruction is a key transitional album in R.E.M.'s canon: The band had exhausted its storehouse of songs on its first two albums, and after writing and demo-ing songs at home in Athens, Ga., flew to London to work with noted folk-rock producer Joe Boyd.

It's a darker, less consistent album than either its predecessor, Reckoning, or its successor, Life's Rich Pageant. "Driver 8," "Can't Get There From Here," and "Maps and Legends" still thrill, but a few - "Old Man Kensey," "Kahoutek" - meander.

Included with the remastered album is a disc of the Athens demos (nothing revelatory), including one previously unreleased song, the negligible "Throw Those Trolls Away," plus a reminiscence from Peter Buck, four portrait postcards, and a full-size poster. R.E.M. always liked record-geek extras of fan-club 45s and other ephemera, but it's hard to fathom many nostalgic buyers now needing a Fables poster.

- Steve Klinge

Crowded House
Intriguer
(Fantasy **1/2)

It's hard to move a House. Two decades ago, this band fronted by New Zealander Neil Finn ruled the pop roost with dreamy ballads like "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Weather With You."

On its second CD since reuniting in 2007, the group makes little effort to embrace current fashions or recalibrate its sound.

There has always been an uncompromising, almost formal dignity to Finn's music. His songwriting is still distinguished by its grace notes of yearning and beauty, still transported by its singularly catchy choruses.

Finn's voice is more hit-and-miss on Intriguer, which carries subtle country accents (mandolin, pedal steel, violin) and some surprising melodic flourishes - U2 on "Saturday Sun," Neil Young on "Amsterdam."

Hushed and misty, Intriguer seems to have emerged from a recording-studio time machine.

- David Hiltbrand