New Recordings: Britney Spears, One Direction, and Courtney Barnett
Ratings: **** Excellent, *** Good, ** Fair, * Poor
Gaga, Katy, and Miley may be all the hype at the moment, but Britney Spears has had it far longer while selling far more records. While the first three sweated in the studio for the last year, Spears coolly marched through The X Factor, plus duets with Cyrus (Brit's the best thing on Bangerz), plus yet another fragrance line, while recording this inventive, occasionally heavy-handed, electro-pop crusher.
The heaviest hand is that of producer will.i.am. His version of EDM is sometimes rote, and his raps ("It Should Be Easy") add little to Britney's sound. But he does bring "Work B*tch" to life with an aggressive, scorched-earth approach. Madonna's onetime mixologist William Orbit creates a similarly creepy, futurist-funk soundscape in "Alien" for steely soul of the highest order.
Producers aside, Spears herself is Britney Jean's star, something electro-pop doesn't easily allow room for: a true, even earnest, presence. "Perfume" is a genuinely emotive, '80s-ish power ballad (co-penned by Spears with folk-popper Sia). The midtempo "Passenger" asks its audience to walk in her shoes with a tear, and "Don't Cry" is an old-fashioned breakup stunner with a silvery, bittersweet sheen.
- A.D. Amorosi
On their third album, the globe's biggest boy band ramps up their ambition, and the results are impressive. For the most part. The British cute-tet has added crunch to their usual laddies-in-unison anthems. "Best Song Ever" carries a hefty Who-sian bluster. The similarly cranked "Little Black Dress" may in fact be 1D's best song ever. They carry their rock fantasies a little too far on the silly title track, a Def Leppard knockoff. But even the sugariest pop songs here, like "Diana," have more kick than they did in the past. There's a disastrous experiment with Mumfordy folk, on songs like "Story of My Life" and "Through the Dark." That is one direction the boys definitely should not be taking.
- David Hiltbrand
The Double EP:
A Sea of Split Peas
(House Anxiety/Marathon Artists ***1/2)
"In my dreams I wrote the best song I've ever written," Courtney Barnett sings on "History Eraser," one of a dozen tunes here that announce the 25-year-old Australian as a seemingly offhand songwriter of startling depth. "Can't remember how it goes."
A Sea of Split Peas isn't an album but rather two combined EPs, which she's described as "practice" for a proper debut she plans to work on for 2014. But they already show her in consistent command of a shambling, stream-of-consciousness storytelling style buttressed by rootsy backing that can veer into garage-rock psychedelic or Velvet Underground-style drone. But style is never overwhelmed by backing. These songs begin with "Avant Gardener," her calling card, which details a mundane day that gives way to an ambulance ride ("The paramedic thinks I'm clever 'cause I play guitar/ I think she's clever because she stops people dying"). Such songs keep Barnett's keenly intelligent, matter-of-fact lyrics front and center, where they belong. She plays the Boot & Saddle in South Philadelphia on Feb. 20. It's hard to pick out the best song Barnett has ever written because they're all equally good.
- Dan DeLuca