The Darkness, "One Way Ticket to Hell ... and Back"
The Darkness, the Brit band fired into the orbit of world stardom with 2003's "Permission to Land," a record that sold 3.5 million copies, have returned with another dose of their particular brand of "are we joking?" music, or what Pitchfork has dubbed "pomp-rock." The album shows its cards straight from the start, with the sound of cocaine being scraped into lines and snorted -- as the New York Times describes them, "The Darkness is made up of smart people pretending to be dumb people with aspirations to be quite clever. This makes them a comedy act, mainly for people who would accept AC/DC only as some sort of guilty pleasure."
There is plenty of guilty pleasure to be had with "One Way," though. "It really doesn't matter if the Darkness is serious or teasing us with their gimmicky retro-rock attack," says the N.Y. Post. "By referencing everybody from Styx to Guns N' Roses, the Darkness makes its Spinal Tap-like tribute to the '70s seamless." Not that the band can take all the credit: "Almost every over-the-top comedic flourish is left to the diamond-encrusted hands of '70s Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, who lavishes the baleful ballad 'Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time' with tidal waves of titanic strings," writes Spin. Pitchfork isn't sure if riffing off glam and hair-metal for yuks (with good tunes along the way) is enough: "Does it succeed? Well, despite a choir and pan-flute album intro, there's no 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to be found here, so don't get your hopes too high. Baker helps Hawkins slather more strings and horns onto his compositions than on 'Permission to Land,' though none of the songs fully lift off into the kind of gigantic symphonic-rock territory that Queen reached at their peak." Billboard is not entirely in agreement, and writes that "a couple of songs ... actually sound more like the British rock act that Freddy Mercury once fronted."
But does the tricky balancing act between joking and earnestness last? "In the end," the Times says, "the lyrics -- about heart failure from too much coke -- are beside the point." Not so fast, writes the Guardian: "A talent for lyrical subtlety is not the first thing one associates with Justin Hawkins -- in fairness, if you fly around the stage on the back of a stuffed white tiger, you're rather asking to have your talent for lyrical subtlety overlooked -- but there's more evidence of it here, under the admittedly unlikely song titles 'Knockers' and 'Dinner Lady Arms.'" Still, the overriding critical temptation is to see the band as a very complex joke. "The torment reserved for Justin Hawkins in Hell is obvious. Should the Darkness frontman be so metaphysically unfortunate as to be cast down into the fiery depths, Lucifer would merely have to inundate Hawkins with reviews and articles declaring his band to have been nothing more than a novelty act, a joke, a piss-take," Pitchfork writes. "Unfortunately for Hawkins, there's still a very real possibility of him experiencing this Hell on Earth."
Shakira, "Oral Fixation Vol. 2"
When Shakira "arrived" on U.S. shores in 2001 with her slick album "Laundry Service" -- and the top 10 hit "Wherever, Whenever" -- she had, of course, actually been around for quite a while, just not in English. Her earlier Spanish albums sold millions here and abroad, and her English debut "Laundry Service," as the N.Y. Post notes, was seen by longtime fans as an act of cross-cultural selling out, and they tarnished it with that most-feared phrase "overproduced." Still, the Colombian songstress was hailed for mixing English with Latin beats and melodies from the Middle East, and emerged as the world-music queen of pop. As Newsday enthuses, "Shakira is a true original -- a dizzying mix of multiculturalism, gender politics and swiveling hips that combine in an unpredictable way that can't be duplicated."
But all that buildup doesn't come without its own dangers. "For a woman who has been touted as the future of rock 'n' roll multiculturalism," writes USA Today, "Shakira can sound a little under-enthused at times. However spicy its title, little on her new album (a sequel of sorts to her Spanish-language 'Fijacion Oral' earlier this year) matches the sheer pop effervescence of her breakthrough hit, 'Wherever, Whenever.'" Both the lack of a clear single and the ties the new album has to "Fijacion Oral," released in May, is something critics at several papers, including the Los Angeles Times, note. "That said, though," the L.A. Times allows, "'Oral Fixation' is a stronger work as a whole, with sharper edges and darker undertones." "Illegal," a track featuring the guitar work of Carlos Santana, is called out for special mention by several critics, and Billboard calls the lead single, "Don't Bother," "a powerful slab of pop/rock that is fast becoming an anthem for those who have been rejected in the face of love ('Don't bother, I'll be fine,' Shakira sings in the chorus)." When it comes to comparing her Spanish and English titles, though, it may just be that ultimately something gets lost in translation. "Occasionally clumsy but most often clever," writes Rolling Stone (three out of five stars), "Shakira's English lyrics and performances still lack the confidence of her Spanish tracks, yet 'Oral Fixation' manages to maintain the musical credibility that 'Fijacion Oral' won back."
Back with their first album since 1997, the most notable thing about the new album from INXS, "Switch," is that it's the first album in history to feature a lead singer picked by reality TV fiat: "Rock Star" winner J.D. Fortune takes up the crooning duties with his spot-on impression of late frontman Michael Hutchence. The Aussie band -- now, with Fortune's presence, also one part Canadian -- otherwise picks up right where the old INXS left off, heading deeper into the waters of adult contemporary. As a clearly disappointed review from the Sydney Morning Herald gripes, "For INXS, resurrection with a new singer could have provided an opportunity to freshen a band whose previous release, 1997's 'Elegantly Wasted,' had continued a slide in quality and sales. They've chosen not to." While the Herald goes on to admit, "of course, the songs aren't terrible," 24 Hours Vancouver manages to convey much of its distaste for the record in a pithy headline: "'Switch' is an album bankrupt of ideas and bereft of spark." 24 Hours also recommends a counterintuitive way of getting over the unsavory reality-TV connection for INXS fans who might have trouble getting past it: Maybe it's best to remember that even with the dynamic Hutchence on vocals, "it has been almost two decades since they've released an album of note."
The Toronto Sun, on the other hand, thinks the "spankin' new lead singer" is one of the best things the new album has going for it. "He's a natural fit for the nearly 30-year-old band's tilt towards the adult-contemporary market on 'Switch,'" writes the Sun, "turning in a strong, if somewhat nondescript vocal performance that flits from a Hutchence-esque snarl on typical INXS tunes like 'Devil's Party' or 'Perfect Strangers' to a low Scott Weiland growl on 'Hot Girls' and Bono-worthy melodramatics on 'Hungry' and the ballad 'God's Top Ten' (dedicated to Hutchence and his daughter Tiger Lily)." The paper goes on to say the record is destined to sell a lot of copies, but "is not the finest entry in the INXS canon by any means." As the Sydney Morning Herald ends up wondering, "So, is Switch re-creating their best moments or repeating their only ideas? Well, this album is such a good facsimile of INXS it could possibly be the best INXS cover band around."
-- Scott Lamb