The Comeback Trail: The Jesus and Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

There is a sense in which every single Jesus and Mary Chain record has seemed tremendously unlikely, except maybe the first one. Even then, the viewers of their earliest gigs would have to believe this band capable of doing two things: 1) staying in a room together long enough to record anything and 2) creating enough songs out of their “mostly-feedback and also kind of moan-singing” template to make a whole album.

The first seemed unlikely because, despite being a band whose only constant (and, it seems, necessary) members were brothers (Jim and William Reid), they still apparently found it impossible to play for more than fifteen minutes or so (generally with their backs to the audience, a habit that at least one of them never actually broke out of) in their early days without storming offstage. The second because it seems like a formula that doesn’t yield dividends for all that long actually.

Unlike the previous TCT entrant, Metallica, however, this results in less a sense of “eternally coming back” as much as a sense of “gosh, how are they still doing this?”

The answer, of course, is that mostly they weren’t. Damage and Joy is their first album in nineteen years, and, though the distance seems paltry in comparison, their previous album, Munki, was four years after the album which preceded it 1. They were never a band that proceeded at a frenzied pace.  

A moment to tackle an unavoidable autobiographical detail. I fucking love the Jesus and Mary Chain. I love their sound, I love their public image 2, I love their very occasional existence. I love every album. If I tell you that I do not love every song, please be assured that it is impossible 3 to do so. They’re great, unreservedly, and without qualification. I call a lot of things favorite around here, and I would like to make it very clear to the reader that this is a very very special favorite. Like top ten ever favorite.

Coming to the question of whether or not this comeback itself was worth it is a bit different in the case of the Jesus and Mary Chain – they’ve only made half a dozen records (and probably that many again collections/reshufflings of b-sides, compilation tracks and various flotsam), and while each record sound unmistakably like the band itself, each record is also profoundly different from the others in from and approach.

They arrived on Creation Records 4 with one of the greatest debut singles ever in the form of “Upside Down,” which announces the squalling feedback/mumbling singing thing they would basically find several dozen ways to reinvent (or occasionally not reinvent, and instead just cannibalize from one of their own extant reinventions) over the course of their career. The b-side is also one of the best Syd Barret covers (“Vegetable Man”) ever recorded.

Their debut album, a year later, was the critically-adored Psychocandy, which is the one with “Just Like Honey” 5 on it. “Just Like Honey” is not only one of the best songs the band ever created, but is also a reasonable summary of what people think of when they think of the Jesus and Mary Chain – lots of noise, that Phil-Spector-biting drumbeat 6, mumbled vocals sung quietly. And while it created a shorthand for the way the band sounds, it’s not actually a sound the band spent a lot of time with.  

Darklands, the follow-up, stripped out most of the noise elements, leaving the world with a great downer album, and also the Jesus and Mary Chain’s best straight-up pop songs 7. It was also sort of the end of the regular trajectory for the band, as after that it becomes almost untenably fractious and difficult to work with (or to work in, or at, or about, or near).  

Automatic is something of a rebuilding album – the Reid brothers are the only people that play on all but one of the songs 8, and the result is occasionally (“Head On”, “Blues From a Gun”, “Halfway to Crazy”) as effective a distillation of what it is that makes the band work as they ever managed, but also occasionally kind of dumb. Not always in a good way.

Clearly seeking greener sonic pastures, Honey’s Dead is aggressive, even when it’s just aggressively pretty. It’s significantly more rockin’, and it opens with the line “I wanna die just like Jesus Christ.” 9 The title is a reference to “Just Like Honey”, and how they don’t want to be that band anymore. It also marks the return of the feedback, because the Reids contain multitudes. It is the band’s finest artistic moment, as an album, and it is basically perfect. Greener pastures sought, greener pastures found.  

Stoned & Dethroned is another major wobble, although it’s not actually a bad album 10. It’s got a real Darklands 2: Darklandier vibe. Recorded after the band toured with Lollapalooza, it’s a record made by the band as a full band (a thing that had not happened since their first record), which makes it at least compelling as a captured performance. It was intended to be an acoustic album, and almost is.

Munki, then, is the last studio album of this bunch, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. The Reids’ relationship was pretty nonfunctional by this point (the two couldn’t really even get together to record the album, recording separately and in shifts). It contains both sides of the phenomenal “I Hate Rock and Roll/I Love Rock and Roll” 11 single, and a handful of other gems, but also sounds like an album assembled out of parts, rather than made whole by a creative entity.

A decade ago, the Reids buried the hatchet, and left the house to go on the first of what would become a series of reunion tours. This, technically, would be the beginning (and, given that it took a decade, the middle) of the comeback itself. But I wasn’t writing this a decade ago.

After ten years of playing their old songs, with occasional one-off releases that got interpolated into the setlist, the band decided to make a record 12. The logic seemed sound: when they could barely talk to each other (or play six songs in a row without trying to murder each other onstage) they managed to make good records, so why not now, when their fights are much more mundane 13?

The record, to the Mary Chain’s credit, is fine. It sounds, beyond all reason, like the follow-up to Munki. Although it does not sound like nineteen years have intervened. The record’s primary weakness is a lack of the no-fucks surefootedness that marks the best Jesus and Mary Chain albums 14, but the songs are generally there, the noise is generally there, and even a toned-down, less stubbornly insular Jesus and Mary Chain record is still pretty sure of itself.

Any album after a nineteen-year absence is going to be waited for pretty feverishly by the people to whom it’s important, and it’s entirely possible that the pre-album releases of “Almost Sad” and “Amputation” were entirely calculated. “Always Sad” is one of six songs that has a female guest vocalist, and it’s non-professional singer Bernadette Denning, who is also William Reid’s girlfriend 15 – it is not a terrible song, but it is easily the weakest of the duets on the record. It does a thing that isn’t uncommon with Mary Chain album filler, which is that it sounds pretty cool, and it’s got a good tune, but it’s not anything you’d reach for specifically.

The other advance song 16, then, was “Amputation”, which is…pretty bad. I mean, there’s just not a lot of ways to cut it. It’s not the worst song on the album (stay tuned for that one), but it’s boring, and it just sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain going through the motions without actually having very much to say. It is, perhaps ironically, much better in Jim Reid’s solo version from several years back, and is, in fact, a song about how people seem to prefer bands that sound like the Mary Chain to the genuine article. Inclusion of the song, then, is sort of obligatory, but also lacks the spite and pathos that makes the solo version so much fun. It’s a real leaden thump of a lead single. The reason I think this may have been a genius move is that it effectively reset expectations: if these songs were the singles, there was no reason to think the album would be special in any way.

Luckily, it gets considerably better. Some of the older songs – “All Things Pass” 17 and “Song for a Secret” especially – help to form a sort of bridge to the newer material (since “Amputation” pretty universally fails to do so). There are some clever callback/soundalike moments – the drumbeat from “Be My Baby”, which is also the drumbeat from “Just Like Honey”, is prominently featured in “Song for a Secret,” a lovely duet with Isobel Campbell, “Can’t Stop the Rock” is a sort of conceptual sequel to the “I Hate Rock and Roll”/”I Love Rock and Roll” diptych on Munki 18 (it is worth noting that those two songs were also, themselves, the a- and a Sister Vanilla single).

The production on Damage and Joy comes from utility producer/bass player Youth, who began his career in the roughly-contemporaneous Killing Joke, and whose sense of spare separation and clean sound does a lot to change the way the Reids’ sound palette is applied. This affects things like the uniquely-heavy (for a JAMC song) “Mood Rider,” which is helped considerably by being pulsing instead of yelping, and “Los Feliz (Blues and Greens)”, which has some really prominent noise parts that are given room to be considered, rather than smothering the song. It’s not an effect that has ever been put to use on a Mary Chain record, and it’s immense.

Other standouts are the Honey’s Dead-ish “Presidici (Get On Home)”, the Isobel-Campbell assisted “Two of Us” 19, and the big rock-dude tension-and-release masterpiece “War on Peace,” which is a duet with Sky Ferreira. It is unclear why it takes four women 20 to do the job of basically one on this record. I suppose it didn’t hurt anything. 

Here’s what absolutely did hurt something (and that something is my ears, and also my heart): “Simian Split.” It sounds like a Munki b-side. One of the bad ones. It also has faux-shocking (and actual-stupid) lyrics about being hired by Courtney Love to kill Kurt Cobain, which makes it probably the only song in rock history that could double as El Duche fanfiction 21. And it’s still not the worst song on the album. The worst song on the album (and close in the running for the worst song in Jesus and Mary Chain history) is the execrable “Facing up the Facts”. It starts out sounding like a bad cover of the unimpeachable “Sidewalking”, and lands up with Jim singing “I don’t want to be happy” over and over (and over) again. While the band itself is capable of moments of considerable levity, this really isn’t one of them – it seems like a mean parody, written by the band themselves, of the idea of a Jesus and Mary Chain reunion song. If that’s what it was meant to be, then fair play to the Reids. I’ll be happy never to listen to it again, though. Or, at least, not until I decide it can’t possibly have been that bad and try again to love it. 

So the question here becomes: is this comeback a worthy artifact of the band’s existence, from the point of view of the listener? If you’ve read this far, you may already know that the answer is yes, but permit me to also say this: there are a lot of comeback albums that do a lot of things, and the rarest among them (although they do happen from time to time) are the ones where the band sounds, basically, like it is just following up its last record.

Damage and Joy is, as the follow-up to Munki would be, leaning into the straightforward rocker-ing tendencies, a little more noisy, and also kind of lazy (a curse that befalls the Mary Chain more than a little bit). If it’s different by circumstance (and by guest vocalists) than it might otherwise have been, then that’s the acknowledgment that it has been nineteen years. Otherwise I would’ve believed this could’ve come out in 2003 (or in 2007, when the band first got together).

  1.  that one is Stoned and Dethroned, which the heathens and philistines among you may want to think of as “the one with the hit”. 
  2.  specifically I love how they so clearly hate each other, but also hate everyone else, and so aren’t in a band with anyone else. 
  3.  a thing that I know because I have, I promise, tried – and tried and tried – to love even the most resolutely unlovable of their songs. 
  4.  they actually only made their first single for Creation, eventually finding a longstanding home on Geoff Travis’s Blanco y Negro, which eventually included Alan McGee. The Mary Chain were always something of the prototypical Creation band, which is only marred by the fact that they were almost never actually, y’know, on Creation, which is why the role of “prototypical Creation band” came from their original drummer’s post JAMC band, Primal Scream. 
  5.  if it isn’t “Sometimes Always” from Stoned and Dethroned that you think of as “the hit”, then it’s probably “Just Like Honey”. 
  6.  Also worth noting – Bobby Gillespie played two drums, and he played standing up. This was part Mo Tucker homage, and part way of disguising his own lack of drumming ability. 
  7.  namely “I’m Happy When it Rains” and “April Skies” 
  8.  their touring drummer, Richard Thomas, who was something of a Scottish drummer-about-town, plays on one song. 
  9.  Jim then clarifies that that means he’d like to die on a bed of spikes. In the following verse he states that he’d like to die like JFK, explaining that he means that he would like to die both on a sunny day and in the USA. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s sense of humor is a weird thing – often dry enough to be unnoticed entirely, but is apparent once you start seeing it. This is a band, after all, that dressed like the Ramones but covered Pink Floyd and Can. At the very least there’s a sarcastic impulse there. 
  10.  I have, in the past, been really hard on Stoned & Dethroned, but that’s mostly because I hated – and still hate, as in right now actively hate – “Sometimes Always”. 
  11.  the latter of which having nothing to do with the Arrows/Joan Jett song of the same name. 
  12.  in fact those one-off releases comprise half of the songs on Damage & Joy 
  13.  but still present! I get the impression that they still don’t like each other, but they do like the money that comes from being a consistently-performing nostalgia band. 
  14. the other of their records that shares this sort of timidity (for a certain value of the word “timidity”) is Automatic, with which this record shares a lot of meta-musical qualities. 
  15.  I mean, it doesn’t really work out super-well with “Always Sad”, but given that it was a duet with William Reid’s girlfriend – then Hope Sandoval, of similarly-fraught and recently-reunited Mazzy Star – that gave them their biggest American hit, why not try again? The answer: because Bernadette Denning is no Hope Sandoval. 
  16.  As mentioned, a bunch of these songs already existed, but in the run-up to this record, these are the two songs that were released from this recording as singles or whatever. 
  17.  which nobody really remembers was originally recorded, as the Jesus and Mary Chain, for the soundtrack to the television show Heroes. 
  18.  or, you know, the “I Love Rock and Roll” b/w “I Hate Rock and Roll” single. 
  19.  in which the lyrics claim that they don’t need drugs anymore, which…sure dudes. Whatever you say. But it’s also an older song – another former Sister Vanilla song, in fact – so maybe they realized the error of this kind of thinking. 
  20.  I haven’t had the opportunity to mention that Linda Fox – nee Linda Reid – sings on a couple of them as well. She was the singer for Sister Vanilla, and is the literal actual sister of Jim and William Reid. 
  21.  ask your parents about The Mentors, kids. It’ll be a good time for everyone. Or just watch Nick Broom’s Kurt and Courtney. 

Reasons to Look Forward: Spring of 2017

Hey guys! It’s the end of March, so it’s time to take a look at some of the things that are on the horizon for which we can all be super excited.

The thing that makes this funny is that we just came through a veritable hailstorm of excellent records, a relentless torrent of new folks doing great work, old folks reuniting to do great work, and just generally everyone doing great work. If you’re the sort of person that believes that hard times make for great work, then you’ve certainly got ample evidence in the last couple of months.

That said, not everything good has already come! There are plenty of exciting things coming up, and here are some of them now!

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Lovely Creatures

For starters, it’s a best of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, which makes it a best of one of the all-time greatest bands in the history of bands. The two-disc version is only kind of an improvement on the already-extant single-disc Best Of that came out in the nineties, but the three-disc version is about as good a primer as you could want for a band that has gone to a lot of places and done a lot of different things, musically speaking, in the last thirty years. Plus the more extensive versions feature performances on video, which helps convey some of what is going on there.

WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Because Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have an intimidatingly impenetrable catalog, and this manages to make it easier to navigate while also giving you a bunch of high-quality songs to jam out to for the rest of your natural life.

Pharmakon – Contact

Power electronics’ most consistent purveyor returns to do some more pummelling, after spending some time in a more conventional rock band. The early single “Transmission” seems to indicate that she didn’t lose a step, as far as her harsh noise output is concerned.

WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Because you very rarely scour your eardrums out with a properly abrasive noise record, and as far as properly abrasive noise records go, Pharmakon makes the ones that are the most like regular, extremely likable music. Such as it is.

Arca – Arca

Speaking of really consistent electronic folks, Arca pretty much hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped. Arca features his voice, which is a first, and also is crushingly beautiful, which is pretty much par for the Arca course.

WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Well, if “crushingly beautiful” didn’t get your attention, there’s at least the high wire aspect of an artist continuing a hot streak. That’s always pretty exciting – even if he doesn’t, you’ll manage to be there for the beginning of the end.  

Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory

The world’s most famous bass saxophonist returns to ambitious multiple-album projects with this, the first of a two-part album cycle that is also a sort of pastiche of Greek tragedy.

WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Honestly, if that sentence didn’t make you excited for this record I have no idea what else I could tell you.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Best Troubador

Will Oldham loves Merle Haggard very, very much. So much, in fact, that he’s been planning this album of Merle Haggard covers for quite a long time. Will Oldham’s head for reworking and rearranging covers is second to pretty much no one’s, and he, even after something like six hundred squillion records, has still yet to released anything that was completely without a point of interest, is taking a big bite here.

WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Well, Merle Haggard’s songs are sometimes problematic, and sometimes aren’t executed as well as they could be, so this could be a pretty good way in for people that aren’t already fans. Also, it’s going to have “If I Could Only Fly” on it, which is probably Merle Haggard’s best song that isn’t “Mama Tried”, which is also covered here.

Oxbow – The Thin Black Duke

It has been over a decade since the world’s foremost noise-blues band has released a record, which is super exciting in and of itself, but The Thin Black Duke also, apparently, sees Aaron Turner reviving his amazing label Hydra Head, although admittedly, it’s unclear to what capacity – if this is just to release an Oxbow record (similar to what Touch and Go did with Shellac a couple of years ago), or if this is a return for the label itself. Anyway, a new Oxbow album in any capacity is reason for much rejoicing.

WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Because Eugene S. Robinson is, if nothing else, endlessly fascinating. Perhaps you remember him from the beer commercial he was in that Gus Van Sant directed, or for Leonard Part 6, or from his amateur fighting career, or from being the giant naked dude onstage that attacks audience members that decide to fuck with him. Or, if you’ve never heard of him, perhaps you’re going to go google and find out that he’s a deeply interesting dude in a band that makes tremendously intense, tremendously singular music.

Kanye West – Turbo Grafix 16

On the one hand, it sort of has to be on here because there’s nothing to do with a new Kanye record but wait for it. On the other hand, I usually don’t include records here that don’t have a firm release date. On the other other hand, this is, somehow, a worse title than The Life of Pablo. But mostly it’s here because every single Kanye album I think “this is going to be the one that’s absolutely terrible,” because it’s inevitable, at this point, that he make an album that’s absolutely terrible. But it’s been inevitable for, generously, the last five years (I remember thinking it for the first time before Yeezus, and I believe I wrote as much here in this space), and he’s yet to make the absolutely terrible record that seems like it’s always looming on the horizon.

WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Because it’s either going to be another unaccountably good record against the odds, or the point at which Kanye’s musical skills go the way of his sanity and ability to make reasonable judgment calls, and abandon him entirely.

The New Year – Snow

It’s the first new The New Year album in nine years! The New Year have yet to make an imperfect record (which, y’know, kind of only means that they made two perfect records and then didn’t make any records for nine years). The stuff they’ve done since then has been fine (the Overseas record was especially good, and written about in this space), but it’s been no substitute for a new New Year record.

WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Because you like good music, duh.


A Streaming Pile of Truth: Amazon Music Unlimited

So it has been almost two years since I last plunged into the streaming waters to evaluate a streaming service. In the time since I last looked, Apple Music became the main Spotify competitor 1, and streaming has officially become the place where people spend the most money to listen. Into this environment comes Amazon’s new streaming service, called Amazon Music Unlimited.

Supercedent to and different from their similar-sounding Prime Music service 2, Amazon Music Unlimited is meant to be yet another buffet-style music service. This one, however, is clearly taking cues from the more curated, guided-focus approach of Tidal. There is no interactive “radio” features like those you’d find through Spotify or Pandora, with the service instead guiding you to radio stations built of and around several of the biggest-selling artists in the world 3. Or, I mean, whatever it thinks it is that you want, probably skewing toward things that are popularly bought.

It is pretty well situated for a casual listener. The catalog is fairly deep 4, although the interface occasionally throws up some weirdness – a search for the band The Body yielded nothing, a search for the song “Hail to Thee Everlasting Pain” (which is by the band The Body) yielded exactly what I was looking for, but also an entirely different and separate band called The Body, which was twice as many bands called The Body as I thought I was looking for, but only if I looked for a song. Results were similar concerning the band Boris. Other acts, like Signor Benedick the Moor or Chester Watson, have only very recent things. Some of this is, naturally, going to come down to label politics 5 – perhaps most of it, even – but it’s still a bunch of weird gaps that are present in weird places, in addition to which the ability to differentiate between the catalogs of two different acts with the same name is a pretty baseline feature on other services, and not providing it here, when you’re touting the size of your available library (and thus the increase in the chances for those sorts of wires to cross), seems kind of dumb.

It is not the end of the thing being pretty dumb. The web interface is clunky and horrible, with a control bar along the top that is always tied to the arrow keys, which means that if you’re an arrow-key page navigator 6, you’ll be constantly skipping forward or restarting songs. Luckily there doesn’t appear to be any kind of upper limit on how often you can do so. Which is handy, because otherwise I’d be out of skips in eight minutes of their stupid play controls always being assigned to the arrow keys. Every media-player that launches in-browser is plagued with these kinds of control problems (or at least every one that I can think of), however, so it’s probably not a knock on them, just an annoyance in general. The app seems to do fine, and I couldn’t generate too many interface issues there.

The stream quality is standard, the player itself is pretty standard. The service seems to be set up to provide the sort of thing that standard radio used to provide – you can find things that are in a playlist, or a genre, or an artist-based station that will play similar songs – with similar decided not by the whims of people who like similar things, or any sort of inherent musical qualities, but rather by the people that are motivated to sell more things based on your predicted reaction to that similarity.

At this it is pretty successful – it has a lot in common with just listening to the radio, with the added bonus of being able to also save songs to a playlist, or make a playlist of your own choosing out of the songs that are available, which, as mentioned, is generally adequate.

Ultimately, that’s kind of all there is to it. It has no particular distinguishing features, other than (I’m presuming) a greater ability to tie it to the music you’ve got saved in Amazon’s cloud service (a thing you can do with Spotify using your hard drive), plus any purchases you’ve made from Amazon over time. If the set of songs available to you is to your liking, and if you’re looking for something that will help you find new things that are mostly like the old things, and you’re not bothered by it being geared less toward your tastes and more toward general popularity, then it’s probably a fine service.

It is a tiny bit cheaper than Spotify, so if what you’re after is the sort of thing that’s just found on every service as a matter of course, then you might as well save the couple of bucks. But honestly, the trade-offs are huge in terms of lost features and general non-jankyness. Caveat Emptor and all that.

It also is heavily touted as working with Amazon’s personal robot widgets. So if you have a personal robot widget, and you’re unhappy with the way it can currently play your music 7, then this is probably the service for you. This is, I suspect, the reason for its launch: it is becoming clear that the Echo (and the Dot) aren’t really good for much beyond playing music and reading you headlines. In fact, this being geared toward use for things that are, essentially, computerbots where the input device is your voice and there is functionally no navigational display makes the whole thing make more sense: it’s meant to have as few controls as possible because it’s meant to be controlled by a robot thing that you wave and/or shout at.

That said, for most other purposes (i.e. not robots), it’s probably not as good as literally any other streaming service, unless what’s important to you is not spending the extra two bucks on a Spotify or Apple Music subscription.

A brief editorial note: so, this series continues on apace despite the fact that there is increasingly little to say about new streaming services, and not really that many of them. Here is why I continue: they are building to something, I promise. 

I suppose what I’m saying is: tune in next week for something with more jokes, and also sometime in the distant future for another streaming service, and eventually I’ll tie all of these together and it will all be worth these weird reviews, I promise.

  1.  along with something called Deezer, which I think I’m going to get to fairly soon, although obviously that’s going to have to be modulated for whatever value of “fairly soon” it ends up actually being. 
  2.  Prime Music may or may not get a writeup in the future, but the primary difference in focus is on the size of the two catalogs – Amazon Music Unlimited has “billions” of songs and Prime Music has “over 2 million,” for example. These numbers seem, by virtue of their being pointed out, to not be entirely arbitrary, but they also seem like they can’t possibly be tied to anything, unless it’s direct Amazon sales (a metric that, naturally, Amazon would have access to) as a means of selecting how the “billions” are whittled down to “over 2 million”.  
  3.  So, part of the super-weird weirdness inherent in the recommendation engine could be as follows. Every header and page-topper says that these are recommended “for me”, which implies, at least to me, that they are based on my previous purchases, meaning, of course, the set of purchases that I have made through Amazon. Now, I have bought a great many used records through Amazon over the years, and somewhat fewer new ones. As things have gotten increasingly digital, I have patronized (largely) bandcamp, supplemented by buying things at shows and, of course, occasional trips to the actual record store. The things that are purchased through Amazon, then, are the sorts of things that come out on bigger labels and, even then, it’s still a dwindling set of things. So there’s a lot of big-name (well, for qualified definitions of “big”) indie-type rock music that makes it through, part of which has to do with label samplers being a regular occurrence for a bunch of years there (they may still be, but they are no longer really on my radar), and thus something that I have a large handful of, which is a significant portion of my direct-from-amazon purchases. All of which is to say that it recommends me a lot of, for example, The Head and The Heart, a band that I have not listened to in any active sense in a fair few years. 
  4.  numbers that revolve around “number of songs available” are, ultimately, pretty meaningless and speak very little to depth of catalog or whatever, but there aren’t a lot of other metrics by which these things can be measured, so there’s basically not a way to establish the parameters of “depth of catalog”. 
  5.  eternal streaming holdouts Drag City still aren’t present, for example, so you won’t be able to listen to Smog on Amazon Music Unlimited. 
  6.  There are dozens of us! Dozens! 
  7.  NB I have no idea how these things work other than that they do things when you shout at them. 

Who the Fuck Listens to This: Mariah Carey, “I Don’t”

For awhile there, in a career marked by its complete nonstandardness, it looked like everything was going to be pretty average for Mariah Carey a few years ago. The hits had, mercifully 1, more-or-less dried up, barring a couple of late-career outliers. Hell, maybe she could even wind up for one of those lucrative “comebacks” that happen to pop stars that age. Lord knows it wouldn’t be the least likely thing to ever happen.

She announced a Christmas residency in NYC and a regular Celine-Dion-style residency in Las Vegas, and she generally went through a handful of the motions of a pop star settling into the late stages of her career. She directed a movie 2 for the Hallmark channel (I’m unsure of how many of those words should be italicized, because I’m unsure of where the official name of the channel stops), she left her old record label for another record label that brought her back into the fold of LA Reid, who already managed her first comeback – the one that happened after Glitter 3 and the TRL meltdown – and has spent his time in the last couple of years writing a cranky-ass tell-all book and generally being irascible, sometimes even about Mariah Carey 4

To go with the residency and a subsequent tour, she “updated” her previous collection of #1 hits, titling the resulting compilation #1’s to Infinity, almost certainly not entirely because it also contained a song called “Infinity.” “Infinity” was the first song recorded under her current record deal, and it’s super-terrible, but it’s also not the focus of this piece, because people put dumb new songs on their greatest hits albums all the time, and certainly the answer to who is listening to it is “people that forget to take it out of their playlist when they add the whole album” or perhaps “people that are far away from the skip button.”

And then came the reality show, or r the “docu-series” as Mariah (and the rest of the personnel associated with the show) insistently called it. The single in question here, “I Don’t”, was released as part of the last episode of the reality show, and the two are inextricably bound, so it’s worth talking about here. I mean, it’s also worth talking about here because it’s completely bonkers, but it’s also, y’know, germane.

The show was originally conceived as a glimpse into the real life of Mariah and a testament to the love she had for James Packer. Of course, after the show was shot (but before it was finished, and before it aired), she and Packer went their separate ways, and she moved on to adorable li’l backup dancer Bryan Tanaka, and the show was immediately post-converted into a show about her love for Bryan Tanaka 5At some point in here, it was decided that “I Don’t” would be revealed, and Mariah Carey would be back, baby.

And that might have worked, as unlikely as it seemed, if right in the middle of the reality show hadn’t come New Years’ Eve. As far as the video shows it appears there are three things going on – 1) there is clearly some kind of technical problem with the in-ear monitor, as reported by Mariah, 2) I have no idea what the actual intended setup 6 was to be, but it clearly does involve at the very least guide vocals and what is, by Mariah’s admission, the album version of “We Belong Together” and 3) Mariah Carey behaved as Mariah Carey does, which is to say as someone who is not, technically speaking, a human being.

Regardless of the version of events that is true, or even that is believed, it’s pretty undeniable that it did not go “well,” for any conventional definition of “well.” And while “I Don’t” wasn’t a part of that performance, it came along about a month later, with everyone already thinking “oh, that crazy lady still can’t sing.”

“I Don’t” ties into the reality show thematically, as well, as it’s a song about moving on from a breakup (i.e. the one with James Packer) 7– the video features MC setting a wedding dress on fire. It’s produced by Jermaine Dupri 8and it sounds it. YG is on it, in a way that makes you wonder if he just keeps a drawer full of potential feature verses to drop into songs when he’s hired to do so.

It is, all told, pretty bad. But then, all Mariah Carey songs are pretty bad in the same way – dated production, a focus on her singing a bunch of notes to the detriment of the melody, etc. – and it makes me wonder who, in fact, would come to Mariah Carey anew, and hence, who the fuck listens to this?

Mariah Carey undeniably made a bunch of hits, and those are still known and listened to today, but my presumption is that they are known and listened to because they always have been. She’s playing the nostalgia game. The nostalgia game is as old as the idea of popular music 9, and, for all that I find it pointless and annoying personally (much like Mariah Carey), there certainly can be no crime in not appealing to my tastes specifically.

But I come up against bafflement here. This is the second single in her new deal with Epic (a deal that, if rumors are to be believed, could be near its end anyway), so this has already happened in the very recent past. We not only know what Mariah Carey sounds like generally (because she sounds like she always has), but we know specifically what this iteration of Mariah Carey’s sound is, and that it isn’t good. So I have no idea.
I understand that by not liking it, I’m sort of already out of the same pool of humans as the Mariah Carey loyalists, but I suppose my question is: is there a Mariah Carey loyalist out there who wants new Mariah Carey songs? And, if so, why are they not better served by, say, Ariana Grande 10 or whoever?

So the closest I can come to a definitive answer is: people that just refuse to give up believing in ol’ MC, to which people I now say: stop doing this to yourselves. Find a pop star that will be as good to you as you are to them. Have you heard Alessia Cara? I bet you’d like it, theoretical Mariah Carey fan. Because you’re too good for this.

  1.  I mean, I try not to make these strictly editorial, since the defining criterion for inclusion in this feature is not that something be bad – I don’t have nearly enough time or energy to write about things merely because they’re terrible – but that it be baffling that it would even be listened to. That said, it’s probably in everyone’s best interest if I tell you flat out, in this, the first footnote, that there are few recording artists in human history whose music I find as profoundly, life-destroyingly irritating as Mariah Carey’s. This will probably not be the only time in this piece that I mention it. 
  2.  A Christmas movie. One of the things that is sort of the Mariah-est aspect of Mariah is her thing with Christmas. I’m not what you’d call a fan, nor am I a biographer or a historian, so I’m unsure whether the Christmas album that yielded the teeth-shatteringly terrible “All I Want for Christmas is You” is the start of the whole thing, or an outgrowth of some earlier impulse that was abetted by her subsequent fame. I will say that a cursory glance of the artistic output of Our Girl Here shows that a lot of it is at least Christmas-adjacent, no matter what the ultimate genesis for this is. 
  3.  a movie which is unfairly maligned as being an unwatchably terrible movie, when it isn’t actually. It’s just regular-old garden-variety terrible, but it’s saddled with a couple of nuclear-scale miscalculations which make what is just a normally-unentertaining movie seem cataclysmically bad. One of them is that anyone buys Mariah Carey as a normal human. Another has to do with a synthesizer. 
  4.  LA Reid is not going to figure any further in this piece, but is mentioned here to add context to what, exactly, is being anticipated in terms of Mariah singles, and also so I can say this: fuck that guy, too.  
  5.  which it is, I suppose, in the sense that any reality show is actually conveying the thing that it is putatively “about”. What it really communicates is that Mariah Carey is every bit the weirdo dingbat that she appears, that she is pathologically opposed to sitting upright, and, during the confessional segments, that she is willing to appear on television in bizarre lingerie, provided she’s also talking about, like, her assistant’s lunch or whatever. 
  6.  this is not an unimportant admission. The size and scope of this event makes the idea of live performance insane on its face, and I have no idea what sort of things I would take a swing at to help mitigate the fact that it might go, well, as badly as it actually did. It is also informed by the fact that Mariah Carey has always had to deal with rumors that she could not, in fact, deliver the groceries live, and the fact that those rumors have never quite been disproven. 
  7.  I’m not sure when the song was written, but presumably Bryan Tanaka would get his own love song at some point in the future, right? Because otherwise, man, that’s just a rough sitch. 
  8. who is also Mariah Carey’s former manager. 
  9.  even before there was pop music per se to be nostalgic about, there were early pop recordings about how much better things were in the Before Times. 
  10.  who is also a super-weirdo and an overdoing-it scream-singer, and whose music is generally pretty bad, but who at least is doing something different enough at the margins that it’s not quite as bad. Or at least not quite as ubiquitous. 

The Best Albums of February 2017

Xiu Xiu – Forget (The current Xiu Xiu model of alternating between “regular” Xiu Xiu albums that are getting increasingly abstract and one-off/experimental type albums like the Nina Simone covers record or the Twin Peaks covers record is leading their records to some really interesting places. Namely, here, you get the full Xiu Xiu experience coming through some rather more traditionalist sorts of songs. Great stuff.)

Quelle Chris – Being You is Great, Wish I Could Be You More Often (A great wordy and wooly record from a rapper who really is not like any other rapper going around at all)

Shannon Wright – Division (Every new Shannon Wright album makes the world a better place than it was before. This one is piano-y and amazing. As opposed to guitar-y and amazing, which is also what her albums sometimes are.)

Grails – Chalice Hymnal (It has been so long since there was a new Grails album, guys. So long. It makes me sad when it is this long between Grails albums)

Oddisee – Iceberg (Longtime ONAT favorite makes an ONAT favorite album. This is a real “dog bites man” situation here.)