BY KEN WALCZAK
Excuse me a moment while I engage in a bit of navel-gazing …
Mediocrity is the bane of a music reviewer’s existence. Nothing makes this job harder than a CD that gives no reason for effulgent praise, no excuses for railing at the state of American music (if not the world) in general. There’s a reason the idiom “nothing to write (home) about” is used to describe mediocre experiences, and you can bet the expression strikes particular fear into my own heart.
Of course the opposite problem — the Scylla to mediocrity’s Charybdis — is the fear of being overenthusiastic. No reviewer wants to be seen as the David Manning of music, showering every album with fake kisses, or the Jay Sherman, loudly proclaiming of everything: “It stinks!”
That’s pretty much all for the introspection … suffice it to say by way of conclusion that it was with some trepidation that I left Harvard Square’s Newbury Comics this past Tuesday. I held in my hand Fever, the latest British release by Kylie Minogue. Don’t give me this “Kylie who?” crap; you know who she is. You, too, were singing her cover (back then we called them “remakes”) of Little Eva’s “Locomotion” when you were 9. You, like the Billboard chart, may have forgotten Kylie’s name since then, but rest assured that Britain hasn’t.
Now, ordinarily I’d say the phrase “British chart sensation” is worth a certain amount of trepidation in itself, and I was even more troubled when my Internet research turned up a description of Kylie’s late ’90s flirtation with alt-rock. But three solid considerations convinced me to lay down the money for Fever after all: (1) Kylie has known and collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys for more than a decade, and sang their records as recently as 1999. Say what you like about other British pop stars, but the Pet Shop Boys’ career is simply unassailable, and it is one of America’s greatest shortcomings that they have never been given their due here. I cannot say enough good things about the Pet Shop Boys. (2) MTV2, with rare prescience, has been giving substantial airtime to Fever’s first single, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” and it’s terrific. (3) Although she is nearly twice as old as she was when “Locomotion” broke, Kylie is still incredibly hot. From the album cover alone, you can tell she puts Madonna to shame — let alone all the teen-pop chicas.
So is the album any good? Yes, it is. In fact, Fever is the pop record you should buy your younger sibling so the two of you will have something to listen to together. This applies whether the sibling is a pre-teen sister (speaking of Britney and her ilk), or a teen-teen brother prone to enjoying those brooding-into-their-bong bands (Mudvayne, Staind, etc.). That is, whether s/he takes music too seriously or not seriously enough. Because Fever is what, under the best of circumstances, makes for Top 40 longevity — it is extremely well-crafted pop music. And well-crafted pop music is the great common denominator.
By “well-crafted,” I don’t mean to say “ornate” or “dripping with lyrical substance.” The 12 tracks on Fever (14 when it gets its official domestic release on Tuesday) are neither. Without exception, they start from chorus-verse-chorus love-song conventions which are either time-honored or well-worn, depending on your perspective. Kylie’s declarations of love, whether for a partner or for the nightlife, unfold over basically 100 percent electronic dance beats. We’re talking samplers, synths and drum machines here, not Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
That being said, originality and instrumentation are way beside the point. If they even showed up for the party, you can bet they ended up shaking their asses to the thumping beat and sampled bass guitar of “More More More,” or marveling at the tasteful vocoder touch that opens “Give It To Me.” Personally, I can see nothing — personal, animal or conceptual noun — resisting “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” This thing has synthesized strings the likes of which have not been seen since Pet Shop Boys, Actually, and a half-grimy electro beat that might best be described as Timbaland gone London clubbing. Most importantly, the “la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la” (trust me) section renders the title an understatement. It’s all enough to make a man want to jump up and kiss in appreciation both Kylie and the track’s producer — who turns out to be Cathy Dennis, the second one-hit wonder to grace this week’s column. (I’m counting “Touch Me (All Night Long),” “Too Many Walls” be damned.)
OK, I’ll stop before this gets too Manning-y. Obviously the album isn’t perfect: It won’t rock a party from start to finish like the last Daft Punk record (which, incidentally, contains a track to which Fever’s otherwise-enchanting “Love At First Sight” sounds suspiciously similar). And there are two sappy ballads which are best avoided.
The key points here are two: First, Kylie proves that you needn’t revolutionize pop music to do it well, and by simply doing it well you can easily outdistance the current crop of Billboard sensations. Second, Kylie is now better than Madonna. I know this last statement is bound to earn me hate e-mail from certain quarters (though maybe the Pet Shop Boys praise will spare me the worst of it), but I stand by it. The fact is that Madonna’s Mirwais collaboration has churned out one slice of midtempo mediocrity after another (“Beautiful Stranger,” that thing with the cowboy outfits), while Kylie is for the most part committed to seriously uptempo house. This is not splitting hairs. Where Madonna prances, Kylie thumps. The distance between the two is exactly as great as that between solid dance music, suitable for nightclubs and nightclub-envisioning apartment dwellers, and pasteurized radio fodder, suitable for outlet malls.
While those same outlet malls are just as likely to have 1987’s “Locomotion” in heavy rotation, it’s good to see that Ms. Minogue has since escaped the vice-like grip of mediocrity. She’s saved me from it this week as well, and for that I applaud her. Here’s hoping the domestic release of Fever re-establishes her following in America.