Did Beck Hansen really change the layout of the pop cosmos? That is, were folks (or headz or peeps or what have you) mixing and matching genres in three-minute chunks like it was going out of style before it was, um, in style? Like, duh. The Beastie Boys could school you on that, as could Madonna, Michael Jackson, and, oh, The Beatles. But the Midnite Vulture did make it a venture in and of itself, one pursuable as straight-facedly as rock or pop or any other non-hyphenated form--something that has inexorably altered what passes as pop and what pop passes as.
Nelly Furtado sounds as though she's not even aware that records existed before Mellow Gold, so natural is her folk-pop-R&B-bossa nova. "I'm Like a Bird," the lead single from Whoa, Nelly!, her enviously titled debut album, is fantastic, all pouty verses with those chewy keyboards Macy Gray loves so much (and those tight-ass drums that make Madonna's new one) and exuberant choruses drunk with pap-psychology like "I'm like a bird/I'll only fly away/I don't know where my soul is/I don't know where my home is." It's quite a bit like if Fiona Apple and Bebel Gilberto and, I guess, Britney Spears decided to do it and didn't hate themselves in the morning, sans the urgency--sexual, subtropical, or sullied--that lost weekend would practically guarantee. Nothing here flies as high (or as guiltlessly) as that, but it's all nice stuff that you wouldn't mind hearing at Banana Republic wedged between Ivy and Vince Guaraldi and M People. It's all a little too sure of itself, though, and in a way that makes you doubt whether Furtado has really experienced any of the musics in which she so competently dabbles. Not sure if that's a dis--can you get in trouble for being adequate?--but there's a bona fide loser slumming it somewhere inside Nelly, and she's fighting to get out.
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Phoenix--four good-looking guys from Paris with Donald Fagen insides--are dilettantes too, but better ones. United, the band's debut, is a monstrous slab of disco-soul-funk; this time, imagine Jacko making it with, well, Fagen, while Mirwais (you know: the guy responsible for Madonna's tight-ass drums) looks on disinterestedly. But where that rationalization works for Furtado's record--sometimes two plus two does equal three--Phoenix escapes the algebra, sounding both now and then and yielding more than the sum of its parts. That's what was so exciting about Beck's ascension: that here was someone not simply grafting folk to rap, but searching out the spaces between the two. It hasn't always worked--have you actually heard Stereopathetic Soulmanure?--but it was a hell of a lot more exciting than the Judgment Night soundtrack, and catchier (and, therefore, more pop) too. Phoenix have some of that exploratory fire within them: "Funky Squaredance," United's nine-minute centerpiece, pretty much sums up everything Beck's done in a three-movement electro-country symphony, and "Too Young" is, point blank, the best song not on Thriller. Sure, their hopscotch din is as vapid as Furtado's, but when singer Thomas Mars notes that the "revolution is over" in "On Fire," you know he's shedding crocodile tears while Furtado's just embarrassedly whimpering.