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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

EQ Album Review - "Bionic" by Christina Aguilera

 Christina-aguilera-bionic 
  
by EQ guest blogger and pop artist - Javi
Vist Javi on MySpace

Christina Aguilera has been a polemic figure since her breakthrough hit "Genie in a Bottle". She has a sexual aesthetic similar to a young Madonna’s, fashion sense like Cher’s, and raw vocal power comparable to a younger Whitney Houston’s. Her albums contain raunchy sexed-up tracks that appeal to sexually blossoming young adults and stately ballads that appeal to their post-menopausal mothers. Power pop, pop rock, R&B, Hip-hop, Dance, and even a little Alt-Rock have been found in some form on her albums. It’s a curse and a blessing for Christina that she can sound like anyone and sing almost anything. She’s always been difficult to categorize. Her ability to be so many things has caused critics to chastise her for not having her own unique presence.

The campaign for the collaboration-heavy “Bi-on-ic” began in the blogosphere with the declaration “Aguilera goes indie.”  Ladytron, Le Tigre, Goldfrapp, M.I.A., Santigold, Dave "Switch" Taylor, John Hill and Sia all stepped up to the plate when an apprehensive Aguilera (convinced by her husband) reached out to them.

Of course the requisite mainstream hit makers were added to the roster for potential chart hits. Xtina’s pal Linda Perry, "Single Ladies" beatsmith Tricky Stewart, Pussycat producer Polow Da Don (a producer suggested by her label), hit songwriters Claude Kelly (Britney Spears' "Circus") and Ester Dean (Rihanna’s "Rude Boy") all clocked some time in Aguilera’s home studio as well.

Christina_Aguilera_Bionic

Early indications show Christina Aguilera’s new album "Bionic" is on course to hit the no.1 spot this week...

The end result is an album that finds Christina caught between two worlds. Before she seemed to be making the choice between being a serious singer or a pop star. Now Christina Aguilera must chose between either being an “indie” darling or being Christina Aguilera the radio star. In the end she is seemingly much more interesting doing “indie” impersonations than she is making radio ready pop.

The mainstream songs dominate the 18 track standard edition of the album and are unfortunately the weakest offerings from the "Bionic" sessions. Tricky Stewart never really replicates his production magic on his hits like “Umbrella” or “Single Ladies”.  The Spanglish “Desnudate” sounds as if J.Lo, Pitbull, and Gloria Estefan went on an all night coke binge and decided to log some studio time in the process. The clunky Spanish translations, which seem to have been lifted directly from an online search engine, cause the track to sink even further. "Glam", touted as a modern "Vogue", is a cute, but innocuous gay-friendly track that brings to mind “Paris is Burning” and “Sex and the City”. “Prima Donna” is slinky, urban, club fodder salvaged only by a confident hood delivery from Xtina, whose singing eerily sounds more and more like Michael Jackson by the bridge of the track.

Polow Da don’s tracks don’t fare much better. “Woo Hoo” feat. Nicki Minaj, an ode to Christina’s lady parts, is fun, but the production is too sparse and predictable. “Not Myself Tonight” isn’t a horrible song, it’s just completely and utterly unmemorable. This has never been the case with Christina’s leadoff singles. The production sounds unfinished and about 10 years old. Also despite being written by Ester Dean who penned Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”, the song’s melody sounds even older and is devoid of a strong hook. “I Hate Boys” is a bratty, juvenile kiss-off that is the biggest stylistic misstep for Christina. It’s whooshing, grating production and taunting melody make it seem as if she’s trying to bite at the heels of Katy Perry and Ke$ha.

The best of the mainstream club-bangers is the incredibly campy “Vanity” (A track co-written and co-produced by songwriters Ester Dean and Claude Kelly). Christina has never sounded so animated on a track.  Kelly and Dean helped Xtina pen some classic sound bites on this track including a self-deprecating lyric "Mirror mirror, on the wall, they think I'm stuck up, but I'm not at all...Never mind, I am”. The best piece comes at the bridge with Xtina singing the wedding march as she takes herself to be her "lawfully-wedded bitch". Christina letting out a very “Vain”, unwarranted, trademark wail, is the cherry on top of an already amazingly over-the-top track. Acknowledging and poking fun at her longtime media image as a pretentious, self-obsessed, “bitch”, gives Christina some humanity, and in my eyes, it makes her much more fun. This is the "Vogue" of the album, fearless, quoteable, danceable, and overtly drag as hell. Someone please phone Ru Paul.

But, this is a Christina Aguilera album, and with a deluxe version boasting 24 tracks in total (including an I-Tunes bonus, and a stripped down version of a ballad “I Am” that appears earlier on the album) there is still much more here to be examined. The remaining tracks, which are mostly “indie” produced, are blessedly devoid of the overt declarations of Christina’s vaginal delectability and it’s implied fortitude. In fact find the bionic bombshell in much more uncharted territory thematically and sonically.

Christina 

John Hill and Dave “Switch” Taylor, who are relegated to having half of their songs on the album’s deluxe version, do a much better job at providing Christina with interesting up-tempo backdrops. The title track “Bionic” is dubby, dancehall, fun. “Elastic Love" is a fantastic song that uses office supplies for relationship metaphors over a bassy, spacey, punky, 80s, beat. Co-penned by Christina and MIA, it shows Aguilera flawlessly channeling Maya on the song’s verse and busting out in a lusty Karen O moan for the chorus. Deluxe track, “Bobblehead” co-written with Santigold is a song about girls who play dumb to get guys.  Xtina convincingly raps (yes, I said raps!) and does a spot-on imitation of airhead Valley Girl speak over Switch’s zany sound samples and Double Dutch meets New Orleans thump. “Monday Morning” also co-written with Santi and Sam Endicott of the Bravery, is a funky, breezy, summertime track with a simple, addictive chorus that might make Gwen Stefani insanely jealous. Christina’s delivery is perfectly dreamy. The lyrics about shunning the mundane and a rock star house-party hangover are playful and refreshing.

A feel good collaboration with Le Tigre, “My Girls” is delightfully similar in its levity and playfulness. It combines Le Tigre’s penchant for female assertiveness and Christina’s stiletto wearing, ruby-lipped brand of third wave feminism. The product is a funky, lo-fi, Disco-y, 90s, Girl Power pop with a Peaches feature and an adorable riot grrrrl shout-out to her collaborators.

It’s a shame Ladytron’s “Birds of Prey” (deluxe only) and iTunes bonus "Little Dreamer” weren’t given a more prominent place on the album. Both songs are co-written by Xtina, Ladytron, and pop guru Cathy Dennis (Kylie Mingoue “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”). “Birds of Prey” shows us an ethereal Christina in wonderland, singing about “falling through the looking glass” and taking the “blue pill” or the “red pill”. She floats over a haunting, pulsing, electronic backdrop similar to Ladytron’s work on their album “Velocifero”. The infectious “Little Dreamer” at times recalls Coldplay, Robyn, Cyndi Lauper, and Madonna’s “Dear Jessie” in a deceptively sweet sounding song about being reunited with a lost loved one.

The ballads on “Bionic” are the foundation of this album, as they are the singer’s best ever. “Lift Me Up” is a lush, atmospheric, 70s tinged, power ballad written by Linda Perry. Christina’s performance is weary, emotional, dynamic and nuanced. Sia Furler and her bassist Sam Dixon assist Christina on four sublime songs that capture her vocal impeccably. “All I need” is a sweet lullaby for her son.  A torchy “You Lost Me” has an achy verse and a defiant chorus where Aguilera vocally channels her soul and blues icons. Deluxe track “Stronger then Ever” is torrid, soaring and a possible radio hit. My personal favorite and possibly the best song on the album is “I Am”.  All of these ballads are home runs for Christina, Sia, and Sam, but “I Am” stands out from the pack.  Lyrically Christina and Sia craft a story of a woman who wants to be loved for all that she is "temperamental... a lioness... vulnerable...”  It's touching, and the melody is sublimely beautiful. The song gets a “stripped down” treatment on the deluxe version of “Bionic”, further highlighting its importance in Xtina’s catalog and making it sound a little reminiscent of Sia’s classic “Breathe Me”.  This is the song can bridge all gaps. It can appeal to music elitists, it can appeal to the common pop listener, it’s prime for licensing to film and TV. This is the “it” track from “Bionic”.

With many of these collaborations Aguilera has been criticized for lacking a true identity and “ripping off” these artists, which I think is somewhat unfair. Can you call it “ripping off” if there is a consensual collaboration involved?  In my opinion Xtina has been unable to maintain a clear musical identity out of sheer boredom and dynamic virtuosity.  Yes, her voice is the only distinguishing feature that ties her albums together, but in her defense, why do one thing when you can do everything?  Other artists have been guilty of the same crimes, but they fall under the radar, because they do not possess Christina’s vocal gifts.  For example on her collaboration with Bjork/ Nellee Hooper “Bedtime Story”, it’s clear Madonna was trying to do her best Bjork, but in the end she sounds like Madonna. This is not really due to her having a clear identity as much as it’s attributed to her lack of vocal versatility. Christina is a completely vocal chameleon, a drag queen of singers, constantly playing dress up and make believe in someone else’s’ clothes without any subtlety or restraint.  Every one of the Ag’s experimentations is always to the most extreme extent and in that regard she is always successful. It seems like Christina has and will continue to be the poster-girl for pop dynamism

One burning question remains.  How does one listen to such an album with such extreme stylistic differences from song to song?  I’d say treat it like a mix-tape. With this number of tracks, various styles, and collaborators it’s safe to say that Christina Aguilera has made an album for the digital age. There are multiple 10-15 track albums that can be created from this lot for everyone to enjoy. Just mix and match to make your perfect Christina Aguilera album. Here is my personal "Bionic" tracklist:

1. Bionic
2. Woo Hoo feat. Nicki Minaj
3. Bobblehead
4. Elastic Love
5. Monday Morning
6. Little Dreamer
7. Birds of Prey
8. Lift Me Up
9. I am
10. Stronger Than Ever
11. You Lost Me
12. My Girls
13. Vanity
14. All I need

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My tracklist:

Morning Dessert (intro)/Not Myself Tonight/Woohoo/Elastic Love/Love & Glamour (interlude)/Glam/I Am/Vanity/Lift Me Up/Bionic/Prima Donna/Sex for Breakfast/Desnudate/Monday Morning/Stronger Than Ever/Birds of Prey/My Girls

Birds of Prey makes a PERFECT second-to-last track. It's what Later Tonight was to Please. Really, try it. And after that intensity something silly and throwaway like My Girls makes perfect sense.

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