Mimicking, or aping, is not monkey business, but show business. Styling new songs to match previous hits is a long, lucrative pop-music tradition. And speaking of lucrative pop music traditions, we should all get to know Bruno Mars now, if we haven’t already. Kid’s gonna be around for a while
The cover of his new album sports a simian at a vintage jukebox, making his selections one by one. The artwork could represent primitivism, but I don’t think anything on this pop-genre song parade is anything too deep. The Hawaiian hit-maker is having cashbox fun with the fashions he fancies – mostly updated eighties, with doo-wop, bass-popping disco, earnestly trembling R&B and Maroon 5-type pop tossed in for good measure.
And yes, the measure is very good indeed. The tunes pop brilliantly into your ears, with production that is polished and arrangements that are dandy and modern. Lyrics are base though – a big disappointment. Where the Little Queenie composer Chuck Berry was a sly poet, Mars is the master of the single entendre.
So, first track Young Girls is pretty much as advertised on the tin. Listen to the keening Mars: “I spent all my money on a big old fancy car / for these bright-eyed honies – oh, yeah, you know who you are.” Tom-toms beat and background singers croon doo-woppy. The chorus, about the “young wild girls” who make a mess of the presentable Mars, soars high – to the upper decks, and to the girls in the front row who are, we hope, more than a minute over 17.
It is unreasonable to believe that Mars spent all his money on a “big old fancy car,” not that he would not have a Thunderbird in his driveway. His 2010 debut Doo-Wops & Hooligans was a smash hit. He helps pen hook-laden singles for others, including Cee-Lo Green’s F-bombed delight. He’s telegenic, neat on his feet and so young-Robbie-Alomar-adorable that he must be beating them off with a baseball bat.
He’s a star with cash to spare, I mean to say.
But what does Mars (with his songwriting-production posse the Smeezingtons and ace producers including Jeff Bhasker, Mark Ronson and Diplo) have to say? Not much – this sleek stuff is crafted, not personal. We know of Mars, but we don’t know him.
He’s pretty good at singing about heartbreak. When I Was Your Man is a wistful piano ballad, using chunky Elton John chords. And, yes, it's sad, so sad – a sad, sad situation that is sensitively recounted.
Other jukebox darlings includes the Romantics (or the Police) on Locked Out of Heaven. The guitars chop buoyantly in the verse, with nifty vocal ticks that trick up a tune about seeking paradise, perhaps by the dashboard light. The chorus is one of those big tension-releasing flights that seem pretty routine by this point.
Moonshine intoxicates the ladies. We have a little Michael Jackson, and (if I may date myself) a little Don Johnson Heartbeat and some Foreigner-style big balladry, too. “Moonshine, take us to the stars tonight,” Mars oozes smoothly, “Take us to that special place, that place we went the last time, the last time.” We’ve all been there, to that special place. It’s nice to go back there.
Speaking of trips, off we go to the islands for Show Me. Steel drums, air horns and a lovely breeze. “Room, room, room” rhymes with “boom, boom, boom” and “zoom, zoom, zoom.” Nothing lost in translation here.
It’s a nifty package, Unorthodox Jukebox, though I’m not quite sure what exactly is so unorthodox. Ten tracks, all built to be hits, with varying inflections and grooves. Three plays for a dollar – let’s go to town.
More new releases
Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
Purple Ribbon/Def Jam/Universal
Two and a half stars
“I ain’t really into skinny jeans,” Big Boi raps in Raspberries, an ode to a lady special enough to make him reconsider his conservative pants stance. The OutKast MC’s second album is also fashion-forward, a brave statement in modern hip hop. But when rappers like T.I. and indie rockers such as Wavves rub shoulders on Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, their aesthetics get tangled up in an unflattering style. Though Lines’ brisk beat and a steely guest verse from A$AP Rocky would fit right in on a ’Kast classic, indie duo Phantogram’s lilting chorus clashes like a doily sitting on a cocaine mirror. On the mic, Big Boi can still stomp the competition, and he doesn’t need any distracting window dressing to do it. Dave Morris
Drawing equally from Daft Punk and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Warrior is what happens when a wild girl makes a wild record. There’s a duet with Iggy Pop (DirtyLove) and a collaboration with Julian Casablancas (Only Wanna Dance with You) that outstrokes the Strokes. She calls her cheating ex a “slut” on Thinking of You, the first feel-good breakup song in a long while, turns partying into an existential statement in Die Young, and with Supernatural, manages to turn Nick Kershaw’s goopy Wouldn’t It Be Good into pulse-pounding dance pop. It’s Kesha’s world – get your hands off the volume control. J.D. Considine
One and a half stars
Having delivered not one but two punk-rock operas, Green Day reaffirms its ambition by releasing not two but three albums in as many months. But where ¡Uno! and to a lesser extent ¡Dos! typified the band’s catchy and eclectic approach to punk, ¡Tré! (which is not misspelled Spanish, but an allusion to drummer Tré Cool) mainly underscores its failings. From the maudlin and overstuffed Brutal Love, whose tune echoes Sam Cooke’s Bring It on Home to Me, to the rambling self-indulgence of Dirty Rotten Bastards, which skims from Marines’ Hymn, the album stands as a reminder that ambition is no substitute for ability. J.D. Considine
Joseph Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 33
We usually listen to Haydn’s string quartets in circumstances the composer might have found absurd, bundled together reverently in a concert hall that’s too big for the casual music-making he had in mind. Educated listeners know they’re allowed to chuckle at his musical surprises, but those jokes were first of all intended for the players themselves. The Toronto-based (period instrument) Eybler Quartet gets the jokes, but they also get the serious accomplishment these remarkable quartets represent. Many a great string quartet annihilates Haydn with incorrect tempos, intense legato, and a general misunderstanding of classical syntax. Here we have them as the composer might have heard them himself. In fact, maybe even better.
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