Triple Crown Records has designed a business strategy around signing DIY rock/punk/emo groups and holding onto them for as many records as possible. After two albums, Brand New is going to be jumping ship, and Northstar is poised to fill the gap. Their second album with Triple Crown, “Pollyanna,” takes emo staples and spins them. The self-deprecating yet ultimately meaningless quips, such as “I am the piano that nobody plays when everybody’s home,” are still there, but mostly in the liner notes; the lyrics, on the other hand, show a striking consciousness of, or perhaps a lack of hesitance to sing about, sex. If emo relies on the love for the ex-girlfriend, “Pollyanna” relies on the unfortunate emotional attachment that has formed to a friend-with-benefits. And in a touch of what might be called “new emo,” in the liner notes it parenthetically corrects a grammatical error in the sung lyrics: “With flesh like fire but it lacks a color / and chemical laughs (that) fly around / like drama.”
The tracks on “Pollyanna” range from the vanilla to the innovative. At their musical worst, Northstar may as well be “Untitled Emo Quartet.” However, there are more than a few shining moments on this record, most notably “Between Horns and Halos,” where the emo and punk complement each other in a way that few can do (and then, only intentionally pop-ily, perhaps for plot reasons, as with Coheed & Cambria’s “Blood Red Summer”). The trick is to expect mediocre emo. That way, Northstar surprises consistently and in interesting ways.
“Pollyanna” is not the be-all and end-all of emo, but it’s a solid recording with a few standout tracks. Similarly, Northstar is, while not “the greatest band ever” (Taking Back Sunday, what were you thinking when you put that in your liner notes?), certainly worth a look, and if they’re lucky, one of the stronger tracks will hit alt-radio and they’ll be crying over that girl all the way to the bank.
The font of the title of Ghostface’s new album, “The Pretty Toney Album,” is ironically the same font used on Courtney Love’s “American Sweetheart.” Love’s album is a perfect representation of the overproduction in vogue these days. It’s refreshing, then, to hear a rap album with a sense of “less is more” in production. Much of the album (obvious exception: “Tush” featuring Missy Elliot, which works with the high production) sounds like a soul record playing in the background while Ghostface spits. And aside from the song “Holla,” this strategy works really well (see: “Save Me Dear,” among others).
The lyrics bounce around from the raunchy to the violent to the silly to the thoughtful. Ghostface can deliver social commentary without being pigeonholed because he has no qualms about turning around and singing about a Charlie horse he gets during wild sex — not to mention the skit “Bathtub,” which sounds like a porn soundtrack minus the ’70s bass and some of the moaning. The skits, incidentally, range from silly to interesting to a waste of space on the album; when they work, they’re impressive, but they are more often deadweight. This dichotomy, to the extent brought by Ghostface, is a surprisingly rare trait.
The Wu-Tang influence on “Pretty Toney” is here only in Ghostface’s distinctive sound. None of the eight guest artists are associated with Wu-Tang; in fact their only involvement was two tracks produced by RZA. Ghostface pre-emptively addresses this point (among others) with the first track on the album, “Intro,” a mock press conference. What’s up with him and Wu-Tang? “Ain’t nothin’ bro. We just in the grind right now. Everybody getting’ their shit together, doing their solo projects, we gonna come back to smash the world.” And with that aside, he breaks into one of the strongest tracks on the album, “Biscuits” featuring Trife.
The real disappointment of this album is that it is not quite amazing. The songs and the album are both almost good enough to be classics — certainly very good, but so close to excellent that it hurts. The track order seems rather arbitrary (the skits don’t help organize the tracks, either — especially not the two that sandwich “Tush”). The stripped-down tracks are just barely not soulful and simple enough. The high-produced tracks are nearly instant club and radio hits. Ghostface’s album has been highly anticipated for a long time, and in the face of astronomic expectations, he almost satisfies. What he delivers is a great rap album which could have been a Great Rap Album.
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