It's shaping up to be quite an autumn for American feminism. First, we have Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, about whom you might have read something in the last few weeks. Now the Pussycat Dolls, a burlesque troupe turned top-40 act, have made a collection of electro-pop songs that are the opposite of sex: belligerent come-ons and odes to singledom stripped of pleasure, adventure or anything resembling fun.
Both instances capture a particular moment in the woman-as-cultural-cipher debate, but at least Palin's nouveaux-"Fargo" accent doesn't come with a leather corset.
"When I Grow Up" is the album's first single and ideological centerpiece. Built off a filling-loosening house beat and the Dolls' smug cackling, it's so shameless in its celebration of the monoculture of moneyed youth that it transcends taste. It's more of a "95 Theses" as penned by Kim Kardashian and nailed to Viacom's front door with the shards of a broken BlackBerry -- we demand to be on TV; to drive nice cars; to have groupies.
There's nothing that comes within sniffing distance of "Don't Cha," the Cee-Lo penned bit of winking R&B that announced their presence to the world. Instead, "Doll Domination" is a series of signifiers to other, more interesting, moments in recent pop culture.
Especially after a summer when something as weird as "A Millie" or frothy as "American Boy" could rule the radio, the record seems less an album than a list of itemized expenses: a few grand for a twinkly piano ballad, a few more for the galloping Timbaland swipe and a few hundred to wash away the film of cynicism that coats everyone involved with "Doll Domination."
-- August Brown
Different ways to sing 'Sorry'
This local outfit made a big splash in 1999 with a self-titled debut full of unapologetically hedonistic hard rock. A product of good timing as much as of musical talent, Buckcherry's buzz didn't quite carry over to the group's second album; by 2001 its throwback hair metal had begun to sound staler than the vintage Motley Crue and Guns N' Roses hits on which it was modeled. Yet last year Buckcherry staged an unlikely comeback, thanks largely to "Sorry," a ballad that became a Top 10 hit and drove the band's third album, "15," to the best sales of its career.
You can hear the aftereffects of "Sorry" throughout "Black Butterfly," "15's" quickly assembled follow-up. In "Dreams," singer Josh Todd tells a lover he didn't mean to let her down over sensitive guitars, while "Don't Go Away" finds him rhyming "tears" with "fears." In "All of Me," he asks a partner to take him as he comes, issues and all. Even in the heavier material on "Black Butterfly" these guys make more room for melody than they ever have before.
-- Mikael Wood
An Australian perspective
and Shane Nicholson
Husband and wife performers Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson have been following parallel careers on the roots-music circuit for several years. Now, they've teamed for "Rattlin' Bones," a vibrant and illuminating take on traditional American country and bluegrass music that's rich in Appalachian atmosphere -- even though the pair grew up half a world away in Australia.
They've kept it a solidly family affair in the Carter Family vein with Chambers' father, Bill, playing guitar, mandolin, dobro and steel on various songs, and her brother, Nash, co-producing with Nicholson. Their original songs hew close to the bone, whether it's the ballad of unrequited love, "Sweetest Waste of Time," the anticipation of release from life's troubles in "No One Hurts Up Here" or the grass-is-greener fantasy in "Jackson Hole."
The tone is dark -- they use minor keys as often as major -- and the stories consistently plumb the depths of the human struggle. Chambers brings a childlike sadness to all she sings, and when she and Nicholson join forces, it's innocence facing off with experience, salvation and sin side by side.
-- Randy Lewis
Still obsessed, yet earnest
"Year of the Gentleman"
It's no surprise that Ne-Yo sings about women on his excellent third album, "Year of the Gentleman": The Arkansas native is one of the brightest lights in R&B, a genre in which guys obsess over girls just as heavy-metal frontmen describe death and destruction.
In "Mad," a slow jam with thick strings and a tinkling piano part, he puts stability ahead of sex, telling his lady, "I don't wanna go to bed mad at you." Over a throbbing funk beat in "Fade Into the Background," he watches a former lover marry another man but resists causing a scene. "Such a lovely reception / I sit here sipping rose," he seethes sweetly.
Even when Ne-Yo is finding love in the club -- as in "Closer," the CD's up-tempo single -- he couches the encounter in language usually used to describe long-term relationships: "Turn the music up in here / I still hear her loud and clear." An R&B heartthrob genuinely interested in what you have to say? Talk about a keeper.
-- Mikael Wood