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Fly vs. Spy

  N.E.R.D.: Fly or Die

 

Virgin/EMI, 2004

Rating: 2.5

 

   

Spymob: Sitting Around Keeping Score

Star Trak/Arista, 2004

Rating: 3.6

 

 

Posted: March 30, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

A not-so-funny thing happened on the Neptunes' way to Fly or Die, the second album from their eclectic rock-funk-soul project N.E.R.D. Pharrell Williams, the more public face of the hot production duo, has embarked on a side career as a singer. Pharrell's straining falsetto, with its Scrappy Doo earnestness, helped to ground N.E.R.D.'s arresting debut In Search Of... with a novel Everyman charm: His vocals carried an implicit "I'm one of you" quality that made the album feel like a triumph of geek resolve, rather than a vanity project for a couple of multimillionaire producers.

But since then, Williams has critically misjudged the just-folks appeal of his vocal approach. The single "Frontin'," from last year's Neptunes compilation The Neptunes Present.Clones," applied the singer's limited pipes to a high-profile, mainstream R&B number, and the decision to push his vocals into pants-too-tight territory for the duration of the song pushed Williams right to the precipice of worn-out welcomes. His other vocal contributions to the otherwise-strong disc pushed him over the edge, as he chimed in on numbers that neither needed nor benefited from his chirpy cameos. (His appearance on Jay-Z's "Change Clothes," from The Black Album, had the same effect.)

The most striking aspect of Fly or Die is the sad realization that Williams hasn't learned his lesson. His vocals worked on In Search Of... because of their contrast with the tight interplay and assured arrangements of backing band Spymob, and because Williams and his fellow nerds -- Neptunes production partner Chad Hugo and their collaborator, rapper Shae -- had a batch of smart, compelling songs at their disposal, distilling a broad range of influences (Steely Dan, Curtis Mayfield, classic rock) into a distinctive and personal sound. Neither factor is in evidence on the new album: The songs aren't anywhere near as sturdy or idiosyncratic as those on In Search Of... And though the arrangements occasionally compel interest, they largely lack the cohesive snap and crackle of the Neptunes' best pop instincts. To compound matters, Williams sings with the oblivious croon of a front man who's not willing to admit his complicity in sub-par material.

Not that N.E.R.D. doesn't try: "Don't Worry About It" kicks things off with a dirty groove and a surprisingly convincing Prince/James Brown pastiche from Williams. "She Wants to Move" rides an intimidatingly propulsive beat; "Jump" is a passable dancefloor sparkler, even if it features vocal contributions from Good Charlotte's Joel and Benji Madden. And lyrically, "Jump" and the title track reach for the outsider/common man aesthetic of classic N.E.R.D. tracks like "Provider" and "Bobby James."

But elsewhere, Fly or Die limps along, offering uninspiring rockers ("Thrasher," "Maybe") and a couple of bizarre exercises in mind-bending eclecticism for its own sake: "Wonderful Place" and "Drill Sergeant" each veer off into unexpected territory halfway through, the former branching into a goofy non-sequitur about a baby fallen into the ocean, the latter tacking a half-baked, unfinished musical idea onto a lackluster, under-developed political diatribe. Williams, Hugo and Shae are obviously attempting to channel the Mothers of Invention or Captain Beefheart at their zig-zagging, anything-goes best, but they don't seem to have grokked that such left-field excursions have to lead somewhere interesting in order to work. Instead, each case feels decidedly contrived.

This isn't to say that Fly or Die had to be In Search Of..., Part Two in order to succeed. But the album dies far more often than it flies, mistaking a crazy-quilt musical approach for creativity, and wrongly miscalculating the strengths of its anemic vocalist. The Pharrell backlash starts here.

Spymob, the funky-white-boy quartet that gave In Search Of... much of its airtight swagger, comes closer to approximating that album's alchemical mixture on its long-delayed debut, Sitting Around Keeping Score. The group filters breezy, AM radio touchstones (more Steely Dan!) into its own formula. Like The Pursuit of Happiness, Spymob shows admirable fealty to Todd Rundgren's Utopian ideal of literate power-pop drenched in inexorably catching melodies, and singer/songwriter John Otsby's lyrics display an ingratiating intelligence.

Sometimes he stumbles over his own ideas: The opening bars of "2040" recount a conversation with the narrator's mother regarding the merits of "Millennium" as a band name. But "It Gets Me Going" turns a potentially cloying conceit (a literal dog's-eye view) into an engaging five-minute pop confection. The hilarious "I Still Live at Home," would sound right at home on one of the last two Guster records, and the solemn string arrangement and Otsby's play-it-straight delivery keep the song anchored against a too-easy decline into smirking hipsterism. "And if things did get serious/ It would be convenient / To walk right up the stairs and / Have you meet my folks," the singer croons with all the earnestness of a Ben Folds number.

Folds actually represents Sitting Around's greatest flaw, its gradual slide into serious MOR somnambulism. The VH-1-ready subject matter (the custodial tug-of-war of divorced parents) of the tuneful "National Holidays" and an encroaching homogeneity of sound threaten to counterbalance the sheer exuberance of songs like "Thinking of Someone Else" (a wistful ode to good ol' Mom) and "Stand Up & Win." There's nothing here quite as grabbing as the delightful "Half-Steering," from Clones, and Sitting Around wears its amiable groove into something frighteningly close to a rut before the witty closer "Joe Namath" rolls around.

But if the album ultimately suffers from a sameness of sound, that doesn't detract from its bright, insistent melodicism. Listening to Sitting Around, it's easy to see what attracted the Neptunes to Spymob's winning hodgepodge of influences. Too bad N.E.R.D. couldn't channel some of that infectious energy into its admirable but disappointing sophomore slump.

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