If Gwen Stefani is pop’s Judy Holliday and Jessica Simpson is Marilyn Monroe, Fergie is Jayne Mansfield. Desperate for attention (even by pop-star standards) and grizzled enough to know that her teen-appeal clock is ticking rapidly, the Black Eyed Peas front woman is willing to out-raunch the competition, stoop to the crassest depths, and make a laughingstock of herself if it means that she gets to be famous for another day.
So it’s fitting that “Clumsy,” the second track on Fergie’s solo debut, The Dutchess, opens with a rollicking sample from “The Girl Can’t Help It,” the theme song from Mansfield’s most famous film. Like Mansfield, Fergie is a self-parody, but unlike Mansfield, she doesn’t appear to be in on the joke. Simultaneously playing the dance-club vixen and the athletic tomboy, she conveys a bounciness so fake it’s depressing, and a sexuality so nasty you’re liable to catch an STD from just watching one of her videos.
A singer who got her performing break 22 years ago on Kids Incorporated, Fergie is a showbiz pro (a “seasoned dame,” as she boasts in one song), with a serviceable pop-R&B voice and the most abominable rapping delivery since Arsenio Hall dropped Chunky A on us. Like many other aspiring writers on the charts, she not only disregards metaphor and symbolism, she feels obligated to share the most mundane aspects of her obsessive daily routine: “I be up in the gym just working on my fitness/He’s my witness.” What’s next? A concept album about colonics and tanning salons? And why does she need a witness to prove she’s been at the gym?
Later, while asserting how “Fergalicious” she is, the diva explains: “I know I’m coming off just a little bit conceited/and I keep on repeatin’ how the boys want to eat it.” Apparently the boys get their wish, and then some, with the impossibly grating hit single “London Bridge.”
Having established her bedroom skills, Fergie spends much of the album trying to put flesh-and-bone on the cartoon character she’s created: slamming internet haters on “Pedestal,” assuring us that there’s a vulnerable little girl inside (“Big Girls Don’t Cry”), hinting at past crystal-meth demons (“Losing My Ground”), and reveling in her footwear fetish (“Mary Jane Shoes”). But, unkind though it may be to say, Fergie is one of those pop stars that we don’t want to know better, someone whose heartfelt emotions just make us cringe. She’s not very likable when she’s superficial, but she’s seriously intolerable when she’s sincere.
Australian alt-country singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers recently went through a very public divorce; the tabloids Down Under had a field day with it, and you kind of had to wonder if “For Sale” — one of the best tracks off her last album, Wayward Angel — was a little too prescient for comfort. Her latest release, Carnival, is consequently a mixture of conclusions and new beginnings.
Unfortunately, despite the endearing, childish whine of Chambers’s bluegrass voice and a surplus of her always-remarkable songwriting, the album falls flat because (A) it fails to turn in anything as sonically memorable as “For Sale” or earlier tracks like “The Captain” and “Barricades and Brickwalls,” and (B) the typically introspective and revealing nature of Chambers’s wordplay, which apparently reached a crescendo on Wayward Angel, has been sidelined here in favor of a withdrawn detachment from subject matter that one would expect her to be smack dab in the spiritual heart of.
This detachment subsides occasionally (“Dangerous,” a track that could be about her ex-husband, is a good example), but mostly, her subject matter is more traditional, and even — God forbid — generic than we’ve come to expect from her. Sometimes, the results are damn silly, too, like the club-ready dance-pop number “Surrender,” which couldn’t belong here less.
Still, there are moments that offer promise. The slinky, smoky sway of Emmylou Harris can be heard on “You Make Me Sing” and the Texas-style honky-tonk of “I Got You Now” — a duet with You Am I front man Tim Rogers — flaunts the influence of Chambers’s hero, Steve Earle. The first single, “Nothing At All,” is adequately catchy, but “Rain” is the quiet gem; “I will try to breathe deeper than all the oceans/I will try to see the battle instead of the win,” she sings, and, for a moment, you get to peek at the real Kasey Chambers trying to break through.