I remember quite well the first time I visited New York City in my “adult” life. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, and my friends and I had arrived in typical collegiate fashion – crammed inside an old two-door car, $400 down from a speeding ticket on the turnpike, and overly enthusiastic for a weekend of regret-free indiscretions. Now, I’m not entirely proud of what ensued, but I refuse to apologize either. My friends sitting next to me in the car on the ride home know that I’ve already atoned for this. What I remember most fondly about that trip is Joshua Tree – a crude, rough-edged Midtown bar that serves as NYC’s fetid frat boy Pied Piper. Why I went there is lost on me, but it’s notable for being the first place I ever sang 1980s songs in public. Pop songs. Like, Pat-Benatar-and-Eddie-Money pop. Did I say I have no regrets?
Now, I won’t be so dramatic as to say this might have been the most embarrassing moment of my life. It certainly wasn’t very “cool,” but I’m not much of a trendsetter anyway so this wasn’t concerning. As a music buff though, there was much at stake. Singing bad music and/or singing music badly has its place and it’s called karaoke. Even this is permissible among hip young adults, as karaoke is the epitome of postmodern fun – the goal is to sing the worst songs possible so that the experience itself can transcend the very harmonic confines of which it is part. But, this was not karaoke night at Joshua Tree, and I needed no cadre of friends to cajole me. Uninhibited, I sang/screeched the night away.
In an essay from his book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, pop-culture essayist Chuck Klosterman ponders the idea of “coolness” and “greatness” in popular music. He recognizes that people tend to embrace the extremes, liking both cool and so-uncool-they’re-cool artists collectively. He struggles to make sense of Billy Joel though, an artist he admires but admits is rather “burnt orange” on the coolness spectrum. He concludes that despite lacking intrinsic coolness – something integral to most well-received musicians – Billy Joel can still be great.
I love Billy Joel too, but I think Klosterman missed a unique opportunity. Some music we love has no rhyme or reason. John Denver is really addicting, but I cannot even begin to justify his place in my playlist. Nor should I have to. The fact is, if I always worry about music’s appeal to others, I’ll never capitalize on its appeal to me.
As a budding young misanthrope, music used to be an outlet for my every unfiltered emotion. At some point though, I began to push song selection through a sieve of social approval. Music easily serves as an extension of one’s mood, so we’ve all learned to keep our emotions close and iPods even closer. Like a child’s temper tantrum, some songs highlight a raw, regressive disposition that we now avoid, or at least hide from others. Unfortunately, we then miss an opportunity to learn about ourselves. Thankfully, Joshua Tree allayed any associated fears or apprehension I once had. You see, if I were still afraid to confront my guilty pleasures in music, I would have never given the recent album Passive Me, Aggressive You by The Naked and Famous a chance. This would have been very unfortunate. A cross between 1980s pop and early 2000s punk rock, this LP really is better than the sum of its parts. In fact, it is probably one of the best albums of the year.
So aptly named, Passive Me, Aggressive You allows the listener to return to that unbridled catharsis we buried away long ago. In fact, the album functions quite well as a snapshot of our youth and its now-repressed emotions. There’s dreamy synth pop, crunchy punk rock, and even angsty lyricism on rocky relationships. What’s most revealing however, is the shocking similarity of these tracks to earlier Billboard hits. For example, power ballad “Eyes” sounds like a cross between Cher’s “If I could Turn Back Time” and Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes.” The anthemic dance single “Young Blood” actually begins with a reverb-filled melody reminiscent of John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.” And then there’s “A Wolf in Geek’s Clothing”, a raucous rock experience that puts a subtle psychedelic spin on Jimmy Eat World’s “Bleed American.”
This album is not simply a rip-off of old TRL favorites or Grammy nominees, though. In a year when Wild Nothing’s hit single “Chinatown” rose to popularity by sampling Chantal Goya’s “La Pluie Du Ciel” extensively, one must reshape the very idea of innovation in songwriting. On Passive Me, Aggressive You there are timeless melodies of course, but they’ve been repackaged – and dare I say improved? – with contemporary electronic angst. Second track “Punching in a Dream” encapsulates this best. Sure, all the familiar gimmicks are there: shimmering strings, echoing pings, copious drum machine, and synth claps. However, a driving bass pedal, syncopated cymbals, and a growling synthesizer create a more novel indie dance vibe (think “Kids” by MGMT). Alisa Xayalith’s singing is the real treat though, as she convincingly conveys heartfelt frustration through every shout like a present-day Cyndi Lauper. In fact, the frequent “oo’s” and “woah’s” are the best part of the track, serving to elicit that raw and genuine emotional experience the entire album embodies.
If I was to offer any criticism it would regard the almost overwhelming variety of musical style on the album. The tracks themselves represent a stellar effort, but their selection seems a bit haphazard. Some songs are dance, some rock, and others more ambient pop. I believe this can be forgiven, though. Not only is Passive Me, Aggressive You the band’s first LP, but they are clearly still determining where their true forte lies. Despite some gems like “Serenade” and “Meeting People Sucks” from prior EPs, Passive Me, Aggressive You represents a substantial improvement. The songs are more complex, sonically stimulating and, most importantly, the band has figured out what melodies work. With this trajectory, I’m convinced the next album will be even more cohesive and continue to impress audiences.
When I first stumbled upon The Naked and Famous six months ago, I was extremely enthusiastic but largely unsure of how to approach this review. Passive Me, Aggressive You is novel and refreshing, even with overt pop influences. I wasn’t sure, though, that other people were as eager as I to celebrate this element of the past and all the emotional baggage that comes with it. As it turns out, I had underestimated my peers. In the past several months, The Naked and Famous have become increasingly popular, even being featured at the end of a recent episode of Gossip Girl. In fact, this pairing makes sense. Gossip Girl is a show that caters to our emotional whimsy, no matter how cheap and contrived it may seem at times. We all experience sadness, anger and frustration – there’s nothing unique about it. That experience is our right though, one that we should never feel is undeserved or even remotely embarrassing. There’s simply no shame in just being ourselves.