It's hard to resist comparing the Muzak-ization of Cunniff's music with the gentrification and Disney-fication of New York City itself.
Do you remember Luscious Jackson when In Search of Manny was released, or even Natural Ingredients? Their music seemed a natural sort of hip-hop-influenced pop music. With its old-school vibe, in-the-moment freshness, and life-in-the-city lyrics, it sounded like young New Yorkers singing (and half-rapping) about the world they knew. They seemed in line with the memory of grassroots music groups of decades past, from doo-wop-ers gathering on the corners under streetlights to punk rockers banging their music out in lofts and other impromptu practice spaces.
By the time of their final album, 1999's Electric Honey the group had slickened up, and softened, their sound immensely, but retained much of their original style, the NYC grit/diversity of their music. This was truer, though, of the songs written and sung by guitarist Gabby Glaser than those by bassist Jill Cunniff. Cunniff always had more of a soft-pop side to her singing than Glaser, who always seemed like more of the hip-hop singer of the two. So it shouldn't be a complete surprise that her first solo album City Beach pushes further in that direction.
As the title indicates, City Beach tries to portray city life with the mood of the islands, the mood of relaxation. The songs are as a whole softer and gentler than even the most relaxed Luscious Jackson songs. Yet the lyrics continually reference New York City, and within the music she occasionally tries to evoke the city as well. The soft-pop side -- and, to be honest, this music contains the most generic tropes of that genre of easy-listening love balladry -- is what dominates throughout, though. It often feels like New York City is fighting a battle to stay within Cunniff's music, and losing. It's hard to resist comparing the Muzak-ization of Cunniff's music with the gentrification and Disney-fication of New York City itself.
City Beach's opening songs try hardest to keep NYC (and, by relation, the legacy of Lucsious Jackson) in listeners' minds. "Lazy Girls" has beats and a occasionally intruding rough guitar/synth riff which push in that direction. But the tune and the lyrics are both deathly dull, and Cunniff sings lyrics about relaxing and enjoying life in a style that seems straight-jacket-ed with seriousness. There's nothing lazy about it in the sense she means.
Similarly, "Happy Warriors" aims for a uptown in Harlem block-party vibe, with vaguely Latin, meant-to-sound homemade percussion, horn bursts, and lyrics like "when it gets dark down in the park / the party starts." But she sings these words like she's about to take a nap. She gives the phrase "don't give up" the ultra-serious tone of a political folk song. "NYC Boy" is meant as a loving portrait of a rebellious hip-hop/graffiti kid, but it sounds so removed from that setting. It feels like an awkward anthropological study, not a song by a New Yorker herself.
Later on, "Future Call" tries hardest to funk the album up, with a reggae/ska sax part and an almost aggressive energy. But the song is a mess, with a grating, repetitive melody and an all-too-busy style that's hard to figure out. The ambition of the song is likable, but that doesn't make it feel any less like a belly flop onto concrete.
As the album proceeds, you can hear the city vibe getting weaker and weaker, often smothered completely by mundane, heard-them-a-million-times-before soft-pop styles. The music sounds less and less related to Cunniff's roots, more and more similar to a slew of interchangeable soft-pop songs, of the type you're likely to hear in a doctor's office or a grocery store. The way she sings a line like "you could be one of the of the beautiful people / you're eye candy" (on "Eye Candy"), it doesn't sound like celebration or sarcasm; it sounds like lifestyle marketing. What does it mean that "love is a luxury", the chorus to the song of the same name? Does it mean more or less when it's followed by the lyric "you are enough for me", turned into a "we have love and that's all we need" sort of love song. "Love" is a main topic throughout the album, but it's used in such a bland, vague way that the references to it seem less about love as a concept, or as a day-to-day reality, than about love as the hallmark of soft-pop music, love as the word that hooks mainstream America into this style of song.
With its recurring life-in-the-city lyrics set inside overly genteel balladry, City Beach seems to be going for a continuous slow-motion city snapshot, one of these scenes: you're walking down the avenue in a crowd of people and the sun gleams off the skyscrapers just right as you hear a multitude of people speaking different languages. Or you're at an impromptu multi-cultural late-night party, grooving with friends and strangers of all stripes, and time seems to stand still. Instead the dominant feeling is this: you're in a suburban shopping mall, looking at rack after rack of bland, made-in-China clothes, and from the speakers above you become vaguely aware of a voice you recognize, singing "I don't know why we let love die so easily", her voice almost lost within generic soft-pop sounds, and you think, "isn't this what's her face from Luscious Jackson? No, it couldn't be." And the thought fades as soon as it arrived, once you notice that jeans are on sale.
Listen to "Lazy Girls"