A superstar DJ, Brian Molko, and Kelis walk into a studio. And they make a pretty good album!"
These days, you can predict the array of guest vocalists on a famous DJ's solo album about as easily as you can the cast of characters in a B-list action movie. So, on Pictures, the second "artist album" (as opposed to DJ mix) from German-born Maas, you have the Cred-Boosting Alt-Rock Veteran (Brian Molko from Placebo), the Reclusive Former Star (Neneh Cherry of "Buffalo Stance" fame), the Diva (Kelis), the Chanteuse (Jokate Benson), the Rapper (Rodney P), and the Rocker (two in this case: Anthony Tombling Jr. of Transambient Communications and Christian artist Marc James). Maas and producer/cohort Martin Buttrich have done well for themselves in their choices, which help make Pictures better than a lot of DJs' "artist albums". The backing music is pretty good, too, taking Maas's immaculately-produced dance music in predictably more "song-oriented" directions. Still, despite some excellent moments, the whole thing falls a bit short of moving beyond the sum of its parts.
Molko's unique, ultra-nasal voice appears on three tracks and makes him the album's centerpiece. The techno touches of Placebo's last album (Maas is working with the band on its forthcoming project) make him a natural choice; the chilly, ominous pulse of "Pictures", melodic punch of "First Day", and Goth guitars of "Like Siamese" actually sound like Placebo with clean electro-rhythms instead of whip-cracking drums. Too bad that Molko had to all but ruin "Pictures" and "Like Siamese" with some of his lamest, most obvious gay porn/S&M lyrics to date. "Hey boy / Take of your clothes / I wanna take pictures of you / And I won't hurt you / Unless you ask me to", Molko sing-speaks in a way that sounds more creepy than seductive. At least he shows some wit on the instantly catchy chorus of "First Day": "It's the first day / Of the rest of your life.../ Don't fuck it up".
While Molko's appearance seems like a half-wasted opportunity, the ladies fare much better. "High Drama" comes at you with a sharp, dynamic, spy-flick arrangement, and Benson and Cherry add tension to the pulsing bass and percolating synths for a noirish experience. The Kelis-fronted "4 Ur Ears" is easily the album's high point, with Old School drum fills, driving rhythm, and irresistible vocal hook. With her breathy cooing, when Kelis sings, "I'm orgasmic for your ears", she attains all the sexuality that Molko overreaches for. And the loungey bridge is genius. Maas has had some chart success in the UK, and this deserves to be a big hit.
Pictures has trouble keeping the pace for its entire length, however. "Release", featuring Rodney P, struggles for hip-hop/ragga credibility and relies too heavily on a repeated chorus. Tombling and James lend a bit of urgency to the chorus of "The Feel", but the sing-song verse has that "where have I heard this before?" generic quality to it. Of the three all-instrumental tracks, only "Enter My World", sounding like electro-fied Dead Can Dance, leaves an impression.
Maas's and Buttrich's crisp, efficient production ultimately keeps Pictures from turning into a mess. This is sleek, brisk music that sounds great popping out of high-end car stereos. Maas's and Buttrich's control over their material is all the more impressive when you consider that much of the instrumentation including strings, bass, and guitar, is performed live. No, Pictures doesn't revolutionize the superstar DJ "artist album" concept, but it harnesses that concept better than most do.