by MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
You know Pharrell, that guy wearing the Canadian Mountie hat? Turns out he’s a singer, with a new album out Tuesday. Did you hear?
Maybe yes and likely no. Pharrell Williams is transparent enough to disappear inside the singles he produces by the monster chart-toppers of the day (Daft Punk, Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake) but at the same time he’s omnipresent in pop culture circles — awards shows in particular — as a performer in his own right. Being one of the most successful producers of his generation, it’s quite a magic trick. He even pulled a vanishing act with N.E.R.D., the quasi-hip-hop-rock band he fronted a decade ago, but, if we’re honest, that project was ripe for vanishing too.
So this new album — his second in eight years to bear his name — brandishes Williams as a personality, one who is unlike the thug life rappers he’s worked with in the past and more wholesome than the twerk-some pop tarts he’s invoicing of late. Instead, “G I R L” (Columbia) offers family-friendly dance-pop without needing to be filed next to the Raffi records. Case in point are lyrics like “take it easy on the clutch/’cause girl I like you,” which dial the lust level of “Come Get It Bae” — featuring backing vocals from Cyrus no less — to snooze.
But Williams is not about street swagger and sexual danger. As a producer, he is known for simple hooks, glitterball sonics, and lite-funk, and the same combination drives these songs. This is an album for fans of latter-day Motown and 1970s disco who will find it easy to cozy up to songs like “Hunter” and, in particular, “Brand New” — featuring crispy guitar lines reminiscent of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5, and Timberlake in full Michael Jackson falsetto.
The pleasures of his studio creations flow easily: dance-floor strings, courtesy of Hollywood maestro Hans Zimmer, pulse through “Gush” and “Marilyn Monroe,” as do handclaps and snapping guitars. “Happy,” a song formerly heard on the soundtrack of the animated hit film “Frozen,” is a highlight: a beat designed for doing the shimmy-shake, handclaps, and lyrics offering a no-nonsense ticket to Zen: “clap alone if you feel that happiness is the truth.”
Williams is not a remarkable singer, but the contact list in his phone makes up for that. Timberlake, Cyrus, Alicia Keys, JoJo, even Kelly Osbourne performing spoken word, appear throughout, backing up and sharing lead vocal duties. “Gust of Wind,” featuring the heavily processed Daft Punk providing the key vocal hook, captures the joyful vibe of this album. “When I open the window/I wanna hug you/’cause you remind me of the air,” Williams sings. Not exactly John Donne, but you get the picture.
Williams, 40, has spent about almost 20 years framing sounds for megawatt stars while maintaining a quieter, humbler public persona, as if framing himself as an alt-Kanye. True to form, “G I R L” is a frothy blast of sunshine. The most experimental track, “Lost Queen,” is split into two segments, one Afro-pop, the second reggae, and both tied together with the sound of ocean waves splashing. Keep this on heavy rotation and you’ll get pulled in.