Long before the new wave of teenage pop stars, Aaliyah made headlines with her all-too-sophisticated R&B and a sordid romance with R. Kelly. But who could have predicted that the talented young teen would emerge a leading lady of hip-hop by the age of 21? While there’s no doubt that slick production has been key to Aaliyah’s success (courtesy of Kelly, Missy Elliott and Timbaland), the multi-faceted entertainer’s personality glimmers on every track of her self-titled third effort. Mostly coquettish snake-charmer, sometimes scorned lover, Aaliyah almost always recalls Janet (only with slightly better pipes).
Aaliyah is also further testimony to the indelible watermark Janet’s big brother has left on today’s hip-hop artists and producers. With its relentless sci-fi video-game blips and sticatto vocals, “U Got Nerve” is a sharp ode to the Jackson dynasty. Elsewhere, “What If” deftly incorporates industrial-strength guitars and enough pop-drenched angst to make Michael proud. But what sets Aaliyah apart from other artists reared on ’80s retro is that she often does it better. “Rock the Boat” and “It’s Whatever,” though reminiscent of Janet’s sex dramatizations, are more Marvin Gaye than Jackson. Lyrically, Aaliyah’s metaphors are more fully-developed and far sexier: “Like a candy to an apple…You’re so sweet on me.”
Most of Aaliyah traces the slow erosion of relationships, from an overzealous courtship (the key-shifting “Extra Smooth”) to the brilliant first single, “We Need a Resolution.” With a seductive Middle Eastern vibe and a guest rap interlude by Timbaland, “Resolution” maturely presents two perspectives, the yin and yang of passive-aggressive miscommunication. Our female protagonist coyly asks, “Where were you last night,” while a backward loop echoes the sentiment through the end of the song. The ballad “Never No More” is a gem that sustains the classic sound of Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation. Showcasing a more sultry side to Aaliyah’s voice (not unlike Sade, another confessed influence), the track is old-school soul injected with future hip-hop.
But like she says on “Loose Rap,” “It ain’t just rhythm and blues.” The track is doused with subtle Neptunian electronica and aquatic sounds that gurgle beneath Aaliyah’s distinct velvet harmonies. If the beyond-burgeoning actress was ever approached to play a cartoon superhero, the synth-heavy “More Than a Woman,” with its millenium-ready empowerment and sensitive vocals, would make the perfect theme song for the fictional vixen (“You go, I go/’Cause we share pillows”). From the very first seconds of its sampled cinema, “I Refuse” is steeped in melodrama. A theatrical orchestration of pianos, guitars and strings progressively builds to a dramatic climax with a minimalist percussive backdrop straight out of Björk’s Homogenic.
Timbaland, Aaliyah’s main maestro, is, after all, hip-hop’s Björk and like Elliott’s genre-bending So Addictive, Aaliyah provides a missing link between hip-hop and electronica. The album’s biggest flaw, however, is the absence of a vocal cameo by Elliott (though Timbaland’s unrivaled production skills will make you swear you can hear the rapper’s sly laugh throughout the disc). Following in the footsteps of some of today’s biggest icons, Aaliyah has learned how to align herself with A-list producers without losing her individuality and, instead, makes the sound her own.
Label: Virgin Release Date: July 17, 2001 Buy: Amazon
Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World
The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.4
Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.
That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”
Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”
Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.
Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon