In 1999, one of the preceding decade’s most revered, experimental bands, the Flaming Lips, jettisoned some of the problematic, self-consciously fey trappings of their previous work and distilled the elements that worked best about their distinctive take on modern pop into song structures that were as accessible as they were adventurous. The Lips then unveiled their deliberately constructed, refined new sound on a landmark album, The Soft Bulletin, that was both influenced by and superior to the music of its era and which stands as one of the finest, most important and influential albums of its decade.
Ten years later, a nearly identical situation presents itself with Animal Collective’s extraordinary Merriweather Post Pavilion. Beyond the sheer quality of its songcraft, the fundamental humanity of its content, and the balance of its experimental bent with pop conventions, perhaps the most important parallel that Merriweather draws to Soft Bulletin is in the way both records capture a newfound aesthetic maturity for their respective bands: This is the record on which Animal Collective learned how to edit their work with a sense of purpose and clarity of vision. Their twee masks and costumes have, thankfully, been gone for a couple of albums, but now the self-indulgent jam-band digressions, the ironic freak-folk posturing, and the lazy wordplays that have made their work fitfully insufferable have also been set aside. In their place, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, and the Geologist have reconciled their individual artistic impulses—most notably, Avey Tare’s effervescence and Panda Bear’s experimental use of multi-layered, repeated tracks—into a singular aesthetic that simply explodes beyond what their contemporaries are currently doing.
That isn’t to say that Merriweather is not a product of its era; it is, in contrast, an of-the-moment cultural assessment. Optimism is once again in vogue—right, Sally Hawkins and WALL-E?—and it hardly seems like a coincidence that an album so steeped in positivity is set for release on the same day that a man who embodied hope and promised change will usher in a new political era. But things are rarely so simple, and Animal Collective—a band that, like the Polyphonic Spree, has formerly traded in equal parts sunshine and bullshit—tempers their worldview with a pragmatic sense of realism. Consider opener “In the Flowers”: Avey Tare observes a girl whose euphoria he can’t share because of his own loneliness, only to subsume that feeling into something genuinely sublime. “If I could just leave my body for the night,” he sings, “then we could be dancing/No more missing you while I am gone…And you’d smile and say I like this song/And then ours would meet them/We will recognize nothing’s wrong.” The song works beautifully both as an ode to his wife and, more broadly, to the type of escapism the song’s pulsing, tribal form provides.
The album’s apparent embrace of domesticity only makes it timelier. When Panda Bear comments, “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things/I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls,” on standout cut “My Girls,” it’s a perspective that rings true in the current economy. What makes these ideas—further expanded in tracks like “Daily Routine” and the delirious “Summertime Clothes”—work in context is that it feels as though Animal Collective is re-appropriating them from the political right. That domesticity has been part of a “values” platform for decades has given many of these ideas a decidedly conservative bent, but Animal Collective convey a real sense of joy in their proclamations that an appreciation for simplicity and the ability to find meaning in daily drudgery is not the exclusive domain of any one political party or social paradigm.
It’s in that regard that Merriweather recalls the Flaming Lips at their best. There’s a real humanity to the songs that makes them indelible. Panda Bear said in a recent interview that the band doesn’t have a particular word for their latest work, but that “it’s our own form of soul music.” He’s right: From the call-to-arms of closer “Brothersport” to the mysticism in the peculiar folklore of “Lion In a Coma,” the album finds Animal Collective in constant marvel of, and gratitude for, both the world and the music that surrounds them. Soulful and almost structurally flawless (it’s the most minor of complaints that the middle run of songs are all about a half-minute too long), Merriweather finds one of the most talented, most creative pop bands finally and gloriously figuring it all out.
Label: Domino Release Date: January 19, 2009 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
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon