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Review: Autechre, Exai

Exai melds nearly every impulse Autechre has had in the last 15 years.

 

4.0

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Autechre, Exai

Sean Booth and Rob Brown, the former b-boys who’ve become icons to countless geeks-cum-laptop-jockeys (and also the lads in Radiohead), have, over the course of their two-decade-plus partnership as the dance-floor obscurantists known as Autechre, shorn their music of the usual techno conventions (obvious 4/4, melodies, etc.) to the point of abstraction. The results can offer little purchase to both neophytes and longtime followers: music which shrugs off listeners’ attempts at immediate emotional access, especially since much of it sounds like all the drum machines ever made malfunctioning at the same time.

So, for the last three or four studio albums, I’ve been trying to gain access into Autechre’s impenetrable monolith of sound with ever diminishing enthusiasm, waiting futilely for the proverbial Return to Form, but to little avail. Instead, Autechre have released whole albums worth of fractured beats engineered to an uncompromisingly flat hiss with frenetic software effects that may or may not have anything to do with each other. Granted, Quaristice and Oversteps saw Booth and Brown moving away from such static-y harshness, but both of these efforts were composed of dissociated noodling that lacked the catchiness of vintage ‘90s Autechre.

And yet, as almost a statistical mean of their recent output comes Exai, their 11th album, a rangy double disc that melds nearly every impulse they’ve had in the last 15 years, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t let in some of that old charm, like Chiastic Slide or LP5, only reprocessed on equipment that’s benefitted from technological progress. Even if that sounds ominous to fans of Autechre’s first three albums, in which analog synths ruled, Booth and Brown have taken a catholic approach to Exai, catering to almost every aspect of their sound.

The dual aesthetic impulses (difficult and melodious) are signaled from the very title of the first track, “Fleure,” which has the rare-for-Autechre distinction of being an actual word (albeit in a different language), yet from the opening seconds sounds like an outtake from Untilted with all of its scoured beats that recall a high-speed scraping of glass. The infusion of Autechre classicism comes about two minutes into the following track, “irlite (get 0),” where the churning percussive morass doesn’t relent, but lifts enough to let wobbly melodies filter up through the thick to be joined with brassy stabs. At certain moments, it sounds like Afrika Bambaataa on a laptop loaded with the latest DSP softsynths. This sonic template is the modus operandi for “jatevee C” as well: a soggy hovercar flight right out of Blade Runner, except through the smog-choked dystopian haze, some simulacrum of blue skies is visible.

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With “Tess xi,” though, Booth and Brown offer something that could fit right onto Chiastic Slide, wherein crunchy beats and muted notes coexist in aloof admiration—and not the naked contempt between the two that characterizes, say, Untilted. Other old habits get dusted off, too, as “recks on,” with breakbeats simultaneously fat and digitally orthogonal, demonstrates their not-so-secret desire of becoming the Bomb Squad of robots (a yen last making an appearance on “V-Proc,” from Draft 7.30). In fact, sometimes the self-referential touches are nearly direct references, as the beginning of “1 1 is” recalls the intro of “Krib” (from the Cichlisuite EP). But instead of nursery chimes, throbbing effects set the stage before the track entirely twists itself into a more menacing, funkier electro-cousin.

Exai‘s stars are the pair of tracks that stand like sentinels to close each CD. The second disc ends with “YJY UX,” a moody ambient number, a tantalizing probing of space both sonic (a lot of deep emptiness in the mix, with different elements exquisitely separated in the arrangement) and physical (tinkling satellite beeps floating alongside groaning bass lines) that suddenly blinks out just as it flies past the range of transmission. While “YJY UX” is an eerie and unsettling track, its fraternal twin at the end of the first disc, the monumental “bladelores,” towers over not just the rest of Exai, but arguably over anything that Autechre has released since the ‘90s. Far from the jagged throes of crumbling drum machines that are the assaultive hallmarks of past Autechre album closers, “bladelores” presents a smooth edifice, a beast of mechanical lurching hand-in-hand with swirling, cinematic synth strings. It’s a balance of sweetness and stately indifference, a Booth/Brown signature which few other acts (SAWII-era Aphex Twin, and maybe fin-de-siécle Boards of Canada) can manage as nimbly. In the midst of typically challenging music, it’s an outright gift to listeners.

As many knockoffs as they’ve inspired, Autechre remains a sui generis act, and comparisons with contemporaries or descendants are often less useful in orienting their listeners than using Booth and Brown’s own past work as a lodestar. Exai represents a career-spanning work, one that encapsulates almost every phase of their evolving aesthetic, and whether you’re a fan of their early work or their recent output, it stands as a remarkable synthesis that coheres only through the deftness of its sonic architects.

Label: Warp Release Date: March 5, 2013 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy Is Eclectic but Unmemorable

Neither the album’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs.

2.5

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Why You So Crazy

The music video for “Be Alright,” the lead single from the Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy, takes the viewer on an interactive 360-degree tour of the Odditorium, a city block-sized building in Portland that was purchased by the band in 2002 in order to serve as their headquarters and recording studio. On one level, it’s clever viral marketing, as the Odditorium is a commercial space, with booking information available online and a public-facing wine bar in the corner. But more importantly, it’s also a revealing glimpse at the cloistered conditions that have produced the last 15 years of the Dandys’s increasingly insular music.

Why You So Crazy unfolds in what is clearly meant to be a dizzying array of styles: from the 1930s Hollywood gloss of opening track “Fred N Ginger” (complete with an artificial 78 r.p.m. vinyl crackle), to the campfire gospel of “Sins Are Forgiven,” to the warped synth-pop of “To the Church.” Minute production details abound throughout: a stray melodica amid the tightly coiled electro of “Terraform”; a spectral, high-pitched piano line floating above the churning guitars of “Be Alright”; a general cacophony of Eno-esque electronic gurgles on the country pastiches “Highlife” and “Motor City Steel.” In short, the album sounds exactly like the product of a band with their own personal recording complex at their disposal and only the most nominal commercial pressures to fulfill.

Unfortunately, neither Why You So Crazy’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs. For all their stylistic diversity, most of the tracks here ride a single musical hook, like the metronomic bassline that opens “Thee Elegant Bum,” until they’ve reached an ostensibly acceptable length. It’s to the Dandys’s credit that their definition of acceptable song lengths no longer extends to the seven-, nine-, and 12-minute dirges that dominate 2005’s Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, the album that not coincidentally put an end to their short-lived major label phase. But this is cold comfort when the four-and-a-half minutes of undulating synthesizer and droning guitar feedback that comprise “Next Thing I Know” seems to stretch into a small eternity.

Even frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, not exactly a high-energy singer in the first place, seems to sleepwalk through much of the album—an impression enhanced when keyboardist Zia McCabe takes the lead for “Highlife.” Not only does McCabe’s Dolly Parton-ish chirp provide a welcome respite from Taylor-Taylor’s laconic drawl, but it makes for an instructive comparison with his blasé performance on the stylistically similar “Motor City Steel.” Neither song does much with the country genre besides wallow in its clichés, but while McCabe commits to her performance, Taylor-Taylor remains distant, exaggerating his pronunciation of Paris’s “Charlie DO-gal” airport as if he’s afraid of being taken too seriously. Similarly cloying is “Small Town Girls,” a paean to provincial womanizing that would feel trite had it been recorded when Taylor-Taylor was 21, let alone his current age of 51.

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Of course, aesthetic distance isn’t necessarily a sin. Just ask Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger, to name two of the Dandys’s more obvious influences. Nor, for that matter, is self-indulgence without its artistic virtues. Jack White—another survivor of the early-2000s alt-rock scene with his own recording complex (two of them, in fact)—released an album last year that Slant’s own Jeremy Winograd described as “at times close to unlistenable,” but at least it provided the creative spark White seemed to be looking for. The Dandy Warhols, by contrast, just seem to be treading water: releasing an album because they can and, with 2019 marking their 25th anniversary as a band, because they think they should. And while there are no wrong reasons to make music, there may be no reason less compelling than obligation.

Release Date: January 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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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

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Stuffed & Ready

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.

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Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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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

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Guster, Look Alive

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.

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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

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