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Review: Beyoncé, 4

Memo to Jay-Z: Beyoncé is probably about to start poking pinholes in your condoms.

3.5

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Beyoncé, 4

Memo to Jay-Z: Beyoncé is probably about to start poking pinholes in your condoms. Because unless she’s playing catchup with Adele and not quite comprehending the numerology behind her LP titles, Beyoncé has started referring to her albums by birth order, and she’s definitely building up to something. The predominately intimate, ballad-heavy 4 sees her fertile and ready; I wouldn’t be surprised if, someday down the line, she described this set as the one closest to her heart. It’s certainly going to dilate the cervixes of the demographic among B’s fanbase who can’t hold it in whenever she howls out a slow-burning torch song. In 46 minutes and 12 tracks, 4 suggests a full-term nine months.

From the opening lines of the crushing “1+1,” Beyoncé’s voice is ripe and, well, full-bodied, and the glow continues through until the climax of the album’s first single, the shocking underperformer “Run the World (Girls),” when Beyoncé growls, “Buoy, you know you love how we’re smart enough to make these millions, strong enough to bear the children…then get back to bidness.” Around her, snare drums paradiddle like so many rugrats skittering about in a kindergarten classroom and a multi-tracked army of B chants, “Who run this mother?” Though in its new context, the sugar-speedballing “Run the World” couldn’t sound more like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, the album on the whole couldn’t be more maternally forthright if it rubbed cocoa butter on its bulging tummy. It couldn’t be more hormonal if it demanded midnight grocery store runs for rum raisin ice cream with a honey Dijon sauce. The tracklist isn’t so much filled with baby-making jams as it is populated by little R&B fetuses, and Beyoncé’s voice is the midwife.

Given the atmosphere of procreation, I admit I should be a little more alienated by the heteronormativity of, say, “Rather Die Young,” in which Beyoncé faux-passively demands, “What I’m telling you, I’m giving my life, it’s in your hands/And what I’m gonna do is be a woman and you can be a man.” But what can I say? There’s conviction behind both her forceful delivery and the rapturous drama of the deep house-tinged piano chords. In B’s career-long negotiation of the not-at-all fine line between supplication and empowerment, I haven’t heard many more convincing assertions that compliance is a woman’s prerogative. It might just be that the total foreignness of this attitude is perfectly reflected in the dark, undulating urgency of the song’s bridge.

Its perfect and totally inverted fraternal twin is easily “Love on Top,” a bright, breezy tribute to the freshness of mid-’80s, pre-new-jack-FM R&B circa pre-crack Whitney Houston and pre-wack Anita Baker. Beyoncé sounds giddy, albeit still aggressive, at the prospect that “after fighting through my fears…finally you’ve put me first.” It might just be the fact that the lyrics give her the chance to say the word “baby” about two-dozen times that has her so goddamned happy, but the spirit carries both her and the song into a Stevie Wonder-reminiscent climax of continually rising key changes that, fortunately, force Beyoncé out of her scold range and into some winningly girlish soprano whoops.

Beyond “Love on Top,” “Run the World,” and “Countdown” (a hyperventilating number that sounds like a parody of Beyoncé’s more militant hits from the tail-end of the Destiny’s Child era, but with a nice interpolation of Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh” countdown), the album is otherwise dominated by mid- to no-tempo tracks, which, vocally speaking, gives her enough rope to hang either her doubters or herself (as in the MOR misfire “Best Thing I Never Had,” which only works if you presume the “I bet it sucks to be you right now” kiss-off is actually aimed at anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot of the song itself). And if there are any among the former who aren’t moved by “1+1,” a yearning power ballad whose refrain “Make love to meeeeeee” seems suspended somewhere between afterglow and madness, I guess it really does suck to be you right now. Because, though I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout birthin’ babies, 4 frequently makes me want to get all gynecological. My body, my choice.

Label: Columbia Release Date: June 28, 2011 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.

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.

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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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

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Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

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

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