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Review: Beyoncé, B’Day

3.5

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Beyoncé, B'Day

For all their grumbling about Internet piracy cutting into their bottom lines, record companies sure have used the blogger phenomenon to their advantage. Leak a track here, a video there, and you’ve got a direct line to the consumer—a global focus group that will provide instant, unfettered feedback about your product. Paris Hilton’s new video not going over well? Schedule a re-shoot and rush-release the clip onto YouTube. And despite having little influence over execs in the past, online petitions, like the one signed by almost 7,000 Beyoncé fans demanding that the singer’s label shoot a new video for her single “Déjà Vu,” have become more and more common.

So, in an era when entire Hollywood films are created and marketed based on the demands of the public, I have to commend Beyoncé’s handlers (including her typically bothersome dad, Matthew Knowles) for not caving in to the pressure. Grievances regarding Beyoncé’s video included “no clear story or theme,” “confusing” and “alarming” dancing, “unacceptable [sexual] interactions” between the singer and her real-life boyfriend Jay-Z, “unbelievable and ridiculous” fashions, and editing that “causes one to get dizzy and disoriented.” The alarmed and apparently woozy undersigned also request that a director “more acclimated to urban themes and imagery” be hired for the re-shoot (though they ask, naturally, that it not be “Hype ’Letterbox’ Williams”). Not only is the petition insulting to artists of any ilk, it specifically targets Sophie Muller, who, though she’s never been at the helm of an “urban” video before, has been directing consistently high-quality clips for 20 years.

True, the video’s editing is a little scattershot, but it’s often cleverly used to segue between its myriad settings, dance moves, and wardrobe changes. The ecstatic, seemingly tribal African-influenced dancing—which is no freakier than Shakira shaking her hips and thrusting her bust in nearly every video she makes—follows scenes on what appears to be a plantation. The racy scene in which Beyoncé and Jay finally interact (she dances provocatively around the rapper, displaying those shiny, Tina Turner thighs, snapping gum, and loosening his belt) takes place in a much less glamorous locale than the big white Victorian house where she plays Bayou-boudoir dress-up. Are Beyoncé and Muller intentionally evoking the sweaty milieu of the antebellum South? It’s hard to say what the intention was, but “Déjà Vu” is certainly more thematic and thought provoking than the videos for “Baby Boy” and “Naughty Girl.”

When creative decisions are made for the purpose of pleasing the consumer, everyone loses: If an artist does something too similar, she gets criticized, but if she tries something new (like Muller’s video or the single’s polarizing follow-up, “Ring the Alarm”), she gets crucified. As for the actual music, there have been criticisms that “Déjà Vu” is perhaps too aptly titled—a retread of her smash hit “Crazy In Love.” But there’s something to be said for reliability (after all, Mariah has made a career out of rewriting the same song over and over again) and a “Crazy” flashback is better than another “Check on It.” Sure, Jay-Z reprises his guest spot role, twice, and, of course, there are those horns, but the song is subtler—if not vocally, then melodically—and, though it’s taken its time, it’s hard not to warm up to the track’s undeniable Thrillerness.

“Déjà Vu” finds producer Rodney Jerkins continuing to ride a second wave of creative success that started with one of Destiny’s Child’s final singles, “Lose My Breath.” Deserting the group was an inevitable move for Beyoncé, but the reason is fuzzy at best: Dangerously In Love seemed to suggest that going solo was, as is the case for most lead singers, an opportunity to explore new styles and delve deeper into more personal subject matter, but the aggressiveness of the largely uptempo B’Day is more reminiscent of her former group at their commercial peak. Add some harmonies by Kelly and Michelle and “Upgrade U” could very well be a Destiny’s Child track. In many ways, their last (and best) studio record, Destiny Fulfilled, played more like a solo album—not because Beyoncé dominated (at least not more than usual), but because it was a textured, ballad-heavy collection of songs that veered away from the trademark garishness of the group’s sexual-materialism masquerading as female self-empowerment that has helped define modern R&B.

Here, the bombast is present and accounted for. Call it aggro-R&B—dick-smacking (or, in this case, pussy-whipping) in the form of song. An abrasive, possessive oddity that’s a cross between “Survivor,” Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” Kelis’s “Caught Out There,” and Fergie’s “London Bridge,” “Ring the Alarm” is a bold choice for a single. The song features an inspired bridge of its own (a musical one), but it will likely fall on deaf ears—and inspire another petition. There’s something obscenely gluttonous and perversely over-the-top about the way Beyoncé bats out one club banger after another (it’s enough to make one “dizzy and disoriented”). She lays out her mission to be seen on “Get Me Bodied,” declares herself a “Suga Mama,” and adds the term “Freakum Dress” to the pop lexicon, all in the name of the power of the P. In fact, “Kitty Kat,” the only midtempo break until the very end of the album, finds Beyoncé literally packing up her pussy and leaving the man who no longer seems interested in what she’s selling: “Let’s go, little kitty kat/I think it’s time to go/He don’t want you anymore.”

Whereas Beyoncé’s debut was accomplished in its diversity, albeit a sure sign of a new solo artist trying to find her voice, B’Day sounds like the album “Crazy In Love” initially forecasted. The ballads are tacked onto the end and are, therefore, easier to dismiss as mere afterthoughts. The old-school “Resentment” would have worked better in the context of Destiny’s Child (instead of one Beyoncé, we get three, and all of them are screaming at the top of their lungs), and the Dreamgirls bonus track, “Listen,” is a schmaltzy AC ballad that will undoubtedly be the payoff for fans of Beyoncé’s voice who sat through the first 38 minutes of the album waiting for the cum shot. Beyoncé has yet to prove if she’s capable of delivering the emotional heft of a Miseducation or even a Butterfly, and she’s too below stairs to carry off the haute couture she sports in the “Déjà Vu” video, so, for the time being, we’ll all have to stop signing petitions and gleefully settle for the guilty pleasures of acrylic freakum dresses.

Label: Columbia Release Date: August 29, 2006 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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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

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Joe Jackson, Fool

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

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