It’s perhaps too much to ask to feel a legitimate sense of sympathy for any aspiring singer, let alone a nearly 30-year-old one who’s spent a good long time cutting his teeth on his local bar circuit, who voluntarily signs the contract with 19E that’s forced equally upon the applicants for both the end-game spectacle and the early-going point-and-gawk of American Idol. There simply shouldn’t be any pretense that, however authentic or unflappable a contestant might come across on the show, said contestant would have any real hope of recording anything of substance or even passing interest under the tight controls stipulated by what is, by all accounts, an unusually nasty, even exploitative contract. So, no matter how well Bo Bice, eventual runner-up to the state-of-the-art Faith Hill model of Teddy Ruxpin robots, may have covered The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” during season four of Idol, and no matter how incongruous it was with the show’s garish Lawrence Welk Show aesthetic for him to perform an a capella cover of Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle,” there would still be no reason whatsoever to expect that his debut album, The Real Thing, would be the least bit good, nor would there be any reason to say that he deserves significantly better.
By the standards of the albums released by the Idol kids, The Real Thing fares scarcely worse than Ruben Studdard’s Soulful, which is to say scarcely better than Justin Guarini. There’s nothing as hilarious as “Paulatics” from also-ran Corey Clark, nor is there anything as repulsive, strident, or just flat-out stupid as “Jesus, Take The Wheel” from the Ruxpin’s Some Hearts. That there’s nothing as transcendent as “Since U Been Gone” from Kelly Clarkson’s surprisingly resilient Breakaway, however, is a given, particularly in light of the fact that Clarkson, prior to the release of her album, managed to unbind herself from her contract with 19E.
A better point of comparison than any of the prior Idol albums, though, is the new INXS album, Switch, with Rock Star winner J.D. Fortune making a poor substitute for the late Michael Hutchence. While Switch is an album that contains no shortage of punchy hooks, what it lacks is a singer with the presence or charisma to sell them with any efficacy. Bice’s The Real Thing, on balance, consists of a respectably weathered rock voice without anything at all to say or any memorable production tricks to back it up. Split the difference between the two, and there might be a catchy mainstream rock album in there somewhere. As is, neither merits even a passing recommendation.
That Bice performed his “I Don’t Want To Be” late in the season’s run invites the comparison that The Real Thing is an album of little more than warmed-over Gavin DeGraw VH1 rock. That Sith Lord Clive Davis is the album’s executive producer—and is, of course, behind DeGraw’s career—plainly lays blame for the project’s aggressively middlebrow bent. On the first half of the album, Bice addresses an ever-evasive “you” (assuring that the pre-teens who voted for him can imagine that he’s singing a song for each of them) with an interminable series of clichés that make the songs, including one that, to no one’s surprise, was written by Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, entirely indistinguishable from each other, let alone from their would-be Adult Top 40 competition in Lifehouse or 3 Doors Down.
The latter half of the album is actually worse, largely documenting Bice’s struggles toward—and the eventual personal battles with—fame. It’s all so rote and all so predictable and all so very, very safe, in a way that flies in the face of Bice’s attempts during and after Idol to present himself as authentic. Processed into sonic Velveeta by Clive Davis, there’s certainly no mettle to The Real Thing, and it fails to offer even the simple escapist pleasures of a single like Clarkson’s better efforts or, hell, even Kimberley Locke’s “Eighth World Wonder.” It’s still evident that Bice is a solid rock singer, but his debut is an even bigger strain to his street-cred than the American Idol stigma ever could be.
Label: RCA Release Date: December 21, 2005 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