One gets the sense that, out of all today’s country superstars, Brad Paisley is the one who churns out pop-country—or nü-country, or bro-country, or “bad rock with a fiddle” (Tom Petty’s words, not mine), or whatever we’re calling it these days—not because he wants to, but because he has to. Yes, he’s released plenty of slick radio fodder in his career; when most of his fanbase eats up dumbed-down light-beer-and-pickup-trucks drivel, giving the people what they want is just good business sense. But there’s also the other side of Paisley: the world-class guitar slinger, the guy who writes legitimately clever, rootsy songs like “Alcohol” and “I’m Gonna Miss Her.” He’s one of the few modern-day Nashville stars who might have held his own back during the heyday of outlaw country in the ’70s. Let’s just say it would be difficult to imagine, say, Blake Shelton taking a break from his Pizza Hut commercial shooting schedule to perform on Prairie Home Companion, on which Paisley has appeared multiple times.
This dichotomy is fully evident on Paisley’s 10th album, Moonshine in the Trunk, which is composed of one part willfully idiotic pandering and two parts loose, fun, and rocking party country. Recorded with his touring band and mostly co-written with a small group of songwriters with whom he has a long history of collaboration, including Kelley Lovelace and Chris DuBois, Moonshine in the Trunk is a mostly upbeat, feel-good summertime album that largely minimizes Paisley’s tendency toward hokey power balladry and whatever the hell “Accidental Racist” is.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his tendency to release obnoxious arena-country singles. Paisley will always have a leg up on most of his peers in Nashville just on the strength of his guitar playing, which is versatile and effortless and provides a consistent thread of authenticity throughout Moonshine in the Trunk. Paisley sounds just as good unleashing stadium-friendly pyrotechnics on “Crushin’ It” as he does laying down intimate acoustic picking on a solo rendition of Tom T. Hall’s “Me and Jesus,” though this version, included as an “Extra Special Bonus Track” doesn’t beat the irreverent, ragged gospel feel of the original. But no amount of sharp, swampy riffs can rescue lead single “River Bank” once Paisley proclaims, “We got an inner tube! We got a trailer hitch!” Paisley’s frat-boy posturing on “Crushin’ It” is even stupider: “By this time Friday night/I’ll be done with my third can of cold Bud Light” (as a drinking aficionado, he should know that three Bud Lights is barely enough to give a gnat a buzz). “High Life,” a song about a family who makes a living on frivolous lawsuits, culminates in Paisley and a shoehorned-in Carrie Underwood exchanging down-home banter extolling the virtues of Chick-fil-A’s waffle fries. Sarah Palin surely approves.
Fortunately, Paisley gets most of his foolishness out of the way early on (though the saccharine, children’s choir-adorned “American Flag on the Moon” comes near the end) and spends the rest of the running time getting down to business. That effort begins with Moonshine in the Trunk’s barnburner of a title track, which seamlessly melds a propulsive rock riff with furious bluegrass banjo pickin’ and fiddle sawin’. With its Dukes of Hazzard references and playful turns of phrase (“Let’s pretend we’re runnin’ from the law/Like we’re the Bonnie and Clyde of alcohol”), it’s a galvanizing pro-redneck song that doesn’t cast rednecks as lowest-common-denominator frat-bro rubes. The shout-along “Limes” is nearly as much fun, with it’s yuk-it-up hook coming across as just impish enough to qualify as genuine five-o’clock-on-a-Friday barroom wisdom: “When life gives you limes/Make margaritas!” And the old-school country trappings of “4WP,” a winking ode to backseat nookie, are refreshing to hear on any kind of modern-day commercial country album.
Paisley even wades his toe into pseudo-progressive politics on Moonshine in the Trunk. As a feminist statement, the ballad “Shattered Glass” is about as revolutionary as a magazine ad for Virginia Slims (“Rear your head back and roar/Like you ain’t ever done before/I wanna see you kick some ass”), but it still counts as a blow for the good guys in the War on Women. Likewise, the folksy “Gone Green”—as in, “Darndest thing I’ve ever seen/That old redneck has done gone green”—takes up (somewhat goofily) the cause for environmentalism, and gains some earthy appeal from Emmylou Harris’s background vocals. It proves that Paisley is more than adept at bucking Nashville’s expectations; it’s when he adheres to them that he gets in trouble.
Label: Arista Nashville Release Date: August 25, 2014 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