I haven’t felt this uncomfortable about reviewing an album since America’s Sweetheart. Britney Spears, who could claim that album’s title with a bit less irony, isn’t exactly a tragic figure yet, but her recent pink-wigged antics have raised red flags about her mental state. Her publicly unfolding personal and legal dramas have garnered her immense support and goodwill, but it’s been thus far squandered, and critiquing the unfortunately titled Blackout is not unlike playing analyst. It isn’t the music that’s particularly revealing (there’s plenty of thumping dance beats and heavy breathing—everything we’ve come to expect from a Britney album), but it’s what’s missing—from the tracklist, her performances, and her videos—that’s most illuminating.
In the weeks leading up to the album’s release, most of the songs, along with a second LP’s worth of additional tracks, leaked onto the internet. Two of the scrapped songs—the anguished, autobiographical kiss-offs “Baby Boy” and “Let Go”—begin with sultry, soulful vocals that are at first completely unrecognizable from the squeaky former Mouseketeer we’ve all come to know. It’s not Christina Aguilera, but it’s a pretty damn good facsimile. These demos don’t just humanize Britney, they make a case for what vocal ability and songwriting skills she actually possesses, and her decision to leave them in the recycle bin in favor of songs that underscore her caricatured, gum-snapping, helium-voiced stripper routine is a dubious one. It’s a side of Britney we’ve yet to really hear, and one that, for whatever reason, she feels compelled to keep hidden beneath a bad weave.
The disparity between Aguilera and Spears can’t be measured solely by the timbre and octave range of their voices. True, Aguilera made a conscious choice to keep her private life out of the public domain (she still hasn’t admitted to being pregnant, despite the obvious bump), but her popularity has never reached the fever pitch of Britney’s. Perhaps the ex-Mrs. K-Fed’s instinct to self-preserve via self-sabotage is at direct odds with her addiction to publicity—or to be less cynical about it, her inherent desire to perform. Her now-infamous VMA performance, the slapdash music video for her album’s lead single, “Gimme More,” and the fact that the cover of Blackout is the same photo the singer’s record company has been using to tout her comeback for months, reveal an artist who simply couldn’t be bothered, a once full-throttle drive that outpaced her limited talents seemingly decelerated by depression, drugs, just plain lack of interest, or all of the above.
All of this is surprising considering how voraciously Britney begs for it on “Gimme More” (which, for the record, reminds me a hell of a lot of “Boys” by Sabrina). The stripper anthem “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” holds its own alongside the likes of “SexyBack” and “The Way I Are,” providing further evidence that Danja, the man behind almost every notable hit by Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado in the last year and a half, is indeed responsible for Timbaland’s renaissance. And Bloodshy & Avant, the team who produced Britney’s hit “Toxic,” pony up the beats on the glitchy “Piece of Me”—which sounds like robots hate-fucking—and the spunky, Kylie-esque “Toy Soldier.”
For every hot, of-the-moment track, though, there’s something like the nonsensical “Hot As Ice,” which was co-penned by the thoroughly talentless T-Pain and might have worked two albums ago but just sounds retrograde here. Or “Heaven on Earth,” another in a growing list of Euro-club tracks inspired by the mother of all dance songs, “I Feel Love”—only this one’s watered down for the Hilary Duff sect. On a hit-to-miss scale, Blackout scores well, and its hotness quotient is remarkably high, but the album isn’t much of a step forward for Britney following 2003’s surprisingly strong In the Zone, for which she received a writing credit on a majority of the songs (as opposed to a scant three here).
One thing Britney doesn’t lack is awareness. She’s capable of delivering bon mots like, “I’m Mrs. ’Extra! Extra! This just in!’/I’m Mrs. ’She’s too big, now she’s too thin’” on “Piece of Me,” but her inability to coherently fashion that understanding into something savvy or empowering separates her from her influences and even contemporaries like Aguilera. (Ironically, this self-reflective ditty is not one of the songs Britney had a hand in writing.) The bizarre lighting effects and digital body enhancement of the “Gimme More” video indicate a predilection toward maintaining an image that no longer reflects reality. It doesn’t point to an artist who refuses to evolve, but rather one who doesn’t know how—or isn’t being allowed to. We—the public, the industry, and the media—created a kind of Frankensteinian super-paparazzi-star and now she’s the one paying the price.
Label: Jive Release Date: October 25, 2007 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