More than a decade into her career, it’s still unclear what Britney Spears brings to the table, and before delving into her latest album, Femme Fatale, it felt necessary to try to understand, once and for all, the pop singer’s appeal. Britney seems to conjure the kind of blind allegiance typically reserved for superstars who have seemingly better-earned such fawning fanaticism—either with their unmistakable technical talent or their socio-political import (Mariah and Madonna come to mind, respectively). Comparisons to the latter have always been utterly absurd; Britney has never possessed the creative endowment or self-awareness to deserve that mantle. Her appeal is no doubt generational, at least in part: The early-to-mid aughts produced few strong female pop icons, and Britney served as a kind of placeholder between the Queen of Pop’s heyday and the arrival of Lady Gaga. (The only other contender may have been Christina Aguilera, but her career has since been horribly mismanaged.)
I wasn’t satisfied with that explanation alone, though, so I decided to ask around. The answers swung wildly between “Britney is God”—which, though funny, is also totally arbitrary, general, and delegitimizes all of our gay icons (have we no criteria other than blond hair, big breasts, and a dance beat?)—and ironic fascination with Britney’s lack of talent and cognitive faculties, but nothing in between that even remotely resembled at actual attempt to defend her as an artist. I still hadn’t found an answer.
Many of those Britney fans will no doubt accuse me of admitting to outright bias against her, thereby rendering my opinion of Femme Fatale irrelevant. On the contrary, I’ve always liked Britney and have enjoyed many of her songs, and even a few of her albums. And in my quest to unearth her inexplicable appeal, I kept coming back to the music, which is all that really matters, right? The thing about Britney’s music, though, is that she seems to have very little to do with it, particularly on her last few albums, and this one is no exception. The success of a Britney song rests almost entirely on the quality of other people’s songwriting and production, and every track on Femme Fatale succeeds or fails on that basis.
Longtime collaborator Max Martin and his partner in auricle-crime, Dr. Luke, produced the bulk of Femme Fatale, and their contributions are mixed-to-shoddy. The album’s lead single, “Hold It Against Me,” makes good on the failed double entendre of “If You Seek Amy,” but the rest of the lyrics are comprised of cheesy pickup lines strung together atop the kind of generic Eurotrash beats and dated trance synths that are sadly all the rage right now. The follow-up, “Till the World Ends,” is so similar to Ke$ha’s “Blow” (Ms. $ebert co-wrote both) that I can’t decide which one I like more—or if I even like them at all. If not for its infectious pre-chorus whistle, “I Wanna Go” would be just another song off the Max Martin assembly line, and “Gasoline” is, for better or worse, not a topical screed about energy independence and the rising price of crude oil.
The album’s best offerings, then, are the ones produced by other big names in the pop biz: “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” helmed by Dr. Luke cohort Benny Blanco, sounds enough like Christina’s thumping “Desnudate” to make one forgive its lyric about catching the flu, and the will.i.am-produced “Big Fat Bass” is an amped-up “When I Hear Music” for the 21st century. It’s Bloodshy & Avant, who made their name with Britney’s “Toxic,” who leave the biggest mark though: Their “How I Roll” is a bubbly, playful pop song, and “Trip to Your Heart” finds the duo applying the glitchy synth-pop, pitch-incorrected vocals, and sugary hooks they’ve been trying out on newcomer Sky Ferreira of late. In fact, Ferreira could be singing these songs and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, which once again raises the question: What does Britney bring to the table? Maybe it’s just a brand name that sells.
Label: Jive Release Date: March 29, 2011 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