Critics have an arguably well-earned reputation for taking gleeful, adjective-laden delight in trashing something they don’t like. For some of us, though, there’s nothing more satisfying than an artist who forces us to recalibrate our expectations. Britney Spears’s last album, Britney Jean, was a misguided hodgepodge of styles that tried to marry garish EDM, which had successfully rebooted her career, with an attempt at more introspective singer-songwriter pop, while her most recent singles, “Pretty Girls” and “Make Me…” (featuring white rappers Iggy Azalea and G-Eazy, respectively), found the singer foolishly planting her flag in a gentrified urban market.
So it’s a surprise to discover that Britney’s ninth album, the fairly loaded title of which evokes Christian worship, proves that the singer is capable of dabbling in “outsider” genres in a manner that’s not just consistent, but deferential. Aside from G-Eazy, there are no guest artists on Glory, no attempts at pandering to black audiences, and no cringe-worthy attempts at a patois; instead, the album filters its R&B and hip-hop influences through a decidedly contemporary pop milieu.
Glory breezes through 17 songs in under an hour, but few are all-out bangers, limited to impeccably produced downstairs music like the Latin-infused “Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortés)” and “Do You Wanna Come Over?” Despite some dubious lyrics that seem to suggest masturbatory self-love (“All I want is what you want/And all you want is me”), the latter is an irresistible slice of dance-pop, with an ebullient bassline and staccato acoustic guitar that recalls Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You.” Reggae is an unexpected reference throughout: “Slumber Party” rides a sinuous groove accented by brass and marimba, and the way Britney sing-raps her verses on “Love Me Down” is reminiscent of Gwen Stefani. In fact, Glory isn’t dissimilar to Stefani’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like, only if there’s a unifying theme, it’s sex, not divorce.
At times, Britney’s willingness to stretch vocally and explore new sonic terrain only serves to highlight her shortcomings as a singer. The demos that leaked prior to Blackout’s release in 2007 proved that she’s capable of more as a vocalist than coquettish infantilism. Britney holds her own on the sexually charged “Clumsy” and the electro-soul “What You Need,” but it’s hard not to imagine these songs in the hands—or, rather, mouth—of a more accomplished singer like fellow former Mousekateer Christina Aguilera or, in the case of the foot-stomping, Southern-soul-inflected “Liar,” Carrie Underwood.
The album’s only bona-fide misfire is “Private Show,” an innuendo-filled strip-tease of an anthem that’s about as sexy as getting a lap dance from someone with the flu, as Britney’s trademark adenoidal whine sounds more like a sinus infection. She fares better when her vocals are understated or smoothed out by filters and effects, as they are on “Invitation,” “Just Luv Me,” and “Coupure Électrique” (which, perhaps coincidentally, is French for “blackout”), three songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on Selena Gomez’s Revival.
By eschewing the harsh, dubstep-influenced EDM of her past two albums and embracing subtler pop and R&B sounds, Britney’s made her most daring, mature album in years. The sliced-and-diced vocal hook of “Better” is right on trend, with lyrics that espouse the virtues of, if not monogamy, emotional nakedness: “When you know somebody and they know your body, it’s so much better.” The effervescent “If I’m Dancing” finds the former teen-pop queen deploying her terrible-amazing-inexplicable faux-British accent in the name of aligning her chakras rather than amassing wealth and attention. That’s progress. Call it Nicorette pop: bubble-gum pop for adults.
Label: RCA Release Date: August 26, 2016 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