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Review: Burial, Untrue

4.0

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Burial, Untrue

One of the most curious things about the commodification of art, music in particular, is the way in which certain kinds of sounds are assigned utility, cast in the role of aural furniture to accomplish mental décor. To wit: elevator music, “lite” radio, and, y’know, atmospheric British street music, which is best known in America as the perfect beats to boutique by. Though it would probably pain him to no end, enigmatic dubstep producer Burial (he’s still otherwise anonymous—paging Banksy) fits comfortably into the tradition established by his fellow moody, drum-machine-wielding countrymen like Tricky and Geoff Barrow of Portishead. Even though dubstep technically evolved from the ruffer, tuffer sounds of jungle (they share a grounding in breakbeats and buzzy bass drops), Burial’s take on the sound involves enough oceanic synth tones and melancholic vocals to earn his current reputation as the now sound of accessible, deracinated coffee house background music.

It’s too bad, because while Untrue, the producer’s follow-up to his self-titled 2006 breakthrough, succeeds on multiple fronts (as a subtle expansion of his sonic purview, a sucker-punch of a breakup album, and a compelling take on inner-city blues for the 21st century), as background music, it’s incredibly wanting. So, when listening to this record, turn it up loud enough to rattle your latte. (Subwoofers are pretty essential here). This approach gives all the subtle nuances at the edges of the mix—and they are legion—the opportunity to distinguish themselves from what otherwise sounds like a bunch of similar, stiffly martial beats and disembodied vocal melodies; this is ambient music concealing its cracked modern heart with a stiff upper lip.

As referenced above, the whole affair is structured as a rather straightforward breakup album, with the absolutely stunning lead track, “Archangel,” serving as an icy and ominous evocation of the risk and terror involved in trusting another with one’s own heart. The track prominently features Burial’s most significant technical leap forward, the use of fragmented and heavily processed vocal samples that are pitch-shifted and otherwise screwed with to achieve maximum gender flexibility and melodic heft. These warmly chameleonic shards of lyrical emotion contrast distinctly with the rigid threat of the beats undergirding them, providing a sense of unpredictability and, in a thematic sense, inconstancy. In places, though never more so than on “Archangel,” the effect is not unlike that of hearing a seasoned singer’s voice crack with emotion.

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Given that dubstep’s junglist forebears were sometimes rightly critiqued for their wonkishly cold approach to the science of breakbeats, and that Burial’s rhythm sections have about them a rather brutal calculation, the processed pixelation and transgendered edge of the vocals he uses contribute an element of human drama to the proceedings. They evoke fallibility (the promise of effort and the desire to try), which is not something often found in music this computerized. The content of the lyrics does a lot to cement this perception, as well as the album’s breakup narrative. “Archangel” revolves around the most self-evidently joyful lyrics on display, though even it focuses in on the division between a happy reality and a desperate wish: “Holding you, kissing you/tell me I belong.” The front half of “Untrue” crackles with hope and promise, with “Near Dark” insisting, “I can’t take my eyes off you,” and standout “Ghost Hardware” sticking solely to the disembodied sentiment, “Love you.” (As an aside, it’s worth noting that the latter track’s title is an excellent description of Burial’s sound).

All these relatively positive feelings shift markedly during the pathetically titled “In McDonalds,” which features the album’s most identifiably gendered exchange: a woman singing “Once upon a time, it was you I adored,” and a man’s depressing rejoinder, “You look different.” This is followed by the record’s narrative centerpiece and title track, which brokenly centers on the line, “To the way I feel inside/And it’s all because you lied.” The voice is clearly masculine, and the sample features none of the groundbreaking vocal processing and effects that are in constant use elsewhere—building its status as the most unshielded and direct sentiment to be found on Untrue. The punctuating wail of “girlfriend,” clearly drawn from another source and featuring some processing, serves to drive the point home.

Examined at this level of detail, it’s possible to think of the lyrical content of Untrue as being a little emotionally simplistic, and it is, to some extent. Close reading of the lyrics can only partially illuminate the album’s emotional significance; the relationship the vocals have with the music of which they are a part is the true location of Burial’s uncommon impact. Machine music this unrelentingly intimate is worth the attention it requires.

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Label: Hyperdub Release Date: January 14, 2007 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy Is Eclectic but Unmemorable

Neither the album’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs.

2.5

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Why You So Crazy

The music video for “Be Alright,” the lead single from the Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy, takes the viewer on an interactive 360-degree tour of the Odditorium, a city block-sized building in Portland that was purchased by the band in 2002 in order to serve as their headquarters and recording studio. On one level, it’s clever viral marketing, as the Odditorium is a commercial space, with booking information available online and a public-facing wine bar in the corner. But more importantly, it’s also a revealing glimpse at the cloistered conditions that have produced the last 15 years of the Dandys’s increasingly insular music.

Why You So Crazy unfolds in what is clearly meant to be a dizzying array of styles: from the 1930s Hollywood gloss of opening track “Fred N Ginger” (complete with an artificial 78 r.p.m. vinyl crackle), to the campfire gospel of “Sins Are Forgiven,” to the warped synth-pop of “To the Church.” Minute production details abound throughout: a stray melodica amid the tightly coiled electro of “Terraform”; a spectral, high-pitched piano line floating above the churning guitars of “Be Alright”; a general cacophony of Eno-esque electronic gurgles on the country pastiches “Highlife” and “Motor City Steel.” In short, the album sounds exactly like the product of a band with their own personal recording complex at their disposal and only the most nominal commercial pressures to fulfill.

Unfortunately, neither Why You So Crazy’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs. For all their stylistic diversity, most of the tracks here ride a single musical hook, like the metronomic bassline that opens “Thee Elegant Bum,” until they’ve reached an ostensibly acceptable length. It’s to the Dandys’s credit that their definition of acceptable song lengths no longer extends to the seven-, nine-, and 12-minute dirges that dominate 2005’s Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, the album that not coincidentally put an end to their short-lived major label phase. But this is cold comfort when the four-and-a-half minutes of undulating synthesizer and droning guitar feedback that comprise “Next Thing I Know” seems to stretch into a small eternity.

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Even frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, not exactly a high-energy singer in the first place, seems to sleepwalk through much of the album—an impression enhanced when keyboardist Zia McCabe takes the lead for “Highlife.” Not only does McCabe’s Dolly Parton-ish chirp provide a welcome respite from Taylor-Taylor’s laconic drawl, but it makes for an instructive comparison with his blasé performance on the stylistically similar “Motor City Steel.” Neither song does much with the country genre besides wallow in its clichés, but while McCabe commits to her performance, Taylor-Taylor remains distant, exaggerating his pronunciation of Paris’s “Charlie DO-gal” airport as if he’s afraid of being taken too seriously. Similarly cloying is “Small Town Girls,” a paean to provincial womanizing that would feel trite had it been recorded when Taylor-Taylor was 21, let alone his current age of 51.

Of course, aesthetic distance isn’t necessarily a sin. Just ask Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger, to name two of the Dandys’s more obvious influences. Nor, for that matter, is self-indulgence without its artistic virtues. Jack White—another survivor of the early-2000s alt-rock scene with his own recording complex (two of them, in fact)—released an album last year that Slant’s own Jeremy Winograd described as “at times close to unlistenable,” but at least it provided the creative spark White seemed to be looking for. The Dandy Warhols, by contrast, just seem to be treading water: releasing an album because they can and, with 2019 marking their 25th anniversary as a band, because they think they should. And while there are no wrong reasons to make music, there may be no reason less compelling than obligation.

Release Date: January 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World

The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.

4

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Stuffed & Ready

Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.

That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”

Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”

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Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.

Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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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

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Guster, Look Alive

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.

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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

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