Had Carrie Underwood not been so grossly, globally overpraised right out of the gate, her fourth album, Blown Away, would stand a better chance of being received as the significant step forward it actually represents in the singer’s development. Though the album is still a far cry from being great on its own merits or from being a fully realized, well-calibrated statement of artistic identity, it’s nonetheless a welcome surprise to hear Underwood finally making some substantive headway toward recording music that aspires to be more than merely pleasant and safe. Even when she and her go-to team of producers and songwriters falter on Blown Away, Underwood at least takes far more creative risks than she ever has before and occasionally strays from a formula that had become stale and predictable.
In terms of style, Underwood and producer Mark Bright continue to lean more heavily on the “pop” half of the brand of slick pop-country that comprised the singer’s first three albums. But there’s far greater range in the production here than on the bombastic Carnival Ride or the spit-shined Play On. The aggressive, rock-leaning lead single “Good Girl” owes as much to Guns N’ Roses as it does to Shania Twain, while “One Way Ticket” is inspired by the beachcomber-country of Kenny Chesney’s signature hits. Whether or not any of those influences reflect good taste is up for debate, but the tracks themselves represent significant departures for Underwood. Far better are “Leave Love Alone,” which boasts a fantastic rhythm section and slinky groove that’s the first genuinely sexy flourish in the singer’s catalogue, and the light-handed, mostly acoustic “Do You Think About Me,” which includes an arrangement that draws equally from the best of both country and pop conventions.
It’s not that any of these aesthetic choices are innovative in and of themselves (indeed, they’re things that many of the most compelling artists in modern country have done just as well or better before), but they’re unexpected from someone whose output has been as doggedly conservative as Underwood’s has been. Nor are all of the production choices effective: Brad Paisley’s trademark guitar work on “Cupid’s Got a Shotgun” pulls too much focus from Underwood’s fun performance, and the chorus of power ballad “See You Again” is marred by dated, campy arena-rock clichés. Least successful is the reverb effect Bright slathers on Underwood’s vocal on the otherwise well-produced title track, making the singer sound oddly distant and undercutting the impact of her fully invested performance. Still, these are notable changes to a formula, indicating that far more effort went into Blown Away than into the singer’s previously underwhelming, unchallenging work.
Less of a surprise, then, is the inconsistent quality of the album’s songwriting. While it’s admirable on some level that Underwood remains committed to developing her craft as a songwriter, it’s also telling that the strongest songs tend to be those on which she doesn’t share a writing credit. At this point in her career, she hasn’t demonstrated that she has anything particularly novel to say, nor has she developed a distinctive writer’s voice that elevates her conventional narratives or ideas. The scorned-women-turn-to-murder conceit of “Two Black Cadillacs” makes for refreshingly dark subject matter from Underwood, but it leaves out entirely too many details to give its tale the weight it would need to rank alongside similarly themed songs like the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” or Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead.” “Good Girl” boasts a strong melodic hook, but it’s squandered on the refrain’s simpleminded lines about “goodbye shoes” and a no-good man who’s described only as, “low, low, low.”
“Nobody Ever Told You” packs in a host of the most clichéd images (the choruses alone makes references to a “bird on a wire,” “flower growing wild,” “shin[ing] like a diamond,” and “glitter[ing] like gold”), but its greater issue is that its message about inner beauty and mirrors that tell “lies of vanity” isn’t at all credible when coming from a woman who’s the face of a long-running cosmetics ad campaign. It’s like when Kellie Pickler showed up on American Idol, post-breast augmentation, to sing, “Don’t you know you’re beautiful/Just the way you are,” without a trace of self-awareness. Underwood’s most vocal devotees are quick to make their hatred of Taylor Swift known whenever anyone says anything positive about Swift, but not even as a teenager did Swift write a song as flat-out juvenile as “One Way Ticket.” However much of a departure the track’s island-inflected production might be for Underwood, a song about how “life is a ride on a party bus” or “[life] is a carnival-candy treat/Unwrap it like a lollipop/Lick it/We got a one way ticket” should be an embarrassment for any artist of her stature.
Blown Away simply fares better when Underwood looks to outside writers for material. Although the title track ultimately lacks the grace and resonance of Martina McBride’s classic “Independence Day,” the song it most closely resembles in theme and structure, it marks both the most emotionally complex song and the most engaging narrative that Underwood has yet tackled. That her performance impresses as much for its palpable empathy as for its vocal technique is an encouraging sign of how Underwood continues to mature as an interpretive singer. “Leave Love Alone” balances its jaded anti-love POV with a wry self-deprecating streak, and Underwood’s playful delivery finds her exploring different timbres of her voice with confidence. “Do You Think About Me” is even stronger, a song that reflects on a long-ended relationship with a heady mix of wistfulness and regret. And once again, Underwood rises to the occasion when given the opportunity to tackle multifaceted, well-written material, giving a thoughtful vocal turn that proves how truly effective singing is rarely about belting out glory notes.
There are multiple songs with some actual heft and depth on Blown Away, and Underwood’s performances on those songs are far more lived-in and nuanced than anything she’s recorded before. Moreover, when she shows restraint in her singing, she’s even able to elevate more straightforward songs like “Good in Goodbye,” far and away the best of her co-writes, and “Forever Changed,” which predictably skews toward the maudlin in its third act, but mercifully doesn’t turn into a didactic screed like Play On‘s garish “Temporary Home” did. When Underwood and Bright play it safe on filler like “Thank God for Hometowns,” “Nobody Ever Told You,” and “Who Are You,” all of which are wholly interchangeable with any number of tracks from Some Hearts or Carnival Ride, it becomes all the more apparent exactly how tepid Underwood’s earlier work was.
Label: Arista Release Date: May 1, 2012 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