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Review: Christina Aguilera, Back to Basics

3.0

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Christina Aguilera, Back to Basics

One part Mariah and two parts Madonna, Christina Aguilera has always had Mimi’s pipes and the Material Girl’s sex appeal and savvy, not to mention the wherewithal to use all those qualities to her advantage. The one thing she lacks is originality. She’s made it clear from the very beginning (and by “beginning” I mean the point at which it became evident she wasn’t just another Britney clone) that she was determined to prove that a woman can be both sexually expressive and talented. It’s a battle previously fought by Madonna, particularly in the first half of the ’90s, only she made her point with deeds (albeit dirty ones), not words; Aguilera, on the other hand, seems compelled to drive the same point home explicitly and repeatedly in her song lyrics, without ever actually substantiating it—save for the vocal acrobatics and social poses formerly struck by her two most obvious influences.

That’s not to say Madonna was subtle about it and Aguilera lacks talent—far from it. But ironically, what made Aguilera famous is the very thing she’s rebelling against. If you use sex to get people’s attention, can you really complain when those same people claim that’s your greatest asset? And now that Aguilera is done getting dirty (at least image-wise), what is there for a pop vixen to do? Scavenge the past, apparently. While most young people who discover new genres of music go out and buy heaps of old albums, Christina Aguilera records them. But, again, instead of simply doing it, she feels obliged to talk about it. The album’s intro sets the stage for an endeavor that is, by default, derivative: “I’ve waited for some time/To get inside the minds/Of every legend I’ve ever wanted to stand beside…Every lyric and melody/Every single rhyme.” Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and Aguilera isn’t trying to fool anyone—she’s striking a deliberate pose.

Everything she’s done post-“Genie In A Bottle” has been advertising for the new-and-improved Christina Aguilera brand. She sported booty shorts and feigned a ghetto accent upon the release of 2002’s urban-leaning Stripped and she’s spent the past several months prepping the public for her turn as a ’30s-era pinup (a creamy-skinned blond one, no less—a striking contrast to the black music legends she name-checks on “Back in the Day”). The album’s first disc is devoted to urban tracks that sample and pay homage to those legends. Interestingly, the disc’s strength isn’t its period jazz flourishes or even Aguilera herself, but the old-school production courtesy of DJ Premier, as well as Rich Harrison (the gospel-infused “Makes Me Wanna Pray”), Kwamé (the vintage R&B ballad “Understand”), and others, which evokes hip-hop’s late-’80s and early-’90s heyday while simultaneously giving the album some kind of modern relevance. And despite its myriad producers, Back to Basics is more cohesive than its predecessor.

The decision to release a double-album, however, is a dubious one; though the material is strong throughout, it could have been whittled down to a single disc’s worth, and the way the more straightforward, Linda Perry-produced throwbacks are segregated onto the second disc creates an imbalance on the record. These tracks, which follow archetypical blues and jazz melodies (“Candyman” and “Nasty Naughty Boy” provide racy twists on familiar templates), would play a lot less like Music History 101 if they were interspersed throughout the rest of the album. Aguilera has yet to establish herself as a distinctive songwriter in her own right, and a project like Back to Basics, though daring for an artist at this juncture in her career and easily one of the more interesting and ambitious pop albums in recent memory, doesn’t remedy that.

And then there’s that voice. Whereas vocal talent is one of the few things that appeal to me about Mariah Carey, Aguilera’s voice is what turns me off. She seems to be under the assumption that melisma and relentless belting are how one proves his or her ability. The first half of disc one is headache-inducing, and it’s not until “Oh Mother,” with its lovely piano and string melodies, that we’re offered a reprieve. Subsequent ballads, particularly “Without You,” display her incredible range outside of shouting. If there’s one thing Perry has contributed to pop music, it’s tricking Aguilera into subtlety on Stripped tracks like “Beautiful” and “I’m OK,” and she coaxes a similarly restrained performance from the singer on the moving “Save My from Myself.” It’s easily the best song on the album’s second side.

Back on side one, “Thank You (Dedicated to Fans…)” combines samples of past hits like “Genie In A Bottle” with messages from Aguilera’s fans. The song would be incredibly shrill (“You inspire me to keep on living,” says one young devotee) if it weren’t constructed so tastefully by DJ Premier, who pieces the fan messages, Aguilera’s vocals, and turntable scratches together like a slam session. Aguilera, in turn, echoes her fans’ sentiments, truly capturing the give-and-take of the artist/fan relationship. Of course, she’s still talking sex, treading familiar ground on the horny “Still Dirrty”: “If I want to wear lingerie outside of my clothes/If I want to be erotic in my own videos/If I want to be provocative, well that ain’t a sin/Maybe you’re not comfortable in your own skin.” Trite as it may have become, it’s hard not to admire Aguilera for taking the anti-sexist baton from those who’ve blazed a trail for her. She may possess Mariah-like pipes but, as we know, that’s not always enough—fortunately, she also has a voice.

Label: RCA Release Date: August 8, 2006 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.

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.”

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.

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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