“Basic Instinct (U Got Me),” the opening track from Ciara’s new album, starts with a syncopated guitar riff lifted from “Eye of the Tiger.” The track is half fight song, half apology for Fantasy Ride‘s lack of a chart-destroying hit: “See I was on the red carpet/When I shoulda been in the studio, layin’ down hot shit.” Self-awareness turns out to be a good look for Ciara, though the song works because the muscular track totally undermines her self-critique, like she’s come out swinging because we were all too stupid to realize how hot her last album actually was. She even directs some preemptive sass at her would-be haters on the net (it’s like she can see us dusting off our Sharon Stone jokes), snarling, “You can go and write your blog, I don’t need your feedback.” J’accuse!
Emphasizing her unfuckwithability is actually a pretty savvy way to raise the curtains on Basic Instinct, in part because Ciara’s a survivor in an industry that eats aspiring divas alive and, at that, entitled to a bit of swag, but also because she’s a performer who has appeared to take her star-status for granted. She’s like the Citrus Fanta of female R&B singers: nobody’s first choice, but a serviceable alternative when you can’t find Sprite or 7-Up. Basic Instinct won’t change that, but it’s a damn convincing effort. Eleven tracks long and curated almost entirely by pop-R&B’s most reliable songwriting duo, The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, it’s a svelte and cohesive collection that serves up one glitzy guilty pleasure after another.
If Basic Instinct turns out to be a bit frontloaded, then, it’s only in the best way: There’s pretty much nothing wrong with the first four tracks on the album. At the two-minute mark, the brittle rock track behind “Basic Instinct” gets washed out by The-Dream’s stately synths, locking a groove that extends through singles “Ride” and “Gimmie Dat,” gradually raising the tempo in anticipation of album high-point “Heavy Rotation.” It’s the masterful type of pop confection at which The-Dream is truly unrivaled, with Ciara vamping on hook after generous hook until, nearly a minute-and-a-half in, you realize that the song hasn’t even come to its chorus yet.
Surprisingly, the only songs on the album’s second half that sound like placeholders are the same ones that sound like potential singles. “Yeah I Know” is pretty transparent as “Goodies” rewritten for today’s disco-crazed climate, while the Usher-featuring “Turn It Up” sounds like a leftover from Versus. Those numbers suggest that Ciara could do respectable business as a Euro-disco fembot (no revelation, since she’s always favored R&B of the synthetic, as opposed to sultry, variety), but they’re less appealing than the surrounding tracks, which hue truer to Ciara’s urban-radio origins. Best of all, the album strictly observes a no-ballads policy; historically, slow songs have proved nightmarish for Ciara, and she compensates for their absence here with a robust offering of slow jams, nearly all of which she hits out of the park.
Color me impressed. It’s pretty rare that a singles artist decides, seven years into her career, to make her first concerted effort at an album that works as a front-to-back listen. Suddenly, the underachieving diva starts to look like real competition for crossover starlets like Rihanna and Leona Lewis. About time too: It’s not like she’s been banging out classic singles on the reg, and in between full-stop smashes like “1, 2 Step” and “Promise,” she’s often coasted on the good will derived from her highly circumstantial association with Aaliyah. All the same, when she tosses off the more-groove-than-hook chorus to the show-stopping closer “I Run It,” does she not succeed at capturing a fraction, if only a fraction, of that singer’s effortless charisma?
Label: LaFace Release Date: December 14, 2010 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