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Review: Common, The Dreamer/The Believer

3.5

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Common, The Dreamer/The Believer

Most artists release disappointing albums at some point, but they’re usually not subjected to the kind of concerted public shaming by critics and fans that Common endured following his last release, Universal Mind Control. Proportionally, more of the album sucked than didn’t, but what made it such a universal mind-fuck was the fact that none of the many individual decisions that led to its creation made sense. It was an outright contradiction for Common, the street-level philosopher who once played the gadfly to rap’s moguls and mafiosos, to reinvent himself as a pussy-profiteering club don. And if the intent was to sell out and make hits, why ditch a solid working relationship with Kanye West to work with the Neptunes, who, by 2008, were already passé?

Common is nothing if not intelligent, and that means he, like everyone who had the misfortune to hear it, wants to forget that Universal Mind Control ever happened. Handing over production duties to No I.D., responsible for Common’s first few albums, might seem like over-correction, and inviting Maya Angelou to be mistress of ceremonies could be considered heavy-handed. There’s definitely a sense that The Dreamer/The Believer blares its agenda as flagrantly as its predecessor. But even given that the album belongs in the same line of panicky re-re-brands as New Coke/Coke Classic, as the chastened Bob Dylan laying down his electric guitar at Newport Folk, there’s just no denying that it needed to happen, and badly.

The reunion of Common and No I.D. sounds terrific, though the latter impresses more frequently. He’s a different producer in 2011 than he was in 1994: Working with Drake, Kid Cudi, and post-808s & Heartbreak Kanye, he gravitates more readily toward noirish, bass-heavy pieces than the soulful boom-bap he crafted during alternative hip-hop’s initial explosion. He inhabits the older style naturally here, and the result is arguably his best showcase to date. His most audacious feat is his successful transformation of an Electric Light Orchestra sample into earnest soul-funk on “Blue Sky,” but it’s his attentiveness to details that makes The Dreamer/The Believer so satisfying. He constructs just the right haze of twinkling piano and ambient noise for “Pop’s Belief,” a show-stopping spoken-word piece performed by Common’s father, and he stretches well outside his comfort zone in constructing the gospel-pop number “The Believer” around John Legend’s impassioned vocal. It’s a welcome surprise that the album’s production is not at all dominated by Soulquarian nostalgia, and getting to hear one of the industry’s best let his imagination run for a full album should be a strong enough draw for anyone with good taste in beats.

The MC himself doesn’t fare poorly, though he’s less careful than his partner in discerning backward-looking pastiche from forward-looking reconstruction. Sometimes he crams too many sensitive rap-dude clichés into his songs, including “Windows,” in which he describes a girl as “a beautiful rose from the concrete” (the same image serves at the title to a hilariously solemn compilation of 2Pac’s “poetry” and as one of the opening lines on Drake’s Thank Me Later). He sounds oafish trying to boast like Jay-Z on “So Sweet,” claiming to be “the greatest” and then immediately proving why he isn’t by adding, “I am the A-List for all of these great debaters.” Equally mystifying is when he compares himself to Air Jordans in that both of them are “important to the culture.” And yet on the same track, he can roll off a worthy tongue-twister like “My name’s synonymous with prominence/I am to hip-hop what Obama is to politics.” Which is, when you think about it, exactly right: I can’t think of anyone else who manages to be as inspiring while so rarely living up to his potential.

Because even when you add up all the winning moments of The Dreamer/The Believer, including the throwback lyrical stomp of “Ghetto Dreams” with Nas and the gorgeous, effortless melodies of “Cloth,” you’re still left with performances that pale in comparison to those on Like Water for Chocolate and Resurrection. I suspect Common might have that level of focus again soon, a suspicion affirmed by expertly rapped highlights like “Lovin’ I Lost,” but there’s not enough weight in this material to justify that kind of commitment anyway. That said, this is about as good as a rap album can be while still qualifying as inessential listening—and like Watch the Throne before it, its insouciant, tossed-off vibe might just be what ends up making it a kind of minor landmark in its own right.

Label: Columbia Release Date: December 20, 2011 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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