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Review: Cut Copy, Zonoscope

3.5

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Cut Copy, Zonoscope

Manifold are the surprising ways in which the P2P revolution has transformed the indie scene, but even so, who would have guessed that the aughts was going to be the decade that taught hipsters how to dance? Used to be that indie fans unanimously located their scene’s leading lights among the art-rock avant-garde—you know, Fugazi, Radiohead, and their ilk. And it’s not that those kinds of bands have ceased to matter, but their privileged position among indie fans is no longer one they can for granted.. See, for example, 2010’s year-end lists, where archetypally difficult indie acts like Deerhunter defended their turf against the more instantly gratifying likes of Robyn, Big Boi, and LCD Soundsystem. Rock isn’t dead, but rockism is, and as a result, indie music has become the blob. Its power entirely depends on its ability to keep absorbing new trends, even those that originate in the mainstream. In the post-P2P indie scene, good taste is largely taken to be a function of eclecticism, DIY fetishists might as well be Amish, and arguing that a song sounds derivative of its influences or that it isn’t “about” anything sounds like an annoying prejudice. If the improbable détente between indie and dance were ever to occur, this was the time.

Of course, the decade’s reigning tastemakers couldn’t just stand back and let the good times roll without exhibiting the kind of self-awareness, which, more than any particular style of music, is the scene’s definitive feature. Indie bloggers embraced dance music with an awkward side-hug, like a kid at a middle school dance who isn’t sure if he’s “joke-dancing” with the girl from his science class or really busting a move. Bloghouse, new rave, indietronica: The hokey labels often circulated faster than the MP3s which they purportedly described, but by the end of the decade, acts like Hot Chip, Justice, Crystal Castles, and LCD Soundsystem were riding high on their own unimpeachable cool, whatever you chose to call them. Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours may not have added anything fundamentally new to the mix, but its capable fusion of house, new wave, dance-rock, and ambient electronic sounds put an exclamation point on the preceding half-decade of dance-floor discovery. And that’s to say nothing of “Hearts on Fire,” the group’s damn-near invincible breakthrough single.

Ultimately, In Ghost Colours was a hedonistic pastiche all the way down—a shameless embrace of all things transient and trendy in the year 2008. In one of the few negative reviews of the album, Slant‘s David Hughes claimed that Cut Copy’s “overabundance of ideas and energy” belied their lack of focus. While I disagree with his overall assessment of the album, I think he was on to something. Listening to the giddy mash-up tells you a lot about the kind of music that Cut Copy likes, but not much about the kind they’d like to make, and the whole affair is sort of like attending a phenomenal dance party with a stellar guest list where you never get to meet the hosts. Which means that Cut Copy is oddly positioned for the release of Zonoscope. They’re at the top of the indie-dance heap, but in some sense, they’re still an unproven quantity.

Clearly there’s a lot riding on this album, but Cut Copy opens it like they’ve got nothing to prove. “Need You Now” confidently mixes the textures of ambient disco and new wave, and it takes its time doing it too: With two minutes on even the longest cuts from In Ghost Colours, it shows that Cut Copy is in no rush to play their hand. There’s a moment a couple of minutes in where the music swells and the background singers start “ooh-ooh”-ing their asses off, but Cut Copy withholds on the expected chorus, instead building the song to a glittery, not-at-all ambient-disco climax. Much of Zonoscope follows suit. It’s a slow-burner of a sequel that shows Cut Copy being patient, even stingy, with their hooks. The house, electro-pop, and hip-hop flourishes that made the best songs on In Ghost Colours so immediately memorable haven’t been discarded, they just don’t jump out of the mix in the same way. Everything is subordinated to Zonoscope‘s stately ebb and flow, sometimes hazy and psychedelic, sometimes pulsating and electro-industrial.

Is it possible that Cut Copy has played things a little too cool? On tracks like “Take Me Over” and “Hanging on to Every Heartbeat,” Cut Copy sounds like latecomers to the chillwave scene, doing little to differentiate their misty-eyed electronica from the sort made popular by Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi, and Caribou. It’s not a bad fit for them per se, but it will surely sound as dated in two years as the electro-house stuff does today. Zonoscope‘s extensive flirtation with last year’s vogue is the most obvious sense in which Cut Copy fails to establish a sonic identity of their own. It does, however, contain hints of the more distinctive act that could emerge on records to come, as when harmonies reminiscent of the Beatles blossom out of “Where I’m Going,” or when “Alisa” is ruptured by stabs of noise-rock guitar. Too often, though, Zonoscope‘s best moments are just that: moments, serving to redeem far less interesting tracks.

Still, Zonoscope shows every sign of being a transitional record, and as such, the most significant test of its merits won’t be its ability to generate singles as exhilarating as “Hearts on Fire,” but rather the possibilities it opens up for the band’s future. Judged by the music here, which often sounds self-consciously mature in comparison to the band’s previous work, Cut Copy understands that they’re at a crossroads. And while one’s inclination is to praise a young band for choosing innovation over pastiche, for the time being, Cut Copy doesn’t possess a strong enough sense of who they are as artists to deliver on their ambitions. Zonoscope‘s decadent closer, “Sun God,” makes that point so clearly that it almost comes off as a concession. Ending the album with 15 minutes of blissed-out body music is the type of move that smacks of self-conscious experimentation, but in terms of its content, “Sun God” is rave-by-rote. It may also be the song that’s closest in spirit to In Ghost Colours‘s embrace of loud, glittery meaninglessness. Indie music has always welcomed artists who want to make statements, but sometimes a band simply hasn’t got much to say. And in those cases, it’s probably best that we all just shut up and feel the beat.

Label: Modular Release Date: February 8, 2011 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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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

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Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

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

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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

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Joe Jackson, Fool

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

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