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Review: Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge

4.5

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Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge

Dierks Bentley has worked hard to build his artistic cachet over the course of his career, and the result is that Up on the Ridge includes a simply extraordinary roster of collaborators. Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien, Sonya Isaacs, and Chris Stapleton (formerly of the Steeldrivers) all provide expert harmony vocals, and Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson, Del McCoury, Kris Kristofferson, and the Punch Brothers all perform proper duets. With that kind of a lineup, it isn’t a stretch to say he might be the least talented person on his own album.

That isn’t meant as a slight against Bentley. He may not have the broadest vocal range or most powerful voice, but Bentley is an effective, thoughtful singer who’s smart enough to know his own limitations. On their surprising cover of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” Bentley wisely lets McCoury use his plaintive mountain tenor to hit the high notes in the chorus while he handles the song’s verses with both restraint and genuine pathos. Bentley is even better on rowdier cuts like “Rovin’ Gambler” and the forceful title track, and his tongue-in-cheek phrasing brings a bit of levity to standouts like the bitter “You’re Dead to Me” and the randy “Fiddlin’ Around.”

Still, as strong as his own performances are, Bentley is often upstaged by his cohorts. His reading of Bob Dylan’s “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” is pensive and melancholy, but Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek and presently of the Punch Brothers, is a more demonstrative, emotional singer. The highlight of the set is “Bad Angel,” a lighthearted song about half-assed attempts to shrug off vices. Bentley sells his verse about smoking just fine, but Johnson’s consideration of gambling is rougher and more lived-in, and Lambert just flat-out kills her lines about drinking and provides deft high harmonies in the song’s chorus. (A year’s worth of touring in large venues in support of acts like Brad Paisley has given Lambert’s voice a sexy rasp that is perfectly matched to just about everything she sings, and “Angel” falls right into her considerable wheelhouse.)

If he actively invites some direct comparisons that don’t do him any real favors, Bentley can at least be credited for having impeccable taste and an ear for talent. But Ridge isn’t just a performers’ showcase. The album is also a major rebound for Bentley in terms of his songwriting and song selection after 2009’s underwhelming Feel That Fire. The U2 cut is something of a novelty, since the song’s impressionistic lyrics don’t entirely work in the context of country and bluegrass conventions, but the Dylan cover is spot-on, as are Kristofferson’s “Bottle to the Bottom” and Buddy and Julie Miller’s lovely “Love Grows Wild.”

Bentley, for his part, fully holds his own among such high-caliber songwriters. There isn’t a weak song among his five co-writing credits. Album closer “Down in the Mine” borrows some images from Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” but its melody is robust. The title track, “Dead,” and “Gambler” all help to set the freewheeling tone that carries over into many of the record’s performances. “Draw Me a Map” is even better, using some unexpected, sharply turned phrases to elevate its central conceit. It’s Bentley’s finest romantic ballad, and Krauss’s understated harmony vocals are predictably superb.

Despite the unimpeachable quality of the performances and the top-notch songwriting, it’s Jon Randall Stewart’s production that is perhaps the album’s best attribute. At a time when so many country albums are losing the loudness war, Stewart gives each of the record’s acoustic instruments actual breathing room, resulting in a full-bodied sound that brings a contemporary polish to traditional arrangements.

Up on the Ridge isn’t a proper bluegrass album by any stretch of the imagination, despite the exclusive use of acoustic instruments. Instead, it’s an example of what modern country music ought to sound like: The fiddles and banjos are placed prominently in the mixes and there isn’t a drum machine to be found anywhere. But Bentley and Stewart also recognize the value of a strong hook. And ultimately, it’s Up on the Ridge‘s overall aesthetic that proves Bentley’s deep respect for—and his legitimate, intuitive understanding of—country traditions, even as he uses those traditions in forward-thinking, progressive ways.

Label: Capitol Nashville Release Date: June 8, 2010 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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