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Review: Donna Summer, On the Radio

4.5

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Donna Summer, On the Radio

“Enough is enough is enough,” belted the uncontested queen of disco along with the undisputed queen of self-lionization Barbara Streisand on “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” one of two then-new tracks on Summer’s 1979 greatest hits album On the Radio. The song itself, a galloping dance monolith that takes it to church twice over, was notably orchestrated to come off as unadulterated disco emotional sensationalism distilled into its purest form, another tic in Summer’s column of disco triumphs. Unfortunately, roughly three months (or one “season of love,” as Summer once put it) prior to the release of On the Radio was the infamous “Disco Sucks” rally at Comiskey Park, when over 30,000 rock disciples came to a White Sox double-header with the intention of shouting, in effect, the same refrain of the Summer-Streisand collaboration: “Enough is enough!” And, given that most sociologists would agree that the name of their tune might well have been “No More Queers,” it would be tempting to call the riot a musical hate crime. But, contrary to some rockist histories, disco didn’t die that day, it only burrowed into the underground, where it flourished under a hundred different monikers (house, new wave, breakbeat, etc.).

In that respect, On the Radio is perhaps the most well-timed greatest hits package ever. It is the swan song for disco’s moment in the spotlight, but not its existence in total. Think of it as the curtain call for a big Broadway diva at the peak of her career, who’s just given her supposed “final stage performance,” even though you and everyone else in the audience knows that she’ll be back someday. Seeing On the Radio as a line of demarcation between the time when a disco compilation could move millions of copies and when it would be sold on infomercials next to Queens of Country needn’t overshadow the dance music innovations crafted by Summer and Euro-disco production pioneers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. The collaboration between these three—Moroder-Bellotte with their studio wizardry and Summer with her rich, throaty pipes—resulted in the most consistent string of hits in a genre littered with one-shots, most of whom would have killed for just one song as iconic as “Bad Girls,” “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff,” “Heaven Knows,” or “Once Upon A Time.”

Though the lyrics are ostensibly about a soured relationship and airing out dirty laundry in the public eye, the album’s title track, written for the long-forgotten film Foxes, is a warm nod to disco’s emphasis on the extended single (which is a tad ironic, considering that both Summer’s Once Upon A Time and Bad Girls were considered to be two of the best arguments for the viability of disco’s artistic potential in the LP format). It’s also a testament to Summer’s undeniable fascination with the changing tides of popular music (as evidenced in the album’s cover, with its Xanadu-like blend of ‘40s sophistication and pre-‘80s neon skylines), and On the Radio covers nearly every base. “I Remember Yesterday,” a true dark horse in Summer’s catalog if there ever was one (if you’re not annoyed 15 seconds in, odds are you’ll eat it up), is an amusingly tongue-in-cheek swing pastiche, complete with a perfectly-replicated saxophone riff and raucous spoon percussion. If nothing else, the track demonstrates that the disco beat was not an end unto its own genre and, in that, suggests that dance music’s capacity to adapt to the past ensured disco would also have a future.

Of course, making an even better argument for the latter half of that supposition is the song that closed out the I Remember Yesterday album: “I Feel Love,” a futuristic, dazzlingly spare sci-fi pulsation and easily one of the 10 or 20 most universally acclaimed and groundbreaking pop singles ever, one that effortlessly shoves aside genre slavishness, fun-haters and the test of time. Often considered the head-wound from which leapt electronica, “I Feel Love” represents the idiosyncratically Teutonic and rhythmically hypnotic essence of the Moroder-Bellotte formula, and its famous synth-bass line was recently venerated by both the Chemical Brothers (“Out Of Control”) and Underworld (“King Of Snake”). Between the two poles lies Summer the sex-kitten (“Love To Love You Baby,” which made the singer’s name Stateside with her pornographic moans, though they’re tastefully downplayed in the short edit presented here), the romantic storyteller (“I Love You,” the rapturous climax of Once Upon A Time), and the purveyor of strange avant-pop artifacts (a prog-disco remake of “MacArthur Park,” the full oddness of which could never be given justice).

Still, as a hits package, On the Radio leaves plenty out (omissions that later collections such as the double-disc Donna Summer Anthology have rectified), most notably “Love’s Unkind,” a kicky ‘50s sock hop takeoff, the funky bugaboo and oddly Anglicized “Rumour Has It,” and “Could It Be Magic,” a spectacularly kitschy Barry Manilow cover that also happens to pack one gorgeous, walloping (orgasm-ridden) bridge. (Also left out was another campy footnote in Summer’s career: “The Hostage,” her pre-“Love To Love You Baby” hit in Europe.) On the flip side, there’s seemingly very little explanation for the presence of the failed “I Feel Love” retread “Our Love” other than that Bad Girls was still red-hot and perhaps during Radio‘s assembly the song was on the cusp of a chart breakthrough that never came. And purists will no doubt carp that most of Moroder and Bellotte’s luxuriously extended grooves lose something in Radio‘s truncated incarnations (concerns that are most well founded when one considers that the most gutted song is also the best: “I Feel Love”). But the direct segues between songs turns Summer’s career into an luscious DJ set; the effect actually builds up a good tantric head of steam. And at least until Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection, one could scarcely imagine a more compelling argument on behalf of the artistic merit of quintessentially singles artists.

Label: Casablanca Release Date: April 22, 1979 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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