For all of his doth-protest-too-much insistence on how he’s the only “outlaw” left in Nashville and how his music is infinitely more authentic and “country” than that of any of his peers, it’s nearly impossible to get on board with Eric Church. His public persona comes across as impossibly arrogant and, given the actual quality of his recorded output to date, lacking in even a modicum of self-awareness. The title track and “Lightning” from 2006’s Sinners Like Me and “Smoke a Little Smoke” from 2009’s Carolina might be terrific songs on their own merits, but they don’t position Church as the second coming of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard that he’d like you to believe he is.
Fortunately for Church, his third album, Chief, goes a long way toward establishing him as an artist worth taking seriously in his own right. For as many times as he’s tried to invoke the names of Jennings and Johnny Cash, Church’s album doesn’t scan as traditional country in any meaningful way, but its production shows some genuine creativity and spark, and Church’s songwriting is far sharper and more consistent than ever before. In what has been a truly dreadful year for country music, Chief is a surprise standout.
What made “Smoke a Little Smoke” a great single was its unconventional rhythm section, and Church and producer Jay Joyce take similar—and similarly effective—risks over the course of Chief. Opener “Creepin’” slinks and slithers along a rhythm arrangement that owes more to vintage funk than traditional country, while Church’s staccato vocal delivery on “Keep On” gives that standout track real energy and swagger. Historically, country music has either pushed percussion sections far into the background or has omitted them altogether, but “Hungover and Hard Up” emphasizes its sturdy drum line, giving a strong foundation that complements Church’s narrative about the aftermath of a particularly messy, unexpected breakup. If his songs trade in familiar country tropes, he demonstrates a real sense of ambition in the arrangements and production of those songs.
Lead single “Homeboy” is one of the few exceptions in that regard. The unexpected, clever use of a harp overlay on the song’s massive electric guitar riffs and thundering percussion isn’t enough to excuse its ugly, reductive point of view. Pitched as a tough-love sermon from an older brother, “Homeboy” finds Church extolling the values of one lifestyle full of ice-cold beer and unconditional love while deploring a lifestyle of selfishness and criminal activity. If you can already guess which one of those lifestyles involves “gold on your teeth,” a “hip-hop hat” (whatever the hell that means), and, yes, “pants on the ground,” then you probably aren’t going to respond favorably to Church’s fearmongering, vaguely racist screed. The single sounds pretty fantastic, but its content lays bare many of the ugly stereotypes about country music and its audience.
The remainder of the album isn’t nearly so problematic. “Hungover and Hard Up” is especially well written, with a robust melody and several witty turns of phrase that betray a likable self-deprecating streak. “Over When It’s Over” is another highlight, with backing vocals by should’ve-been-star Joanna Cotten and a smart structure that really maximizes the impact of some lyrical repetitions. If Church seems oblivious to the irony of singing about needing “some long-haired hippie prophet/Preaching from the Book of Johnny Cash/A sheep among the wolves, standing tall/We need a country music Jesus to come and save us all” on “Country Music Jesus” and then turning right around and writing a song that pays homage to the Boss in both form and content, at least the songs themselves are constructed well and have an actual voice.
Still, it’s that lack of insight that keeps Chief from being a truly exceptional album. It just doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to champion traditional country music while singing over hard-rock arrangements and occasionally Auto-Tuned vocal tracks. That’s not to say he doesn’t do a lot of things, particularly with his songwriting and with some risky production choices, awfully well here. Chief doesn’t make him a country music Jesus, but it does back up a good deal of his braggadocio.
Label: Capitol Release Date: July 26, 2011 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