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Review: Erykah Badu, New AmErykah: Part One (4th World War)

4.5

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Erykah Badu, New AmErykah: Part One (4th World War)

What’s the freakquency, Erykah? The five years since her last album, Worldwide Underground (make that last EP, so more like eight years since her last proper album), make clear that her release frequency lags about as far behind as you could expect from a one-woman jam band at the forefront of a head collective. But the freakquency? That’s pitched as high as a kite, now more than ever. Badu’s intense New AmErykah: Part One (4th World War), the opening salvo of a promised two-disc series (three if you count a live album Universal is promising in late 2008), is as sonically ambitious as anything she’s done to date. It’s sort of the flip to Worldwide Underground in that both albums are so diffuse as to seem careless and haphazard to some listeners. But whereas the earlier album maintained a laidback, even keel (held together under the influence of the Mizell brothers), New AmErykah is some cracked, urgent, just plain weird boho avant shit. Worldwide Underground was Parliament. New AmErykah is Funkadelic.

Assisted by producers Madlib, 9th Wonder, Mike “Chav” Chavarria, and posthumously, J Dilla, the album’s very existence as an incomplete piece of a larger project is, at least for the next few months, a brazen continuation of Badu’s “rough draft” ethos, which first started to really emerge with Mama’s Gun and the conflicting tracklists and unfinished lyrics in the liner notes. Not unlike Mary J. Blige, Badu the vocalist exudes so much confidence and authority that she almost seems to overemphasize her improvisational persona. Blige has her bipolar relapses, Badu has her pot-addled “What was I saying again?” disorganization. Both are, to a degree, calculated in an attempt to cultivate a measure of realness. In the same sense that I’d rather watch the stripped-down meta of recent Abbas Kiarostami films more than heart-to-heart interviews on Oprah, I’d much rather tolerate Badu’s occasionally overbaked—yeah, I went there—mental mélange more than Blige recreating Julianne Moore’s mirror monologue from Safe. And I say that as someone who just argued with one of this publication’s other music critics that any lyrics more complicated than “Hey, yeah you, get out on the floor” had no place in dance music.

Still, as is often the case, an artist who gives off the impression that they’re working with less than a full deck usually gives listeners more to chew. Typically I’ll listen to an album once or twice before I write a review. I’m sort of a strict sensualist when it comes to music, and hence perhaps put too much trust in the initial rush of pop music and much too little stock in lyrics. (Which, lets face it, is not exactly hard to do when the cultural standard rhymes “The boys they want to sex me” with “They say I’m really sexy.”) I’ve listened to New AmErykah at least seven times already and still feel as though I’m jumping mama’s gun by even writing about it before giving it another seven listens. Badu’s spare, pointillist lyrics are almost constantly folded deep within dense, heavy arrangements.

“The Cell,” a ruthless, steely hard-bop sprint, contains a lot of menacing lyrics about “shots from the po-po” and a howling refrain of “We’re not well,” but the subtext barely registers against the wild, walking bassline and decaying guitar riff. Which, of course, actually makes the song all the more terrifying. And it’s in good company with the boiling terror of “Twinkle” and the uncompromising spareness of the toy-xylophone ode to hip-hop “The Healer” (a track given a once-over with an auto-equalizer effect, just to make it sound even more like an unfinished demo). Lest the ominous elements run rampant enough to actually constitute a “statement,” which would run counter to the album’s real statement of not actually having one, Badu also throws in a few tracks that would’ve slotted easily into either Worldwide Underground (“Honey”) or Mama’s Gun (the flute-laden “Soldier,” with its election year-friendly shout-outs to the troops “in Iraqi fields” and those in New Orleans “baptized when the levee broke”). While neither “Honey” nor “Soldier” are lazy retreads on Badu’s part, is it any wonder their familiar elements inspired Motown to make those two songs (both far sunnier in isolation than the album as a whole) the album’s first two singles?

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“What if there were no niggas, only master teachers?” is the rhetorical question asked of peer musicians multiple times in the sweeping, swangin’ dirge “Master Teacher,” which Badu answers with “I’m in the search of something new.” It’s not even the line itself that suggests Badu’s mission to brush aside the staid quality of current R&B so much as her risky, raw vocal delivery. (The Billie Holiday voice is back, if only for a little while.) And it’s in line with the willful disorganization of this and her last two albums. Polish and coherence equal consumer-ready product, to be used until played out and then shelved. In a matter not entirely original but still befitting an ex-neo-soul diva getting extra comfortable with her inner Yippie, she overlays a rerecorded excerpt of Peter Finch’s “First you’ve got to get mad” monologue from Network. Somewhere Marlene Warfield’s afro-puffed corporate radical Laureen Hobbs is listening to this record and nodding, “Right on.”

Label: Motown Release Date: February 25, 2008 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.

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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.

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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.

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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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