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Review: Faith Hill, Fireflies

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Faith Hill, Fireflies

Less an “album” than a goddamn dissertation on everything rotten at the core of mainstream country music, Faith Hill’s Fireflies, rest assured, will rank as her sixth multi-platinum record and will likely sweep the country field at the Grammy awards come February. That it is so utterly without substance—it’s some kind of engineering marvel that the CD itself doesn’t have to be tethered to the ground—certainly won’t deter NARAS, People, and Entertainment Weekly (who stand to profit whenever Hill’s visage graces their covers), or Hill’s legion of fans from shouting me down to the contrary, but Fireflies is flat-out terrible, the end-all be-all example of how the major labels on music row have diluted the soul out of an entire genre of vital popular music.

For all its many flaws, Fireflies’ greatest liability is the stench of desperation that overpowers it. Hill’s career has been characterized by fashionably late trend-hopping. Her first two albums, Take Me As I Am and It Matters To Me, consisted of the high-gloss pop-country popularized by Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, and Lorrie Morgan in the early ’90s; other than her uncommonly gorgeous face, there was nothing about her music that set Hill apart from her contemporaries. When Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes beat her to the Hot AC crossover game and to the stages of VH1’s Divas Live lineups, Hill’s sound followed suit with the treacly adult contemporary schmaltz of “This Kiss” and Breathe. (Hoping to capitalize on the bajillion-selling success of the album, Hill remained in the public eye by screaming the god-awful powerballad anthems from two of the most contemptible blockbuster films in recent memory, Opie’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Dread Lord Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.)

Hill’s follow-up, though, was the first critical misstep of her career, at least commercially. Not realizing that the “pop diva” scene had run its course, Hill released her most overtly Celine Dion-inspired album Cry. Though it inexplicably won Grammy awards for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Best Country Album, the album sold less than half of its predecessor, and it failed to produce a single Top 10 hit at country radio, indicative of both the album’s less-than-middling quality and the country establishment’s reaction to Hill’s pants-on-fire, “I’ve never been just a country artist” interview routine.

Now, three years later, Hill has reemerged with an album that, once again, finds her hopping on the latest popular bandwagon, hoping to capitalize on trends other artists have started without having to come up with anything the least bit interesting or innovative of her own. Even Fireflies’ packaging makes this clear—Hill has dyed her blond hair a deep auburn, the same shade of color as Gretchen Wilson’s, Jo Dee Messina’s, Terri Clark’s, and Sara Evans’s tresses. Wilson, Messina, Clark, and Evans, incidentally, are the only women to score a #1 country single in the past three years. Surely, though, this must be a mere coincidence, and Fireflies is another step in Hill’s ongoing evolution into a standards singer, right?

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The Southern-fried production of lead single “Mississippi Girl,” however, immediately puts to rest any questions as to whether Hill might choose to do her own thing, rather than to ape shamelessly the things that the women who supplanted her at the top of Nashville’s pecking order have been doing for the past year. It’s written by John Rich, after all, the latter half of Big & Rich and the man responsible for nearly all of Wilson’s success. And, as a declaration of artistic identity, “Mississippi Girl” couldn’t be more dead-on accurate. It’s hardly a surprise at this point that Hill, a complete cipher having been perfectly cast as a Stepford Wife (which is referenced in the head-slappingly stupid second-verse of “Mississippi Girl”), would completely miss the point of the criticisms against Cry and couldn’t even muster a writing credit on her version of “Jenny From The Block.”

Now, country music is filled with artists who don’t often write their own material, and there’s absolutely value to be found in excellent interpretive singers, which Nashville actually has in bountiful supply. Emmylou Harris has deservedly earned legendary status both within and beyond the country genre with her heady interpretations of difficult songs. Yearwood remains the best pure singer, the combination of power, range, and a sense of phrasing, currently recording in any popular genre, and she has an ear for exceptional material. Even Hill’s husband, Tim McGraw, has made a career by emoting all the livelong day, though with the songs he chooses, he’s often trying a bit too hard. Hill, on the other hand, peaked very early as an interpretive singer, on the title track to her sophomore album It Matters To Me. Though she’s made a concerted effort to improve her vocals since then— she attempts (though, as the end of “Mississippi Girl” demonstrates, not always successfully) to hit notes that she wouldn’t have dared to try earlier in her career, and she’s developed a full lower-register that keeps her recent performances from sounding as girlish as “Wild One” or her “Let’s Go To Vegas.” And, while putting in that kind of work is certainly admirable, the attention to the technical aspects of her voice allowed her ability to interpret a song to atrophy. There isn’t a break in her voice anywhere on Fireflies that doesn’t sound fundamentally calculated, and she sings her lyrics as though she learned them phonetically, like Christina Aguilera’s ill-conceived efforts at singing in Spanish.

This, of course, would be a more significant problem if Fireflies contained any songs that might genuinely merit such consideration as subtlety or nuance. The twangy “Dearly Beloved,” for instance, is a bald-faced stab at the ribald perfection of both the Dixie Chicks’ “White Trash Wedding” and Trick Pony’s “The Bride,” filtered through the same neo-con mentality that has made Wilson’s brand of feminism so inherently dishonest (there’s a line about “the effects of sex and alcohol” that should play well in the red states). The first line of the title track is, “Before you met me, I was a fairy princess,” which Hill sings without a trace of self-awareness, and the song, one of three on Fireflies written by Lori McKenna, shares the same central image as the year’s best country single, Miranda Lambert’s “Me and Charlie Talking,” without sharing even a shred of the complexity or resonance of Lambert’s offering. The inevitable duet with McGraw, “Like We Never Loved At All,” is a significant step forward from their previous effort, the smarmy “Let’s Make Love,” but that’s a compliment so backhanded it could dislocate a shoulder.

The songs, then, live or die on the strengths of their melodic hooks and production values. And, though its lyrics completely eschew such trivialities as the meter of the song—the kind of weakness, again, that Hill isn’t a good enough interpreter to overcome—“Mississippi Girl” does have a memorable enough melody, as does the cheerful if empty-headed opener, “Sunshine And Summertime.” Generally, the uptempo tracks fare better than do the ballads, and if executive producer Byron Gallimore’s decision to foreground the occasional banjo on what would otherwise be an adult contemporary ballad is disingenuous, it’s at least successful in making Fireflies sound indistinguishable from recent lackluster efforts by Jamie O’Neal or Deana Carter, or from the dead-eyed Teddy Ruxpin who won the fourth season of American Idol, who might as well be renamed “Faith Hill, v. 2.0.”

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What’s ultimately so disheartening about Fireflies is the extent to which it will be championed as a return to (a never-existent) form by a capital-A artist (who doesn’t even merit the lower-case designation as such), and as a benchmark for what mainstream country can and should be. The last few years have seen a refreshing infusion of artistic integrity into the country mainstream, with artists like Julie Roberts, Evans, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Lambert all making music that, at its best, fully holds its own in comparison to the gritty, soulful work of Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn. And, though their shtick is sociologically loaded to an almost impossible degree, Big & Rich have made it commercially and critically viable for major label country artists to attempt to defy the genre’s mainstream conventions. Faith Hill and Fireflies bring nothing new to the table but a particularly shrewd marketing strategy. Hill has nothing of her own to say, nor does she say anyone else’s words with any insight or conviction. That adding some steel guitar to Fireflies’ relentless tripe is being sold with greater efficacy than Hill sells said tripe as a credibility maneuver is nothing short of appalling, even by Nashville’s standards of beating dead horses. There are too many other sources of optimism to view the album as a harbinger of doom for country’s recent, unexpected artistic resurgence, but it’s a nadir both for Nashville’s golden empress and for the genre she embraces only when it stands to profit her most.

Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: August 2, 2005 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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