The emergence of YouTube and its ilk have allowed scores of comedy musicians to become overnight sensations, though the majority of them exhaust their novelty value with the same velocity with which they burst into the public consciousness. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, with managing to forge a successful career for themselves from their online notoriety. With two full-length albums, a successful HBO sitcom, and a myriad of arena tour dates and awards coming out of their ears, it’s safe to say that New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords (Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement) are one of those exceptions. Their latest offering, I Told You I Was Freaky, cherry-picks musical interludes from the second season of their acclaimed television series, seeing the anti-folk duo stick to what they know and never straying too far from their comfort zone.
The Conchords’s lampoons tread the same ground as in their self-titled debut, chronicling single-male insecurities—love, friendship, dejection, self-image, etc.—over a mixed bag of genre parodies. Album opener “Hurt Feelings” tells a story of overly sensitive rappers, with Bret and Jermaine reassuming their hip-hop monikers (Rhymenocerous and Hiphopopotamus, respectively) to illuminate the woes of your everyday emcee: “I make a meal for my friends, try to make it delicious/Try to keep it nutritious, create wonderful dishes/Not one of them thinks about the way that I feel/Nobody compliments the meal.” Indeed, I’m sure there isn’t a day that goes by without the Wu-Tang Clan bickering over the merits of Method Man’s aubergine lasagna, but that’s hip-hop for you, I suppose.
It’s evident from tracks like “Hurt Feelings” and tame crunk spoof “Sugalumps” that the Conchords are seeking to move away from their folk pigeonholing, and Freaky‘s more generous production budget allows them to do so, but few of these ventures manage to establish the same quality of narrative as their basic guitar-based precursors. Instead, we’re often left with empty satires that exist solely as send-ups of a particular genre, where the Conchords’s strengths lie in weaving madcap stories and relaying their kooky observations. “Demon Woman” sees them playing to these strengths, telling of a bizarre encounter with a demon woman (no surprises there) in a heavy metal spoof with all the trimmings of a histrionic Iron Maiden fable. Bret shrieks the song title repeatedly while Jermaine snarls such witticisms as “Demon woman, you sit on a rock/Looking nice in your frock, but you’re scaring my livestock.”
Beyond the ‘80s synth-pop sound of “Fashion Is Danger,” though, the record’s middle sector is bereft of such belly laughs. “Petrov, Yelyena & Me” is a purposeless yarn of cannibals lost at sea, and “Friends” is a hackneyed analysis of male camaraderie, while “You Don’t Have to Be a Prostitute” is charming enough without obliging any real guffaws. This could perhaps be attributed to the contextual nature of many of the tracks; without the image of Jermaine in preposterously tight hot pants, or the backstory that surrounds many of the series’ musical numbers, the lyrical content proves less engaging.
Freaky‘s penultimate ditty is a cast-iron highlight. Recounting a string of failed relationships over a delightfully fizzy refrain, “Carol Brown” is conceivably the Conchords most formidable piece of songwriting to date. Each doomed spouse has her own story (“Felicity said there was no electricity/Emily, no chemistry/Fran ran, Bruce turned out to be a man/Flo had to go, I couldn’t go with the flow”) that Jermaine elucidates for us before indulging in a bout of embittered call-and-repeat interplay with a choir of said girlfriends. It is a great credit to Freaky that even when it doesn’t split your sides, it can at least have you tapping your toes when on form. In essence, this is what separates Flight of the Conchords from their inferiors, and what has kept these endearing New Zealanders interesting going into their sophomore full-length outing. Unfortunately, for the odd dizzying high that the album provides, we are burdened with fatigued lows by the same token. The material is better served in context, complete with music videos and framed with dialogue, whereas as a standalone record it misses more than it hits.
Label: Sub Pop Release Date: October 27, 2009 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