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Review: Florence and the Machine, Ceremonials




Florence and the Machine, Ceremonials

Saying Florence Welch has a big voice is like saying Prince is interested in sex: Her pipes, like his libido, function as both source and channel, inspiration and means of expression, for music that serves it. The standout from Welch’s debut—whose name paid tribute to her respiratory system, as though acknowledging that her lungs deserved equal billing with the statuesque hippie chick tasked with lugging them around—was called “Cosmic Love,” and one gets the sense that it didn’t invoke “the stars, the moon” as a grandiose metaphor for heartbreak so much as to give Welch’s whooping, plummeting voice subject matter appropriate to its own massive dimensions. Elsewhere, Lungs‘s ungainly amalgam of Brit-rock, soul, and theatrical, vaguely mystical pop revealed a talented group of industry producers shuffling haphazardly through the ideas they’d thought too weird to sell, grasping for arrangements that could withstand the levels of drama that Welch’s voice simply demands.

Very little about Welch rings conventional for a pop star, but she has a star’s voice, and when “Dog Days Are Over” dragged itself up the charts to become the sleeper hit of 2010 more than a full year after its initial release, it seemed like pop music itself was correcting an ecological imbalance. Florence herself might prefer to rock an Aquarian frock with her stilettos while getting blackout drunk in London alleyways, but there’s a niche in mainstream pop for this misfit diva, one that the dispersed efforts of Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, even Sarah MacLachlan and Evanescene’s Amy Lee have gradually institutionalized. How right did it feel when Florence got on stage at the Grammys for the Aretha Franklin tribute and blew Christina Aguilera away? Witchy women and theater kids aren’t supposed to win in pop, which has always belonged to the cool kids, but at a certain level of proven commercial appeal, what’s the industry to do but make room for the outsider and hope she’ll agree to a makeover?

The improbable success of Ceremonials is that the logic of the market and the transcendental yearning written into Welch’s timbre happen to be confronting Welch the musician with the same demand: go bigger. It’d be easy to make the argument that Ceremonials is a cash-in: It’s slick and polished, and more than anything else, it sounds expensive, using orchestral flourishes and tribal percussion as detailing on designer-template pop and soul tracks. As a producer, Paul Epworth came to the album flush with confidence and industry capital from the success of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” and that’s reflected in his audaciously loud approach to the composition and mastering of the album. But what could’ve sounded gaudy and monolithic feels, for all but a handful of tracks, spacious, lush, and finely arranged, as though Epworth decided to undertake a blockbuster re-launch of Annie Lennox’s stylized Euro-soul.

The first four tracks of Ceremonials are essentially flawless; there you get the enthralling soft-loud teaser “Only If for a Night” paired with the instantly gratifying anthem “Shake It Out,” a dirge-like palate cleanser in “What the Water Gave Me,” and then the gorgeous “Never Let Me Go,” easily the best ballad Florence has done yet. Ceremonials can’t help but get weaker as it continues, a fact which owes less to the quality of the songwriting than to the album’s length (it’s over an hour long) and a far less dynamic second act. The album has too many songs, and specifically, too many huge-sounding songs, and it gets overwhelming to the point that the impact of the material is diluted. Welch and Epworth clearly needed to make the album more diverse or simply shorter, but there’s no reason to let their questionable editing stop you from relishing “Lover to Lover,” “Spectrum,” or “Remain Nameless,” which sound spectacular when taken alone or on a playlist.

Anthem fatigue, after all, is a risk that seems built into Welch’s singing. Intimacy is hardly within her emotional range, a limitation that’s ultimately far less damning than it should be because she sounds more compelling the more doggedly she pursues the universal. The inner connection between the gypsy bandleader she played on Lungs (and plays here on “Heartlines” and “Leave My Body”) and the pop diva that reigns over Ceremonials is that both roles presume a communal context, wherein Welch makes herself the voice of a much larger social body. Even if she insists, as on the opening track, that these are her “own secret ceremonials,” it’s evident that secrets only exist in Welch’s world on the condition that they eventually be shouted from a hilltop for the sake of everyone’s catharsis. Welch is, in some sense, makes for a purer pop singer than many of her more marketable peers in that the criteria her music sets for itself are those which demand a large audience.

And at that, Welch seems preemptively committed to making big music; if she ever attempted one of those spare, intimate singer-songwriter sets, she’d be immediately identifiable as a woman ill at ease with her destiny. Good thing, then, that denial has as little place as secrecy on Ceremonials, which is a conversation that consists entirely in affirmations, and at its best, in those of the shared, soul-bearing kind so satisfying you could forget you ever wanted anything else from a musician.

Label: Universal Republic Release Date: November 1, 2011 Buy: Amazon



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.




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.




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.




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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