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Review: Hank 3, Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town

4.5

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Hank 3, Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town

Hank Williams III made no secret of feeling stifled by his contract with Curb Records, and the rage he directed toward the Nashville establishment he believed sold out his grandfather’s legacy resulted in some tremendous, ferocious music, forcing him to forge his own identity as an artist. Now free from the constraints of his contract with Curb, Williams has made the most of that hard-earned artistic license with a tremendous double album, Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town, that should put to rest once and for all the shallow criticisms that his music amounts to little more than swearing and a strident “outlaw” shtick. By expanding on his trademark “Hellbilly” sound in genuinely surprising ways, Williams proves himself to be one of the most fearless, ambitious recording artists of his era.

Of the two halves of the record, Ghost to a Ghost is more firmly rooted in the traditional country music that’s Williams’s birthright, but his foul mouth and incorporation of punk and metal elements on songs like the furious “Ridin’ the Wave” would both offend and terrify most genre purists. That’s too bad, really, since songs like the two-stepping “Don’t Ya Wanna” and “Gutter Town” give Williams the opportunity to show there are few ostensible country artists who understand the genre’s conventions—the economical use of language, especially, and the ironic disconnect between difficult emotional themes and uptempo arrangements—as well as he does. “Don’t Ya Wanna” is far and away the catchiest and countriest track Williams has recorded in years: No country act since the Mavericks made more raucous use of an accordion. But lines like “I’m driftin’ for a good time on Saturday night/‘Cause I’ve been cooped up and I’m feelin’ uptight/And I’m lookin’ all around, tryin’ to find me a girl/Who wants to fuck” just aren’t ever going to fly at country radio, no matter how well-constructed the song’s hooks might be.

As is typically the case with Williams’s albums, it’s the song construction that’s his most impressive technical accomplishment. There simply isn’t a wasted measure or phrase on any of his songs, and no matter how obscene any given phrase might turn out to be, he’s able to convey in-the-moment emotional turmoil with exacting precision. “The Devil’s Movin’ In” is a haunted, anguished song that finds its narrator bottoming out after a failed relationship, while “Time to Die” approaches that kind of finality with a fully developed nihilism: “As far back as I can remember/All my heroes had trouble in their eyes/It might have been drugs or it might have been love/But they all knew when it was time to die.”

One of the most frequent criticisms of Williams is that his persona is one-note. Though his last albums for Curb all leaned heavily on his outlaw posturing, he always demonstrated a genuine self-awareness when it came to constructing a multifaceted persona. He’s able to build on that over the course of Ghost to a Ghost and Gutter Town, couching his narratives in first-person details of rural living without using those details as an end unto themselves or leaning too heavily on braggadocio. While it’s hard to praise an album that includes a song called “Cunt of a Bitch,” this double album does prove that Williams knows exactly why he’s doing what he does.

Considering that his fearlessness occasionally brushes up against recklessness, there are some occasional lapses in taste. “Cunt of a Bitch” goes too far over the top in its ne’er-do-well narrative, and overdubbing his dog’s howls on “Trooper’s Holler” is obvious and ineffective. It initially appears that Williams chose to use his indefensible Cookie Monster voice from Rebel Within‘s weakest cuts on Ghost to a Ghost‘s title track, but it turns out that it’s actually a guest vocal turn from Tom Waits.

Waits’s appearance is unexpected, but it’s indicative of the kinds of risks Williams takes over the course of the album. Gutter Town is the more ambitious half of the set, recalling the second disc of Straight to Hell, his most cohesive work and a purposeful declaration of artistic identity. “Goin’ to Gutter Town” opens with a lengthy passage of frogs singing before Williams begins an otherwise a cappella, sleepily sung verse. It’s a disorienting way to open a disc that trades in feelings of displacement, especially since the second track, “GutterStomp,” triggers full-on cognitive dissonance when Williams starts singing in French.

The overarching theme to Gutter Town is of finding some sense of identity by submerging oneself in the unfamiliar. Williams’s vocal performances have never sounded more uninhibited and spirited than they do on the multiple French-language cuts (and, it’s worth mentioning, his pronunciation isn’t half bad either), and the heavy Cajun influence that runs throughout plays like a natural extension of his pushing of genre boundaries. The repetition of Cajun music structures lend themselves well to Williams’s mastery of economical songwriting: “Musha’s” may sound undeniably foreign in its arrangement, but its heavy percussion and foregrounded fiddles ultimately aren’t that far removed from the “Hellbilly” style of Ghost to a Ghost.

By flaunting conventions and defying expectations, Gutter Town emerges as a dense, challenging effort. It’s messy and self-indulgent, sure, but it also rewards more active listening in the way that the best, most artful albums do. It’s not like Williams is singing in French just for the novelty of hearing someone best known for sounding dead-on like his grandfather and for singing about riding ATVs in the muddy back fields of Tennessee suddenly sing in the language of international diplomacy: He’s doing it because songs like “Dyin’ Day” and “GutterStomp” are about really and truly giving in to something unexpected, and because he’s interested in drawing a new influence into his already distinctive aesthetic.

Williams is incredibly smart, particularly when it comes to his place in country music. Albums like Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town both honor the genre that his grandfather was so instrumental in founding and push it in genuinely progressive new directions. His stories and emotions are rarely pleasant, but the best country music has never been about being pleasant. Williams made some pretty great records during his tenure at Curb, but Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town suggests that he’s only just begun to showcase his apparently boundless creativity and breadth of his artistic vision.

Label: Hank3 Release Date: September 6, 2011 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.

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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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

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Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

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

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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

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Joe Jackson, Fool

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

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