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Review: Ian Brown, My Way

2.5

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Ian Brown, My Way

Last month, the Stone Roses’s self-titled magnum opus celebrated its 20th anniversary; it was a categorically timeless LP that changed the shape of British music, providing a rough outline for Oasis and the oodles of concurrent Britpop acts that dominated her majesty’s charts and airwaves for the majority of the 1990s. Ian Brown has had the unenviable task of forging his reputation as a solo artist from the ashes of that seminal Mancunian outfit, shaking off torrential criticism for his pedestrian vocals and snubbing the incessant calls for a Stone Roses reunion. His career, then, has been an exercise in dogged determination: Anyone who has charted Brown’s musical progress over his last five studio albums can attest to his ever-increasing ambition and his refusal to compromise on the grandiose concepts that have blessed his more inspired work. He stubbornly christens his sixth effort, My Way, and confirms his intent to stick with his tried, tested, and critically ostracized blueprint.

The album is a testament to his unyielding ambition, borrowing brass arrangements that belong in Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-western scores and fusing them with his own brand of electronic psychedelica. These elements coalesce wonderfully on album opener and lead single “Stellify,” sauntering along with a hollow piano melody over a deep bass thud until a platoon of horns provide a toe-tapping rescue from routine synth tedium. Again, in the Zager & Evans cover “The Year 2525,” which chronicles a nightmarish prophecy in which mankind is made redundant after centuries of its own technological advancement, Brown’s sermon is boosted by mariachi horns and Spanish guitar, culminating in a majestic key change as this disquieting hallucination reaches judgment day: “In the year 7510/If God’s a-coming, oughta made it by then.” If 2004’s Solarized gave an indication of his penchant for ornate brass assemblies, then the brave synergies of My Way show just how far Brown is willing to ferry this formula.

It comes as no coincidence, though, that the only lyrically engaging track to be found on My Way is indeed a cover. Brown’s libretto has often bordered on insipid, but his limp rhyming couplets and general lack of imagination are painfully evident here: “I made a shrine, I made it for you/I see you are an angel, all the things that you do.” Unfortunately, it gets worse—far worse. “Own Brain,” the title of which is an anagram of Ian Brown, sees any dissection of the album’s lyrical merit descend into farce. Brown boasts, “I got my own brain/An anagram of my own name,” perhaps in a futile attempt at profundity, but should instead prompt his addressees to question whether they’re listening to the same Ian Brown that penned such enduring paradigms some 20 years ago.

It should be made clear that Brown’s exploits since the acrimonious Stone Roses split have been praised for their sonic prowess rather than their wordplay, and My Way is no different. “Just Like You” is undoubtedly the most audacious track here, a sonorous synthesizer hook imparted with the greatest of poise and finished with those mariachi horns for what seems like the record’s umpteenth time. The pomp and swagger of this baggy-disco thumper provide the perfect vessel for Brown’s arrogant if technically sub-par vocals, delivering every monotone line with the same pride and bluster that he declared, “I am the resurrection.”

From there, though, the album begins to tread water in a lackluster second act that fails to sustain the momentum that the aforementioned tracks set, suffering from a lack of vision and a serious melodic drought. Beyond pseudo-U2 ballad “Always Remember Me,” it’s impossible to find any redeeming features in My Way‘s latter half—a collection of tunes that belong on a cutting room floor, all of which lamely amble along to a dreadfully undercooked curtain call.

Just as you would expect from the ex-Stone Roses frontman, Brown’s sixth solo LP marks more significant progress in his skills as an arranger and beatmaker while underlining his boundaries as a singer and lyricist. My Way exists as a triumph of self-belief, displaying all the stubborn ambition that has kept Brown afloat since John Squire swapped his guitar for watercolors. Alas, these qualities aren’t quite enough to make a truly great record. For all its lofty goals and risky production decisions, the album runs out of steam with such sudden regression that it becomes impossible to advocate Brown’s “way.”

Label: Polydor Release Date: October 5, 2009 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.

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.

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.

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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