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Review: J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story

3.0

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J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story

Easily the most anticipated rap debut since Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday, Cole World: The Sideline Story at last gives us a chance to see Roc Nation benchwarmer J. Cole step up to the plate. If the album doesn’t do quite enough to establish him as the star player Jay-Z clearly wants to add to his team’s roster, it still contains enough impressive moments to land it a full tier above recent debuts by Class of ‘11 rappers Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean. Like fellow Southerner Big K.R.I.T., whose own major-label debut was pushed back to avoid competing with Cole World, J. Cole is a double-threat rapper-producer, but where K.R.I.T.‘s gorgeous tracks redeem a flow that lands just north of meh, Cole is a more workmanlike producer who gets by on his taut rhymes and knack for delivering hooks sans guest crooners.

That said, an inventory of Cole’s technical gifts doesn’t do much to explain his appeal. Most rap fans don’t know or care which rappers produce their own material, and Cole’s flow is solidly in the same nimble-but-not-acrobatic range as Wale or Royce da 5’9”. It’s honesty more than lyricism that makes Cole so enjoyable to listen to, as he effortlessly renders a persona that’s easy to like—even more so than, say, Drake, even though Cole doesn’t try nearly as hard to play up the nice-guy angle. But if Drake’s shtick is to play the sensitive dude blindsided by fame and thereby grant the listener some access to his world of lonely glamor, Cole skews populist, choosing quotidian settings and characters for his dispatches from small-town America. He invites our vicarious enjoyment of his success, promising to “put us all on the map…you can bet the bank on me” on “Sideline Story,” and in doing so vies for the same hometown-hero vibes as Scotty McCreery.

Cole’s production choices—favoring live percussion, piano, and electric guitar over the more-fashionable synthesizers and 808s—resonate well with this persona. Kanye West’s production work circa Common’s Be and his own Late Registration is evidently a major influence, and as with West’s sophomore album, Cole World has a tendency to skew too far into soft-rock simper, though I suppose if Bon Iver can turn heads by cribbing the Eagles, there’s no reason why Cole shouldn’t be scanning AOR stations for inspiration. Besides, he’s got a good sense of humor about it. “Work Out” is endearingly schmaltzy funk, with Cole weighing sex against commitment while quoting Paula Abdul and making off with the weird, synthetic trumpet melody from “Straight Up,” and the piano on “Lights Please” recalls both Motown and Billy Joel. Only when Jay-Z stops by for “Mr. Nice Watch” does Cole break character, trading bars with his mentor with SBTRKT-like future-funk for an early album highlight.

Unfortunately, Cole World‘s would-be inspirational story arc impels it to present the shambling, reflective stuff toward the first half of the album. Cole pulls the “Jesus Walks”-like drama stuff neither poorly nor especially well, sounding half-convicted on “God’s Gift” and squandering a rare Missy Elliott guest spot on the pedestrian “Nobody’s Perfect.” I admire Cole for wanting to get conscious, but his affable persona makes it hard for him to tap into the self-righteousness that rappers like Common can’t help but channel. “Lost Ones” shares its title with one of Lauryn Hill’s best songs, almost definitely in homage since the track finds Cole trying to replicate Hill’s gift for directly and coolly dissecting matters of the heart and groin, but it’s one of many instances where he primes his listeners for a dose of real-talk only to come up with little to say. As insights into small-town domestica go, “She’d put a ring up on his finger if she could/But he loved her ‘cause the pussy good/She ain’t a wife though” is more black Mellencamp than black Updike; delivered over a bed of smooth-rock strings, it sounds even more self-serious and sappy.

“In the Morning” is probably Cole’s best chance at a star-making moment here, and not just because the song features Drake, which, I think, legally obligates urban radio stations to play it. The spare slow jam is one of a few tracks near the beginning of the album where Cole really sinks into the easy, conversational rapping style that could eventually become his calling card: not overly confessional in the Drake/Kanye vein nor as aloof and analytical as many lyrical MCs. The track is unfortunately saddled with a maudlin piano melody, but its path as a single is easier to imagine than that of a superior rap showcase like “Lights Please.” There, the easy interplay between Cole’s beats and flow show just what’s so exciting about a young rapper who doesn’t need an advance and an A-list producer to get in the studio and create. Amply stocked with warmth and charisma, the only thing Cole World really wants for is the kind of out-of-the-park highlight that would pull the whole album together; as is, it shows off the scattered but considerable strengths of a talented rookie whose potential for long-term success is palpable.

Label: Roc Nation Release Date: September 27, 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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