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Review: James Blake, James Blake

4.0

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James Blake, James Blake

For the first time in months, Lady Gaga is dominating the American music press because of something she sang rather than something she wore. Sort of. Her “Born This Way” is a booming musical meat dress: What justifies its demand on your attention is how insistently it demands your attention, and in that sense, it’s the type of pop spectacle which Gaga has perfected. It’s not so much vacuous as underdetermined, the song effectively incomplete until the inevitable media freak-out peaks and subsides.

Meanwhile, in Britain, an entirely different breed of entertainer stands at the center of a no-less-considerable media frenzy. James Blake doesn’t live and breathe the hyperbole of the entertainment industry. He’s handsome but not preternaturally so, and yet his image has become a fixture of blogs and even magazine covers in the U.K. As of last December, he was officially the sound of 2011. That Blake became a cause célèbre among trendsetters at Clash and The Wire was no surprise; more of a coup was his second-place showing in the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll—where he nearly bested the atrocious Jessie J, whose Ke$ha-cum-Nicki-Minaj sleaze will be inescapable by year’s end—on the strength of his austere, somewhat prickly electro-R&B.

As a talent, Blake is undeniable, but as a pop star, he seems totally implausible. Listen to any of the EPs that preceded James Blake and tell me where you hear the platinum single. The brooding, sample-driven “CMYK”? The ultra-minimal “I Only Know (What I Know Now)”? Each of those songs is tremendous in its own right, but it’s impossible to imagine them vying for chart positions with “Born This Way.” Yet one gets the sense that this is exactly the future for which Blake is being groomed.

James Blake is being distributed in America by Universal Republic, the same label behind two hugely successful British imports, Amy Winehouse and Florence and the Machine. Its homegrown talents include Colbie Caillat and Owl City. One line of explanation goes that Blake has presented the industry with the best opportunity to break dubstep to a mainstream audience. That’s probably not true, and for a number of reasons. Safer crossover artists—most recently, Rusko—have underperformed commercially; meanwhile, the whole prospect of selling dupstep has been somewhat obviated given that, scene ambassador or no, the once-experimental style has already been pressed into service for performers like Rihanna, Britney Spears, and Ke$ha.

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Oh, and it’s probably worth mentioning that James Blake is not a dubstep album. Blake’s first step out of anonymity was a remix of “Stop What You’re Doing” by Untold, a British bass-music experimentalist whose own relationship to the dubstep scene is fairly ambiguous; like Blake, his work is sometimes tagged as “post-dubstep.” As with many underground music genres (think hardcore or industrial), dubstep exhibits the apparently contradictory qualities of being both ill-defined and highly orthodox. Blake’s first EP, Air and Lack Thereof, hewed to the uptempo, bass-driven template characteristic of the style, but that didn’t mean that its authenticity would go unquestioned. Like his colleagues in Mt. Kimbie, Blake made dubstep that sounded soulful and optimistic. Note that a highly regarded dubstep compilation called Tectonic Plates features songs with titles like “Nightmarez,” “Gutter,” “Disturbance,” and “Punisher,” and that the genre’s current critical paragon performs under the moniker Burial and you’ll understand why Blake’s playful sound experiments met with an ambivalent reception.

Listening to Blake’s trio of EPs, especially the downtempo Klavierwerke, it becomes clear that Blake isn’t an actual dubstep musician, but rather a musician who was briefly fascinated by dubstep. This view of his work is borne out by his biography. Blake has been trained as a pianist and singer since he was six, the musical diet of his youth mostly drawn from his parents’ extensive library of classical and jazz recordings. But as with British musicians from Mick Jagger to Massive Attack, Blake was also riveted by American R&B. He has cited Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and D’Angelo as inspirations, and the latter’s enigmatic Voodoo may well be the determinative influence on James Blake‘s atmospheric blue-eyed soul. Blake’s discovery of dubstep was actually a recent one: He became a devotee of genre pioneers Digital Mystikz just before he enrolled at Goldsmiths University in London to study popular music. Their influence appears to have waned. Most of James Blake is too slow and too spare to qualify as dubstep, and where Blake does reference the U.K.‘s underground dance scene, he does so subtly. A rattle of sub-bass splits into his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” and the ghostly, pitch-shifted vocals that have become ubiquitous among British producers surface on “I Mind” and “I Never Learnt to Share.”

But just as many of James Blake‘s sonic antecedents exist entirely beyond the purview of dance music. Antony’s androgyne cabaret and Bon Iver’s celebrated vocoder experiment, “Woods,” are among the more fashionable points of reference. But, perhaps not coincidentally, Blake’s major-label debut also channels a set of influences that is more marketable and also undeniably less cool. His choice of the Feist cover as a first single is a clear hat-tip to the influence of female singer-songwriters on his work; meanwhile, he’s turned in a stunning rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” for BBC Radio 1, and he often sings in a low tenor reminiscent of Nina Simone. That trio of Starbucks-approved chanteuses is pretty far from the cutting edge of anything, but the combination of traditionalist songwriting and avant-garde sonics is what makes James Blake such a compelling listen. Like Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, Blake’s album is one that gestures both to the distant future and to a bygone Golden Age of classic pop.

It’s no accident that Blake’s pop pantheon is predominately female. Last year’s “CMYK” was structured around vocal samples from Kelis and Aaliyah, with Blake using the two R&B singers’ voices as proxies for his own. He does all of the singing on James Blake, but he’s still following up on that single’s use of technology to bridge the gap between himself and the musicians who inspire him. Blake’s natural singing voice is not conventionally masculine, and he frequently employs the vocoder to make himself sound completely genderless, as on the android a cappella “Lindesfarne I.” Though Blake never indulges in Gaga or even Antony levels of camp, there’s an element of hi-tech drag to his work, which, by virtue of rendering his own gender plastic, is as brazenly queer as anything that either of those artists has done. Many of the album’s best tracks, including the standout single “A Wilhelm Scream,” show Blake using his studio wizardry to bring out his inner R&B diva.

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If only Blake’s compositions always felt so purposive. Too often Blake either mistakes his process, which is admittedly fascinating, for an end in itself, or worse, uses his sonic abstractionism to cover over a song’s lack of interesting ideas. It’s in these moments that one remembers how recently Blake made the transition from producer to songwriter. He’s too dependent on mantra-like lyrical repetition, hoping, not always without cause, that his words will take on a hypnotic power when coupled to his minimal arrangements. It’s a perfectly fine songwriting tactic, and one that Blake is able to pull off more frequently than he ought to because his command of pacing and negative space is so well-developed. Nonetheless, Blake nearly makes a methodology out of what should be a single weapon in his arsenal, and by late in the album, his shaky grasp of more conventional pop dynamics becomes an evident weakness. It’s a classic dilemma for artists too well-versed in music theory: too much John Cage, not enough Joni Mitchell.

That means that James Blake comes up unexpectedly short in terms of truly memorable songs, but, even so, it’s impressive how even those tracks which feel unfinished or overly conceptual are redeemed by their contribution to the album’s whole. James Blake has a nearly mystical aura to it; it’s clear from the first track that the album is special. Novelty, in the parlance of music criticism, typically carries the pejorative sting of fleeting amusement. I suspect this has less to do with cynicism than with oversaturation: Confronted with far more media than we can process, we don’t know how to experience newness as anything other than a product to be consumed. It’s a way of relating to music that doesn’t allow for surprises, and certainly not for vulnerability. And so there’s something genius about the way that Blake’s work is premised on an aesthetic of recurrent silence, the counterintuitive result being that the 40 minutes you spend listening to his album may be the only part of your day where you experience silence at all. To listen to James Blake is not just to hear something new, in the sense that the music here marks a clear and creative evolution from any of Blake’s identifiable influences, but also to hear something new, in the sense that Blake knows how to make his listeners receptive to his music through the strategic use of silence.

Certainly, none of this sounds like a formula for pop stardom. In the long run, a studious wunderkind like Blake is probably a safer investment than most of his labelmates; he did, after all, release three EPs in 12 months, then prepare an LP of entirely new material by February of the next year, and seems perfectly willing to expand his fanbase through covers and remixes. Compared to a train wreck like Winehouse, he’s a Boy Scout. It’s also possible that his signers just read one too many reviews heralding Blake as the future of electronic music to not get on board. What I do know is that at the center of the deafening hype is a fascinating debut, and having spent the last week immersed in it, I suppose I too am willing to invest a bit of hyperbole in James Blake, particularly if it helps convince you to invest a few hours with this uncommonly powerful album.

Label: Universal Republic Release Date: February 7, 2011 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.

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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.

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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.

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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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