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Review: Janet Jackson, 20 Y.O.

2.5

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Janet Jackson, 20 Y.O.

The “Y.O.” in the title of Janet-née-Jackson’s new album doesn’t let on whether the first letter is plural or singular, whether it’s a noun or an adjective. And it would make all the difference. If it’s truly supposed to stand for “years,” as the album was originally titled before an Internet fan suggested turning it into a terse acronym, then it’s still a forgivable conceit. It’s been two decades since Control brought bubblegum funk together with beats from west of both Detroit and Chicago in Minneapolis, creating a ghetto heaven from a sci-fi soundscape, and it’s one of the few zeitgeist albums I have no qualms celebrating arbitrary anniversaries over. Unfortunately, I fear we’re staring down an album called 20-Year-Old, which is not only a misguided move from a woman twice that age (at least Mimi sounded like a near-40 woman pretending to be 13), but also illustrates everything wrong with Janet’s new direction. (A possible third interpretation, and my personal favorite, is that it’s supposed to be read phonetically: “I’m 20, yo.”)

For starters, 20 Y.O. is the first album Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have produced (this time only in part) for Janet having moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. As a result, their ice-cold beats have melted into a lugubrious, lukewarm pudding—at under an hour, it still feels almost twice as long as janet. and The Velvet Rope. I don’t know what the album’s co-producer Jermaine Dupri (also the one who keeps Janet’s own private beats hot) thought he meant when he said he wanted 20 Y.O. to sound like an old Human League record, but I’ll readily admit that the evidence on display suggests he was the only one with the foresight to come up with some new old ideas, even if none of them work to Janet’s advantage.

Khia, for example, drops by for a cameo on the album’s second single “So Excited.” “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” was one of the truly innovative touchstones of our era, but what’s the point of inviting the woman who once demanded “Suck it all til I shake and cum, nigga, make sure I keep bustin’ nuts, nigga” and telling her to “act bad, don’t hurt me” and to repeat the mantra “talk dirty” without actually letting her do it? The grindcore “This Body” brings the fugly with surprising abandon, throwing hissing industrial clatter atop an admirably tuneless dirge (you hardly realize it’s a way-late bid in the chopped n’ screwed sweepstakes until the 16 RPM guest rap drops in). We’re a long way from “The Body That Loves You” here, but Jam and Lewis can’t resist trying to smooth it over for a bridge straight from the “Runaway” playbook. (I like “cute” Janet—a la “Alright,” “When I Think Of You” and “Together Again”—way more than my Slant cohort Sal, but the only thing that makes an ugly face more ugly is trying to put makeup on it.) “Enjoy” is a seamlessly smooth step groove aboard R. Kelly’s “Step In The Name Of Love” boat, but its presence here only makes the likes of “Get It Out Me” and “Roll Witchu” seem all the more opportunistic. In preemptive retrospect, 20 Y.O. should’ve been Janet’s The Cookbook, not her The Cashing Of Mimi’s Reparation Checks.

But the real desperation that permeates 20 Y.O. isn’t that of a 40-ish woman cutting her age in half simply because, I guess, she also recently cut her weight in half. True, it frequently sounds as though it were the LP equivalent of a come-hither from R&B’s Miss Havisham. But I can’t imagine why we shouldn’t indulge a little age fudging from a woman who could crack walnuts on her abs. No, the album’s desperation is that of a dance icon who once sent one hot track after another to the top of the charts and is now deciding she liked the idea of being at the top of the singles charts better than creating immortal dance music. As blogger Rich Juzwiak suggested earlier this summer when Janet leaked a cover of Debbie Deb’s “Lookout Weekend” and then yanked it (never mind that it would’ve been this album’s best track by default had it been included), there’s a discernible sense of crass capitulation in Janet’s latest career strategies. Yes, dance music in the world of pop has never seen such a nadir since well before disco. That’s why now, more than ever, I’m willing to hold out for a hero.

I don’t necessarily expect a return to the days when, having called Nuyorican Soul the best new album she’d heard back in 1997, she commissioned Masters At Work to remix “Go Deep” for her. Nor do I care to see Janet going the Madonna/ABBA route, which would surely make us all feel 40 years old. But the saddest thing about 20 Y.O. is that Janet’s decision to hedge her bets on an album whose backbone is made up of terrible R&B instead of great dance music (or even the passable club material from her last two albums—“All For You,” the tense, lopsided “You Ain’t Right,” or the underrated, bizarre “Strawberry Bounce”—which, if nothing else, would score pretty damn highly on a curve these days) will very likely pay off. According to the timeline of Slant‘s 100 Greatest Dance Songs, modern dance music itself is just barely over 30. It’s a little early to be having a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?

Label: Virgin Release Date: September 24, 2006 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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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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