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Review: Janet Jackson, Control

4.0

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Janet Jackson, Control

There’s perhaps no better testament to the power of Control as a quintessential statement on personal and artistic self-actualization than the still pervasive misconception that it’s Janet Jackson’s debut album. Her two previous albums, Janet Jackson and Dream Street, have since been relegated to Janet’s “prehistory.” Control simply feels so much like Janet’s moment of entrance that pop culture’s selective amnesia can be easily forgiven. But despite the brouhaha made about Michael’s little sis stepping out from the family shadow, Janet wasn’t the only star born with Control. Tellingly, the only Grammy that the album managed to score was Producer of the Year, given to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who had been fired a few years earlier from Prince’s The Time after missing a concert. Control‘s industrial, aggressively speedy beats (a relatively new concept for R&B at the time) turned Jam & Lewis into pop music’s new visionaries. Their unique blend of sparse, Minneapolis funk, sweet bubblegum pop, and inventive synthesized vocal treatments proved so definitive that Janet has spent her entire career working with the duo.

Ironically, it could very well be that Jam & Lewis’s sound, a crowded wall of percussion, played a major part in generating the most persistent slam against Janet—namely, that her voice is thinner than Michael’s new nasal bridge. But one can only assume that critics who have leveled this charge against Janet somehow missed the explosive “gimme a beat” vocal pyrotechnics she unleashes all over “Nasty” (which turned “Miss Janet if you’re nasty” into one of those lines everyone sings along to). Or that they completely dismissed how perfect her tremulous hesitance fits into the abstinence anthem “Let’s Wait Awhile.”

Control was every bit the hit machine that her brother’s Thriller was. Nearly every track on the album received some airplay, and the majority of them catapulted straight into the Top 10. The title track opens the album with its herky-jerky start-and-stop beats but, in retrospect, it almost seems like a curtain call (the brazen, forthright lyrics make a lot more sense coming from a woman who’s just gone multi-platinum, not one who’s coming off of two flop albums). The pensive, alternating piano chords of “When I Think of You” rival the opening strains of Madonna’s “Borderline” for precocious, innocent ‘80s pop. And the female-empowering “What Have You Done for Me Lately” predates TLC’s “No Scrubs” by over a decade. To compare the two assertive songs illuminates Janet’s most tangible personality asset and what has allowed her career to last for decades. Where TLC come off as judgmentally shrill, Janet balances her message of discontent with the acknowledgment that—his “dancing feet up on her couch” aside—she still can find it in herself to love the man who has continually disappointed her. This is Janet’s key star quality: ever since she shyly fielded Dick Clark’s questions on “American Bandstand,” Janet has always striven to keep her personality grounded. Even with the taboo-ridden The Velvet Rope, Janet seemed less interested in shocking for shock’s sake (again, like Madonna) and more interested in merely explaining where she was coming from.

Control also saw the birth of Janet the music video star, as six of the nine tracks were turned into popular videos that all but announced her as queen of the production dance number. Though many of these videos don’t hold a candle to her later masterpieces (“Rhythm Nation,” “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”), her Touch of Evil-channeling one-take clip for “When I Think of You” was her first successful attempt at creating a video around a specifically cinematic concept. Nonetheless, the videos put an all-important face (and body) to Jam & Lewis’s tunes. Dance is always underrated as a musical ability, and in many respects it was Janet’s surprising and new (Paula Abdul-trained) dance skills that propelled her star into the stratosphere.

Despite sounding as impenetrable as a tank, the Jam-Lewis formula wasn’t completely infallible, and even an album as terse as Control has a few less-heralded underdog tracks, to be diplomatic. “You Can Be Mine” is a bombastic misfire that sees Jam & Lewis putting their drum patterns and faux orchestral hits into autopilot overdrive, to the point that during the final minute Janet seems to take the reigns, demanding, “Fellas help me out, can I hear that line one more time?” “He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive,” which is bouncy and bottom-heavy where the rest of the album is tightly-pitched and precise, is the album’s darkhorse, with a probably too-overt application of mid-‘80s pop-jazz schmaltz. Though it’s the only track on Control that puts Janet in passive mode, it’s still marked by her gamest attempt at vocal acrobatics.

The second most common criticism of Janet albums (outside of those dogging her singing abilities) is that they usually drift away in the final stretch into a languid ballad blah-blah-land. (All for You tried to remedy this problem by placing the ballads at the halfway point but ended up only killing the album’s momentum even quicker.) Control is no exception. “Let’s Wait Awhile” would’ve been a great place to end the album, but Janet, Jam and Lewis make the perverse decision to immediately proceed into “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),” a song that sounds like the accompaniment to the first stages of heavy-petting. But the dud tracks of Control are in the minority (instead of splitting the difference, as they do in all of Janet’s subsequent LPs, save The Velvet Rope). And furthermore, most everyone (whether they pledge allegiance to Rhythm Nation or bow to janet.) will admit that she hasn’t, nor will she ever, create an album as cohesive as Control. So what if it doesn’t have “Escapade,” “If,” “Together Again,” or any other number of Janet’s endless string of fantastic pop singles? In the end, pop music is almost always about the discovery of the next big thing, and Janet’s crowning moment in Control was among the biggest.

Label: A&M Release Date: October 30, 1986 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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