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Review: Janet Jackson, janet.

Though Damita Jo’s libido was burgeoning in ’93, it wasn’t yet the driving force of her career.

3.5

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Janet Jackson, janet.

Though her breakthrough 1986 album purportedly found her taking “control,” Janet Jackson really exchanged one daddy for two—producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, whose post-Prince sound was the dominating force behind both Control and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814—and janet. (read: Janet, period) not only announced the singer as completely independent of her male-dominated family, but it positioned her as the person in charge of her sound, which, as co-producer, she effectively softened by the early 1990s. This, it all told us, was the real Janet, and judging by the following 15 years’ worth of recycled themes and sounds, it truly was. janet. also famously announced Jackson’s sexual maturity. If Rhythm Nation’s deflowering “Someday Is Tonight” was the answer to the chastity anthem “Let’s Wait Awhile,” janet. found her ready, able, and willing to do it any time, any place.

Much of the sex on janet., however, is impending or simply imagined. “If,” the very title of which embodies that fact, is essentially about masturbation, with Janet describing what her lover’s “smooth and shiny [cock]” feels like against her lips while ostensibly rubbing herself off under the covers, while “You Want This” provides no release. Even the nearly structureless “Throb,” which promises “boom, boom, boom until noon, noon, noon,” feels like a (perhaps unintentional) parody of Madonna’s Erotica, right down to the hard, house-orgy beats. Only the album’s finale, “Any Time, Any Place,” provides a genuine climax: It’s an oozing, slow-paced romp in the tradition of Barry White and Marvin Gaye, all reverb-y finger snaps and pronounced bass and guitar, with Janet’s vocals reaching a fervent and authentic pitch during the second pre-chorus, in which she vamps in full voice—or, at least, as full as her voice can get—“I don’t give a damn! I want you now!”

Though Damita Jo’s libido was burgeoning in ’93, it wasn’t yet the driving force of her career. The release of janet. was followed immediately by the one-time TV actress’s feature debut in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, in which she played a tough-talking poetess/hairdresser in South Central L.A., and the role no doubt inspired the album’s politically charged “New Agenda,” in which she (with the assistance of Chuck D) laments the state of being an African-American woman whose history has been kept under wraps. Later that same year, rapper-singer Meshell Ndegeocello would warn that “the white man shall forever sleep with one eye open” on her album Plantation Lullabies, but Janet diplomatically assures her largely non-black pop audience, “There’s no need to be afraid, ’cause I won’t do unto you now.” Another track, “Again,” was written expressly for the film, and it’s the most treacly, saccharine ballad Janet has ever recorded, complete with the kind of teary breakdown one might expect from her brother. A testament to the adult-contemporary schmaltz that dominated the airwaves in the early ’90s, “Again” hit #1 and was even nominated for an Academy Award. (Only slightly more tolerable is “Where Are You Now,” an innocuous slow jam dedicated to a deceased pet.)

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One of the criticisms lobbed at janet. upon its release was that it was over-produced, and Jam and Lewis certainly employ plenty of showy, often cheesy, studio tricks: When Janet tells her suitor to say her name “just a little bit louder now” on “You Want This,” the volume goes up; when she instructs him to say it softer, the levels decrease. But while true singer’s singers like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men ruled the charts, Janet’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” offered a subtler alternative. With its measured hip-hop loop and titular one-line hook, the song was sleek, smart, and sexy—everything you didn’t expect from the lead single from a Janet album. That’s not to say there wasn’t any bombast; on the fierce “This Time,” opera singer Kathleen Battle emerges like a phoenix from the ashes of Janet’s rage against “nasty hoes,” some kind of industrial goddess of domestic vengeance come to render final judgment. “You’re dismissed,” Janet says to dramatic effect.

janet. was at the forefront of the increasingly popular sampling trend in the ’90s, with one song even employing three different samples as its foundation. Some make perfect sense on a thematic as well as sonic level, like Kool & the Gang’s “Kool It (Here Comes the Fuzz)” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman, Where Were You When I Needed You” on “New Agenda,” or the orchestral flourish from Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” on “If,” which otherwise seems to exist for the sole purpose of providing the impetus behind one of the greatest dance-break routines in music video history. Others, like that group’s only socially conscious tune, “Love Child,” on a song about playing hard to get, seem arbitrary and gratuitous. Of course, Janet, Jam, and Lewis didn’t have to rely on samples to effectively pay homage to Stax Records soul (a sorta-cover of Johnny Daye’s “What’ll I Do”) or label alumni the Emotions (“Because of Love”).

The mother of eclectic, genre-hopping albums by Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, and Fergie, janet. incorporates new jack swing, house, pop, rock, hip-hop, jazz, and even opera, but the album’s range of styles isn’t jarring in the least. Save for some of the more literal ones (“Wind” and “Rain” among them), the interludes serve as bridges between dance and rock, songs about racism and love. Janet has never been one thing and janet. is a feminist statement, to be sure, which makes it all the more disappointing that a single-and-ready-to-mingle, post-Velvet Rope Janet would enter into a period of relative creative torpor composed mostly of vapid baby-making songs that would leave R. Kelly limp.

Label: Virgin Release Date: February 17, 1993 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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