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Review: Janet Jackson, Unbreakable

In one of the album’s brightest highlights, Janet pays tribute to Michael by channeling the buoyant energy of his Off the Wall-era disco.

3.5

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Janet Jackson, Unbreakable

It could be the ample bank she and her husband, Wissam Al Mana, are sitting on, but Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable is so luxuriously chill it’s almost narcoleptic. And at a stage in her career when critics are sharpening up ageist phrases like “this stage in her career,” Janet’s relaxed confidence comes as a relief. The string of albums she released following the 2004 Incident That Will Not Define Her Career So Let’s Please Never Speak of It Again all groaned under the pressure of living up to whatever it is Janet felt she had to prove: relevance, momentum, royalty status, libido.

Damita Jo found the reigning champion of effortless pop struggling not to sweat, 20 Y.O. came on at best like a misguided R&B Sunset Boulevard, and Discipline sacrificed the bigger picture in exchange for a few transitory bolts of lightning (“Rock with U,” the still massive “Feedback”). With flop sex jams scattered in her wake, Janet was starting to feel like an Empress Nero, flicking the bean while the dance floor did anything but burn.

And then she disappeared, reportedly dismayed by those albums’ failure to generate even one single Top 10 hit. In the interim, she lost her brother and gained a husband. Unbreakable emerges marked by both events, and also marks the prodigal daughter’s return to her famed collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but it’s not the sort of album that battles with any one particular theme or emotion. If many of her previous albums could be said to represent various stopovers on a journey through grief (with Rhythm Nation standing in for anger, Damita Jo bargaining, and 20 Y.O. denial), Unbreakable finally reaches acceptance.

In one of the album’s brightest highlights, Janet pays tribute to Michael by channeling the buoyant energy of his Off the Wall-era disco. No, not just the energy: In “Broken Hearts Heal,” she sounds almost exactly like him, channeling his reedy vibrato, his trademark hiccups and gulps. Similarly, she taps into his paranoiac fixation on what everyone was saying in “The Great Forever,” chiding, “Don’t like seeing people happy/Is it jealousy or personal?/’Cause I don’t see why loving someone/Or what I do seem so radical to you.” She may be carrying the baton for her brother against “critics,” but much more abstractly. It’s a séance, not a possession.

That casual disengagement characterizes much of Unbreakable, which will no doubt be taken for a flaw by those who most value the urgency of her earlier albums, but will reward listeners who approach it with a parallel sense of passivity, even if the latter likely fall into the same demographic who’d have to Google DJ Mustard. With the exception of the straight fire Missy Elliott collaboration “BURNITUP!,” whose breathless all-caps title begs to be liberated from the rest of the album, even the dance tracks on Unbreakable float more than they stomp. The shimmering “Night” coasts on opulent electro-disco burbles, with Janet very believably exclaiming, “I woke up in heaven in the morning,” before the mist dissolves, exposing a skeleton of sturdy Minneapolis funk (Prince’s “Sexy Dancer,” to be specific).

Lyrically speaking, “Shoulda Known Better” fulfills early rumors that this album would be her unofficial follow-up to Rhythm Nation, opening with miniature portraits of people in strife (shades of “State of the World”) before staring down the possibility that all the good intentions in the world won’t make a difference. And in contrast to the razor-sharp beats of the track she explicitly name-drops, “Shoulda Known Better” uses soft, soaring trance to burnish the sad admission, “I had this great epiphany/And rhythm nation was the dream/I guess next time I’ll know better.”

The moment that bittersweet epilogue segues into the plaintive, stripped-down ballad “After You Fall” is as redolent of the ways anguish and disappointment are gradually welcomed into our very DNA as we mature into adulthood as Pixar’s Inside Out. As Janet’s voice has slipped a few registers down the staff, she seems to enjoy exploring the alto notes in her range. They shade tracks as diverse as “After You Fall,” a mutual Sunday-afternoon cry shared between besties, and “No Sleeep,” the album’s lead single and sole sex jam, which seemed initially underwhelming, but in true sleeper fashion has kept insinuated itself through its droning bassline, murmured lyrics, and dark and stormy atmospherics. It might be her greatest slow burner ever, and yet it still feels of a piece with its surroundings.

The album’s password, repeated multiple times across various songs, is “plush,” a word that signifies comfort, which the longer “No Sleeep” goes on and the less it holds together comes to indicate not material comfort, but the security that comes from knowing and owning your emotions. Janet has calculatedly played the humble-grateful card countless times in her career, but Unbreakable, a ready-made collection of deep cuts, is one of the first times she’s given a fully convincing performance.

Label: Rhythm Nation Release Date: October 2, 2015 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.

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.

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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