I first heard of Jeff Buckley via a friend who was attending NYU in the early ‘90s, the same girl who turned me on to the Velvets, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and basically anything else that oozed smoky, black-clad cool. She would send me cassettes with photocopied covers, one every couple of months. A Richard Hell bootleg here, a Modern Lovers rarity there. Great stuff, but all of it belonged to a bygone era, a time that we missed by being born a decade too late, a world that would only exist via scratchy hand-me-down vinyl and rock crit tomes. But then one month she sent me a cassette of a live radio recording from WNYU featuring a young kid playing a handful of originals, in addition to an eclectic array of covers—everything from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” (played on harmonium, no less). The kid’s taste was impeccable, but the obvious center of attention was that voice, a breathtaking instrument that could transform itself from melodious coo to strangled yelp to guttural howl as if it were negotiating some unseen hairpin turns in the air.
That tape would occupy a special place in my collection—not only did it contain within its fragile shell the sweet whiff of discovery, it was also a shining, beautiful moment plucked from the here and now. This lad, Jeff Buckley, son of folk-rock icon Tim Buckley, seemed to pledge no allegiance to the flannel-clad Nirvana wannabes of the day. Not only could the dude sing, he was also, according to my tape-making friend who’d now begun camping out at local club/closet Sin-é for his performances, “hot as fuck.” He was, for all we knew, a Man Out of Time, a creature who could probably sing you an Arthurian madrigal or some such shit back to back with “Pale Blue Eyes.” A Man Out of Time. Little did we know the imminent double meaning of that phrase.
Fast forward a couple of years to 1994, and the release of Buckley’s full-length debut album Grace. My friend and I are now part of a larger fanbase, many of whom had been turned on to Jeff via the Live At Sin-é EP. For those of us expecting to hear that voice floating on more gossamer light musings, it’s apparent with the album cover that Buckley is becoming a different beast, or at least tapping into other elements of his character. The evolution is hammered home with the opening track: The first few seconds of “Mojo Pin” are feathery and faint—that is until the second chorus lets the band (Buckley, bassist Mick Grondahl, drummer Matt Johnson, and, on that track, guest guitarist and old friend Gary Lucas) pound the hell out of it with Zeppelinesque fury and finesse. Quite an opening, and indeed quite a statement of intent. It’s as if Jeff is saying, “You’ve heard one side of me—now you’re going to get it all.” And over the course of 10 songs, we more or less do.
We hear in the title track the sheer scope of Buckley’s range, married to one of the album’s better melodies, and a subdued, sympathetic performance from the band. With “Last Goodbye” and “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” two of the album’s highlights, we get bittersweet ruminations of love lost drenched in sweet romantic melancholy, suggesting an old soul hiding within well-worn jeans and a leather jacket. And then there are the covers: his hauntingly reverent take on “Lilac Wine”; the spectacular guitar-and-voice treatment of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in which Buckley warbles, coos, and whispers the words of the bard with all the tenderness and fragility of a first kiss. There’s his version of the “Corpus Christi Carol,” recorded at the insistence of producer Andy Wallace, a man renowned for getting some of the heaviest sounds known to man in the studio, but who can recognize an otherworldly performance when he hears it. And there are many such performances on Grace. Sinuous and smooth, sharp and serrated, Grace is possibly the most sensuous album to have emerged in the aftermath of grunge, without doubt the least sexy of all musical sub-genres.
But Grace, like its creator, is imperfect. Some of the lyrics resemble art college bathroom stall scrawling (“What is life?/What is happiness?/Where is peace?”), and, as with many singer-songwriters who possess truly outstanding pipes, there are times when the gift overtakes the song. Still, the only true misstep is “So Real,” a track so slight it resembles an afterthought, complete with mumbled verses and a noisy, atonal middle-eight. But by the time the ethereal “Dream Brother” stretches languidly into silence, all is forgiven. With an eerie couplet as a sign-off (“Asleep in the sand/With the ocean washing over”), Grace comes to a close, a perplexing, occasionally frustrating, but ultimately rewarding deeper glimpse into a singular talent.
As fate would have it, Buckley’s life would echo that ghostly last couplet from “Dream Brother,” and the young man who seemed to have it all would drown in a tributary of the Mississippi, with the true follow-up to Grace never to come. One could drift into all sorts of flowery nonsense here, and indeed many have—about how the promise that Jeff carried might’ve proved to be an albatross, dragging him down to an untimely end, much as it did his father. Perhaps the angelic beauty of his gift prompts people to wax rhapsodic and think of such heady notions as “fate” and “destiny.” Truth be told, it’s tempting to end this review with such a tone, because when Jeff died, it was important. It was a huge loss. But in the end I can’t help but think that if he were here, he’d be telling us all to lighten up a bit. Maybe it’s that back tray photo, with Buckley looking like a cross between Paul Westerberg and Dean Martin. Maybe it’s the wise-cracking on that old tape. Or maybe it’s just the sting of the hard truth: A promise, no matter how enticing, is seldom kept forever.
Label: Columbia Release Date: August 3, 1994 Buy: Amazon
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
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
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
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
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
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