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Review: Jennifer Lopez, Rebirth

2.5

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Jennifer Lopez, Rebirth

This month’s Olympus Fashion Week came to a dramatic conclusion with Jennifer Lopez’s “Sweetface,” the show everyone wanted to get into, including me. While Slant’s resident fashionista, Alexa Camp, managed to score a seat on top of a giant speaker, I was left to watch the event via online streaming video. Aside from the obvious spectacle, part of the show’s charm was its cute self-referential structure, which loosely mirrored each phase of Lopez’s singing career: opening with a West Side Story logo that read “The J. Lo Story” (tiered fire escape and all), the casual wear and ’80s soundtrack of the show’s first third was meant to represent Lopez’s pre-fame days (you know, back when she was still riding the 6 train); the second, hip-hop-heavy portion of the show was inspired by her ghetto-fab P. Diddy days (back when “J. Lo,” her alter-ego, was christened); while the last section reflected Movie Star Lopez or Red Carpet Glamour Lopez…or something like that. The problem was that the whole line was retrograde—as Alexa said, there was nothing fashion-forward about it, no indication of where Jennifer Lopez is now or where she’s going (for those who care).

Like the show, each of Lopez’s albums has been pointedly and symbolically titled, from On The 6 to J. Lo to This Is Me…Then, and her latest, Rebirth, is no exception. Following inevitable overexposure at the hands of a vicarious-living public and greed-driven media, Lopez undoubtedly felt the need to reinvent herself. Bennifer dealt an obvious blow to Ben Affleck’s career, but it remains unclear whether his more famous ex has suffered any irreparable damage—she’s already become such an icon that it’s virtually impossible to separate her film characters from her celebrity persona, which is a shame considering she’s a far better actress than singer (don’t believe me? check out Oliver Stone’s U Turn). Music, on the other hand, is a much more generous medium. One great song and you’re forgiven—even if the crime was simply living your life in the public eye. Trouble is, Rebirth’s lead single, “Get Right,” isn’t good, let alone great, and the album doesn’t live up to its title.

Much has been made of the fact that the sample-heavy “Get Right” was originally produced by Rich Harrison for Usher (who now wants publishing royalties!) and was probably brought to Lopez by Harrison after someone in her camp decided she needed her own “Crazy In Love.” But why anyone, even Usher, would want to take credit for this mess is beyond me. Unlike the Chi-Lites sample used on Beyoncé’s signature tune, the incessant Maceo Parker horn loop of “Get Right” is obnoxious at best and Lopez’s nasally delivery accentuates the weakest aspect of her voice: the fact that she really can’t sing. As I’ve stated before, Lopez’s voice is best suited for formats that are more forgiving—pop and dance, as opposed to R&B and hip-hop. Strike one for an album that’s supposedly meant to resurrect J. Lo the pop star.

Still, amid the stale (“Cherry Pie”) and the contrived (“Whatever You Wanna Do,” yet another horn-y Rich Harrison concoction), tracks like the Timbaland-produced “He’ll Be Back” and the slinky “Step Into My World” make good use of vocal effects, masking Lopez’s limitations with silky hooks and breathy verses, and bringing to mind Brandy’s extra-ordinary Afrodisiac. (In fact, “Ryde Or Die,” one of the album’s best tracks, is literally a carbon copy of the unreleased Brandy song “I’ll Do Anything For You.”) Rebirth is nowhere near as gut-wrenching a break-up album as Brandy’s latest, but the track “(Can’t Believe) This Is Me,” produced by Lopez’s latest husband, is a decidedly personal statement on an otherwise impersonal album—at least compared to 2002’s gushy This Is Me…Then, which was entirely inspired by Lopez’s relationship with Ben Affleck and whose title is evoked in the name of this new song. With its arrangement of piano, electric guitars, and strings, “This Is Me” is dramatic and over-the-top (in a good way), not unlike Lopez and Anthony’s Grammy performance, which was staged like a scene from Abrázame Muy Fuerte as directed by Douglas Sirk.

After excising Latin pop from her repertoire (judging by the abovementioned performance, though, Anthony seems to be inspiring its resurrection) and becoming the postergirl for the hip-hop remix, Lopez took an admirable step toward a more mature R&B sound with This Is Me…Then, but the album forsook personality (read: fun, a trait J. Lo, though uneven, happily possessed) for production values. The good news is that Rebirth is a cozy medium between those two records. The surprisingly cogent “I Got U” and “Still Around” reprise the more adult sound of Lopez’s last album, to varying degrees of success, while “Hold You Down,” featuring Fat Joe, harks back to her collaboration-heavy remix album. So, in that sense, it kind of is like a rebirth, but it’s mostly just another Jennifer Lopez record: a few good songs, some badly sung filler, great production, and a whole team of collaborators to make it all work. Ultimately, Rebirth is just another mediocre chapter in “The Story of J. Lo.”

Label: Epic Release Date: February 23, 2005 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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