More famous for being famous than for her modestly successful careers as a pop singer and actress, Jessica Simpson is but the latest erstwhile pop star to make a foray into the accommodating world of mainstream country. Unfortunately for Simpson, her debut album for the genre, Do You Know, only stands to perpetuate her problems of celebrity image and credibility. Though the first single, “Come On Over,” which borrows the title but none of the wit or strut from a Shania Twain hit, briefly cracked the Top 20 at country radio, the only memorable aspect about Simpson’s ostensible career reboot thus far has been a ridiculous feud she’s picked with Carrie Underwood.
Petty backbiting aside, it’s Underwood’s innocuous pop-country style that Simpson and producers John Shanks and Brett James have shamelessly tried to co-opt here. As far as its production values and songwriting are concerned (and Simpson’s multiple credits as the lead co-writer alongside professional Nashville songwriters like Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges, Rachel Proctor and Victoria Banks are more than just a trifle dubious), Do You Know is neither better nor worse than—and is as bland and forgettable a pop-country confection as—Julianne Hough’s recent debut. If it sounds more like a mainstream country record than Jewel’s Perfectly Clear, all that means is that Shanks and James have mixed the occasional steel guitar into what otherwise sounds a whole lot like Simpson’s own In This Skin.
While Jewel brought a certain degree of artistic cachet to the table, and Hough is able to coast by on her immense charm, Simpson, a tabloid fixture for most of the last decade and with a public persona that can most politely be called divisive, doesn’t have that luxury, which leaves her to carry her album on the strength of either the material or her performances. The material is simply lacking: Dolly Parton wrote the title track, but it’s not up to her usual standards, while “You’re My Sunday” so thoroughly fails to develop its central conceit that the title could be changed to “You’re My Sundae” and have the exact same effect, and “Remember That,” a knockoff of Martina McBride’s shrill domestic violence empowerment anthems, tacks on an inexplicable first-person coda that should have Nick Lachey looking into slander and libel statutes. “Pray Out Loud” even uses the same chord progression and a suspiciously similar melody as Jewel’s “Stronger Woman.” Simpson simply needed to choose (or “co-write”) better material than this.
Simpson isn’t able to salvage the effort with her performances either. She operates in precisely three modes as a singer: a mewling, whispered coo; a nasal, dead-eyed middle volume; and belting glory notes at full volume with a strangled, unappealing tone. She likely has the innate ability to be a competent technical singer, but Do You Know only foregrounds her present limitations as a vocalist. She switches between her three approaches seemingly at random over the course of individual songs, gasps awkwardly for breath in the middle of lines, and mistakes singing loudly for emoting, never letting the lyrics on “When I Loved You Like That” or the title track have any impact on her histrionics. That she’s also audibly at least a quarter-pitch sharp on at least half of the album actually makes a good case for the use of Autotune.
Given her A-list profile and C-list credentials and her laughable “real country girls eat meat” tête-à-tête with Underwood, Simpson really needed Do You Know to be a knockout punch of an album to establish herself as a bona fide country star. The album needed to speak for itself in terms of quality, which it simply fails to do. Curiosity and whatever remains of her pop fanbase will likely give Do You Know a strong start, but it’s hard to imagine that it will sustain any momentum or help Simpson build a reputation as a credible artist in Nashville. Assuming she gets the opportunity to make a follow-up, Simpson is going to have to find better collaborators and refine her technique if she wants to be famous for more than being a celebrity and an easy target.
Label: Sony Nashville Release Date: September 7, 2008 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
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
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