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Review: Joanna Newsom, Ys

5.0

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Joanna Newsom, Ys

My friend Philip recently coined the rock sniglet “anachro-pop” to refer to the bevy of recent indie bands who whimsically court nostalgia for ages that may or may not have existed. For example: the Dresden Dolls and German cabaret, the Decemberists and Victorian sea shanties, the Ditty Bops and Prohibition-era jazz, Faun Fables and medieval paganism. The balance between irony and sincerity takes great care, and these bands dare you to not take them seriously, staying in character and sometimes testing your patience like a dedicated fan of Vampire: The Masquerade. Yes, I enjoy most of these bands and I respect the literariness of grad-students-cum-frontmen like Colin Meloy, but all in all, it’s hard for me to get genuinely excited about a rock album that demands an awareness of Frederic Jameson’s concepts of parody and pastiche in order to “get it.” I’d rather listen to the Gin Blossoms.

So here comes Joanna Newsom’s Ys, a collaboration between Newsom and Van Dyke Parks, the pop demi-god who helped Brian Wilson come up with Smile: the album art is painted in the pre-Raphaelite style, the title refers to a mythical city of Celtic yore, the liner notes are laid out in Middle English script with Bible-like gold lining around the pages, and the lyrics are filled with pastoral imagery and words like “fain” and “rote.” The potential for Medieval Times-scale goofiness is limitless, and as much as I loved Newsom’s Milk Eyed Mender, I braced myself for the treacly, obsolescent worst (i.e. something resembling Faun Fables). But Ys is probably the most extraordinary album of the year.

Newsom recorded “base” vocal and harp tracks with Steve Albini, and then spent six months developing backing orchestral arrangements with Parks. The effect is outstanding and operatic and, thanks to the astute mixing work of Jim O’Rourke, the orchestral parts never feel tacked on or unnecessary. The dozens of strings and winds float in and out of the mix, truly accentuating Newsom’s compositions, without overwhelming her signature voice. Of course, there’s not a symphony in the world that could overwhelm Newsom’s voice. Her vocals have been compared favorably and otherwise to Björk, Kate Bush, and Lisa Simpson, but these comparisons are inadequate, as is the rather blasé assessment that Newsom’s voice will “grow on you.” She is the most innovative vocalist since Tom Waits, and like Waits she is capable of soothing dissonance.

Lyrically, Newsom’s talents are just as startling: she wraps her alto around tongue twisters like “Scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?” and “The thought troubled the monkey, for he was afraid of spelunking down in those caves” with more grace than you could possibly expect. Newsom’s rhymes bear the wit and curiousness of her anachro-pop peers, but with the profundity they lack. “Monkey And Bear” is a haunting fable as heartbreaking as it is magical. The epic “Only Skin” traces a love affair through a number of allusions and allegories before culminating in a duet with Smog’s Bill Calahan, where Newsom’s speaker pledges her body and soul to her beloved: “Take my bones, I don’t need none.”

Ys might seem like it will be a difficult, even unpleasant, listen: a mere five songs over the course of nearly an hour (“Only Skin” stretches to 17 minutes), an unconventional vocalist most would deem grating, lyrics with a demanding diction, and nary a chorus or verse to be found. But Ys is incredibly likeable, and more convivial than the twee Milk Eyed Mender. The album is a precious—in every sense of the word—masterpiece.

Label: Drag City Release Date: November 16, 2006 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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