The Jonas Brothers and their handlers are savvy enough to recognize that no type of fame is more ephemeral than that of teen idols, so they attempt to cash in with Lines, Vines and Trying Times, the trio’s fourth album in as many years. Unfortunately, they don’t seem smart enough to realize that nothing kills any given teen-pop cycle faster than attempts at “maturity,” especially when those attempts are of the awkward, PG-13 variety that characterizes much of Lines. It may play well to kids who are still cutting their teeth on very special episodes of Degrassi but who aren’t quite prepared for the heady topicality and intrigue of Gossip Girl, but it’s not going to impress anyone else.
Well, actually, that’s not entirely true: People who live for drama that plays out on Twitter feeds and Facebook walls may enjoy the album’s breakup subtext, since frontman Joe gets in several digs at his ex, Taylor Swift. “Before the Storm,” an overwrought duet with Miley Cyrus, and “What Did I Do to Your Heart,” which features fiddles and harmonicas heavily in its arrangement, both pointedly co-opt Swift’s brand of why-in-the-hell-does-anyone-even-bother-to-call-it-country music, while “Much Better” is even less subtle, with Joe boasting of a new romance that’s superior to someone with a tear-spattered guitar. Compared to the Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears coupling of the last major teen-pop cycle (and, also, thanks to the JoBros’s purity rings), the whole chaste affair seems downright quaint, but that junior varsity tabloid subtext is truly the only thing that makes Lines even halfway interesting.
That’s primarily because, whatever limitations she may have as an artist and performer (and it’s worth mentioning that Joe’s labored vocals on most of this album make him sound constipated, so it’s really a tossup as to whether he or Swift is the worst singer in contemporary pop), Swift can at least write a full album’s worth of memorable hooks. As was the case on last year’s inert A Little Bit Longer, too many of the tracks here feel labored: Youngest brother Nick, taking solo writing credit, butchers the natural meter of the language on opener “World War III,” to say nothing of the song’s ill-timed parallel between a breakup and a major geopolitical crisis, while “Keep It Real” buries its ostensible hook beneath a layer of in-the-red power chords. Lead single “Paranoid” fares no better, riding along a lifeless rhythm track that wants for the relative inspiration and risk of Maroon 5, and “Hey Baby” and “Fly with Me” sound like outtakes from recent parody of the band on South Park.
There is a bit of humor to be found on Lines: “Poison Ivy” posits that love is just a contagious rash, thus ensuring that this is the second straight Jonas Brothers album to include a song that unintentionally scans as being about VD. But it’s the collaboration with rapper Common on “Don’t Charge Me for the Crime,” on which the brothers spin a hilarious, inept tale of armed robbery, that strikes comedy gold. Not that Joe’s viral video of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” or the band’s stilted Saturday Night Live sketch left any doubts, but “Crime” proves that the Jonas Brothers lack the self-awareness to be in on the joke.
That would be less of a problem if they had the awareness of songcraft to compensate. But for a handful of isolated moments (Nick’s legitimately pretty-good ballad “Black Keys” and the Hanson-esque hook and harmonies on “What Did I Do to Your Heart”), Lines suggests that the Jonas Brothers simply don’t have—or, more charitably, haven’t yet developed—the chops to make it once the current teen-pop bubble bursts. Flooding the market with new material may work for them in the short term, but their target demographic won’t be so indiscriminating forever.
Label: Hollywood Release Date: June 17, 2009 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