Inciting a minor shit storm with her 80-character review of Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” video in June, Katy Perry tweeted: “Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke.” Having declared flatulence beneath her, Ms. Perry’s instead churns out maladjusted sleaze. On her latest release, she finds humor in drunken make-out sessions and single-entendre sex talk, finds that being a celebrity isn’t always a walk in the Candyland porno park, and through it all, finds maybe two or three songs to justify her album’s existence. From Ke$ha’s Animal to Christina’s Bionic, pop music in 2010 already looks like a trainwreck of over-produced bad-girl debauchery, and Teenage Dream only adds to the pileup. That anyone managed to make a pop album worse than Animal this year is both perversely impressive and hard to believe, but Ms. Perry has found a way to lower the bar.
At that, it’s hard to imagine a song crasser or more aggravating than “Peacock.” Every review of Teenage Dream will mention this track, and that’s because it’s potentially historic in its badness, to the point that, once you’ve heard it, you too will have to describe it to other people just to convince yourself that it really exists. The short of it is that Perry wants to see some guy’s peacock, and by peacock, she, of course, means penis; she says the word “cock” somewhere around 100 times, and the only thing she successfully rhymes it with is “cock” (some of the misses include “biatch,” “payoff,” and “shoot it off”). It’s one of those viscerally embarrassing musical moments where you start to feel ashamed of yourself just for witnessing it, like Fergie rapping on “My Humps,” or that YouTube video where Fergie pees herself on stage, or Fergie misspelling “tasty” (“T to the A to the S-T-E-Y”) in “Fergalicious.”
And Teenage Dream doesn’t come off much better when discussed in terms of its highlights. “California Gurls” became a summer anthem by force of will: As a frothy club track about beaches and babes with a high-budget video and a big-name guest spot, the song’s inevitable rise to the top of the charts was pretty well bought and paid for. But the chorus lacks a strong hook, the verses lack melodies, and Perry’s vocals aren’t any closer to on-key than they’ve ever been. Second single “Teenage Dream” is much better. It realizes the Cardigans-meets-Madonna sound that Perry talked up in pre-release interviews, and, as a genuinely enjoyable track in the company of so many unmitigated disasters, suggests that the intermittently pious Perry may have earned herself a small miracle by choosing God over Gaga.
“Firework” will probably be a single at some point too, on the grounds that it’s not an actively painful listen. Sure, the would-be inspirational lyrics (“Baby you’re a firework/Come on show them what you’re worth”) are nonsensical, and the vocal lines, which sound like they were written for someone like Leona Lewis, are well beyond Perry’s capabilities, but the chorus gains some momentum and the song would work well enough in a club setting that you could forgive its otherwise glaring weaknesses. And with that, we have concluded our brief tour of the listenable songs on this album.
The remainder of Teenage Dream is a raunchy pop nightmare, with A-list producers lining up to churn out some of the worst work of their careers. Over the last decade, DJ Luke’s production has gone from brilliant (“Since U Been Gone”) to serviceable (Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”) to nearly unlistenable (every Ke$ha song you know). The god-awful “Tik Tok” signaled that his metamorphosis into an artless industry hack was nearly complete, and on Teenage Dream he bursts out of his cocoon like a horrifying electro-pop Mothra. “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is a lifeless roller-rink jam with a “T! G! I! F!” shout-along that will no doubt provide the soundtrack to any number of trashy sorority parties this semester, and on the inscrutable “E.T.” Perry compares her lover (favorably?) to a space alien and Dr. Luke nabs the backing track from t.A.T.u.‘s “All the Things She Said,” presumably as a tribute to his forbears in the field of exploitative dance-floor schlock.
Perry’s ironic persona—all gum-smacking, eye-rolling sarcasm—signals that those tracks are, if nothing else, shallow by design; it’s the album’s second half, when Perry dons her serious artist face, that Teenage Dream transcends its own middling crappiness and becomes truly, remarkably shitty. “Circle the Drain” finds Perry telling off a self-destructive ex, but she’s almost less sympathetic than the pill-popping object of her scorn. Her put-downs are alternately pedantic (“Wanna be your lover, not your fucking mother”) and hypocritical (she’s offended that he takes drugs before foreplay, but wasn’t she the one blacking out and hooking up “Last Friday Night”?). Tricky Stewart’s “Who Am I Living For?” is a one-note wallow in self-pity, weighed down by clichéd lyrics, a leaden beat, and a tone-deaf vocal turn from Perry.
That track is intended as a stark confessional, but if Perry is indeed baring it all, it’s only because she gets off on you watching. Her career has been one voyeuristic stunt after another, and at this point, it’s hard to read self-exposure as anything but another surface—just like the “California Gurls” video, where she sheds her cutesy Zooey Deschanel dresses to reveal a spray-on tan and a pair of synthetic foam-spouting tits.
Label: Capitol Release Date: August 24, 2010 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