Structured as a five-act show with interludes, narrated by Common, and featuring guest spots from indie and hip-hop royalty, Kid Cudi’s debut, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, was an audacious and idea-driven introduction to the stoner savant’s brand of leftfield hip-hop. All the more ironic, then, that one of its most memorable tracks was the Gaga-sampling “Make Her Say,” a crass but clever posse cut which wasn’t the least bit trippy or metaphysical—just three guys swapping sex jokes over a sample from the acoustic version of “Poker Face.” One-off or not, you might think that the song’s success would have taught Cudi something about how to integrate his oddball aesthetic into the mainstream: Dial down the theatrical moping, show more generosity of hooks and humor, and maybe settle for expanding hip-hop’s borders rather than aiming to reinvent the genre in one go.
Of course, Cudi has spent enough time with his superstar mentor, Kanye West, that he could plot a trajectory to superstardom without my advice. And so I have to look at Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager as a testament to Cudi’s slightly misguided sense of integrity, as he once again passes on the commercial breakthrough that is rightfully his, preferring to be a distant universe of one than circle in anyone else’s orbit. The sequel actually finds Cudi burrowing deeper into the black hole of spacey psychedelia, fusing the clinical, synthetic hip-hop of 808s & Heartbreak with rock sounds derived from Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Zappa. The most obvious rock homage, “Erase Me,” is a flat-out embarrassment (it aims for a ‘70s-rock pastiche but sounds more like ‘90s mall-punk a la Lit or New Found Glory), but mostly the hybrid production style proves an atmospheric and eerie delight.
“Maniac,” for example, twists St. Vincent’s “The Strangers” around Cudi’s own wicked guitar licks for an unsettling highlight, and his six-string skills add just the right touch of discord to the string-driven “GHOST!,” a spooky slow jam engineered by No I.D. (which, to the producer’s credit, sounds totally distinct from his recent work with Drake and West). It’s all genuinely exciting stuff; in fact, the production, most of which is done by Cudi’s manager, Emile, almost unbalances the album, as Cudi’s vocals rarely engage as well as the somnambulant funk over which he’s rapping. What his flows lack in athleticism, his singing certainly doesn’t make up for in tunefulness, and the half-rapped, half-sung style that he adopts for the majority of the album doesn’t impress on either level. Leave it to Cudi to release a freakishly ambitious rap album but forget to include much in the way of good rapping.
But Cudi already knows that his biggest problem is his tendency to live in his own head. The album’s closing track, “Trapped in My Mind,” meets that criticism with equal parts resignation and affirmation: “When you think of the world/I know it’s crazy/Hey, I’m not that bad at all.” With that, another Kid Cudi album concludes its narrative with our protagonist left lonely, smart, and stoned—exactly the way he introduced himself on his breakthrough “Day ‘n’ Nite.” Of those three adjectives, only the first seems likely to change. Cudi’s space-case persona has already earned him a cult following of like-minded introverts who will gladly share in his ego-tripping adventures. But where rock’s pantheon is already home to a number of slacker auteurs who have influenced more by way of attitude than great technical or commercial proficiency, hip-hop has tended to be less kind to its underdogs. Pursuing genius at the expense of consistency might work out just fine for Cudi: I’m not convinced that he’s a good rapper, but I’m pretty sure he’s an important one.
Label: Universal Motown Release Date: November 9, 2010 Buy: Amazon
Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World
The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.4
Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.
That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”
Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”
Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.
Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 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