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Review: Kylie Minogue, X

One of the most contemporary (and least pleasant) aspects of X is its scattershot production.

2.5

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Kylie Minogue, X

Aging gracefully is hard work, especially for international mega pop stars. Just because Madonna makes it look easy does not make it so. The tension between artistic choices that flatter a star’s abilities and history and ones that help them remain creatively vital and contemporary is pronounced. Kylie Minogue has historically performed better on this score than most—taking time off in the ’90s to do some legitimately strange, commercially unfriendly yet fantastic work before returning to form and breaking America with shiny robotic disco was commendable—but her 10th album represents a bit of a misstep. Of course, since the dame turns 40 this year and was just awarded an O.B.E., and since this record is her first since a scary and public battle with breast cancer, audiences should probably cut her some slack. And provided you’re capable of looking past the fact that some of the new crazy sounds of today look about as good on her as a gold lame tube top looks on your grandma, this record is plenty likeable.

One of the most contemporary (and least pleasant) aspects of X is its scattershot production, which gives it the focus-grouped attention deficit disorder more typical of a Gwen Stefani record than one of Minogue’s laser-honed disco-princess home runs. The first half, in particular, zings around the modern poposphere with the sticky beak of a hopped-up magpie. “2 Hearts,” an entirely serviceable rip of Goldfrapp’s glammier slinks, kicks things off well. Kylie hasn’t spent much time in this sandbox, but she sounds great at this pace (and even better on Studio’s threatening Balearic rerub). Hopefully it’s a mode she’ll return to, because she completely abandons it here in favor of hopscotching through a couple of widely divergent takes on electropop: the high-gloss “Like a Drug” and the filmsy, nearly-punk Calvin Harris production “In My Arms,” which is essentially what a neon-orange feather boa would sound like if it were a song.

Unfortunately, we then arrive at the first of two phenomenally annoying Bloodshy & Avant productions. It’s hard to understand how it might be possible to (essentially simultaneously) make Britney Spears sound like a consummate professional and make Kylie sound like a rank amateur, but the Swedish phenoms pull it off twice here. “Speakerphone” is particularly egregious, at least partially because its drum sounds subtly announce this record’s intention to flirt with hip-hop in a way that is wholly inappropriate for Minogue, and also because it drowns her voice in floods of vocoder. The impulse to follow in the footsteps of white hip-popsters like Stefani and Nelly Furtado—on whose records songs like “Nu-Di-Ty” and “Heart Beat Rock” might make sense—is frankly rather disastrous for her.

Luckily, the record’s second half is mostly a return to form. If ’80s-evoking disco-rockers like “The One” and “Stars” don’t break a lot of new ground for Minogue, at least she sounds comfortable on them. The latter, complete with tastefully arranged guitar wails, achieves a sort of cheesy majesty that hearkens back to the uncommonly strong album cuts on Fever. “All I See” has a beat that gestures toward the street, but its emphasis on a strutting bassline and a confidently strummed harp allows it to land on the satisfying side of Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” which sounded like house anyway.

“Wow” is a pretty great summation of the commercially successful aspects of Minogue’s career to date—a hyperactive juvenile disco track full of fun, big-budget whooshes and drops, something utterly disposable that she sells without shame. It’s also the highlight of the record, which is fitting since it has more DNA in common with “The Loco-Motion” than humans do with chimpanzees. When the aforementioned “Nu-Di-Ty” clocks in, the sub-Timbaland electro-hopper feels like the bitter aftermath of a sugar rush, especially since Minogue gives it all the conviction of a clipped-on navel ring. Hopefully, next time she’ll try a new direction that’s actually new—or at least bring more feather boas.

Label: Capitol Release Date: April 1, 2008 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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