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Review: Lady Gaga, Artpop

Artpop’s most naked, straightforward pop moments that are the album’s most redemptive.

 

3.5

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Lady Gaga, Artpop

Lady Gaga explained the premise behind her new album, Artpop, to The Guardian this way: “I stood in front of a mirror and I took off the wig and I took off the makeup and I unzipped the outfit and I put a black cap on my head and I covered my body in a black catsuit and I looked in the mirror and I said: ’OK, now you need to show them you can be brilliant without that.’” To wit, the initial publicity photos released for the album picture Gaga with comparatively little makeup or clothing and donning her natural hair color (if not her actual hair), suggesting that the singer was indeed, finally, stripping away the pretense of her ceaseless performance-art persona. And the lyrics to “Aura,” the very first song that leaked from the album, appeared to bear this out: “Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the curtain, behind the burqa?”

But it was ultimately just a tease. While Gaga may be naked on the album’s cover, it’s telling that her body isn’t flesh and blood, but a statue. No sooner had the lead single, “Applause,” been released than Gaga was quickly reverting to outlandish costumes almost like a reflex. The choice of “Applause,” a love letter to her fans (or, rather, her fan’s love), as Artpop’s first single is indicative of Gaga’s continued enabling of her co-dependent relationship with her “little monsters,” and rather than open herself up to a wider audience, the song only further cocoons her. And her articulation of the album’s theme has been, to be generous, ever-evolving. As she admits on the title track, “Artpop could be anything”!

This lack of clarity and focus is reflected in the music itself. Though the dismal, trap-inspired dud “Jewels n’ Drugs” flaunts Gaga’s versatility, it primarily serves to highlight the album’s lamentable throw-everything-against-the-wall approach. (The second single, “Do What U Want,” more seamlessly integrates urban elements into Gaga’s signature EDM aesthetic.) Artpop isn’t the sound of an artist moving forward, but of one scrambling to maintain, if not reclaim, her position among today’s pop elite. It’s a strategic step backward, with songs like “G.U.Y.” and “Sexxx Dreams” channeling the vapid party girl of The Fame’s “LoveGame” and “Just Dance,” and “Mary Jane Holland” and “Gypsy” reminiscent of standout tracks from Born This Way.

What makes Artpop impossible to dismiss, however, is that when Gaga revisits more conventional pop sounds and structures, the results are often sublime—and surprisingly revealing. She alternately conjures Debbie Harry and a helium-voiced pop cipher a la Britney Spears or Paris Hilton on “Sexxx Dreams,” but when the music drops out and she coyly addresses the object of her subliminal fantasies, you get the sense that Gaga is finally giving us a glimpse of the real Stefani Germanotta. And though the euphoric “Gypsy” is essentially a rewrite of “The Edge of Glory,” the song examines Gaga’s unyielding lust for the spotlight far more effectively than “Applause” does.

“G.U.Y.” doesn’t really bring anything new to the canon of pop songs exploring sexual role reversal, but Gaga executes it like a dedicated apprentice. In fact, that’s the fundamental lesson of Artpop: Gaga is still very much a pupil of pop, scavenging for inspiration like an undergraduate in a late-night cram session. Cribbing from Sun Ra by way of French duo Zombie Zombie, “Venus” confirms that she knows how to write catchy hooks, just not what to do with them or, more importantly, how to self-edit. Despite some welcome hints of B-52’s-style camp, the song’s daft spoken bridge basically amounts to an elementary tutorial on astronomy. There was a certain wit to “Paparazzi” and “Telephone,” particularly the videos, but Gaga’s sense of humor has largely evaporated, replaced with an air of self-importance in both her activist and musical works, making it difficult to determine if a song like “Venus” is genuinely intended to be avant garde or if she’s just taking the piss.

Of course, Gaga continues to be a student of Madonna, and the songs that most plainly draw from the headmistress of pop’s oeuvre prove to be some of the album’s grooviest. Remarkably, given that the track was co-written by one of the producers responsible for “Born This Way,” “Fashion!” isn’t bashful about its nods to both “Holiday” and, in what will inevitably scan as a dig, “Material Girl” (“I feel alive when I transform/But this love’s not ma-teri-aaal!”), while the slick Eurodisco of the title track conjures Madge’s Confessions on a Dance Floor.

Coincidentally, “Artpop,” a tribute to hybrids and contrast, is the closest Gaga comes to establishing a coherent theme for the album. “We could, we could belong together: art, pop,” she chants, her robotic timbre juxtaposed with operatic background vocals. She marries eccentric, glitchy verses and an anthemic pop hook on “Aura,” and deftly emblematizes the often-overlooked lineage between the aggression of metal and techno on “Swine.” In the end, though, it’s Artpop’s most naked, straightforward pop moments that are the album’s most redemptive. As Gaga concedes: “Sometimes the simplest move is right/The melody that you choose can rescue you.”

Label: Interscope Release Date: November 11, 2013 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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