The title of Lloyd’s fourth album, King of Hearts, boldly announces Interscope’s intent to make R&B royalty of the long B-listed singer. His two biggest rivals, Trey Songz and Chris Brown, both passed Lloyd over in the pipeline to stardom, and they both do forgettable cameo work here, offering Lloyd a polite, if unenthusiastic, welcome to the V.I.P. section. One need only compare Lloyd’s quirky, funky “Lay It Down” to any one of Songz or Brown’s big singles to figure out why he’s consistently overshadowed by his younger peers: Where the archetypal R&B lothario possesses no more valuable asset than his super-slick croon, Lloyd’s falsetto wails are kinky and adenoidal, less silky smooth than whiskey-sour. First single “Lay It Down” gifted Lloyd with a star-making showcase for his compellingly imperfect voice, but the rest of King of Hearts is stuffed with guest spots (13 over the course of 14 tracks) and trendy production choices, often leaving its ostensible hero looking like a minor aristocrat in a gaudy and overcrowded court.
Though he has to share the track with rap titans Lil Wayne and André 3000, Lloyd makes the most of “Dedication to My Ex (Miss That),” an ante-upping variation on Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” meme. The retro soul track bumps along with naughty exuberance, though this time the expletive of choice is “pussy.” Lloyd gleefully castigates his ex, having moved on in all respects save for a lingering fondness for her nether regions, and André‘s guest spot is both understated and agile. In that context, Lloyd’s adolescent-sounding voice scans as impish and insinuating; it’s his best song to date, which makes it all the more regrettable that its NSFW lyrics will probably overshadow its hooks where radio is concerned. The next track, “Cupid,” immediately flips the script, casting Lloyd in the far less convincing role of tender romantic.
By the time the 55-minute album wraps up, Lloyd will also play gangsta, club king, and world-weary humanitarian. The something-for-everyone tact is handled capably from a production standpoint: Polow da Don, who handles nearly all of the tracks on King of Hearts, isn’t an original producer, aping Timbaland here and The-Dream there, but he’s a versatile and savvy follower. Unfortunately, the many faces of Lloyd don’t quite cohere, and the further the singer digresses from post-Cee-Lo soul, the more out of place he sounds. He’s particularly ill suited to ballads and anything with a remotely heavy beat. His pairing with Young Jeezy on “Be the One” is a particularly poor bid for street cred, as Lloyd sounds out of place next to the severe gangsta rapper.
Even so, nothing on King of Hearts can prepare a listener for its closing track. “World Cry” is an insufferable inspirational ballad in the tradition of “We Are the World,” wherein Lloyd summons R. Kelly and Keri Hilson for a stunningly shallow rap session on hatred, war, and the like. It aims to say something profound about the world we live in and ends up demonstrating that the average pop singer is far too insular and self-absorbed to say anything of interest. Though his competition is formidable, Kelly lands the worst lines in the song: “Cause hatred’s got ourselves in a pickle/Love costs five cents less than a nickel”—and something equally inane about wanting to produce in God’s studio.
As disasters like that attest, Lloyd fares best when he stays on the sillier, sexier side of things. When he’s on his game, he poses a less rigorously focus-grouped alternative to Bruno Mars’s tween-friendly pop-R&B, but every moment of genius on King of Hearts comes saddled with something less palatable. And yet its biggest problem isn’t consistency so much as a pronounced lack of showmanship: Lloyd is too frequently asked to share the spotlight, or else allowed to stand center stage on the condition that he contorts himself into some awkward pose. This is supposed to be his coming out (dash?) party, but instead you get the impression of having left a social event having only just been introduced to the host.
Label: Interscope Release Date: July 5, 2011 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