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Review: M.I.A., Kala

Kala seems aware of the potential of pop and hip-hop to empower those who have been denied a voice.

3.5

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M.I.A., Kala

One of the most talked-about debut albums of the decade, Arular emerges in retrospect as a masterful act of self-promotion, one that showcases M.I.A.’s grasp of and shrewd ability to exploit a crucial aspect of modern hip-hop culture. Arular is an album that works as a triumph of pure escapism; M.I.A. opened with the boast, “I got the bombs to make you blow/I got the beats to make you bang bang bang,” and then spent the following 40-odd minutes backing it up. As a creative, often brilliant composite of pop, electronic, and dance music, the album certainly justified the magnitude of the hype it received online for the better part of two years.

Perhaps more interestingly, M.I.A. allowed aspects of her personal history and Arular’s roundabout origins to precede the music itself. Loading her lyrics with forceful imagery straight out of Guns & Ammo and, hell, choosing the moniker M.I.A., she baited a reading of the album as something far more substantial: a work of deeply-rooted political protest. And, by and large, writers took that bait, either casually or willfully overlooking the fact that the geopolitical imagery was little more than an attention-grabbing gimmick, never resolving into any kind of coherent thesis or even a clear point of view about world politics. Arular’s gender politics remain a rich source of critical depth, but the fact that anyone thought of “Galang” as having much of anything to do with a Vietnamese POW camp speaks volumes about the unwillingness of many writers to challenge what’s in a press kit. But all credit to M.I.A. for getting away with this; again, as self-promotion, it’s a remarkable feat, and one that only makes her that much more compelling as an artist in control of what she’s doing.

For her follow-up, Kala (named after her mother, whereas her debut was named for her father, a militia group leader in Sri Lanka), she does much of the same thing. The backstory this time out involves her inability to get a visa that would allow her back into the U.S. to record the album or to work with many of the collaborators she had lined up for the project, resulting in a recording process that literally spans the globe. She’s also been lashing out at critics, most notably in a recent interview with Pitchfork, who were quick to discredit the role she played on Arular, quite rightly taking them to task for their inherent sexism and paternalistic racism in implying that she didn’t—or that a woman from the third-world couldn’t—have a creative voice of her own. The crucial difference with Kala, however, is that this backstory actually works with the music itself in that she’s incorporated her political imagery into more cogent, explicitly pointed accusations and has drawn directly from her globetrotting experiences in creating her sonic palette. In doing so, M.I.A., undoubtedly the truest “outsider” to emerge on the pop landscape in ages, has crafted an album that, in its best moments, positions her as an impassioned advocate for the disenfranchised.

Consider that the album rarely stoops to simple posturing: rapping about the ongoing rape of Africa on the standout “Hussel,” M.I.A. brings in Nigerian MC Afrikan Boy, who flaunts his status as an illegal immigrant. On “Mango Pickle Down River,” a group of Australian kids (credited as The Wilcannia Mob) raps not-that-badly over a track that takes its bassline from a looped didgeridoo. It’s telling that her collaboration with Timbaland, “Come Around,” is treated as a bonus track rather than part of the album proper. Instead, for much of the album, she actively seeks out the people to whom she’s trying to give a voice (and Lord knows Tims, of all people, doesn’t need the exposure at this point), and that makes Kala a far more fully-realized and informed political statement.

Rather than just toss out references to the PLO because it fits into a simple rhyme scheme, she makes declarative statements that ring with palpable feelings of anger and cynicism. The most striking of these comes on “$20,” when she sneers, “I put people on the map/That never seen a map,” a line loaded with both sociological freight and with a hip-hop artist’s knack for self-mythologizing. Second single “Jimmy” takes to task the brand of Facebook activism so common among her primary U.S. demo, passing off the couplet, “Take me on a genocide tour/Take me on a trip to Darfur,” like it’s the most romantic thing someone could ever say, a point driven home by the glorious Bollywood disco sample that swirls around the song. Even more jarring and, ultimately, more effective is the audacious manner in which she co-opts the chorus of “Rump Shaker” for “Paper Planes,” replacing its hook with the sounds of gunfire and a cash register. Again, however scattershot her political images were on Arular, M.I.A. makes it clear throughout Kala that she’s developed a perspective and an artistic voice that demands attention.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that Kala rarely works where its predecessor did: With the notable exception of “Jimmy” (which even risks being divisive because M.I.A. actually sings it in the mannered style of its origin), the hooks here simply aren’t as immediate or as catchy, and the weight of the material seems to have dragged down much of the album’s energy. The mid-’90s rave-up of “XR2,” which has been tweaked for the better since its original leaked form, is the closest the album comes to another “Sunshowers” or “Bucky Done Gun,” but it’s marred by having M.I.A.’s vocals completely smothered too low in the mix. And even by the standards of the wondrously minimalist “Galang,” first single “Boyz” just barely qualifies as a song and is undone as a potential club-banger by playing too loose with its rhythmic shifts. The beats on “$20,” “World Town,” and “The Turn” are simply static and uninspired, no matter how diverse their sources may be.

Kala loses some of the keen pop sensibility that still makes Arular a great listen. While that’s unfortunate, and renders Kala somewhat less satisfying an album overall, it’s what M.I.A. has gained on this album that’s sure to be of greater long-term significance. Now armed with a clear-eyed, informed, and important point of view and the artistic cachet to make that perspective known, the M.I.A. captured on Kala seems aware of the potential of pop and hip-hop music to empower those who have systematically been denied a voice. But to capitalize on that power, M.I.A. will need beats that actually make people want to get up and move.

Label: Interscope Release Date: August 21, 2007 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy Is Eclectic but Unmemorable

Neither the album’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs.

2.5

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Why You So Crazy

The music video for “Be Alright,” the lead single from the Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy, takes the viewer on an interactive 360-degree tour of the Odditorium, a city block-sized building in Portland that was purchased by the band in 2002 in order to serve as their headquarters and recording studio. On one level, it’s clever viral marketing, as the Odditorium is a commercial space, with booking information available online and a public-facing wine bar in the corner. But more importantly, it’s also a revealing glimpse at the cloistered conditions that have produced the last 15 years of the Dandys’s increasingly insular music.

Why You So Crazy unfolds in what is clearly meant to be a dizzying array of styles: from the 1930s Hollywood gloss of opening track “Fred N Ginger” (complete with an artificial 78 r.p.m. vinyl crackle), to the campfire gospel of “Sins Are Forgiven,” to the warped synth-pop of “To the Church.” Minute production details abound throughout: a stray melodica amid the tightly coiled electro of “Terraform”; a spectral, high-pitched piano line floating above the churning guitars of “Be Alright”; a general cacophony of Eno-esque electronic gurgles on the country pastiches “Highlife” and “Motor City Steel.” In short, the album sounds exactly like the product of a band with their own personal recording complex at their disposal and only the most nominal commercial pressures to fulfill.

Unfortunately, neither Why You So Crazy’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs. For all their stylistic diversity, most of the tracks here ride a single musical hook, like the metronomic bassline that opens “Thee Elegant Bum,” until they’ve reached an ostensibly acceptable length. It’s to the Dandys’s credit that their definition of acceptable song lengths no longer extends to the seven-, nine-, and 12-minute dirges that dominate 2005’s Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, the album that not coincidentally put an end to their short-lived major label phase. But this is cold comfort when the four-and-a-half minutes of undulating synthesizer and droning guitar feedback that comprise “Next Thing I Know” seems to stretch into a small eternity.

Even frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, not exactly a high-energy singer in the first place, seems to sleepwalk through much of the album—an impression enhanced when keyboardist Zia McCabe takes the lead for “Highlife.” Not only does McCabe’s Dolly Parton-ish chirp provide a welcome respite from Taylor-Taylor’s laconic drawl, but it makes for an instructive comparison with his blasé performance on the stylistically similar “Motor City Steel.” Neither song does much with the country genre besides wallow in its clichés, but while McCabe commits to her performance, Taylor-Taylor remains distant, exaggerating his pronunciation of Paris’s “Charlie DO-gal” airport as if he’s afraid of being taken too seriously. Similarly cloying is “Small Town Girls,” a paean to provincial womanizing that would feel trite had it been recorded when Taylor-Taylor was 21, let alone his current age of 51.

Of course, aesthetic distance isn’t necessarily a sin. Just ask Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger, to name two of the Dandys’s more obvious influences. Nor, for that matter, is self-indulgence without its artistic virtues. Jack White—another survivor of the early-2000s alt-rock scene with his own recording complex (two of them, in fact)—released an album last year that Slant’s own Jeremy Winograd described as “at times close to unlistenable,” but at least it provided the creative spark White seemed to be looking for. The Dandy Warhols, by contrast, just seem to be treading water: releasing an album because they can and, with 2019 marking their 25th anniversary as a band, because they think they should. And while there are no wrong reasons to make music, there may be no reason less compelling than obligation.

Release Date: January 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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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

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Stuffed & Ready

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

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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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