Blue Room is Madeleine Peyroux’s quasi-tribute to Ray Charles, and more specifically to his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Covers of five songs from that album appear on The Blue Room, alongside compositions by Buddy Holly, Randy Newman, and Warren Zevon. The Charles votarism should come as no surprise, given that Peyroux titled her 2004 album Careless Love, and that she hasn’t exactly been averse to the odd Charles cover on stage and on record. But Peyroux has always played the votary to someone or other: She forged her own vocal identity in merging the earthy approach of Bessie Smith with the more refined delivery of Billie Holiday, Peyroux’s chief American influence. (Part French, Peyroux also betrays traces of a childhood spent listening to Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour.) Produced by longtime collaborator Larry Klein and backed on guitar by the very lithe Dean Parks, The Blue Room is a sensuous but also very sad album. If Peyroux is guilty of undersinging on occasion, this very tendency is awfully refreshing in an era where mindless, high-volume vocal trillings so often masquerade as interpretation.
Vince Mendoza’s string arrangements are the only real sonic addition to Peyroux’s palette on Blue Room. The strings accompany a majority of the songs and can seem intrusive at times, but they also represent the album’s defining element. At his best, Mendoza lends a mournful, almost hallucinogenic sheen to traditional country-jazz shuffles (think Henry Mancini via George Martin), evoking without words the despairing philosophy of the album. (Charles was no fool: He knew country was about pain, perhaps even more than the blues.) Whereas cut-rate Nelson Riddle imitations too often cheapened a good Charles album, perhaps because it was such an obvious a play to the white market, Mendoza’s strings offer a bittersweet bed for Peyroux’s reliably well-phrased, discursive vocal style.
None of the songs here break 90 beats per minute, and the trancey singularity of pace won’t please everyone. But the album bears no trace of a dud. “Born to Lose,” one of the Charles numbers, is a classic Peyroux performance that inverts the pity-plea of the original into something considered and introspective—no small feat. (The song’s muted trumpet solo matches Peyroux in careful phrases that don’t end where you expect.) There’s the whisper of a more excursive instinct here, something in the Miles Davis/Nefertiti vein on the instrumental side, but experimentation isn’t exactly Peyroux’s bag anyway, and the band’s task here is first and foremost not to intrude. Peyroux’s performance of Randy Newman’s “Guilty” is vivid and vulnerable, the singer playing a woman who makes an ill-advised appearance at her ex’s place after a night of whiskey and cocaine. “How come I never do what I’m s’posed to do?” she asks, while delivering the line “It takes a whole lot of medicine/For me to pretend I’m somebody else” with a knowingness that just cleaves your heart.
If Peyroux’s “Bye-Bye Love” is even more wooden than the 1969 Simon & Garfunkel cover, her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” is a thing of aching beauty: She sounds nearly like Johnny Cash in those little contralto moments, and the strings elevate the song like the emotional tightrope it describes. Peyroux enters a song with such emotional presence that you hardly even notice the ease with which she interrupts an elegant melodic variant (for just a syllable or two) to enter the conversational mode. “Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free,” Peyroux sings in “Bird on the Wire.” This even-handed negotiation with the sacred and profane is her specialty, and her particular genius (to use a very Ray Charles word) is to embody this negotiation in her songs, whether they’re original (as on 2009’s Bare Bones) or, more often, very well-culled standards. The sacred and the profane—that’s très French, but also très R&B. Loyal to her own dual heritage and willing to value her own divided animal instincts, Peyroux remains such a beguiling singer that it’s hard to care if her albums often sound the same.
Label: Decca Release Date: March 5, 2013 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