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Review: Madonna, Celebration

Speaking of things that are too hard to hold on to, Celebration’s other major deviation from the Immaculate template is primarily structural.

4.0

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Madonna, Celebration

Confession from my own private dance floor: I’ve never been a fan of The Immaculate Collection, despite the canonization accorded it in the absence of any competing career compilation up until its companion volume GHV2 in 2001. In almost every case, I found Immaculate’s QSound makeovers by Shep Pettibone (at the time, Madonna’s go-to guy thanks to his revelatory work on “Express Yourself” and “Vogue”) to be earsores, if not total desecrations, of the original works. The winningly tremulous qualities of her earliest hits were all but obliterated by Pettibone’s glossy remixes, and don’t even get me started on the deadening house beats he used to kamikaze “Like a Prayer,” a song which, like no other song from her first decade, did not exactly want for urgency. The upside of the album was and remains this unique feat: how its obligatory new tracks, the simmering “Rescue Me” and the aromatic “Justify My Love,” are considered by most fans to be among the singer’s best work.

Unfortunately, only one of those two songs survived the transition to Celebration, the “best of” reboot I’ve been wanting, needing, waiting for since 1990. Representing Madonna’s first post-iPod compilation, the full two-disc version of Celebration promises more bang for your buck than her previous hits collections and, in the bargain, reverts many (but not all) tracks previously assembled on Immaculate to their original mixes, essentially making Celebration her most retro retrospective to date. The backward compatibility is born out in the album’s cover art by Mr. Brainwash, which features a True Blue/“Vogue”-eras composite shot tarted up a la Andy Warhol. As she herself sang on the soundtrack to A League of Their Own, “Don’t hold on to the past/Well, that’s too much to ask.” (Unless the past in question is “This Used to Be My Playground,” which is the sole #1 not included here.)

Speaking of things that are too hard to hold on to, Celebration’s other major deviation from the Immaculate template is primarily structural. Maybe the compilation represents Madonna acquiescing to the death of the album and the rise of the mp3, but the overall effect of the song sequence is that of a frenzied shopping spree, not a careful retrospective. I’m not necessarily in the camp that insists compilations follow chronological order, but segues should at least make some sense of a career path. Celebration isn’t totally random—the first disc seems to focus more often than not on the dance-floor burners while the second spreads its attention across a broader definition of pop—but it seems tailor-made to purchase song-by-song to fill the gaps in your collection. Maybe Madonna is, 40 #1 dance hits into her career, making the sloppiness the point itself. Maybe she’s trying to suggest that her career can no longer be summarized. But if that’s the case, why bother collecting representative tracks in the first place?

I’m aware that every Madonna fan has his or her own favorite moments, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who will find the placement of “Vogue” sandwiched between “Music” and her Justin Timberlake duet “4 Minutes” obfuscatory to the point of offensiveness. “Vogue” is the lynchpin of her greatest, gayest period, and as such has a rightful place in Madonna’s narrative, one that does not nestle comfortably aside the hijinks of a toy boy. “Vogue” falls in line with a startling arc of growth and self-consciousness of which “Express Yourself” was the warning shot, an unmistakably feminist missive that explicitly excluded straight males from its directive and then commanded they respond to its demands. From telling straight women and gay men their love has every potential to be real, Madonna then submitted her persona within the gay identity with “Vogue.” If some found her cultural appropriation presumptuous, the reward was in the music you could let your body move to, hey, hey, hey. At least so far as pop music is concerned, “Vogue” was instrumental in allowing disco revivalism to emerge, allowing the denigrated gay genre to soar once again within the context of house music, the genre disco became in its second life. The queer-celebratory “Vogue” became, with a dash of ACT UP rage, Erotica, her darkest and most politically rewarding album and one that revealed a full understanding of the bipolarity of the gay experience circa AIDS, the self-actualizing highs and the then-tragically pervasive lows. If Silence = Death, Erotica’s aggressively gay house beats intended to make a whole goddamned lot of noise.

I use “Vogue” as merely one example of the benefit of chronological representation. On a song-to-song basis, the inclusion of recent misfires such as “Miles Away” and “Hollywood” (the latter marking an embarrassing moment in Madonna’s career no matter how you slice it, being her first single in two decades to completely miss Billboard’s Hot 100) would read as forgivable tokenism if the album were merely presented in chronological order. But to have them pop up unannounced among some of the unassailable classics of pop is flatly disruptive. The arrival of the commercially successful but creatively stagnant “Die Another Day,” for instance, in such close proximity to her Austin Powers ditty “Beautiful Stranger” (stupid, cute) only calls to attention Celebration’s most glaring soundtrack omission: the long-legged 1994 hit “I’ll Remember,” which, much like “Vogue,” represents one of the most important gear-changes in Madonna’s entire career. An underwater indigo dirge featuring a remarkable below-the-root bassline and supple, husky vocals, “I’ll Remember” settles up the score following the widely (and wrongly) derided Sex era and finds Madonna switching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf roles mid-performance from “hump the hostess” Martha to “I wanna have a baaay-bee” Honey. It’s the key to understanding how both Lourdes and Ray of Light came into being. And it gets the shaft in favor of “Sigmund Freud, analyze this!”

Okay, so the legitimacy of the song selection can, in this Cuisinart iteration, only be appraised on a case-by-case basis. How do the songs sound? And are the mixes definitive? Great and mostly, respectively. The oldest and newest tracks have been given the most attention. Almost everything from her first two albums shimmer with virginal moisture (especially “Dress You Up” and “Holiday”), and all of her tracks from the neo-aughts boast robust EQ credentials (though the claustrophobia of the production on “Music” almost seems overripe compared to the open warmth of the comp’s kickoff, “Hung Up”). Between “Like a Prayer” (thankfully, the album version) and “Sorry,” “Ray of Light” sounds strangely weak and muffled. I was hoping for a deeper bass sound on “Everybody,” but “Lucky Star” (which, best I can tell, seems to be a smartly remastered hybrid of the original track and the Pettibone remix) emerges as an absolute monster, a Larry Levan-worthy concoction of clanging rhythm guitars, synth atmospherics, and chugging bass.

The album is missing songs, doesn’t always include the right ones, seems to have been sequenced by a not particularly intuitive Genius playlist, and the two new tracks aren’t fit to kiss the feet of “Justify My Love”: The title track is a zero-traction dance track that’s as shallow lyrically (“If it makes you feel good then I say do it/I don’t know what you’re waiting for”) as it is musically, and the less said about her clumsy collaboration with Lil Wayne, “Revolver,” the better. But functionally, what Madonna and fans are really celebrating with the release of Celebration is the hard proof that Madonna’s back catalogue is now so immense and so varied that she can release a behemoth, two-disc greatest hits package that shoehorns in 36 songs and still manages to significantly short-change the singer’s legacy.

Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: September 23, 2009 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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