Madonna made like the bastard rebel child of Patti Hearst and Che Guevara on the cover of 2003’s American Life, but the socially-conscious, publicly slept-on album didn’t exactly stage a coup. Despite moments of greatness (“Intervention,” “Die Another Day,” “Nothing Fails”), the album somehow amounted to less than the sum of its parts, at times awkward and monotonous (thanks to Mirwais’s creatively-stunted production), but also daring, the sound of a superstar once again venturing outside her comfort zone. The fact is, American Life wasn’t a bad album by any standard; had it been released today (or in ’03 by an unknown artist), it could very well have become a critics’ darling a la Green Day’s American Idiot or, at least, been less of a bomb—a point hammered home while watching Madonna’s crinkled expression in between wartime “American Life”-style videos like “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and My Chemical Romance’s “The Ghost of You” during her visit to MTV’s TRL last month.
But now that the rest of the country has caught up, Madonna is making like all of the pre-Reagan dancing queens who took to Studio 54 during similar economic turmoil back when the aspiring dancer from Michigan first arrived in the Big City in the late ’70s. Her best work has always married the rapturous with the introspective (think Like A Prayer, Ray Of Light), and maybe Madonna has learned that she’s better off taking a cue from George W. Bush and appealing to her base. And if there’s anything else the woman knows how to do, it’s damage control. Mirwais proved to be even more of a one-trick pony than William Orbit and, aside from one song, Madonna wisely cut the French producer from the payroll of her new album Confessions on a Dance Floor. The bulk of the album is instead helmed by Stuart Price, who, ironically, was responsible for American Life’s quietest, most sublime moment, “X-Static Process.” Here, though, Price helps Madonna return to her former four-on-the-floor glory.
One of Madonna’s greatest latter-day paeans to the dance floor, 2000’s “Music,” was retro in practice, not essence, a meta throwback to the Material Girl’s own post-disco origins. The spiritual girl of Ray Of Light was still in charge—there was a greater social order at stake in the intentionally throwaway lyrics about getting up on the dance floor. Lead single “Hung Up,” on the other hand, is sung from the perspective of the girl who once had nothing. Like Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?,” which was remixed into an impatient slice of Italo disco by Price, “Hung Up” uses a ticking clock to symbolize fear of wasted time, but Madonna isn’t just singing about careerism (or even bringing the people together), she’s talking about love, the thing that made “Into the Groove” such a timeless dance classic. And “Hung Up”—which Madonna first imagined as a figurative cross between Danceteria, the NYC club where she first got her start, and ABBA on Ecstasy—doesn’t just reference the past, it embodies it with its pitched-upward vocals, infectious arpeggio sample from ABBA’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight),” and decidedly unironic, archetypical key change during the bridge.
Aside from “Hung Up” and “Sorry,” the insanely catchy second single that’s destined to become a Madonna classic, Confessions isn’t the mindlessly fun dance album we were promised. It, in fact, has a lot more in common with Madonna’s last three albums, particularly Ray of Light, than her first three. Confessions is American Life repackaged for the masses—or, rather, her masses: recurrent topics include materialism (“Let It Will Be” and “How High”) and, of course, spirituality. “Isaac,” which is what the Dave Matthews Band might sound like if they started making techno music, is an exhilarating hymn, while “Future Lovers,” with its spoken-word passages and chants, is less like an actual song and more like a spiritual instruction manual. The allegorical closing track, “Like It or Not,” finds Madonna stuck in English Roses mode, stringing together Kabbalah-learned platitudes one after the other. For evidence of Madonna’s previous talent of turning clichés into pop slogans, though, look no further than “Get Together,” with its subtle nods to “Holiday” and “Secret,” or the “I’ve heard it all before” hook of the ABBA-esque “Sorry” (the track appropriates the bassline from the Jacksons’s “Can You Feel It,” the beat of which was, coincidentally, nabbed for Madonna’s career-defining “Material Girl” 20 years ago).
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Madonna album without at least one clunker, and this time it’s “I Love New York,” a guitar-driven track that sounds like an American Life leftover (though it wasn’t produced by Mirwais) and includes couplets that end with “New York” and “dork” and, even worse, “f’ off” and “golf.” It helps that, despite some minimal effects, the vocal performances are nothing if not assured: “Jump,” a gritty club anthem that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Erotica, showcases her lower register; the elastically propulsive “Push” finds a microphone-chewing Madonna paying homage to those who inspired her to keep going (possibly her mother, her children, her husband, even the late college dance instructor who pushed her to move to NYC, or presumably all of the above); and “Forbidden Love” is a slice of pensive ambient techno that positions her as a sex-kitten-voiced cyber-disco seer (Madonna hasn’t sounded this genuinely tender-hearted since Bedtime Stories…coincidence?).
Comparisons to Light Years, Kylie Minogue’s own discofied comeback album from 2000, are inevitable, and not just because both include nearly identical nods to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” But the final quarter of Confessions, starting with “Isaac,” is like the soundtrack to some futuristic production of Yentl (supposedly the album is the product of what was originally intended to be a musical score), and that’s something only one woman could get away with. One of the few pop singers whose albums are best appreciated in their entirety and not lopped off into “hit singles,” Madonna, with the help of Price (who segued the album’s tracks like a DJ set), has succeeded at creating a dance-pop odyssey with an emotional, if not necessarily narrative, arc—and one big continuously-mixed fuck-you to the art-dismantling iPod Shuffle in the process.
Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: November 4, 2005 Buy: Amazon
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
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
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