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Review: Madonna, GHV2

No new songs. No controversial videos. No remixes. GHV2 is a long way from Madonna’s previous greatest hits compilations.

3.0

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Madonna, GHV2

No new songs. No controversial videos. No remixes. GHV2 is a long way from Madonna’s previous greatest hits compilations. Even the album’s title, an abbreviation for “Greatest Hits Volume 2,” is comparably uninventive. The tracks here are as brutally edited as those on 1990’s The Immaculate Collection, the only other comprehensive hits collection in Madonna’s canon (1987’s You Can Dance was a continuous remix set and 1995’s Something to Remember focused on the singer’s more introspective ballads). Most criminal are butchered radio versions of “Frozen,” “Ray of Light,” and the now-classic “Deeper and Deeper.” Even “Human Nature,” Madonna’s defiant retort to critics who tried to “silence” her, has been ironically self-censored. And like all of its older, multi-platinum siblings, GHV2 doesn’t paint a complete picture; Something to Remember is the only place you’ll be able to find soundtrack gems “This Used to Be My Playground” and “I’ll Remember.” Also missing is the chart-topping remix of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which was completely re-recorded for clubs in 1997 by a then-pregnant Madonna and became the singer’s biggest dance hit in years; in its place is the original version from Evita, which stands out among the trendy pop of “Erotica” and “Bedtime Story.” With no new material and a seemingly hands-off approach from its star subject, the collection doesn’t seem to do justice to a career that has always been ahead of the game and focused on the future.

While it might be a somewhat fruitless purchase for Madonna fans who undoubtedly own Madonna’s last four studio albums, GHV2 certainly encapsulates the second decade of the performer’s boundary-bridging career. Choppy edits, random sequences and missing links aside, here’s how the songs themselves measure up:

Deeper and Deeper (1992). Deftly blending producer Shep Pettibone’s of-the-moment house beats with swirling keyboard synths and flamenco guitar, “Deeper and Deeper” is both a product of its time and a timeless Madonna classic in the “Vogue” vein. The track even invokes that famous chart-topper’s invitation to the dancefloor: “Let your body move to the music!” One of the few tracks from Erotica not weighed down or muddled by Pettibone’s gritty production, “Deeper and Deeper” sounds just as good today as it did nearly a decade ago. A-

Erotica (1992). Madonna was all dressed up like Dita Parlo for Halloween in 1992, unknowingly crossing the public’s anomalous line of decency with “Erotica” and the Sex book. While she was presumably aware that the lead single from her sixth studio album would challenge the pop music standard, she probably didn’t know that it would play a part in the biggest challenge of her career. A virtual sequel to the steely in-your-face spoken-word of “Justify My Love,” “Erotica” was as distantly icy as it was erotic: “Only the one that inflicts the pain can take it away.” Sadomasochism in the form of song, the track was a creative high for a career on the verge of public turmoil. B+

Human Nature (1994). “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex/I musta been crazy.” And oops, she did it again. For years, Madonna spoke in metaphors, fantasies and blatant shock tactics, but with “Human Nature,” the performer indignantly struck back at her critics in a rather straight-forward manner: “I’m not your bitch/Don’t hang your shit on me.” She wasn’t just holding up a mirror, she became the mirror: “Did I say something true?…I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about you.” Madonna’s snide tone went a bit overboard, though, suggesting her opinions would have sounded better had she been a man. Different, sure. But better? Nah. B

Secret (1994). Madonna reemerged from the funk of Sex and David Letterman with “Secret,” perhaps the single most naked performance of the artist’s career. Acoustic guitars, expertly sweetened vocals and producer Dallas Austin’s signature R&B beats soulfully transport the listener into Madonna’s troubled yet balmy world. “Happiness lies in your own hand,” she sings. Regardless of whether or not she was able to apply the concept to her experience at the time is questionable, but it became her mantra, segueing nicely into her Yoga years. A

Don’t Cry for Me Argentina (1996). Easily one of Madonna’s greatest vocal performance to date, the singer’s dramatic interpretation of Evita’s unofficial theme song was both loyal and bizarrely autobiographical: “As for fortune and as for fame/I never invited them in/Though it seemed to the world they were all I desired.” Like a healing wand, her role as Eva Peron served as a glorious transition into adulthood (and motherhood). B+

Bedtime Story (1994). Perhaps the single with the most unfulfilled hit potential in Madonna’s 20-year career, the Björk-penned title track from 1994’s Bedtime Stories could have been the next “Vogue” (“Let’s get unconscious honey,” she sings hypnotically over a pulsating beat and gurgles courtesy of Nellee Hooper and Marius DeVries). Modern rock didn’t dare bite; even the bravest of pop radio programmers passed on the trippy follow-up to the mainstream hit “Take a Bow.” The song was the germ that would later inspire Madonna to seek out and conquer electronica with the likes of William Orbit and Mirwais. A

Power of Goodbye (1998). Structured like your average Adult Contemporary ballad with enough electronic sheen to sound edgy, “The Power of Goodbye” was the ultimate in electronica-lite. If the song’s themes of empowerment aren’t enough to lift the spirits, rhythmic guitars, sweeping strings and a soaring melody elevate the listener to several clouds above 9. Perhaps better left within the aural context of Ray of Light, the song peaked just outside the Top 10. A-

Beautiful Stranger (1999). Like any good throwaway track, “Beautiful Stranger” doesn’t pretend to be much more than it is. Whiny guitars and flutes abound, Madonna and Orbit concocted a perfect theme song for friend Mike Myers’s cooky Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Playful, wispy and ultimately forgettable—well, as the lyrics say: “La-da, da-da, da-da, da/Da, da, da-da, da/Beautiful stranger.” B-

Frozen (1998). “Frozen” was Madonna’s return to pop music after a detour that took her from Argentina to motherhood to spiritual reawakening. After reuniting with longtime songwriting partner Patrick Leonard (“Live to Tell,” “Like a Prayer”), Madonna called on Orbit to pump the track with expressive drum fills and pulsating electronic effects. Its lyrics were uncomplicated but its statement was grand: “You only see what your eyes want to see/How can life be what you want it to be?” Praised by the likes of Tommy Mottola and Tori Amos, Madonna and Co. crafted what can only be described as one of the greatest pop masterpieces of the ’90s. A

Take a Bow (1994). Madonna commissioned some of R&B’s elite for Bedtime Stories. Perennial favorite Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds was one such collaborator, co-writing and producing “Take a Bow,” the longest running number one hit of Madonna’s career. Working with superstar producers is a rarity for the singer; hot off the heals of hits like Toni Braxton’s “Breathe Again” and Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” Babyface was in scarce company. The ballad was at once syrupy and bittersweet, calling on the words of one William Shakespeare to help recount the tale’s dramatic conclusion: “All the world is a stage/And everyone has their part/But how was I to know which way the story’d go/How was I to know you’d break my heart?” B+

Ray of Light (1998). Like no other Madonna hit in recent memory, the frenetic “Ray of Light” found the singer in a celebratory tech-frenzy. Whether it was an epiphany of the spiritual or sonic kind (Ray of Light marked a dance-rooted homecoming for the pop star), her elation was unmistakable: “Quicker than a ray of light, I’m flying…And I feel like I just got home!” Orbit’s cycles of analog synths and electric guitar licks perfectly supplemented the elasticity of Madonna’s newly-trained vocal chords. Not since “Over and Over” or “Deeper and Deeper” had Madonna reached such dizzying heights. A

Don’t Tell Me (2000). “Don’t Tell Me” was the most unlikely follow-up to 2000’s “Music.” Stop-and-go guitar riffs, an atypical structure and peculiar lyrics (“Tell the bed not to lay/Like the open mouth of a grave/Not to stare up at me/Like a calf down on its knees”) made it an unlikely hit to boot. But a hit is exactly what it was, earning Madonna her 27th Top 5 hit and 24th gold single (tying the Beatles). “Don’t Tell Me” found Madonna at her most soulful, with a vocal performance reminiscent of the forceful tone of “Express Yourself.” B+

What It Feels Like for a Girl (2000). Madonna’s softcore feminist statement (“When you’re trying hard to be your best/Could you be a little less?”) is largely lost amid the conventional sonics of Music’s final single, released earlier this year. Co-produced by Guy Sigworth and Mike “Spike” Stent, known for their dynamic work with Björk, “What It Feels Like for a Girl” is GHV2’s least dynamic offering. C

Drowned World/Substitute for Love (1998). The autobiographical song that introduced the world to the new “Spiritual Girl” on 1998’s Ray of Light and kicked off this summer’s Drowned World Tour was never released as a single in the U.S. but certainly earns its spot among the hits. Layered with vocal samples and buoyant drum n’ bass beats, “Drowned World” sums up much of Madonna’s personal tribulations with fame: “I got exactly what I asked for/Running, rushing back for more…And now I find, I’ve changed my mind.” B

Music (2000). It was back to basics on Madonna’s twelfth and most recent chart-topper: dance, celebration, unity and, of course, music. “Music” aptly closes GHV2 with its retro club beats and vintage synth sounds; even Madonna’s chirpy vocals recall her initial heyday. “Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel come together”—only a former material girl living in a Nasdaq world could get away with a song like this. B+

Label: Maverick/Warner Bros. Release Date: November 9, 2001 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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