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Review: Madvillain, Madvillainy




Madvillain, Madvillainy

The crown jewel in Stones Throw Records’ quest to emerge as the Def Jam of spleefy underground urban music, Madvillain’s no-longer-below-the-radar Madvillainy is unquestionably the hip-hop album of the year. As Nas’s recent album occasionally proves (at least during the first disc), concept can be as much an obstacle in the field of rap as it is a virtue, but beatsman Madlib and MC MF Doom thankfully didn’t get the message. Among the most prolific (and least artistically tethered…or least disciplined, if you wanna hate like that) performers in the field, the two had been on a remarkable rampage, collaborating with an entire network of West Coast players and racking up something like 87 albums between the two of them in the last five years or so, virtually none under the same nom de plume.

Sometime last year, Madvillainy leaked during its gestalt period, and though many of Doom’s lyrics still reflected a penetrating alertness and humorous bent, the hazy basement production was so dark and muddled (like a nightmare you only half remember the next morning) that it overpowered everything else. Another near miss, it would seem. Madvillainy v.1.0 detailed the misadventures of an ambivalent superhero, but the beats sounded like goth couture. So when Madvillainy was finally committed to silicon, bolstered with the type of cheap beats you can carry under your arm, it was a minor surprise to discover that the entire undertaking had snapped into a sharp focus you’d think impossible for an album so clearly the result of marathon marijuana sessions.

A nutty collage of old B-movie vocal samples (I peg one of them as being Green Dolphin Street), loops from the Ghosts of Black American Music Past, and nebulous, almost invisible 808 beatitude, suddenly the demented geniuses that were responsible for such diverse anomalies in the staid world of hip-hop as, in one corner, the thickness of Quasimoto’s formidable The Unseen and, in the other, Shades Of Blue (a jazz-purist-baiting anarchist romp through the archives of Blue Note Records), managed to forge a cohesive synthesis.

Many a philosopher have observed that politics exists as a continuum, and what most people consider opposites really meet up at the same point on the curve. Musically speaking, Madvillainy resides on that point. Someone else once wrote how difficult it is to score musical accompaniments in genres that long ago became their own parodies, specifically bass-popping, wah-wah guitar pedal blaxploitation R&B, and not come off as a pastiche. The only way to buck the clichés is to embrace them and shuffle the deck. And Madvillainy resides there, too.

The lo-fi array of effects and clips meticulously arranged by Madlib (a.k.a. Otis Jackson Jr.) come faster than they can be labeled and shelved. The 46-minute album has 22 tracks, only three of them run longer than three minutes, and many shed their skin and pick up new sampler adornments halfway through. Which is just about perfect for the central conceit: that of Doom, wearing a cast-chrome mask that’s halfway between The Punisher and the Phantom of the Paradise and his Feuilladian espionage hijinks. Nearly every song is like a back-alley costume change between midnight rooftop chases: “Meat Grinder” begins with a free-jazz fanfare that sounds like Jack Johnson quoting Mr. Moto, but eventually settles into a spaghetti western showdown in Honolulu (the quickest gunslinger in the Pacific raps: “Hopeless romancer with the dopest flow stanzaz/Yes no? Villain/Metal faced t’Destro guess so still incredible in escrow”); “Rainbow” cuts into its lounge lizard strut vibe with jagged, trumpet-blaring Batman stings; and “Strange Ways” busts a baroque costume ball with a pulsating, highly-compressed confrontational walking bassline.

Still, when Madlib chooses to hold down a notion by the fur on its neck, the results are just as galvanizing. The pensive droning of the title instrument in “Accordion” (which serves as the album’s rules setter, the moment that Doom psychologically centers himself before plunging into the abyss) grows in menace and sadness as the introductory track continues (“Slip like Freudian/Your first and last step/To playin’ yourself like an accordion”), until each loop doubles over on itself, like each time around another key on the side panel is being depressed. And the Legrandiose, piano-pounding, bebopping clip that fuels “Raid” (a collaboration with Medaphor and very possibly the album’s standout cut) is the type of ridiculously perfect symphony in miniature, an authentic headrush of compounding excitement and tension, that makes you want to raid your own collection of vinyl, dropping the needle randomly in a vain attempt to remove the context of the surrounding song. Musically innovative in a way that is nearly impossible to do justice to in print, Madvillainy is a chameleonic masterpiece that alone validates the artistry of sampler culture.

Label: Stones Throw Release Date: December 17, 2004 Buy: Amazon



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.




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.




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.




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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