With her hypersonic wail, dewy-eyed platitudes, and accompanying deaf-dumb interpretive gestures, Mariah Carey was always a bit camp. But before 1997’s Butterfly, we had no idea how fucking weird the woman was. Her sixth studio album came on the heels of her split from Tommy Mottola, who, to hear her tell it, shoved Mariah the b-girl and her music into the gray area that made her such a huge commercial success. The first seven years of Carey’s pop reign ingeniously and maniacally avoided commitment to one musical format, the philosophical and commercial epitome of the blurred soul that owned the first half—or make that all—of the 1990s.
And blurry is how Carey appeared, at least early on, when what was most apparent about the woman’s psyche was her work ethic (she averaged almost an album a year during the first half of the decade—an amazing feat compared to her diva counterparts). Mariah the workhorse, per the liner notes of her albums, was co-producing and writing most of her material. Maybe in a bid to be as inoffensive (hence, appealing) as possible, she sang little about the specifics of being herself and only occasionally let on about her supposed first love, R&B. 1995’s Daydream, though, could have been called Caterpillar, what with its pronounced sampling and beats that actually bounced. But it came with a catch: Carey’s over-emoting, her uncompromising voice that announced her music as primarily vocal and not the same equal-opportunity mesh of words and sounds that defines hip-hop-soul (looking at you and blowing kisses, Mary J.). But for someone whose mouth was always gaping, Carey was surprisingly tight-lipped, even when signing off Daydream with her version of a “fuck you” to the haters: “They’ll never know the real me.”
Oh, but we’d get to see a whole lot more of Carey on Butterfly (the cleavage! The bellybutton!), an album obsessed with the notion of identity and carving one out for its central character. We’re greeted by Mariah the burgeoning hoochie moaning, “Oh, oh,” as the album begins. Via “Honey,” Butterfly immediately presents itself as an awakening, both sensually (witness the elusive, cummy imagery: “And it’s just like honey/When your love comes over me/Oh, baby, I’ve got a dependency/Always strung out for another taste of your honey”) and musically (Sean then-“Puffy” Combs bases the track around samples of Treacherous 3’s “The Body Rock” and World Famous Supreme Team’s “Hey DJ,” while Q-Tip programs the spunky beats). Carey and her producers had sampled liberally before: 1993’s “Dreamlover” incorporated the Emotions’ “Blind Alley” as sweetly as possible while Daydream’s “Fantasy” unabashedly replicated Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” Though the Bad Boy (and best) version of “Fantasy” featured the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, there was no mistaking the song for mom-friendly pop, thanks to Carey’s over-the-top belting (Combs wisely did away with the album version’s screechy chorus and replaced it with a melodic hook from “Genius”). “Honey” finds Carey cum-hungry (or something) in virgin territory, playing it cool (or as cool as she can) for the kids and not worrying about what moms might think.
But not for long. The title track reteams Mariah the injured with partner-in-schlock Walter Afanasieff, the man responsible for co-writing and co-producing much of her pre-Butterfly output—not to mention over half of Butterfly itself. The agonizingly slow “Butterfly,” with its predictably soaring chorus and if-it-comes-back-it-was-meant-to-be message, would have been ignorable tripe. Here, it’s a show for the peeping. Echoes of her newly failed relationship with Mottola bounce off the gospelly song’s cheap stained glass and then garble so that it sounds like some insane document of Stockholm syndrome. “Blindly I imagined I could/Keep you under glass,” coos Carey, but surrounded is exactly how she felt by Mottola’s iron fist (she has referred to the Bedford, New York mansion they shared as “Sing Sing” because that’s what she did there and prison is how it felt). She even goes beyond empathy; it’s as though Carey’s singing what her own self-professed eighth-grader spirit wants to hear: “Spread your wings and prepare to fly/For you have become a butterfly/Fly abandonedly into the sun.”
It isn’t just subject matter that elevates “Butterfly” above Carey’s usual melodrama. Carey’s vocal delivery and her willingness to experiment with it helped define the album, so it’s only appropriate that its title track is the first of many to showcase Carey’s much-debated “whisper voice.” The relatively high and thin register that she sings in when not belting (and that’s often) is sometimes cited as a sign of a waning vocal prowess. But it could be the most important of Butterfly’s changes, as it marks the first time that Mariah the vocalist seems consistently real. She’s not a robo-diva and she isn’t even on autopilot. She’s utterly soulful. We often think of guttural growling and belted vocal runs as the height of soulfulness (thanks, no doubt, to gospel’s values, which gave us the notion of soul in the first place), but when Carey sounds almost hoarse and entirely heady, she’s just about tangible.
“Honey” and “Butterfly” together exemplify the abrupt gear shifting that appreciating Mariah the artist requires. Butterfly’s pop brilliance doesn’t always come easy, where detecting it depends on the audience’s newfound ability to apply Carey’s pop life to her pop music (the divorce shaded her in and put some real-life behind her on-record misery). Like very good camp, Butterfly requires work. Russ Meyer knew and Paul Verhoeven sometimes remembers that the most enthralling camp is that which doesn’t always announce itself as such (ahem, John Waters), but which alternately winks knowingly and blinks blindly at the consumers, awarding them the decision of what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s so-bad-it’s-good. Though Butterfly does a lot more blinking, there’s a similar mechanism at work that’s actually inherent to all of Carey’s music, since all unbearable sappiness, to varying degrees, counteracts with her extremely listenable, extraordinary voice. Butterfly heightens the effect as Carey swings wildly between emotional extremes (cool and, to use one of a few 10-cent words Carey drops throughout the album, fervid), between mushy subject matter and specificity. Carey’s means may not be as astute as those of Meyer and Verhoeven, but her end has the head-spinning effect that the aforementioned auteurs ideally achieve: entertainment by any means necessary.
Butterfly is too eager to please for it to merely settle into guilty pleasuredom. Yes, it’s incredibly slow and the flutter turns to a crawl during the album’s final third, which becomes audacious with a how-slow-can-you-go cover of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” with Dru Hill. But a moderate pace more often suits Carey, who’s less prone to running (thematically and vocally) to the bigger picture during Butterfly’s wonderful middle. Little more than yearning, kissing, and remembering happens during the course of “The Roof,” a rough-enough R&B revision of Mobb Deep’s “The Shook Ones.” But lyrically, Mariah the writer is vivid, sometimes shockingly clever (rhyming “liberated” with “Moet” is a stroke of genius).
Butterfly peaks exactly where it should, with its sixth track, “Breakdown.” It’s the song of Carey’s career, where the lyrical strokes are as broad and obvious as they are naked. The song’s central question, “So what do you do when/Somebody you’re so devoted to/Suddenly just stops loving you?” is so naïve and bare, it’s almost as devastating as a child asking hard questions about death. The song finds Carey paired with half of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone. Mariah the chanter flawlessly adapts to their singsong style, largely boxing her multi-octave range into a sly, hypnotic melody so that when she really wails at the end, you really feel it. As with “The Roof,” Carey lunges toward musical maturity by embracing, not shunning hip-hop. This is the height of her elegance—and maybe hip-hop-soul’s too.
The comedown after “Breakdown,” and the last in the album’s mid-game rally, is “Babydoll,” Carey’s sole stab at Timbaland-styled skitter balladry to date. No longer able to seem nonchalant about the breakup that surfaces repeatedly throughout the album, Carey wants to be smothered once again: “Wrap me up nice and tight/Love me all through the night.” And here Mariah the confessor explicitly reveals what post-“Honey” Butterfly lacks: “I wanna get intimate/But you’re not within my reach.”
A quiet storm album without the fucking, Butterfly is, above everything, idiosyncratic. Here, like never before, we’re asked to take Carey for what she is: unabashedly chaste but ultra femme; unrelentingly precious but undeniably vulnerable. It’s this perceived waffling that makes Carey such a divisive pop artist (certainly the girliness doesn’t help either, since femmephobia is perhaps the status quo’s least-questioned fear). And it’s Mariah the inconsistent that makes Butterfly so ultimately fascinating and endearing. Viewing her character from a completely different angle on the album’s weepy last track, “Outside,” Carey observes that she’s “always somewhat out of place everywhere/Ambiguous/Without a sense of belonging to touch/Somewhere halfway/Feeling there’s no one completely the same.” Whether she’s talking about her mixed-race heritage, her career, or both, it’s the old Carey one-two, a seemingly unhappy ending fueled by the know-thyself philosophy that otherwise makes Butterfly joyous. As Carey’s most bizarre moment of self-celebration, it’s also a triumph, since it could only make sense coming from Mariah the person.
Label: Columbia Release Date: September 17, 1997 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