I’ve always thought of Mariah Carey as something of a math problem, one that lacks either theorem or proof. To wit, the enjoyment of her music is directly proportional to the gratuitousness of her vocal indulgences (chief among them, her tendency to jump to her upper register without reason or warning), the cheeky self-awareness to her own camp potential, and the unfailing devotion to her own sense of continued legacy as the distilled representation of pop culture. It’s actually that last item that shows up most often in the singer’s curriculum; there’s a reason that, until now, Mariah hasn’t changed the font for her CD-cover nameplate since day one. Some scoffed a few years back when Garth Brooks flatly admitted his excitement over the prospect of toppling the Beatles’ record for most albums sold, but no one seems to bat an eye when Mariah’s PR machine focuses plainly on bookkeeping. Hell, I’m not entirely sure that either “Touch My Body” or, before that, “We Belong Together” didn’t sound just a little bit better because of their statistical potency, as opposed to their musical vitality.
But that’s the bitch of having a winning formula. Eventually, it’s going to boil down to just that: a formula. The irresistibly titled E=MC² stands shoulder, at least according to my TI-85, with The Emancipation of Mimi in that I honestly prefer Mariah in the loopier, more freewheeling territory of Rainbow and Glitter, but I can’t deny the dogged efficiency in action. Even if I wasn’t exactly sure what the “E” was supposed to mean in the album’s title at first (emotion? Ear-splitting melisma? Surely not energy…oh, it stands for “emancipation,” duh), there’s little doubt that “MC” stands for our own master of ceremonies, and she even threw in a little nod to her own public schizophrenia for good measure. But those hoping for reinvention will, in addition to being radically unfamiliar with Mariah’s career trajectory, probably be dismayed that the “2” also stands for “Mimi, Part 2.”
Mariah’s records have always credited a vocal engineer, but the first sound on E=MC² is that trademark throat howl from behind the all-too-familiar digital curtain of Auto-Tune. “Migrate,” a collaboration with T-Pain, kicks off the definitely hip-poppy album, and it sets the tone perfectly. Just as Mariah and Pain bounce from the taxi to the club to the house party to the bar to the hotel, E=MC² doesn’t dawdle long enough for you to ever discern just how overly deliberate it is: It’s an album composed entirely of radio edits. The only song that doesn’t feel just about composed on the spot is “Side Effects,” but that’s because it’s been in the making for a decade. A reasonably salutary tribute to 10 years of leaving Tommy Mottola behind, Mariah sings about how she’s still addressing the emotional wreckage. “I was a girl, you was a man/I was too young to understand/I was naïve, I just believed/Everything that you told me,” she explains while Young Jeezy rattles off the list of symptoms: “Drowsiness, loneliness, how’s this?” Frankly, I fought the same set of maladies getting through the song, but if Mariah has spent a decade not letting people get too close, who are we to deny giving her four minutes to emote it out? On the other hand, I guess I would deny her that, especially when, on “For the Record,” she expresses the desire to “just press rewind.”
There’s a big mathematical difference between pop instincts and pop manufacturing, and most of E=MC² demonstrates the latter. “Touch My Body,” as it turns out, was just about the only choice for a kickoff single, what with its slow-growing guilty-pleasure quotient, its cheesy-easy-breezy disposability (in the packrat world of pop culture, it always turns out to be the hardest to throw away the throwaway), and its frontloaded Mariah-being-Mariah flourishes. References to YouTube, T-shirts, and favorite jeans are turned kinky against the insistent imagery of her voluptuous thighs. And leave it to Mariah to transmute the sex appeal of teddy bears into the same territory inhabited by leather bears: If yiff culture is going to cross over, it will be through the guiding help of Mimi’s plush fantasies. Furthermore, the blatant sexual advances come embedded within a downright rudimentary backing track (I’ve seen it been called glorified karaoke multiple times) that, were it not for the lyrics, would’ve been just as appropriate for the Backyardigans or the Wiggles, confirming that the “G” of Mariah’s g-spot stands for “general audiences.” The disparity between the song’s hyper-polished sterility and its almost prepubescent sexuality (as made literal in the song’s stupid-brilliant promotional clip) epitomize that elusive pop instinct. With “Touch My Body,” Mariah brings sexy back…to the schoolyard.
Elsewhere, there are two and a half uptempo tunes (that’s out of 14 on the non-iTunes version). “O.O.C.” has a nice, unforced looseness about it, both in Mariah’s loopy “s’cusa me” patois and in the flared-out drum pattern, with a surprising emphasis on the open high-hat; maybe not completely “out of control,” as advertised, but certainly a welcome deviation from her more uptight jams and even more uptight ballads. “I’m That Chick” is a retro treatsicle in the best, most Glitter-iest sense. It’s pinker than Pepto Bismol and just as soothing, and for whatever reason, Mariah’s fudged enunciation on the chorus turns “I’m that chick you like” into “I’ll have chicken, lite.” The triumph of the song is that, when all of our dance-floor divas these days seem to throw one disco-descendant banger on their otherwise hip-hop-hybrid LPs almost out of obligation, “I’m That Chick” doesn’t feel even as tokenistic as Janet’s “Feedback” (which I like more, but only out of context).
The aforementioned “half” song is the half-uptempo, half-brained, half-cocked “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time.” Words fail, but what you get for your $10 here is not only everyting you want (everyting!), but also Mariah simultaneously in ridiculous mode and also pathologically free of irony or self-awareness. Recruiting DJ Toomp for this one was a stroke of genius: “Long Time” sounds like a hyperventilating cross between a graduation anthem and an early-’80s family sitcom theme song. Listening to it, I felt face to face with a couple of silver spoons: one heroin, the other grape jelly. Such are the rewards of an album like E=MC², in which one does reach a solution, but not before Mariah bends over backward to show her work.
Label: Island Release Date: April 10, 2008 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