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Review: Meshell Ndegeocello, Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone

The album honors what’s made Simone such an enduring icon.

 

4.0

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Meshell Ndegeocello, Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone

Considering how eclectic her output has been over the course of her career, it seems fitting that Meshell Ndegeocello would eventually croon the iconic chorus of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Ndegeocello’s soulful, blues-inflected rendition of the pop standard opens her tribute album to Nina Simone, Pour Une Âme Souveraine. Known for her refusal to adhere to genre conventions, her progressive approach to pop music, and her fierce political activism, Simone is a clear artistic forbearer for Ndegeocello, and Pour Une Âme Souveraine both honors Simone’s legacy while allowing Ndegeocello to build on her own.

Simone has one of the richest songbooks in popular music, and in selecting material for the album, Ndegeocello and her collaborators strike a balance between the most familiar standards Simone helped popularize and some more surprising choices that speak to Simone’s range as both a songwriter and interpreter. Among the songs that have been covered most, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is one of the set’s highlights, thanks to a gorgeous performance by Lizz Wright, who foregrounds the self-doubt behind the song’s central conflicts. Ndegeocello is joined by Toshi Reagon on a spirited reading of “House of the Rising Sun” that impresses for its rapid-fire improvisations and its subtle, effective nod to Simone’s gospel roots. Soul singer Cody Chesnutt, who’s kept a relatively low profile since his 2002 debut, The Headphone Masterpiece, takes the lead on “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” turning in a powerful reading that casts the song as more of a gentle affirmation than a statement of protest.

In each of the songs, there’s an emphasis on discovering one’s voice through dedicated effort and purposeful struggles. Ndegeocello’s sultry rendition of “Feeling Good” is all about self-actualization (and possibly about self-gratification too), while the gradual crescendo in “Don’t Take All Night” finds Sinéad O’Connor’s singing the lead and building up the courage to demand the things she needs from her lover. “Be My Husband,” with singer Valerie June, is even more direct, starting with a nearly a cappella arrangement that turns into a sinewy blues-inspired stomp, giving a real sense of power to a song that plays like marching orders.

The album’s only real flaw is that some of the arrangements lack the same potency of what Ndegeocello and co-producer Chris Bruce have composed for “Be My Husband” and “House of the Rising Sun.” “Either Way I Lose” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” are both lovely enough, but they’re perhaps too reserved and languid, while the instrumental codas on “Feeling Good” and “See Line Woman” overstay their welcome, causing those tracks to drag on longer than they should. Still, that’s a relatively minor quibble when considering how uniformly thoughtful the album’s performances are and, moreover, how Pour Une Âme Souveraine’s focus on independence and self-discovery honors the attributes that have made Simone such an enduring icon.

Label: Naïve Release Date: October 9, 2012 Buy: Amazon

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Jessie Ware Returns to the “Spotlight” with New Single and Album

The U.K. singer’s latest is a sultry, understated throwback to Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte-style disco.

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Jessie Ware, Spotlight
Photo: Carlijn Jacobs/Interscope Records

Jessie Ware has dropped the lead single from her upcoming fourth album, What’s Your Pleasure? Co-written by the U.K. singer-songwriter and Danny Parker, Shungudzo Kuyimba, and James Ford (who also produced the single), “Spotlight” is a sultry, understated throwback to Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte-style disco. Ware’s carefree vocals float atop a lush arrangement of swirling strings, guitars, and wobbly bass.

According to a press release, the album is a “thank you” to Ware’s long-term fans. The singer describes “Spotlight” as a “first taste,” but she’s has been teasing a more club-oriented effort since 2018’s “Overtime,” a blissed-out slice of classic house reminiscent of her early collaborative singles. The final tracklist for What’s Your Pleasure? has yet to be revealed, but fingers crossed that last year’s nearly five-minute disco daydream “Mirage (Don’t Stop)” makes the cut.

“I feel like these last few years I’ve had to do some exploration to figure out what I wanted to write about musically again and learn new things about myself. I’ve been yearning for that escapism, groove and maybe it’s time to say goodbye to the melancholy Jessie,” Ware says.

Directed by Jovan Todorovic, the mesmerizing video for “Spotlight” was shot in Belgrade aboard former Yugoslavian dictator Josep Broz’s infamous Blue Train. The celebratory clip captures a kaleidoscope of emotions as Ware walks, struts, floats, and dances among the train’s passengers.

Watch below:

What’s Your Pleasure? is scheduled for a June 5 release on PMR/Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope Records.

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Review: Lady Gaga’s “Stupid Love” Single and Video Fail to Spark Joy

The singer’s latest is a catchy but uninventive slice of electro-pop.

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Lady Gaga, Stupid Love
Photo: YouTube

After Lady Gaga’s new single, “Stupid Love,” unexpectedly leaked online last month, many of the singer’s not-so-little-anymore monsters were quick to take to Twitter and dismiss the rather unremarkable dance-pop tune as a demo or outtake from a previous era. It seems that was wishful thinking. Officially released today, the lead single from the pop singer’s first studio album of original material in four years, is a catchy but uninventive slice of electro-pop driven by a synth bassline reminiscent of the singer’s since-deleted rape fantasy with R. Kelly, “Do What U Want.”

“Freak out, freak out, freak out, freak out, look at me now,” the Muppets Most Wanted actress croons atop a midtempo dance beat, courtesy of producers Bloodpop and Tchami. The track’s other elements—from Gaga’s faux-operatic vocals to the song’s diced-up hook—fail to spark much joy. If it had been released on the heels of 2013’s garish Artpop, “Stupid Love” might feel merely repetitive, but following a series of ostensibly more “mature” albums—the jazz collection Cheek to Cheek, the roots-inflected Joanne, and the soundtrack to A Star Is Born—it’s downright regressive.

The rumored title of Gaga’s sixth album, Chromatica, presumably refers to both the chromatic musical scale and the color wheel one learns about on the first day of art class, and the music video for “Stupid Love” likewise trades in simplistic themes and visuals. Shot on an iPhone by director Daniel Askill, the choreography-heavy clip stars Gaga—who dons various fuschia-colored costumes and plastic face jewels that are less Björk than Party City—as the hearing-impaired leader of a group of “Kindness punks” who implore various warring, color-coded tribes to choose love.

It’s about as corny as it sounds and lacks the (comparatively) sophisticated mythology or narrative of videos like 2011’s “Born This Way.” Even when Gaga’s early videos felt derivative or the concepts slipshod, there was at least a sense of an artist tapping into, and sometimes even defining, the zeitgeist. “Stupid Love” feels like the product of a full-grown performer trying to appeal to a fanbase she apparently believes is still composed of adolescent misfits.

Watch the video below:

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The 10 Best Albums of 1980

We take a look back on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

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The 10 Best Albums of 1980
Epic Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: The Jam, Sound Affects; Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel; Young Marble Gods, Colossal Youth; Grace Jones, Warm Leatherette; Emmylou Harris, Roses in the Snow; Stevie Wonder, Hotter Than July; Devo, Freedom of Choice; Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; Public Image Ltd, Second Edition; Bruce Springsteen, The River



Diana

10. Diana Ross, diana

Diana Ross’s fifth (again, fifth) solo album to feature some part of her name in the title, this was the first one where the choice in nomenclature felt like an act of self-preservation. Because the album’s signature is unmistakably someone else’s, namely the Chic organization. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were brought aboard to help Miss Ross carry on the momentum she had at her back from the string disco hits including “Love Hangover,” “The Boss,” and “No One Gets the Prize.” What seemed like a cunning collaborative move quickly dimmed when disco became, almost overnight, passé. A panicked Ross and Motown snatched the album and remixed it to push it back toward the realm of pop, but even a side-by-side listen with the since-released original version only proves that, lucky for us all, Chic’s DNA is impermeable. Stacked with peppy, irresistible post-disco hits like “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” diana is without question the diva’s most satisfying LP. Eric Henderson



Los Angeles

9. X, Los Angeles

A punk-rock power duo making strong use of their male/female dynamic, Exene Cervenka and John Doe fronted X’s roaring songs with a vibrant vocal and lyrical approach, which helped make them the creative standard bearer of the nascent L.A. scene. Beefing up the usual punk attack with a sound hearkening back to several decades of rock, from Chuck Berry to Blondie, the band went beyond the usual three-chord dynamic, forming an album that’s both a paean to a fading city and an excoriation of its faults, all burning trash, clumped hair and Hollywood Boulevard sleaze, perfectly summed up by the burning logo of the album’s cover. Jesse Cataldo



Sandinista!

8. The Clash, Sandinista!

The succulent fat that drips from this spit-skewered, bloated pig of an album—36 tracks spanning two-and-a-half hours!—is fuel for a distinctive genre bonfire. The flames reach brashly, soulfully, sarcastically beyond punk, rock, pop, dance, ska, rockabilly, dub, calypso, and gospel, and its themes, as diverse as its sound, are the concerns of the world: consumerism, working-class disaffection, political antipathy, immigration, warfare. And drugs, the afterlife, Jesus Christ, sometimes all at once. Heavy stuff, yes, but this is the Clash, who will provide us with an address of Cold War relations but so from the floor of Studio 54. These cheeky blokes operate as spies, disguising grave matters with high-spirited musicality, hoping the powers that be won’t notice. Truly an album without borders. Ed Gonzalez



Get Happy!!

7. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Get Happy!!

In the saga of the punk-rock upstart who shocked critics by going all Lennon-McCartney on their asses, the blue-eyed soul of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!! is typically considered a genre detour, more like 1981’s country-themed Almost Blue than the classic pop triumvirate of Armed Forces, Trust, and Imperial Bedroom. But you need only compare it to Young Americans, Bowie’s misguided stab at R&B from five years earlier, to see how sincerely Costello inhabits the style’s past and present. Costello may have set out to show how much he knew about soul, but what he actually proved was how much he loves it. Matthew Cole


Pretenders” width=

6. Pretenders, Pretenders

The Pretenders’s debut is notable not only for the pitch-perfect execution of the band’s glam-meets-punk style, but also its delivery of unconventional sex appeal. Like Debbie Harry before her, Chrissie Hynde represented a feminization of the punk aesthetic, a street-smart girl who could outdrink, outperform, and ultimately outsmart her male counterparts. Rock feminism never sounded as good as it does here, particularly on tracks like the spunky “Brass in Pocket,” where Hynde has the power to be playful, tough, and even self-deprecating without sacrificing any of her throaty vocal presence. At its core, rock n’ roll is about charisma, and as tracks like “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Private Life” prove, the Pretenders not only had a cache of the stuff, but were well-versed in how to showcase it. Kevin Liedel

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Review: Grimes’s Miss Anthropocene Feels Both Deeply Personal and Communal

The album is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society.

4

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Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
Photo: Mac Boucher and Neil Hansen

Grimes, née Claire Boucher, furrowed brows when she described the concept of Miss Anthropocene as being centered around her desire “to make climate change fun.” She has since somewhat clarified the statement, explaining that, in rendering climate change as a villainous, comic book-esque character, she might be able to make our environmental crisis “easier to digest.” Not especially known for her easy digestibility as an artist—not least because, in many of her previous releases, Boucher’s vocals have been processed to the point of near-incomprehensibility—it seemed like a tough, if noble, objective.

Indeed, if Boucher’s goal really was to make the conversation around climate change more accessible with her fifth album, she isn’t particularly successful. Written, a press release says, “from the perspective of a pro-AI girl group propaganda machine who use song, dance, sex and fashion to promote goodwill towards artificial intelligence,” the deluxe edition’s “We Appreciate Power” was (misguidedly) criticized as glorifying fascism. There’s been a similar reaction, perhaps more understandably, to the album’s promotional billboards, which bear the words “Global Warming Is Good,” and instructions to deface them rendered in comparably tiny print. At best, the billboards are corny, and at worst, as evinced by the flurry of tweets like “but is she wrong tho?” they prompted, they’re a boon to those who, without knowledge of Boucher’s intention, simply see the ads as a vindication of their own beliefs.

Most confusingly, the marketing seems to be out of step with Miss Anthropocene’s actual content, a lot of which doesn’t discernibly reference the Earth or our climate. Boucher has said that the process of writing the album was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even Miss Anthropocene’s most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched “This is the sound of the end of the world” on “Before the Fever,” seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the world’s climate woes. Elsewhere, “Violence,” about an abusive relationship, is only understood as being sung by the actual Earth to the very crisis of climate change because the singer has told us that it is.

But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucher’s broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with nü-metal guitars on “So Heavy I Fell to the Earth” and four-to-the-floor trance with a Madonna-esque vocal melody on “Violence.” Elsewhere, on “Darkseid,” deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum n’ bass on “4ÆM.” But Boucher’s most surprising pivot, as well as her loveliest, comes on “Delete Forever,” a song about America’s devastating opioid crisis and on which her delicate vocals float over an acoustic guitar, joined later by a banjo.

On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together, more than the topic of climate change or its creator’s personal relationships, is Boucher’s wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. At the very least, her dominant thematic angle has provided her with a means of inventing new characters to inhabit and new worlds to explore. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society.

Label: 4AD Release Date: February 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Caribou’s Suddenly Is an Inviting Dive Into Familial Waters

The album takes family as its central theme with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.

4.5

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Caribou, Suddenly
Photo: Thomas Neukum

The narrative arc of Dan Snaith’s career as Caribou (and Manitoba before it) has been one of increasing devotion to humanity. His earlier work was chilly enough that the Shakespeare-referencing title of 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness could be read as tongue-in-cheek. But starting with 2007’s Andorra, Snaith began delving deeper into human emotions. Our Love, from 2014, was a tender examination of, well, love, while his latest, Suddenly, takes family as its central theme—the title comes from his daughter’s obsession with the word—with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.

Snaith builds his songs with a cool, measured precision, as one might expect from someone who holds a doctorate in mathematics, and one of the fun games to play with this album is unpacking its myriad references and samples. “Lime,” for instance, boasts the peppiness of a Röyksopp song filtered through the muzak setting on a Casio synthesizer. “Never Come Back” possesses the propulsive beat of a ‘90s dance-floor filler. “Like I Love You” is built on the bones of what sounds like an early-aughts R&B track. The album rewards this type of reference-spotting, and it’s a treat to listen to the way such a masterful musician mines his own record collection for inspiration.

What makes the album so spectacular, though, is Snaith’s voice. This is the first Caribou effort on which he sings on every track, and his vocals are mixed higher than they have been in the past. Throughout, his mesmerizing vocals elevate songs that might otherwise scan as banal. “Like I Love You” trades in a fairly well-trod sentiment, with Snaith rhapsodizing about an ex-lover, but he wrings every last drop of emotional possibility out of lines like “Does he love you like I used to do?/Do you ever miss me like I miss you?” Elsewhere, “Magpie” finds Snaith employing his vocals to maximum impact. The first half of the song, which features a lovely, McCartney-esque melody, is buried under compression that makes it sound like it’s playing from the busted speakers of an old cathode-ray TV set. That distortion falls away halfway through, as Snaith sings, “And now the world is catching up to you,” and the song blossoms, capturing the feeling of being in the first flush of love. This shift is but one among many moments of striking revelation throughout the album.

The brief “Sister” is a gentle, affecting lullaby about the responsibilities of love. Amid a whirl of rich, warm synth notes, Snaith sings softly, “Sister, I promise you I’m changing/You’ve had broken promises I know/If you want to change it you must break it/Rip it up and something new will grow.” At the end of the line, a burst of static introduces a sample taken from an old tape of Snaith’s mother singing his sister a lullaby. The political overtones of the lines are obvious, but the personal nature of the sample gives the song a weight that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. What he’s addressing isn’t as important as how he does it.

Label: Merge Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 25 Best Guided by Voices Songs

We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in the band’s dauntingly huge catalogue.

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Guided by Voices
Photo: Tony Nelson

Since reforming in 2012, Guided by Voices has seemed to be on a mission to record more long-players than they did during the entirety of their original run, a 17-year stretch that began with 1987’s charming, self-produced Devil Between My Toes and ended 15 albums later in 2004 with the muscular, mature Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Conventional wisdom says the band peaked with Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the last album featuring the “classic” lineup featuring Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell, but anyone who continued to pay attention after the band fell out of indie-snob favor knows that any permutation of the group only has one essential member: lead singer and world-class songwriter Robert Pollard. His mastery has never ceased for creating two-minute post-punk anthems that make singing along at maximum volume seem like the greatest pastime in the world.

We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in Guided by Voices’s dauntingly huge catalogue. It’s a list cut down from an initial group of 60, any one of which could’ve been included here. So if you don’t see one of your personal favorites, know that I probably wrestled over whether to include it. With that caveat out of the way, here are the 25 tracks that most proudly represent a group that’s not just one of the very best indie-rock bands, but on the short list of the greatest rock n’ roll bands in history.

25. “Space Gun”

The title track from Guided by Voices’s 2018 album is, like the album itself, one of the true highlights of the band’s reformation and resurgence in the last decade. With production pitched between the spiky compression of their 4-track beginnings and the cleaner big-rock noise of their post-Alien Lanes run in the 2000s, it’s a four-minute glam-prog stomper built around a glittering guitar line that sounds like “I Am a Tree” took the brown acid. And with lyrics which name-check John Philip Sousa, it isn’t difficult to imagine “Space Gun” as the future fight song for a gang of besotted galactic raiders.

24. “An Unmarketed Product”

At various times in the band’s storied career, Robert Pollard has abandoned his normal lyrical template of beguiling cosmic Dadaism to provide meta commentary on the band’s legacy as mischievous outsiders playing on the margins of the corporate rock game. The lyrics caution, “I can give you credit/Suitable and custom tailored/And if you have any luck/You’ll get ahead/Before you’re dead,” as this 69-second piss-take anthem mines sugary post-punk for a single-finger salute to the KROQ dreams that should’ve been the band’s birthright.

23. “Man Called Aerodynamics”

When Bee Thousand first conquered the ‘90s indie-rock landscape, rock criticism’s elder guard bemoaned the melodic ADD of their songs, with their manic rush to hooks and choruses an alleged affront to classic-rock formalism. What, then, would they have made of this roaring track from Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, seeming to begin midstream, at the very moment where its ‘60s and ‘70s forebears would already be at the minute mark? Sharing with “Space Gun” a sound that could be described as “Pete Townsend destroying his Gibson in a wind tunnel,” “Man Called Aerodynamics” is as mammoth as anything lo-fi indie rock has ever produced.

22. “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox”

“G-B-V! G-B-V! G-B-V!” chants the raucous crowd at the beginning of the nearly six-minute epic that kicks off the band’s transitional 1992 album Propeller. As we’d discover later, the “crowd” was the band themselves using echo and a little striving wish fulfillment to imagine the kind of frenzied excitement that would greet the band a few years later. The track itself is like many of the group’s forays into prog-rock: blazing mini-songs (technically two, if the title is to be trusted, though three by structure) strung together like a “Stars on 45” for the British invasion (non-Beatles edition), starting restless and rough, turning bright and hopeful, and then concluding in a cascade of reverbing choral tranquility.

21. “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”

Because almost everything Bob and the boys do is like a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of rock n’ roll, when it comes to lighter-waving power ballads, their ne-plus-ultra entry stops right when everyone else’s is just reaching the chorus. Built on a bed of keys from a piano that one imagines stained with tears, whiskey and spit, “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” is both melancholy and majestic—Leonard Cohen via “Champagne Supernova”—and the spectral production is so perfect that when And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead covered it years later with 10 times the budget, the dollars couldn’t add a thing beyond surface shine.

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Review: Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory Is Bound by a Sense of Maturity

The album explores darker, weightier subject matter than its predecessor.

3.5

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Soccer Mommy, Color Theory
Photo: Brian Ziff

With 2018’s Clean, Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison emerged on the scene sounding a lot like a moody indie rock incarnation of Taylor Swift. That album’s “Your Dog” and “Cool” are effortless anthems that possess the same instantly anthemic quality as many of Swift’s mega-hits. But the main connection between the two is a pseudo-adolescent outlook wherein their dating lives and associated travails are elevated to matters of life and death. Just 20 at the time of Clean’s release, Allison was consumed by thoughts like “She’s so pretty/Even more than me.”

With Color Theory, Allison raises the stakes. Slicker than Clean, and beefed up by her touring band, the album’s sparkling guitars and restrained studio sheen bring her sound closer to, if not Swift, then familiar ‘90s alt-rock touchstones like Built to Spill and Sebadoh. Allison’s progression as a songwriter is more acutely evident in the album’s darker, weightier subject matter: Continuing to draw on personal experience, she largely eschews songs about her love life, instead confronting her issues with mental health and abandonment.

Color Theory rarely progresses beyond the admittedly rich template established in its opening track, “Bloodstream.” Here, Allison offers frank and poetic ruminations on her history of depression and self-harm as rhythm guitars thrum behind her. Her visceral lyrics—“Now a river runs red from my knuckles into the sink”—are partially obscured by a deceptively cheery chord progression, just like she once “covered up the wounds with my long sleeves.”

In its subject matter, chords, rhythm, and tempo, “Circle the Drain” bears a strong resemblance to “Bloodstream.” But the song’s most lasting impression is its hook, a sing-song “Round and around” refrain that’s deafening in its obviousness—not because it’s uncreative, but because it’s a wonder no one else thought of it sooner. Indeed, Allison’s best melodic hooks—like the overlapping guitar lines on “Crawling in My Skin”—are often simple but indelible.

Even as Allison delves deep into heavy subject matter, she usually sounds more angsty than haunted. Which is fine when she delivers that angst with such melodic verve (the album’s dourest-sounding songs, especially the final two, are easily the weakest, as they lack melodies strong enough to buoy Allison’s disaffected musings). Her still-youthful perspective means that the charmingly tongue-in-cheek “Royal Screw Up,” on which she imagines herself as an emotionally damaged waifu (“My dungeon of fire, I’m the princess of screwing up/And you wear your armor and you save pretty girls like me”), isn’t totally out of place here.

Still, a sense of maturity binds the album’s best moments. “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes” lazily unfolds over seven-plus minutes, but as with “Bloodstream,” there’s pain hidden beneath the pleasant vibes. Dogged by memories of her terminally ill mother, Allison laments that even her daydreams of happier times are tainted by the knowledge of what’s to come: “Loving you isn’t enough/You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done.”

Color Theory’s lynchpin is “Lucy,” which makes clear just how much Allison has grown as a songwriter since Clean. Allison is having trouble with a boy, and there’s another girl involved who’s complicating matters. But this time, the boy isn’t just a mean boyfriend; he’s “the root of all evil,” intent on dragging her to hell, perhaps literally so. And the other girl isn’t a prettier or cooler rival; she seems to be a part of Allison’s own psyche, constantly tormenting her. “Oh Lucy please/Quit taunting me,” Allison pleads over and over, a refrain as menacing as it is catchy. Though something deeper and darker has taken root in this indie rock wunderkind, her melodic grip remains the backbone of her music.

Label: Loma Vista Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Justin Bieber’s Changes Represents a Marked Shift in the Singer’s Perspective

The album finds the singer trying to usher in a new era characterized in large part by asking for help.

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Justin Bieber, Changes
Photo: Outside Organisation

In 2017, after over 250 tour dates across six continents, Justin Bieber canceled what remained of his Purpose World Tour, citing extreme exhaustion. The decision is touched on in the first episode of his YouTube docu-series Justin Bieber: Seasons, a not totally uncynical and yet undeniably humanizing snapshot of a troubled performer whose youthful mistakes were augmented by incredible wealth, increasing isolation, and a public whose gaze has been made all the more searing by the rapid growth of social media.

Taken together, Seasons and Changes, the singer’s fifth album, find Bieber trying to usher in a new era in his life and career characterized in large part by asking for and receiving help. Along with medical professionals who are helping him to manage his recently diagnosed Lyme disease and Epstein Barr, in addition to his chronic anxiety, his new wife, Hailey Baldwin, seems also to have had a calming effect on his music. Where Bieber’s previous albums have often felt engineered almost exclusively for the purpose of stimulating audience response, Changes seems focused instead on the tenderness and comfort of his newlywed bubble.

Seasons makes much of his perfectionism, showing him cut vocal tracks line by line, singing on a loop until he hits each note just right. But it’s that attention to detail, along with the use of vocal effects that coat his voice in a plastic sheen, that holds Bieber at an unfortunate remove from us. In leaning into a more subdued palette of R&B, Changes creates a space for Bieber’s voice to take a central role. But for an album that focuses so strongly on human connection, there’s a certain lack of emotion that might have come from a looser recording process. That distance is counteracted in large part by a certain lyrical openheartedness, and though Bieber often veers into cliché—“When your battery gets low/I’ll be the one to charge you up,” he sings on “Take It Out on Me”—there’s a real charm to the songs that rest so deeply not just on love or sex, but trust and commitment.

Although the tonal fluidity of Changes errs, from time to time, toward homogeneity, there’s a weightlessness to it that seems to signify the slipping of a long-held burden from Bieber’s shoulders. His most personal offering to date, the album feels like a reflection of actual experience as opposed to a projection of a fantasy. Putting aside the album’s lead single, “Yummy,” a Tik-Tok-baiting affront to both sex and music in equal measure, this is an album that feels very much like the documentation of a very specific moment in time in the singer’s life and an accompanying marked shift in his perspective.

Label: Def Jam Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Yacht Rock Revue’s Hot Dads in Tight Jeans Is More Parody Than Tribute

The album seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year.

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Yacht Rock Revue, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans
Photo: Please Rock

Yacht Rock Revue’s Hot Dads in Tight Jeans seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year. It’s the work of an affable group of guys who travel the country playing the kind of ‘70s and ‘80s light rock that gives their band its name. Over the past decade, Yacht Rock Revue has built something of a soft-rock empire, playing in major venues across the country and hosting an annual festival in Atlanta where they’re often joined on stage by the musicians they’ve made their bones covering. Now, having established themselves as the premier purveyors of yesteryear’s smoothest hits, the band is releasing their first album of original material. But while Yacht Rock Revue is a stellar live band, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans often fails to show what makes them special in the first place.

Having made music as a cover band for so long, Yacht Rock Revue seems tempted to play “spot the reference” with their original material rather than engaging with the songs on their own merits. Some of the tracks, of course, wear their influences on their sleeves: “House in the Clouds” is built around a Matthew Wilder/Thomas Dolby synth riff, while “Change of Scene” apes Stevie Wonder. The album’s palette isn’t exclusively limited to the ‘70s—“You’re Welcome Baby” sounds uncannily like Kishi Bashi’s brand of indie-pop—but it’s easy to get distracted wondering who the band might be trying to sound like in any given song.

The album’s larger issue is exemplified by opening track “The Doobie Bounce,” the title of which is a winking reference to the jaunty rhythm perfected by the Doobie Brothers that JD Ryznar has held up as a hallmark of the genre on his podcast Yacht or Nyacht. The song itself is about the pleasures of getting stoned and listening to records, referencing the Doobie Brothers, Sade, and, perhaps surprisingly, OutKast, and it has one good laugh line: “I used to sleep on couches/Now I sleep on nicer couches.” Yacht rock has a reputation for skimming the surface of emotions, but that stereotype isn’t totally fair: Daryl Hall is a clever songwriter, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are among the sharpest and most acidic satirists in rock. These songs, though, are disappointingly obvious. “House in the Clouds” is about living in a house above the clouds, and “Another Song About California” is, well, I’ll let you guess.

The band’s tendency toward obviousness comes to a head on “Bad Tequila,” a party anthem that revises the old chesnut about turning lemons into lemonade into a joke about turning tequila into margaritas. It’s certainly catchy, and pure escapism certainly has a proud tradition in pop, but it’s also, at five minutes long, frustratingly repetitive.

Say what you will about the genre, but most AOR bands were tight musicians, and Yacht Rock Revue has likewise honed their craft to a razor’s edge. The appeal of their live shows lies in the way they treat their music with utmost reverence, even as they perform dressed in costume to crows of people crushing daiquiris and wearing captain’s hats. From its jokey title and cover art to the somewhat undercooked songs, however, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans feels more like a parody than a tribute to the genre Yacht Rock Revue so clearly love.

Label: Please Rock Release Date: February 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guided by Voices’s Surrender Your Poppy Field Serves Power Pop with a Twist

Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop.

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Guided by Voices, Surrender Your Poppy Field
Photo: Tony Nelson

Nearly 40 years into his career, Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop, like a magician forever pulling rabbits out of a hat. Ever since Pollard assembled a new Guided by Voices lineup for 2017’s August by Cake, the band has showcased a different facet of their sound with each outing, and that diversification continues on Surrender Your Poppy Field. The album weaves the unusual time signatures, song lengths, and baroque-prog structures of last year’s Sweating the Plague with the tight melodicism that’s made some of Pollard’s best solo albums so memorable.

In comparison to their longer counterparts on Sweating the Plague, almost every song here runs through several moods and styles rapidly—but without ever sounding rushed or contrived. “Cul-de-Sac Kids” alternates between gentle acoustic strumming and brief full-band bashing before launching into an underdogs-win-the-day chorus—“Cul-de-sac kids throw the best parties!”—bolstered by the album’s most driving riff. It’s the most complex and exhilarating track on the album, all in just a little over two-and-a-half minutes.

The album’s lead single, “Volcano,” is a Pixies-esque ballad buoyed by Mark Shue’s muted bass runs. What makes the song both uniquely strange and beautiful in the Guided by Voices catalog is the inclusion of atmospheric keyboard phrases that play over verses containing some of the prettiest lyrics Pollard has written: “True is the time when I see you/Blue from the blinds that I see through.” The explosion of the chorus into a wall of power chords provides Pollard’s life-affirming exhortation—“On the trail of lovers/Never failing with their loving eyes around you to prove your rage isn’t true”—with the perfect euphoric accompaniment.

The album’s biggest surprise is that several tracks—“Arthur Has Business Elsewhere,” “Steely Dodgers,” and “Andre the Hawk”—utilize waltz time to evoke the kind of carnival-esque stomps that comprised some of Guided By Voices’s earliest recordings, including 1987’s Sandbox and 1989’s Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia. These songs offer a compelling contrast to more straightforward rock tracks like “Stone Cold Moron,” which features a double electric guitar attack from Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. that’s pure arena-rock euphoria.

Indeed, waltzes aside, Surrender Your Poppy Field may be the most consistently hard-edged and rocking Guided by Voices effort since 2018’s Space Gun. “Queen Parking Lot” and “Man Called Blunder” waste no time as rousing, unfussy riffs barrel into verse-chorus-verse sing-alongs. It all leads to a stunning conclusion, as “Next Sea Level” transforms an eerie demo-quality recording of chime-like guitar strums into a majestic full-band and orchestra-accompanied crescendo. The song’s title and chants of “rising” suggest a climate change apocalypse, but since that would be far too on the nose, the ever-oblique Pollard ends with something mysteriously hopeful: “To hear you/To touch you/To know you’re coming around/Still coming around.” Beyond the Tommy reference, “Next Sea Level” proves that Pollard can foster worlds of thought and feeling out of sparse yet strategic gestures.

“Next Sea Level” also represents the welcome maturity of the current incarnation of Guided by Voices, whose only Achilles’ heel is an exhausting deluge of content. Some have lamented Pollard’s prolific songwriting for diluting the quality of his output, but at this stage of his career Surrender Your Poppy Field proves he’s deepening rather than merely proliferating his music, continuing to grow up instead of growing old.

Label: GbV Release Date: February 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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