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Review: Miguel, Wildheart

Wildheart communicates the realities of an ever-more-fractured sexual landscape by dancing between extremes of light and dark.

 

4.5

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Miguel, Wildheart

Last year concluded grandly with D’Angelo’s long-awaited Black Messiah, an album dropped without warning, in seeming defiance of the sacred traditions of year-end list-making. A stunning collection of majestically constructed prog-soul, its fusion of live instrumentation, multi-tracked vocals, and baroque, religiously tinged songwriting felt both loosely improvisational and impossibly dense, setting a high bar for this year’s crop of highbrow slow jams. Six months later, it’s easy to make comparisons between D’Angelo and Miguel, a fellow falsetto-inclined crooner also releasing an anticipated third album, sharing a similarly expansive, organically focused aesthetic and a cerebral approach to sexual politics. Wildheart initially seems to suffer from this association, its uninhibited portrayal of emotional confusion at first sounding sloppy and unfocused. But cast in an opposite light, as an album whose fractured unruliness stands in contrast to D’Angelo’s archly structured balladry, it takes on a different significance altogether.

Another flawed point of comparison would be Miguel’s breakthrough Kaleidoscope Dream, a relatively restrained work of investigational R&B that remained buttoned-down and sleek even as it strained against the genre’s limits. Here, the opposite occurs. Emboldened by some miraculous mixture of fearlessness and self-doubt, Miguel collapses the idea of the soul singer as preacher, issuing extravagant edicts passed down from some remote higher power. Instead, each song presents a variety of conflicting emotions under the guise of a single prevailing pose, cycling through a litany of takes on the standard love song: He’s a tortured beach bum on “Waves,” a handwringing would-be gangsta (complete with Kurupt co-sign) on “NWA,” a starry-eyed but apprehensive seeker on “Hollywood Dreams.” As with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, another work whose laser-focused assuredness counterpoises the ambivalence on display here, Wildheart stands out as a collection of songs about the significance of roots, using an assortment of West Coast imagery to communicate the splintered state of the artistic psyche Miguel presents.

This is all exemplified by the chilly nastiness of standout “The Valley,” which more than any other song here operates off a Prince-style blend of love, lust, and squalor, soiling the sacred while elevating the profane. Yet for all his perversions and power complexes, Prince was never so interested in humiliation or debasement. In addition to boasting the album’s best production, the track is Miguel’s most extreme example of outré iconoclasm, a coarse anti-ballad that reduces a sexual partner to a dehumanized roster of body parts, while fixating on violence to an unsettling degree. He opens by labeling himself “your pimp, pope, and pastor,” continuing running themes of ritualistic seduction and symbolic domination, then expressing the desire to “force my fingers in your mouth” and “fuck you like I hate you.” Combined with the titular reference to the San Fernando porn industry, the song both presents a noxious, limiting caricature of sexual authority and fully captures the spirit of the album, which is as often disgusted as it is enthralled by the demands, concessions, and limitations of love.

The opposite side of the equation appears on follow-up “Coffee,” which immediately reverses the bumptious “push and shove and paint your hills and valleys” refrain of “The Valley” to a softer imprecation: “I wish I could paint our love/These moments and violet hues.” Violence is reduced from a core element to a distant memory, as the track costs gently along a soothing continuum from gunplay to pillow talk to “sweet dreams and coffee in the morning.” This dramatic one-two punch goes a long way toward pinning down the album’s prevailing Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic, its intermingling of grotesquely conveyed licentiousness and chaste puppy-dog love.

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Most R&B albums pursue a carefully structured platform of amorous fantasy, the bewildering minefield of sex coded into something smooth, safe, and sacrosanct. Wildheart does the opposite, communicating the realities of an ever-more-fractured sexual landscape by dancing between extremes of light and dark, the invocation of a mythical California—a land defined here both by seedy vice and gorgeous ocean sunsets—furthering this premise. This chameleonic approach finds Miguel trying on a variety of masks, all of them potential refractions of a single complex personality. And all this on an album defined by kitschy, bombastic flourishes, which closes out with a cheese-laden, but completely earned, Lenny Kravitz solo.

At the heart of all this confusion lies “What’s Normal Anyway,” with its marginalized narrator elaborating on his outsider status. It’s a sentiment that goes a long way toward explaining the album’s obsession with balance-sheet equivalencies, the trading of money for sex and the struggle between degradation and power, part of a continuing effort to find an elusive equilibrium. D’Angelo may have struck a new gold standard for intellectual R&B, and even recorded a more traditionally cohesive and satisfying album, but Miguel’s cocktail of furious angst, pained perplexity, and damaged tenderness is just as relevant, acknowledging the complicated realities of modern sexuality while pushing to expand its horizons.

Label: RCA Release Date: June 29, 2015 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.

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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.

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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.

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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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