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Review: Miranda Lambert, Revolution

4.5

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Miranda Lambert, Revolution

Having come into her own on her extraordinary sophomore album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Miranda Lambert expands on her fascinating, fully realized artistic persona on Revolution. She pushes harder into her gun-toting, cut-a-bitch image with a refreshing fearlessness, but she balances her most rebellious narratives with moments of mature, clear-eyed introspection that illustrate the exact precision with which she controls her artistic identity. Not that Ex-Girlfriend hadn’t already made it abundantly clear to those who were paying attention, but Revolution puts to rest any lingering doubts that Lambert’s persona is one-dimensional or a simple caricature or gimmick. “I’m not easy to understand,” Lambert sings on “Makin’ Plans,” one of three songs she wrote alone for the album, and she spends the duration of the record backing up that claim.

As was the case on her first two albums, the devil is in the details with Lambert’s songwriting. On the terrific, biting dis track “Only Prettier” she dismisses an enemy with the loaded, self-deprecating line “I got a mouth like a sailor and yours is more like a Hallmark card” before deriding her opposition for being too thin. It’s tempting to read the song as a veiled dig against her saccharine, artistically underfed contemporaries on country radio, and she addresses that subject more explicitly elsewhere: “Maintain the Pain” opens with the couplet, “I put a bullet in my radio/Something just hit me funny, I don’t know.” No stranger to tales of shotgun-wielding, she turns in a fantastic cover of Fred Eaglesmith’s politically charged “Time to Get a Gun” (which boasts a great backing vocal by the Steeldrivers’s Chris Stapleton), stripping the song of Eaglesmith’s ironic remove and crafting instead a complex, frustrated testament to the second amendment. She’s more far more vengeful on “Sin for a Sin,” a co-write with boyfriend Blake Shelton, and a fiery cover of Julie Miller’s “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go.”

The record isn’t all fire and brimstone. Lambert explores the idea of being unfairly judged for her vices on “Heart Like Mine” and considers the consequences of those vices on songs like second single “White Liar” and “The House That Built Me.” These moments of introspection are no less revealing or authentic than the harder-edged material: The line “But I was born a red dirt girl” pays a dead-on accurate tribute to Emmylou Harris, one of her most obvious artistic forbearers, on “Airstream Song.” Whether admitting to her own dishonesty on “White Liar” or calling herself a bad habit on “Me and Your Cigarettes,” she is all too willing to admit her own shortcomings and take responsibility for her role in relationships that have soured. That’s what elevates Lambert above other would-be bad girls: She understands the implications of her behavior, both for herself and for those around her.

That self-awareness gives real weight to the sensitivity and restraint she shows when things are going well. The lovely album closer “Virginia Bluebell” recalls her breakthrough hit “Me and Charlie Talking” for the way Lambert treasures and nurtures the song’s central relationship. “Makin’ Plans” doesn’t take love for granted, with the narrator singing of plans to be made without disclosing the specifics, giving the subtle implication that some things are best kept private. The song impresses all the more for its economy of language, yet more evidence that Lambert understands the conventions of true country songcraft better than any of her peers.

It’s in that regard that Revolution can make for a challenging listen. From the Beatles-esque pop of “Cigarettes” to the ringing, stadium-rock coda of “Dead Flowers,” there’s little on the record that immediately rings true as country music. Lambert’s sound has always been aggressive, but her previous efforts found a more effective balance between her hard-rock impulses and her love for traditional country. Here, “Only Prettier” opens with a brief bit of honky-tonk twang before the production explodes into straightforward guitar-rock. To her credit, Lambert sells it. “Maintain the Pain” kicks off with a distorted guitar riff that apes Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and is as aggressive as anything to come out of Nashville since the heyday of the Kentucky Headhunters. Lambert wails the song’s chorus with real conviction and, along with “Dead Flowers,” it shows how much more powerful her voice has become since her debut.

That works to her advantage since, even on the album’s more restrained cuts, producers Frank Liddell and Mike Wrucke force her to shout over arrangements that are pushed so far into the red that it’s a wonder the needle on their monitors didn’t break off. Even if the intention was to play up Lambert’s rock-chick cred, Revolution is marred by its heavy-handed engineering. The straightforward country-pop of “White Liar” and “Airstream Song” is smothered on what is one of the worst sounding albums ever to come out of Nashville.

Which is by far Revolution‘s greatest liability. While there is some concern that Lambert has been co-writing with composers who are significantly less skilled than she (“Love Song,” on which she shares credit with Shelton and the two men of Lady Antebellum, is hands down the weakest song in her entire catalogue), her writing here is still on point. And with Eaglesmith, Miller, and John Prine among the artists she’s chosen to cover, Lambert continues to impress with her razor-sharp instincts for finding material that is both top-shelf in quality and that plays to her strengths as perhaps the finest interpretive singer of her generation. It may be easy to wish that Revolution boasted the same structural heft as Ex-Girlfriend or that the production included some more of the traditional country that Lambert does so well. But those concerns are of little consequence when considering that Revolution reaffirms that Lambert is more interested with following her own creative muse and not the dictates of contemporary country trends. A dense, challenging record, Revolution once again finds Lambert setting the benchmark for the country genre even as she begins to consider the possibilities beyond its borders.

Label: Columbia Release Date: September 27, 2009 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.

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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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

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Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

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

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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

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Joe Jackson, Fool

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

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