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Review: Owen Pallett, Heartland

With Heartland, Owen Pallett officially lays the Final Fantasy moniker to rest.

4.5

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Owen Pallett, Heartland

With Heartland, Owen Pallett officially lays the Final Fantasy moniker to rest, marking the first time that the quietly prolific Canadian has released any material under his given name—unless you count his Twitter account, which is similarly prolific. It’s a major step toward the spotlight for a gifted performer and composer who managed to maintain a low profile while enjoying a phenomenally successful decade. Aside from his own releases as Final Fantasy, the last of which netted him Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize, Pallett spent the aughts touring as a violinist with Arcade Fire and arranging the gushing strings that lie at the melodramatic heart of the band’s “Rebellion (Lies)” and “No Cars Go.” He’s also used his compositional skills to jazz up everything from Beirut’s Euro-folk reinterpretations (The Flying Cub Cup) to Fucked Up’s bracing, experimental hardcore (Hidden World), not to mention remixing tracks for Stars, Grizzly Bear, and others. But Pallett couldn’t have picked a better record to affix his name to: Heartland bears all the defining traits of its maker—ambitious, meticulous, and utterly singular.

In an interview with Slant, Pallett defended his He Poos Clouds over its more melodic, less cerebral predecessor, stating that “more often than not, casual listeners are looking for poignancy in music. Personally, I’m not interested in manipulating people’s emotions to the point of poignancy. I like music that contains ideas, not floral patterns.” In that case, Pallett’s Heartland proves to be something of a compromise, brimming with erudite lyrics that speak to big existential and artistic themes but likewise teeming with orchestral pop pieces that are lovely, intricate, moving, and yes, often poignant. He’s dialed down the dissonance that generated so much of He Poos Clouds’s sonic tension, with the explosive 49-second “Mount Alpentine” providing the record’s most overtly confrontational moment.

On Heartland, the rule of melody is firmly established—not in the sense of easy hooks, but rather the winding, ascendant movements of classical chamber music and an abundance of lively pizzicato. And with the Czech Philharmonic at his beck and call, Pallett has no trouble expanding the scope of his melodies far beyond any of his previous works. “Red Sun No. 5” is a highlight in Pallett’s catalogue of compositions, working french horns and lightly rolled typanis into a gentle tapestry of sound and topping it off with a vocal melody reminiscent of Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” When Pallett does want to make his listeners squirm, he’s apt to use staccato percussion or flurries of glitchy electronica to disorienting effect, most notably in the verses of “The Great Elsewhere.”

Speaking of which, I know it was only a few paragraphs ago that I stressed the breadth of Pallett’s recorded work, but I’ll go on record arguing for ” Elsewhere” as his most beautiful song to date. It begins with abrasive crashes of strings, building from meditative verses to an uptempo finale before returning once again to melancholy. Besides showing off nearly all of Pallett’s musical modes working at a high level, it contains arguably his finest vocal performance—restrained, expressive, and graceful. It’s also a turning point in the album’s narrative: The song concerns the protagonist (a farmer named Lewis) and his disillusionment with his creator. Its lyrics recount his shift from a worldview where the presence of a creator is a source of comfort to one in which the cruelty of the character’s fictive world shows up his creator’s dark nature. On the following tracks, the terrific duo of “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” and “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt,” the newly rebellious Lewis confronts his maker but refers to him, alternately, as “the singer” and simply “Owen,” suggesting that Pallett has some rather serious points to make about his own creative endeavors.

Pallett goes even more meta on “E Is for Estranged.” There, he has a father observe his son’s tortuous ketamine addiction, but in the refrain Pallett seemingly indicts the idea that music can provide the type of emotional connection to which the verses seemingly aspire, with snarky asides about string arrangements and children’s choirs, not to mention his repeated confession: “I am a flightless bird, I am a liar/Feeding the facts to false fires/Pathos is born, borne of bullshit in formal attire.” Statement or no, there’s no denying the track’s evocative beauty, with its aching, scraping violins and measured vocal cadence. But if Pallett’s music can rile up one’s emotions even when appended to such arch confessions, has he undermined his argument or demonstrated it?

Tracks like these make it clear that Heartland will repay its greatest rewards to those who listen often and carefully. But those uninterested in Pallett’s philosophies should have no issue sinking into his gorgeous arrangements, for even on a casual listen it’s apparent that Pallett is up to something quite a lot more sophisticated than any of his peers. To put it simply, the superb craftmanship on show here, whether one pays mind to Pallett’s orchestral gestures or his electronic flourishes, are going to make a lot of purportedly similar songs by talents like Andrew Bird and Jimmy Tamborello seem amateurish by comparison. Even Pallett’s own work with Arcade Fire appears shallow in Heartland’s wake.

Instead of using orchestration to provide a lush background or a convenient climax, Pallett leads his cast of musicians through an organic fusion of pop and classical aesthetics. It recalls Phillip Glass’s operas (particularly his Waiting for the Barbarians) as much as anything in popular music and hews closer to the noisy baroque pop of Jeremy Enigk’s Return of the Frog Queen than anything contemporaneous. Certainly, this is not a record of obvious hooks, with many songs only working as useful tension-builders. Indeed, many of the strong tracks on the album will not excerpt well at all, meaning that Heartland stands or falls as a single, continuous composition rather than a collection of songs. “Keep the Dog Quiet” may fail to capture on first listen, and “Tryst with Mephistopheles” might outstay its welcome, but both make substantial contributions to the progression of the album.

If this all sounds too much like homework, it’s worth re-reemphasizing that, whatever his protests against casual poignancy, Pallett has crafted an absorbing gem of a record, one that delivers substantial emotional payloads by means of incredibly intricate pop music. Rather than striking a blow against emotionally captivating music in favor of the album of ideas, Pallett makes a compelling case that the two need not be antagonists (the exception being the closer, “What Will Happen Next?,” which succeeds thematically but goes nowhere interesting sonically. Perhaps there’s nothing simple about Heartland, but for all its literacy and high-brown contemplation, it enchants by the same means as Pallett’s previous work as Final Fantasy: the allure of undeniably pretty melodies. Pallett manages to be both literate and listenable, but what else should we expect from a man who takes his Tolstoy with his Taylor Swift?

Label: Domino Release Date: January 11, 2010 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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