Let’s get it right out in the open: Paula Abdul’s singing instrument is limited at best. A one-time Laker Girl and a famous choreographer for, among others, Janet Jackson, the urge to chirp finally overtook Paula when Janet reportedly suggested she look into singing professionally. The resulting album, 1988’s Forever Your Girl, nearly outsold Janet’s subsequent Rhythm Nation and the two spent the next couple of years duking it out at the top of the Billboard charts. While “Straight Up” perfectly mimicked the jagged Jam/Lewis percussive sound, and the single wound up garnering some measure of critical acclaim (it landed on The Village Voice’s ultra-exclusive Pazz & Jop poll alongside De La Soul’s “Me Myself and I” and Inner City’s classic acid-house track “Good Life”), no one was fooling themselves into thinking Paula’s vocal talent was going to pack ’em in at the Metropolitan Opera House. Wan, reedy, and nearly always a quarter-tone flat, Paula’s voice required a wall of percussion to mask its limitations. Which is why it was so deliciously ironic that, immediately before the release of Paula’s 1991 follow-up, Spellbound, Yvette Marine filed a very public lawsuit against Virgin, claiming she wasn’t given due credit as a “co-lead” on Paula’s debut. (The suit was quickly dismissed; it was merely one of a slew of witch hunt-like cases that peaked with Martha Wash’s beef with C+C Music Factory.)
Working mainly with East Coast primordial electronica producers The Family Stand, Spellbound covers much of the same emotional territory as Forever Your Girl, but where the first album’s romantic gauntlet (ranging from “Knocked Out” to “Opposites Attract” to “Cold Hearted”) comes off as a crass bases-covering move to ensure the album had “the song” for each stage of every teen girl’s furtive relationship, Spellbound comes off a lot more empathetic and a lot less prescriptive. The Family Stand influence announces itself with the album’s first song, “The Promise of a New Day,” which is awash in synthetic afterglow and Paula’s double-tracked vocals. Both “Promise” and the album’s first single, the nearly naked, keyboard synth-laden “Rush Rush,” are far removed from the twinkle-toed synthetic flutes of “Straight Up.”
Clearly Paula was no longer interested in impressing the urban contingent of her fan base, and the cheeky send-up of Rebel Without a Cause in the video for “Rush Rush” (with Keanu Reeves as James Dean, already its own punchline in 1991) makes it clear that we’re knee-deep in the confessions of a teenage drama queen. “Will You Marry Me?” went even further, putting startlingly forthright feminist whims and public courtship out there on the airwaves; no one could possibly not know this song was addressed directly to Emilio Estevez’s apparently reluctant right knee. (I never made much of the song’s sneaky gender-reversal tactics until I noticed how offended many of the girls at my junior high acted whenever this song came on the radio, teaching me firsthand never to underestimate suburban teen girls’ capacity to rage against anyone not willing to settle for a Disney ending.)
The two key tracks of the album were also hits, though neither seemed as ubiquitous or beloved at Saturday night school dances as “Rush Rush.” With a down-and-dirty monster house groove, “Vibeology,” an underappreciated departure for the singer, is built on a mercilessly low-end keyboard bass riff (so funky, Bernie Worrell would’ve been proud of it) and endearingly corny saxophone flourishes. Topped off with Betty Boop-channeling affectations (“Oh the vibe, the viiiiibe!”) in what is surely Paula’s most gutsy vocal performance (not that there’s much contest), the song introduced fans used to tasteful, precise beats to the concept of dance music as a balls-out freak party.
On the other side of the coin, the histrionic faux-classical ballad “Blowing Kisses in the Wind” is a kissing-cousin to Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” (don’t take my word for it, check out the album covers). It’s a courageously overwrought exercise in excess, the “November Rain” of diva balladry, and with about as many bittersweet diminished power chords; the segue into the chorus sounds like a jilted lover diving headlong into a volcano. That Paula’s ever-strained vocal cords can’t possibly hope to live up to the fury of the harpsichord or the undeniable, melodramatic juice of the song’s central metaphor only increases the single’s sense of despair. With “Vibeology” and “Kisses” alone, Spellbound becomes an utterly guileless celebration of the pop diva as shape-shifting drama queen. Backing them up is the disc’s “filler” material: there’s the haunting, erotic cover of an ancient Prince punk demo “U” (literally one of his earliest compositions); the testy, still politically relevant “Rock House”; and what sounds like a Gloria outtake, the bump-happy “Alright Tonight.”
We’ve already established that, to quote myself (because I can, dammit!), pop is “almost always about the discovery of the next big thing.” But it’s also about the impossible follow-up, the persistence of the should-be one-hit wonder trying to make lightening strike twice, and the audacity required to attempt it by rejecting most of the production tricks and songwriting talents that fuelled the initial success. By any reasonable standards Spellbound is an uneven album. But it performs an amazing act of magic by making Paula Abdul—whose current stint as American Idol demigod just about cements her status as the queen of, to borrow from Janet, Karaoke Nation—sound like a human being, and not just a big-titted mosquito standing in front of a ghetto blaster. And this new, human Paula sure did love her some kitsch.
Label: Virgin Release Date: May 14, 1991 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