On Annie Up, the country-outlaw trope gets repurposed to address the concerns of a modern small-town woman, who’s torn between wanting to burn out in a blaze of booze, painkillers, smoke, and no-good men and adhering to a conservative pattern of husband, kids, farm, and church. The Pistol Annies share a kind of rustic sass with many of their female country forebears, though their bad-assery is more confrontational, more unabashed in its self-destructive grit. Collectively, the group’s persona comes off like Loretta Lynn with an Oxycotin problem: The brassiest number on the Pistol Annies’ debut, Hell on Heels, is titled “Takin’ Pills,” and their new album features a breakup lament addressed “Dear Sobriety.”
Like Hell on Heels, Annie Up walks the line between rebellion and conformity in ways that are both troubling and provocative. As intriguing as some of these defiant, self-satisfied anthems are, the wish for a traditional life trajectory almost always wins out in the end. In “Loved By a Workin’ Man,” the band celebrates a man who “knows how to make ends meet/And he’ll take you for a ride in his four-wheel drive/And he’ll fix about anything”—a character type that doesn’t necessarily challenge convention. If you accept the pretense of hard-living girl power that the Pistol Annies aggressively peddle through both its lyrics and its visual brand, it’s tough to say whether this fallback conservatism is disheartening, predictable, or just plain honest, but it certainly isn’t a boring topic for a country album. Perhaps most interesting are the ways in which the songs feature women maneuvering within those shopworn roles—the housewife, the barfly, the road-weary touring musician—and finding opportunities for debauchery and flagrant subversion inside those aspects of country life that other artists hold sacred.
The album opens with the arousing, slow-burning confession “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On,” which resembles Hell on Heels’s title track in that it establishes the performers as femmes fatale who will stop at nothing to gratify their libidos. While “Hell on Hells” simmers and smolders for three minutes, never breaking its midtempo stride, “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On” kicks things up a notch midway through with an electric guitar wail and a bolder backdrop of drums and cymbals. “Hush Hush,” the album’s lead single, narrates a dysfunctional family Christmas through some witty songwriting (“Everybody was walkin’ on eggshells/Drinkin’ eggnog instead of beer”) and a rockabilly breakdown, coinciding with the singer’s decision to rip a joint behind her parents’ barn.
Musically, this sophomore album isn’t groundbreaking, but it feels more self-assured than the group’s debut: the percussion packs a punch, the pedal steel conspicuously asserts itself, and the three-part harmonies sound mercifully richer than those on Hell On Heels, where the Nashville studio veneer occasionally makes a song such as “Bad Example” sound like an Alvin and the Chipmunks number. This time around, the three Annies make for a satisfying vocal mix: Miranda Lambert (stage name “Lonestar Annie”) unleashes her signature twang, Ashley Monroe (“Hippie Annie”) adds a sweeter tone and some nicely controlled breaks and yodels, and Angaleena Presley (Holler Annie”) rounds out the sound with a dusky alto.
The song that most cleverly reworks genre conventions is “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” a ballad that opens with a languid slide-guitar line and laments the demands of feminine grooming rituals: “Being pretty ain’t pretty/It takes all day long/You spend all your money just to wipe it all off.” While there’s something slightly silly about using a song structure typically reserved for heartbreak and loss to sing about bleached roots and spray tans, the lyrics and vocal delivery invest it with genuine pathos and weariness, as though the singer realizes she’s caught in an abusive relationship, albeit with cultural beauty standards rather than a good-for-nothing drunk. Many of the songs, like “Unhappily Married,” evince a similar sense of being trapped, but also being generally okay with that, as long as one can dish out the occasional witty barb and wash every quasi-miserable day down with multiple glasses of whisky. If Annie Up doesn’t quite break the country genre’s familiar format, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and one could do worse than spend 40 minutes with these sassy almost-outlaws.
Label: Sony Nashville Release Date: May 7, 2013 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