No music video embodies that mad sheela-na-gig angst of female come-hitherness that is Polly Jean Harvey better than “Send His Love To Me,” from To Bring You My Move, Miss Misery’s subversive, maddeningly apocalyptic, densely metaphoric meditation on all things female. Harvey is very scarily connected to her primordial self, and her corporeal, existential obsessions with sex and God have fueled some of the best—if not the best—albums of the last 15 years. From the raw and sinister Rid Of Me to her not-so-little book of Bible stories, the mystical Is This Desire?, Harvey can do no wrong. That said, I prefer Polly Jean’s 50ft Queenie (you know, that king of the world) to the Miss Independent strumming her joy with her fingers on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and, now, the comparatively less consistent Uh Huh Her.
Harvey collaborates here with both Flood (To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire?) and John Parish (the lyrically playful and undervalued Dance Hall At Louse Point), but Uh Huh Her seems to suffer as a result; this may be the first album of Harvey’s career where the production—a seductive combo of home-on-the-range sounds and electronic flourishes—outshines the performances. Remember Harvey—lonely and barefoot—emerging from the desert prison of the “Send His Love To Me” video? Maria Mochnacz’s stripped-down vision was truly that of “a phoenix out of fire flames.” On the more biblically tame Uh Huh Her, the desert metaphors crop up (lassos, fires, spurs), as do Harvey’s trouble with colors, and since she’s more “blue” than “red” this time around, it’s easy to envision a cool and collected Harvey plucking her guitar and singing songs in the wild, wild west for anyone who’ll listen.
On the playful “The Life And Death Of Mr. Badmouth,” Harvey’s terse delivery complements the song’s methodical guitar strumming—both suggestive of a finger being wagged—but while it’s clear that Harvey is trying to have fun, her performance is too controlled. Ditto the lovely “Shame,” which showcases her Chrissie Hynde vocal talents but feels like a deliberately pretty interpretation of something you’d find on To Bring You My Love; when she barely breathes “I’d jump for you into the fire,” the proposition is neither happy nor sinister. “Who The Fuck?” is ostensibly about Harvey’s relationship to her hair, but you can’t ignore the subtext: She may be trying to get rid of a gray one, but she’s also trying to exorcise a man (her lurching delivery is priceless). Harvey has forever traded in metaphors, but she lays it on thick when she strains to compare a relationship (or turning a man on, whatever) to sending a letter on the album’s first single, the dull “Letter.” Harvey can do better than this, but she salvages it in the end with her signature wail—the stamp on the letter if you will.
Sprinkled throughout the album are a series of sweet but disposable interludes (since the album isn’t exactly tiring, these asides don’t feel like necessary medicine): two instrumentals (“The End,” with its easy-breezy harmonica, and the sea sounds of an unnamed track nestled between the album’s final two songs) and the Patti Smith-esque non sequitur “No Child Of Mine.” Equally filler-some is “It’s You”; the opening sounds are certainly creepy, but in the end they’re more evocative of the sinister journey Harvey’s character makes than the singer’s un-sarcastic delivery and overly precious, simple lyrics. Far better are “Pocket Knife” and “Cat On The Wall”: The former is a bit overwrought but damn if Harvey can’t save an entire song with as little as a giddy four-word chorus or a subversive rhyming pattern (here the clincher is “My pocket knife has a shiny blade”); while the latter seemingly pits two Polly Jeans against each other: an older, ostensibly wiser PJ and the 17-year-old in her head screaming pint-sized “turn up the radio”-s.
Despite its lack of thematic cohesion, Uh Huh Her is immensely playable. True to its title, the eros-centric “Slow Drug” sneaks up on you like a good high (here, some of Harvey’s favorite words converge, though the headlights aren’t blinding this time, simply burning), and her trembling vocal on “You Come Through” is suggestive of a small creature trying to poke through the shell represented by the track’s delicate, tribal-sounding percussion. With every listen, their intricacies unravel. But it’s the final two tracks that linger longest in the mind. Like Leonard Cohen, Harvey trades in an elaborate mythos founded on serpentine connections between sex and the divine. On “Desperate Kingdom Of Love” (Harvey’s “The Stranger Song” if you will), the girl from “Send His Love To Me” has grown up, and on “Darker Days Of Me & Him,” hope springs eternal from subversive, complex rhyming patterns and a predictably killer hook. I could listen to the song forever.
Label: Island Release Date: May 23, 2004 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