When adults who fancy themselves serious artists decide they want to say something about childhood, I expect contrivance. We were all kids once, but childhoods are the special, scare-quoted province of neurotics and their analysts, and so art about childhood is more likely to give a petulant prehistory of a specific adult’s own issues than to say anything at all about what kids do or feel. Spike Jonze’s improbably joyless Where the Wild Things Are was stuffed with scenes where kids and monsters rapped about their existential anxieties, while Arcade Fire is often at their least convincing when they wail about “the kids” or “us kids,” as though everyone under the age of majority belonged to one mysterious tribe. Plain White T’s does not take themselves especially seriously, and so I ventured to hope that Wonders of the Younger, a carnival-themed concept album about, yes, childhood, might actually work. After all, playing in a pop-emo band is about as close as one can get to being a kid forever.
Take the opener “Irrational Anthem.” On one hand, I think an actual kid would enjoy the song. Its chanted chorus goes, “We don’t care if they don’t understand us/This is our irrational anthem,” and it sounds like the type of thing a bunch of kids would sing at summer camp. But how many summer-camp tunes can you think of that you’d actually want to hear on the radio? A healthy chunk of the album follows in that vein, the problem being that the band seems to forget the difference between giving their songs hooks and just mercilessly wedging them into their listeners’ heads. There’s a chorus about a “bah bah-bah-bah bah-bah broken record” (on “Broken Record”), and another where the whole band sings, “I want to have a party in the middle of the street” (“Cirque Dans La Rue”). Memorable in their own right while lacking a strong melody, these kinds of songs will either endear themselves to you or drive you absolutely crazy.
One of the few respected rock bands that has mined this territory successfully is They Might Be Giants; most of their work takes kids music as a touchstone, and they’ve also done a couple of albums of educational tunes for children. Crucially, though, neither incarnation of TMBG breaks character. Their music might not be “serious,” but, at the same time, the band isn’t bullshitting you. But Plain White T’s only half-commit: There are plenty of “real” songs on Wonders of the Younger, and the more simplistic sing-alongs sound boorish and annoying in their company. When “The Rhythm of Love” chimes in with its jangly, AOR-ready acoustics, you’ll have no choice but to look back on the previous three tracks and ask, “Wait, were they bullshitting me?”
Worst of all are the in-betweens, the chunky-riffed pop-rock numbers that sound like only-slightly-dumber variations of songs by mall-punk mainstays like the Starting Line or Yellowcard. Or the not-even-close-to-creepy “Killers,” which stretches its lyrical conceit to ludicrous extremes until singer Tom Higgenson asks, “If I was the scariest monster you ever seen/Would you still love me?” These songs don’t read as for-kids, or even as homages to kids music. They just sound juvenile in the familiar, perpetually adolescent style so common to their genre.
Ultimately, it’s that style of songwriting that Plain White T’s will have to grow out of if they’re ever going to make an album that capitalizes on their considerable pop smarts. Sugary pop-emo is what got the band started well over a decade ago, but it’s not what they’re best at, nor is it responsible for the band’s current success (that would be their out-of-nowhere hit, “Hey There, Delilah,” a sharply written ballad that owed nothing to the band’s Warped Tour lineage). And, to be sure, there are songs on Wonders of the Younger that are every bit as good. “Rhythm of Love” is one, another is “Make It Up as You Go,” a kinetic power-pop tune featuring a raucous guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Sloan or Fountains of Wayne.
The latter is also the song that does best by the record’s inconsistently observed concept, since its chorus imagines the onset of adulthood as something more exciting than angst-inducing. Hopefully, this album-length mess of a therapy session has resolved whatever issues the band has with their inner-children, leaving them free too abandon their adolescent emo selves behind and reinvent themselves as adults. It’s like the saying on “Make It Up”: “Your future’s wide open, nothing’s written in stone.”
Label: Hollywood Release Date: December 7, 2010 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