While Portishead inches their way toward making years of internet chatter about a possible new album a reality (they’re reportedly now in the mixing phase), the Bristol, UK trio’s last studio release has been steadily approaching its 10th birthday. Where Portishead’s debut, 1994’s Dummy, is noirish and lush, even warm, and just as content to be lavished with attention as it is to be played as gauzy background music at a dinner party, the group’s eponymous follow-up insists on being the focus of attention—like a problem child who knows its parents are expecting. If possible, the terrain is headier, the edges are sharper, and Portishead is, at times, a more arduous listen than its predecessor.
Beth Gibbons still sings her future-blues like an old torchbearer in a smoky lounge, but this time she does so as if she were cast as Billie Holiday’s evil doppelganger in a David Lynch film. Her voice competes with the sinister electric guitar that traces her vocal melody in “Elysium”—and wins. The single “All Mine,” which first appears to be a “happy” love song (it even employs the old half-step key-change trick of so many drippy Whitney Houston ballads), descends into a possessive declaration: “From that cloud, number nine/Danger starts the sharp incline.”
Cinema is a fitting reference point for a group that got its start by shooting and scoring a short film (1994’s To Kill a Dead Man). Vintage spy movies are still an obvious influence, but there’s a more futuristic sound enveloping the dusty surface noise and jazzy drum fills of Portishead. “Half Day Closing” and “Humming” have a spacey, sci-fi quality, and, like on Dummy, cinematic orchestrations (both original and sampled) underscore Gibbons’s mournful laments. “Seven Months” starts with a rupture, the singer’s vitriol spilling out as if held prisoner for the duration of those titular months (“How can I forget you/Disregard how I feel?”), Adrian Utley’s guitar seemingly bellowing up from the cavernous belly of a dungeon while Geoff Barrow’s barking synths stand guard like watchdogs.
What’s surprising, in retrospect, is how political Portishead is—or seemingly political, since Portishead has never been as politically outspoken as, say, Moby or fellow Bristol music pioneers Massive Attack, and Gibbons’s lyrics are often enigmatic at best. The cynical opening track, “Cowboys,” plays uncannily like a prophetic indictment of the looming Bush administration (“Did you feed us tales of deceit/Conceal the tongues who need to speak/Subtle lies and a soiled coin/The truth is sold, the deal is done”), while “Half Day Closing” was “Inspired by: The United States of America,” an alien-like comment on the so-called American Dream. Harder to suss out is “Elysium,” which, with its references to heaven (or, in the mythological Greek underworld, the place where the righteous dwell) and Crusades-old method of tarring and feathering, could very well be a pro-choice anthem—or at least a condemnation of many pro-lifers’ hypocrisies.
What’s also notable about Portishead is not only how well written the album is, but how well performed and guitar-driven the songs are, which no doubt enamored them to rock critics at the time. Unlike many electronic and trip-hop acts, Portishead was just as spectacular live—a fact best demonstrated on PNYC, the live album that followed a year later—and it was with this very promise that they sadly ventured into obscurity for a full decade. Amid a plodding hip-hop beat, turntable scratches, and a sample from the Inspector Clouseau soundtrack (one of only two samples on the album—the rest were “original” samples recorded by the group), Utley sneaks in with an incredible Rhodes solo that would go on to be an even bigger highlight on PNYC. On “Undenied,” narrative tension is shaped by solemn piano and a rhythmic bassline that seems to measure the passing seconds as Gibbons strains to reach notes knowingly written outside her vocal range.
Bass also plays a fundamental function in “Humming”: Beginning as a plucky symphonic flourish before being replaced by a more synthetic instrument by song’s end, the bassline’s upward movement—like a helium balloon rising higher and higher into the sky—mirrors the singer’s sense of being swept away. These are the very things that set Portishead apart from their myriad disciples; there’s meat on Portishead’s hard, rigid bones. While other so-called trip-hop acts moved in a more accessible, trip-pop direction in the late 1990s, Portishead became stiffer, sinking more deeply into manic melodrama and the dingy recesses of the macabre. In a sense, a third studio album is essential to validate Portishead’s glorious Middle Child Syndrome.
Label: Go! Beat Release Date: September 29, 1997 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