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Review: Prince, 1999

On the album, Prince pushes the question of mortality straight into an apocalyptic realm.

5.0

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Prince, 1999

Prince’s 1981 album Controversy was a furiously funky album that featured some of the artist’s most complex songwriting to date (the bouncy pop of “Private Joy,” the epic ode-to-fucking “Do Me, Baby”). But it was also the first Prince album that felt like he was simply spinning his wheels, or, more appropriately, jacking himself off. The unfettered demo-quality brand of naked funk that had won him accolades and top-10 finishes in The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop polls seemed, for the first time, to be at a dead end. With his very next album, though, Prince confirmed that he was in it for the long haul. 1999 is a massive, sexy, rump-shaking, and sometimes even disturbing masterpiece. And even if it might not be his very best album (other contenders include Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, and Sign O’ the Times), no one can deny the quantum leap in sophistication and scope it represents. Thankfully, Prince’s well-worn dick was still a key player.

As the legend now goes, Prince was so prolific a songwriter by 1982 that he had enough material for a career-first double album, but that’s only half the story. Actually, Prince was sitting on enough still-unreleased songs—like “Turn It Up,” “Extra Lovable,” and “Purple Music”—to piece together three or four more solid LPs (but you didn’t hear that from us). He was also providing the creative spark for multiple spin-off acts like The Time (with Prince’s own personal mini-me Morris Day) and the fetished-up girl group Vanity 6 (who scored a big hit the same year with the silky “Nasty Girl”). Even the B-sides for 1999’s singles have gone on to become unassailable classics (“How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and “Irresistible Bitch”). As 1999 ably demonstrates, Prince is virtually peerless in creating musical textures of unparalleled sexiness. His synthesizer riffs, usually consisting of closely clustered chords that give off a sense of suffocating closeness (listen no further than the intro of “Little Red Corvette”), have a pleasant sensual friction. Tipper Gore reportedly leaped from her couch to save her children’s ears from the raunchy lyrics of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” but the droning, double-time grind of the bassline of the song is, if anything, even more suggestive.

It’s been said that sex and death guide nearly every aspect of human thought. So if Prince had already proven that he sings about sex like B.B. King sang about the blues, then “1999” is, in retrospect, the first indication that Prince’s preoccupation with death was equally voracious, and he was pushing the question of mortality straight into an apocalyptic realm. Prince’s willful confusion between how the two topics should be written about makes for some uniquely unnerving moments. The notion in “1999” of turning the Rapture into an excuse to boogie down (check out the exquisitely climactic final few minutes, when Prince’s familiar sequenced drum patterns go haywire, sounding like a rolling torrent of artillery fire) is like the proverbial itch one can’t scratch. But even more unforgettable is the atonal chorus of female orgasms (sounding like the last few survivors of an orgy massacre) in “Automatic” or Prince angrily rattling off an endless litany of life’s disappointments with each hump to a wailing “Lady Cab Driver.”

Nearly every song on the album feels like a new direction for Prince. “Free” seems, upon first listen, to be a straightforward celebration of American freedoms, but following the petulance of Dirty Mind’s “Partyup” (“You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war, ’cause we’re not gonna fight no more!”), one must assume that Prince truly learned the power of subversion in the interim. Even as one gets the sense that Prince (of all people) has to understand how important freedom of speech is to those who want to write songs about, say, fucking their sisters, the tremulously saccharine tone of the song stands in stark contrast to the balls-out assertiveness of the rest of the album. It’s this ambivalence that demands closer inspection, and what marks the difference between a rocker simply out to piss off prudes (see Prince’s “Bambi”) and an artist capable of irony. For a change, Prince had written a song whose meaning was not clearly discernible upon one listen. “Free” paved the way for the deliciously inscrutable likes of “America,” “Anna Stesia,” and, perhaps his very best single, “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

Prince was always capable of turning a phrase from the word go, but nothing could’ve prepared the pop world for “I guess I should’ve known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last” (“Little Red Corvette”). Or “Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours, to help me forget the girl who just walked out my door” (“Let’s Pretend We’re Married”). In one album, Prince managed to turn his own particular brand of horn-dog begging into poetic story-songs every bit as eloquent as those of his hero Joni Mitchell. Even though in the straight-up party-funk bomb “D.M.S.R.” Prince shouts “I don’t want to be a poet cuz I don’t want to blow it,” the evidence strewn all throughout 1999 suggests that Prince can blow it out in his sleep (the title track: “I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray”). Multi-platinum success, universal critical and commercial adulation, a newfound thematic direction…with 1999, the bar for ’80s funk had been raised. And it still remains Prince’s most engorged musical erection.

Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: December 12, 1982 Buy: Amazon

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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

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Guster, Look Alive

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

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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

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Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

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

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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

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Joe Jackson, Fool

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

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