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Review: Prince, Art Official Age

Art Official Age’s main takeaway is that His Royal Badness has started to make peace with being past his prime.

 

3.0

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Prince, Art Official Age

We’ve been in the “narcissism of small differences” phase of Prince’s career for so long now that, yes, the fact that he’s made amends with the label that he once claimed had turned him into a slave does in fact register as a major sea change and not just another publicity stunt. If nothing else, the lead-up to the release of Art Official Age (and, in textbook “one for you, one for me” fashion, the debut album for the all-caps-happy neo-protégés 3RDEYEGIRL, PLECTRUMELECTRUM) has showed just what kind of buzz a little old-fashioned promotional muscle could do for an artist who in recent years had taken to bundling his albums inside copies of British tabloids. A few exclusive interviews here, a few breakfasts cooked for rock critics there, a feigned live Facebook Q&A for the target demo, and suddenly people undeniably care about Prince again.

It’s been nearly 20 years since The Gold Experience, and every album since has been called the best Prince album since that album—only back then, they were comparing The Gold Experience unfavorably to the artist’s bona-fide landmarks from the previous decade. Far from an upward trajectory, the wash-rinse-repeat routine has, in retrospect, felt like a free fall into diminishing expectations. Would Prince realigning his compass with the presumed pop instincts of the big bad commercial label finally add some lasting credence to that dreaded “since”? Or even eliminate the need for it altogether?

As a statement of intent, the derivative opening track, “Art Official Cage,” is about as discouraging as it gets, at least musically. Prince comes out swinging, ironically characterizing his latest material as a neo-emancipation (“Eye woke up in the city in a bit of a rage/Trying to free my mind from this art official cage”), even though the title itself slyly insinuates that he’s acting like some sort of sleeper cell inside WB’s house of “official” art. Only in that sense does the production’s Amp Energy-chugging, stomach-churning, Black Eyed Peas-derivative, EDM-anthem thrust make any sense whatsoever. From the stadium-reverberating claps and the ADHD tempo right down to the down-pitched boogeyman party interjections, “Art Official Cage” is a page ripped right out of Usher’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.” The only thing Prince didn’t do was match that song’s “Uptown Girl” lifts with snatches of his own “Uptown.” Of course, that would be too backward thinking, and on Art Official Cage, Prince refrains from even his trusty old Linn drum effects.

As it turns out, though, “Art Official Cage” is as much a red herring as “Sign O’ the Times” (which inversely bummed listeners out before kicking into “Play in the Sunshine” and “Housequake”). Sure, Camille or some distant cousin makes an appearance or two, and he can still fill out a distinctively naked-sounding slow jam like a g-string fresh out of the dryer, but Art Official Age’s main takeaway is that His Royal Badness has started to make peace with being past his prime. Beyond that, actually. Prince being Prince, he boasts about it in tracks like “Breakdown,” where he looks back with nothing resembling fondness on his hard-partying past when he was the “first one intoxicated, last one to leave,” a subdued sentiment albeit still delivered in a climactic series of shrieks. On “FunkNRoll,” a song dear enough to him to appear on both this and PLECTRUMELECTRUM, he tells the crowd to put down their smartphones and dance with all the tact of a grandfather castigating teens at the Thanksgiving table. And on the too-shiny seduction suite “Clouds,” the proudly elder statesman takes his ingénue along for a downright puzzling ride: “Bullying just for fun, no wonder there’s so many guns, maybe we’re better off in space.” Hoo-kay.

“Part visionary, part embarrassing” has been Prince’s baseline for as long as anyone who cares about him cares to remember—and cares not to compare the ratios. Yes, he’s coasted on his massive talent even when the songwriting well seemed to have run dry. (Well, the new songs, anyway. The bootlegs prove he’s sitting on a back catalogue of tunes that would be enough to keep him going long past retirement age.) But rarely has he explicitly admitted to desperately needing listeners’ attention beyond their “extra time.” Where a number of Art Official Age’s promised new directions from the man wearing a sunglass lens over his third eye predictably strike out, the few moments where his perspective from age tips over into intimate, confessional detail make all the difference in the world. “Any person or object whatsoever that requires your attention is something that has veered from its path and preordained destiny of total enlightenment” is the spoken intro to “Way Back Home,” a simultaneously plaintive and urgent ballad that moves Prince from claiming all he ever wanted in life was “to be left alone” to possibly alluding to the tragic death of his newborn son: “Most people in this world are born dead, but I was born alive.” Wisdom doesn’t always come from experience, but if returning to the womb of a record label is what it takes to bring forth more introspective moments from one of pop music’s most guarded personalities, fans have every right to be thrilled at him finding his way back home.

Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: September 30, 2014 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy Is Eclectic but Unmemorable

Neither the album’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs.

2.5

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Why You So Crazy

The music video for “Be Alright,” the lead single from the Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy, takes the viewer on an interactive 360-degree tour of the Odditorium, a city block-sized building in Portland that was purchased by the band in 2002 in order to serve as their headquarters and recording studio. On one level, it’s clever viral marketing, as the Odditorium is a commercial space, with booking information available online and a public-facing wine bar in the corner. But more importantly, it’s also a revealing glimpse at the cloistered conditions that have produced the last 15 years of the Dandys’s increasingly insular music.

Why You So Crazy unfolds in what is clearly meant to be a dizzying array of styles: from the 1930s Hollywood gloss of opening track “Fred N Ginger” (complete with an artificial 78 r.p.m. vinyl crackle), to the campfire gospel of “Sins Are Forgiven,” to the warped synth-pop of “To the Church.” Minute production details abound throughout: a stray melodica amid the tightly coiled electro of “Terraform”; a spectral, high-pitched piano line floating above the churning guitars of “Be Alright”; a general cacophony of Eno-esque electronic gurgles on the country pastiches “Highlife” and “Motor City Steel.” In short, the album sounds exactly like the product of a band with their own personal recording complex at their disposal and only the most nominal commercial pressures to fulfill.

Unfortunately, neither Why You So Crazy’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs. For all their stylistic diversity, most of the tracks here ride a single musical hook, like the metronomic bassline that opens “Thee Elegant Bum,” until they’ve reached an ostensibly acceptable length. It’s to the Dandys’s credit that their definition of acceptable song lengths no longer extends to the seven-, nine-, and 12-minute dirges that dominate 2005’s Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, the album that not coincidentally put an end to their short-lived major label phase. But this is cold comfort when the four-and-a-half minutes of undulating synthesizer and droning guitar feedback that comprise “Next Thing I Know” seems to stretch into a small eternity.

Even frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, not exactly a high-energy singer in the first place, seems to sleepwalk through much of the album—an impression enhanced when keyboardist Zia McCabe takes the lead for “Highlife.” Not only does McCabe’s Dolly Parton-ish chirp provide a welcome respite from Taylor-Taylor’s laconic drawl, but it makes for an instructive comparison with his blasé performance on the stylistically similar “Motor City Steel.” Neither song does much with the country genre besides wallow in its clichés, but while McCabe commits to her performance, Taylor-Taylor remains distant, exaggerating his pronunciation of Paris’s “Charlie DO-gal” airport as if he’s afraid of being taken too seriously. Similarly cloying is “Small Town Girls,” a paean to provincial womanizing that would feel trite had it been recorded when Taylor-Taylor was 21, let alone his current age of 51.

Of course, aesthetic distance isn’t necessarily a sin. Just ask Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger, to name two of the Dandys’s more obvious influences. Nor, for that matter, is self-indulgence without its artistic virtues. Jack White—another survivor of the early-2000s alt-rock scene with his own recording complex (two of them, in fact)—released an album last year that Slant’s own Jeremy Winograd described as “at times close to unlistenable,” but at least it provided the creative spark White seemed to be looking for. The Dandy Warhols, by contrast, just seem to be treading water: releasing an album because they can and, with 2019 marking their 25th anniversary as a band, because they think they should. And while there are no wrong reasons to make music, there may be no reason less compelling than obligation.

Release Date: January 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World

The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.

4

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Stuffed & Ready

Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.

That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”

Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”

Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.

Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 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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