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Review: R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant: 25th Anniversary Edition

4.5

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R.E.M., Life's Rich Pageant: 25th Anniversary Edition

If R.E.M.’s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, was an insular, heady record steeped in the folklore and archetypes of the American South, its follow-up, Life’s Rich Pageant, represented the band’s first foray into broad accessibility. That isn’t to say the album lacks Michael Stipe’s convoluted, rambling stream-of-consciousness lyrics or that R.E.M. had suddenly turned into the MOR act they would devolve into during the early aughts. But it’s the first of the band’s albums to showcase a couple of pop crossover singles, and it represents the beginning of Stipe’s maturation into a true rock frontman and R.E.M.’s most explicitly political period. To that end, Life’s Rich Pageant is the record that truly laid the groundwork for R.E.M. to become one of the biggest rock acts in the world.

Albums are most often described as “transitional” when critics can’t think of a more diplomatic way to say that the effort lacks direction or that its stylistic departures don’t work; such albums usually mark the start of an act’s rapid descent into irrelevance. But Life’s Rich Pageant, in its exquisitely remastered 25th Anniversary Edition, stands both as a powerful album on its own merits and as a nearly seamless transition piece between R.E.M.’s formative period and their commercial dominance. The ragged, frenetic energy of R.E.M.’s early work is captured on aggressive tracks like “Just a Touch” and “These Days,” while “Fall on Me” and their cover of the Clique’s “Superman” showcase a newfound emphasis on massive pop hooks.

Few acts have struck that balance as well as R.E.M. do here, and in a lot of ways, Life’s Rich Pageant is a template for how the “alternative” music the band was largely responsible for originating would, less than a decade later, become the dominant narrative in the music industry. A song like “Fall on Me,” which is a prescient treatise on the destruction of the Earth’s environment, should have been a hard sell back in 1986—at least compared to, say, singles from Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. But R.E.M. gave the song an enormous, sing-along chorus with a simple but powerful hook: “Buy the sky/And sell the sky/And ask the sky/And tell the sky/Don’t fall on me.” Though they would have bigger hits later in their career, “Fall on Me” might just be R.E.M.’s most perfectly constructed pop song.

The remastered version of the album emphasizes how tight R.E.M.’s song construction and arrangements had become after just four albums. With Bill Berry’s thundering percussion lines and Peter Buck’s trademark jangly lead guitars, “Hyena” is a standout for how R.E.M. and producer Don Gehman, best known at the time for his work with John Mellencamp, foreground the rhythm track. Because the sound of the record is so streamlined, the song’s political allegory, which draws a clever parallel between geopolitical maneuvering and the food chain, comes through clearly. While Stipe still throws in a few inscrutable asides (“The Flowers of Guatemala” is allegedly inspired by the burial of political dissidents in mass graves in the titular country, but God only knows how anyone is supposed to get that from the actual lyrics), the fact that his increasingly confident vocal performances and more clear-headed songwriting are the focus of Life’s Rich Pageant makes the album far more accessible than its predecessors.

Twenty-five years on, the optimism of “Cuyahoga” is still inspiring and relevant. Its message (“Let’s put our heads together/And start a new country up”) reflects an intelligent and decidedly nonpartisan approach to political reconstruction without resorting to the didacticism that would infiltrate some of Stipe’s later writings. The call to arms of opener “Begin the Begin” looks to goad the band’s predominantly college-aged audience to join them as political activists, while the wiseass “These Days” and “Just a Touch” (which concludes with Stipe exuberantly shouting, “I’m so goddamn young!”) temper that urgency with some important self-awareness.

The refinement of the songs on Life’s Rich Pageant are highlighted by the reissue’s second disc, which includes rough demo versions of the 12 songs that would eventually form the album, plus a selection of songs that would turn up on later records. Valuable as a document of the band’s creative process, the demos reveal both R.E.M.’s strong editorial instincts and Gehman’s instrumental role in guiding the band toward what would eventually become the signature sound of their commercial peak. Life’s Rich Pageant serves as both a guidepost for how R.E.M. moved in an arena-sized direction and as another extraordinary album in the band’s uninterrupted run of true greatness that spanned between Murmur and Automatic for the People.

Label: Capitol Release Date: July 12, 2011 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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