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Review: Rihanna, Talk That Talk

2.5

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Rihanna, Talk That Talk

Though only six years into her music career and 23 years into her life, Rihanna tallied off her 20th Top 10 hit with her single “We Found Love” last month. In doing so, she wrested a record away from Madonna, though the fully qualified feat “most Top 10 singles from a solo artist in the shortest period of time” confirms only what every person with a working radio already knows: There’s no escaping Rihanna. This is the third November in as many years to see a new Rihanna album, and like both Rated R and Loud before it, Talk That Talk is an efficient singles vehicle, though one so disposable it only merits a physical incarnation so it can be stuffed under Christmas trees as part of the industry’s annual fourth-quarter cash-grab.

In Talk That Talk’s defense, it at least sounds disposable by design. Rihanna is a modelesque multimillionaire who qualifies as an A-lister among fans of pop, rap, and dance music: Frivolity should be her birthright, but her disastrous relationship with Chris Brown and, more significantly, her awkward, extended attempt to translate her trauma into an edgier musical persona, hobbled her last couple of albums with unconvincing attempts at psycho-sexual unburdening. In that respect, Loud was certainly an improvement over its predecessor, but songs like “Man Down,” “Skin,” and “S&M” ensured that the tag cloud of violence, sex, and violent sex wouldn’t dissipate before the singer had successfully rebranded herself. Talk That Talk follows in that trajectory, announcing that pop’s ice queen has completed her thawing process and is ready to love again (we know this because four of the album’s songs have “love” in the title). Rihanna exchanges bondage gear for “Birthday Cake,” and where “Cheers (Drink to That)” found her out partying until last call, this time she’d rather get “Drunk on Love.”

The whole narrative is almost impossible to buy, mostly because Rihanna doesn’t succeed at showing the gushing, girlish heart that’s supposedly been beating beneath her frigid exterior this whole time. It’s worth remembering that she didn’t go all frosty-freaky just for the purposes of her post-Brown confessions: Rihanna had been tagged with the ice-queen label as early as Good Girl Gone Bad, owing less to the presence of a distinct persona than to the total lack of one. In that context, “icy” essentially meant “vacant,” and vacant is what Rihanna remains even as she attempts to infuse her dance confections with a bit of warm blood. As always, Rihanna is little more than a cipher for multiplatinum producers’ committee, less a singer than a delivery system for hooks and beats.

It’s to her great detriment, then, that her handlers didn’t bring any especially great material to the table. Stargate, the production duo responsible for nearly all of Rihanna’s best singles and all three of Loud’s biggest hits, contributes three fairly generic tracks, the best of which, “Drunk on Love,” allows its xx-sampled beat to do all of the heavy lifting. At the very least, you expect an album like this to come front-loaded with potential singles, but the opening trio consists of two Dr. Luke productions, “You Da One,” this album’s obligatory reminder of Rihanna’s Caribbean heritage, and “Where Have You Been,” a boring, dubstep-normalizing dance number reminiscent of LMFAO, plus “We Found Love.” And that’s about as exciting as the album gets. The succeeding portions of the album are mostly notable for how desperately they try to one-up each other at raunchy, instructional sex talk. On “Cockiness (Love It),” Rihanna invites you to “suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion,” while on The-Dream’s ghastly, inexplicably truncated “Birthday Cake” she’d rather have you licking her icing and blowing out her candles. Apparently out of metaphors by the time “Watch n’ Learn” comes around, Rihanna settles for literalism: bed, couch, floor, “oh, baby, baby, just like that.”

It’s hard to imagine anything else on Talk That Talk matching the success of “We Found Love,” but, then again, she’s taken worse material to the Top 10. And even if she doesn’t, she’ll still be able to maintain her ubiquity through her recent collaborations with Coldplay and Drake. Judged purely on chart presence, Rihanna now competes with the all-time greats of diva-dom. She’s already tied with Whitney Houston for most #1 singles, with only Madonna and Mariah ranking ahead of her for female solo artists. It’s sort of baffling to think of Rihanna in that company. As a vocalist, she’s Madge-tier on a good day, while comparisons to Whitney and Mariah aren’t even worth making. And while her rotating roulette of looks and sounds follows something of the career template that Madonna established, her “reinventions” are neither as interesting as the Queen of Pop’s nor do they disclose any personal, curatorial investment on the singer’s part.

Though she’s been fortunate enough to receive infinitely better and edgier material, Rihanna is really no different from Britney Spears, functioning mostly as a brand name to unify the disparate work of a few A-list songwriting teams. The similarities are even more obvious now that Rihanna has recruited frequent Spears collaborators like Dr. Luke, her frothier sound almost definitely deployed here to keep the pop tiara safe from the clutches of Katy Perry. Thus far, Rihanna has fared much better with critics than Perry or Spears, but if the only question is who you want performing your Stargate songs, I’m not sure the distinction is worth debating. Either way, Talk That Talk is pretty easily the worst Rihanna album yet, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see her break that record next November.

Label: Def Jam Release Date: November 21, 2011 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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