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Review: Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines

Thicke takes such obvious pleasure in simple retro flourishes that the music ends up radiating a warmth and authenticity.

 

3.5

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Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines

Now that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” has achieved summer-jam ubiquity, it’s worth contemplating why it’s taken the goofily smooth crooner 11 years to crossover to the pop charts. Since his musical direction has undergone only a few slight revisions over the past decade, it’s tempting to place the blame on mishandled marketing. Look back at the video for his first single, 2002’s “When I Get You Alone,” and you’ll find a scruffy, long-haired, awkward hippie belting it out while biking through the streets of New York City. More rascal than lothario, Thicke 1.0 may not have been anyone’s idea of an easy pop sell, but he had one clear advantage over his competition: In the waning years of neo-soul sincerity, he was the rare singer who could not only mimic all the classic R&B tricks, but could deliver them with a healthy dose of irony and self-deprecation.

By the time his sophomore effort came around, though, he’d been inexplicably repositioned as a high-class, champagne-sipping loverman. Coming just a month after Justin Timberlake had unveiled the suit-and-tie aesthetic of FutureSex/LoveSounds, The Evolution of Robin Thicke seemed primed to capitalize on a burgeoning interest in urbane blue-eyed soul. The sleepy, bossa nova-inflected lead single, “Lost Without U,” had replaced the in-your-face delivery of “When I Get You Alone” with a paper-thin purr. But the strategy backfired, and Thicke was left locked inside the persona of a boudoir singer a la Kenny Lattimore, Eric Benet, and other soul men who lack the requisite spiritual angst to be taken seriously in a scene that still holds Marvin Gaye and Al Green as its gold standards.

For all the narcissistic come-ons on his sixth album, Blurred Lines, it’s hard to figure out what exactly Thicke has to offer in the current R&B landscape. Usher and Miguel can sing circles around him, Timberlake continues to milk a nearly identical timbre to far greater effect, and artists as varied as Frank Ocean and The-Dream are taking R&B into ever-loopier territory. Even on the earworm of a title track, the singer’s efforts, including a new-and-improved mix of airy head voice and lascivious low register, feel like an afterthought amid Pharrell’s insistently clinking production.

Thicke may never conjure up a compelling backstory, but he takes such obvious pleasure in simple retro flourishes that the music ends up radiating a warmth and authenticity that’s hard to find in today’s glut of pop throwbacks. This lean, durable lineup of 11 tracks feels so convivial, you hardly notice the horny desperation in some of the lyrics (“Big dick for yah, let me give it to yah,” Thicke murmurs on the Dr. Luke-helmed club banger “Give It 2 U,” one of the album’s few low points). Even when all the Off the Wall-aping veers dangerously close to the old-school territory Bruno Mars staked out on his most recent album (standout “Ooo La La” even shares the same exclamatory falsetto build-up as Mars’s current hit, “Treasure”), it’s hard to hold the similarity against Thicke, whose songcraft is far savvier and less strained.

The album’s first half is one of the year’s sweetest pop bliss-outs, and on its own it allows Blurred Lines to surpass 2009’s Sex Therapy as Thicke’s finest release to date. If he still doesn’t emerge as a distinctive artist, it’s because authorial irrelevance has become an inextricable part of his charm—a way of keeping aesthetic ego from interfering in our fun. Kicking off with Pharrell’s clean precision, the album finds an immediate counterpoint in the claustrophobic soundscapes of Timbaland. Overflowing with noisy clatter, clever Auto-Tune touches, and a driving, giddy-up beat, “Take It Easy on Me” is more interesting than anything the producer came up with for Timberlake’s tame The 20/20 Experience. Best of all is Projay’s “Get in My Way,” a party anthem that nails a bygone era of disco-funk exuberance with such uncanny accuracy it should be a dance-floor staple for years to come.

If slower numbers like the Princely “4 the Rest of My Life” and the Billy Joel-reminiscent piano ballad “The Good Life” are forgettable by comparison, it’s because they prosaically articulate the joie de vivre that’s already been made abundantly clear in the uptempos. On an album that gets off to such an effervescent start, such blunt pronouncements only serve to kill the vibe.

Label: Interscope Release Date: July 30, 2013 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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