When I first heard Britney Spears’s debut single, “…Baby One More Time,” 10 years ago, I thought I was listening to a new song by Robyn, another blond, nasal-voiced teenage pop singer who scored two Top 10 hits a year earlier. A quick—or more accurately, painstakingly slow, thanks to a 56K modem—Internet search revealed the common thread: producer and fellow Swede Max Martin. But the similarities ended there. As Britney exploded into superstardom and subsequent tabloid infamy, Robyn vied for more creative control (an effective way to end a career in the U.S.) and faded into Swedish obscurity before starting her own label and releasing a self-titled comeback that was a hit in her native country in 2005 and garnered critical attention worldwide but failed to secure distribution here. Flash-forward a few years and Robyn is singing back-up on Britney’s latest album, vamping on a Snoop Dogg remix, and a North American edition of Robyn is finally seeing the light of day.
A three-year-old dance record is like a stale piece of bread, but in addition to the fact that Robyn proves to be a surprisingly durable product, the U.S. version includes three new tunes (one of which, “Dream On,” is exclusive) and a pair of revamped tracks. First the new: Most notable is “With Every Heartbeat,” a more brazenly Euro, 4/4 companion piece to the vulnerable “Be Mine.” The latter hit opens with the clever couplet, “It’s a good thing tears never show in the pouring rain/As if a good thing ever could make up for all the pain” and builds to the devastating admission, “You never were and you never will be mine.” (And that’s the hook of the song. Bold.) “With Every Heartbeat” is harder both sonically and emotionally; when the beat drops out, the lush strings flourish and Robyn sings, “And it hurts with ev-ery heart-beat,” and you can feel your chest tighten as the thump is brought back to life.
The new version of “Bum Like You” helps mend the original album’s only notable flaw: inconsistency. And that’s genre inconsistency, not quality, because Robyn plays the acoustic rock chick just as well as club diva and electro-pop siren. This club-friendly version of “Bum” makes a better bedfellow to the glitchy “Konichwa Bitches” than the smoother, more subdued original did. On the other hand, the new “Robotboy” is a fine remix but nothing more, and its inclusion in place of the adorable, minimalist original is downright criminal. Aside from the song sequence, the rest of the album remains more or less intact, including “Who’s That Girl,” produced by Swedish duo the Knife and featuring a wicked synth-pad drum break straight out of 1987. The track, the first to be recorded for what would eventually become Robyn, is a direct response to the marketing muscle that drove Robyn to leave her record label: “Good girls are sexy, like, every day/I’m only sexy when I say it’s okay/I just can’t deal with the rules/I can’t take the pressure.”
Robyn is definitely a slow-burner (unusual for a dance record, which typically provides a more immediate, transient gratification), but it’s also everything pop music should be: provocative, poignant, inventive, and fun. Though Robyn isn’t “the most killingest pop star on the planet” and has yet to find a cure for AIDS (as noted by Brooklyn rapper Swingfly on the album’s intro), the album possesses a playful confidence and lyrical brio that should appeal to U.S. audiences accustomed to the circle-jerk hubris of hip-hop. Another subject familiar to Americans, tabloid culture is the target of “Handle Me,” which finds Robyn canoodling with a “selfish, narcissistic, psycho, freaking bootlicking, Nazi creep,” while the thumping, Prince-esque “Crash and Burn Girl” could be an ode to a certain self-destructive pop princess—had it not been written a good two years before Britney ever shaved her head.
Label: Interscope Release Date: April 16, 2008 Buy: Amazon
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
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
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
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
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
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