It’s a frustrating truth that the most affecting and durable protest music of the last 50 years has also been the least specific. Rather than skewering any single injustice and offering a viable corrective path, songs as varied as “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Little Boxes,” and “Inner City Blues” all succeed on a fuzzily subjective level; they focus on socio-political climates more overtly than ideologies, providing a snapshot of how certain issues appear to certain people without getting explicit about either. Perhaps this is why musicians who’ve tried to spew tonal bile directly at the White House or Wall Street over the last decade haven’t been able to use, say, Bob Dylan’s psychological ballads as templates, though some, like Green Day, have aspired to his eloquence or, like Neil Young, have repurposed his hits. Others, like Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III, were so determined to attack the Bush administration with specificity that they churned out disastrous singing editorials a la Phil Ochs. Such is the price the artist often pays for being lucid.
With his globally acknowledged credentials, one would at least expect Ry Cooder to know that inspiring words are nearly always elastic ones; his curatorial advantage is such that he can use the n-word while covering a Leadbelly song without accusations that he’s taken his aural blackface too far. And he’s intimately aware of the diversity of musical protest, from the street fury of Chicano dance rhythms to mellifluous Brazilian sambas about police brutality. But none of this is evident on Election Special, which delivers more of the clunky op-ed rock that’s beleaguered the twilight careers of Cooder and his contemporaries, among others. “Mutt Romney Blues,” which opens the album, is particularly representative of the Huffington Post article-set-to-a-three-chord-progression aesthetic: Cooder drawls out a predictably desperate monologue from the POV of the GOP candidate’s former Irish Setter while his guitar provides a herky-jerky Delta backdrop. Sounding clumsily patched together from a few hurried rehearsals (the drums, by Cooder’s son, are particularly awkward), the unmemorable track has no value outside the context of the current presidential election. The prevalence of canine mistreatment notwithstanding, it’s a song that will barely outlast the dairy products in your fridge.
“Mutt Romney Blues” more or less announces the formula leaned on throughout the album: modest instrumentation plus sparse, gritty arrangements plus extroverted lyrics. The last is especially grating, as Cooder’s rhymes not only verbalize what we’re all thinking (in the tradition of the social poet), but what we’re all already saying. His complaints commit a morbid redundancy that might depress those weary of reminders that they’re hopelessly unemployed. Cooder’s grievances, furthermore, range from the Lehman Brothers (“They believed that evil deeds would never fail”) to Guantanamo (“You’d best keep away/What would Jesus say?”) to the incumbent’s plight (“They’re gonna re-segregate the White House!”) to the ever-elusive 99% (“This might be the last time”); it’s as though Cooder assembled political targets by channel-flipping between Anderson Cooper 360 and The Daily Show. But make no mistake, the renowned session player and producer is laying his bald feelings on the line, like them or lump them. His voice cracks while expressing reductive sympathy for President Obama and suspicions that fat cats are perverting the Bill of Rights, as though such boilerplate liberal convictions remain incendiary.
This misfiring, wannabe agitprop is further disconcerting because of Cooder’s academically shrewd handling of similar material before. His bleakest, densest, and most rewarding release to date, Chavez Ravine, formed a poetic dissertation about displaced Chicanos in Los Angeles through the 20th century; the orchestrated indignation of his last album, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, incorporated a protean Greek chorus of economic victims and beat Occupy Wall Street to the punch by several weeks. Election Special, however, trades the purposefully pixelated disillusionment of those achievements for a smooth, topical focus that Cooder simply can’t pull off without sounding like a blowhard who’s been listening to too many Pete Seeger LPs. The generic melodies and guitar solos, meanwhile, aren’t charged with the hot blood needed to enliven the limp lyrics. (That Cooder should keep his peerless musicianship this strenuously in check is stupefying; his repetitive bottleneck work on “Cold, Cold Feeling” constitutes a severe regression from the Art Tatum-like ornamentation he wrestled onto John Hiatt’s “Memphis in the Meantime.”) Though Cooder’s clearly singing and playing from his bleeding heart on Election Special, the results make one wish that he’d pass both his mic and his guitar back to his brain.
Label: Nonesuch Release Date: August 21, 2012 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