Jason Pierce comes across as an obsessive, drug-fueled perfectionist who spends weeks getting just the right snare sound or agonizing over whether a song’s bridge needs a vibraphone or another guitar overdub. But he’s always been that way, so it was natural to wonder why it took until the recording of Spiritualized’s eighth album, And Nothing Hurt, for Pierce to start confiding to the press about his creative exhaustion, going so far as to suggest that his days as J. Spaceman might be numbered. “It was such hard work,” he says in the album’s press notes. “I found myself going crazy for so long.”
There’s one key difference between And Nothing Hurt and prior Spiritualized albums that likely led to Pierce “going crazy”: He and his current crop of sidemen—more or less the same core group who made 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light—recorded it at Pierce’s home, and on a laptop. But this isn’t some experiment in scaling back or going lo-fi or anything else one would normally expect from a home-recorded project. And Nothing Hurt is a genuine attempt to transpose the Spiritualized space-rock orchestra into Pierce’s bedroom. Motivated more by financial necessity than the hubris it must take to even believe such an undertaking would be feasible, Pierce nonetheless constructs a thickly layered album. And while its inherent limitations are evident at times, it’s a work of characteristic ambition and poignancy.
If this does turn out to be Spiritualized’s swan song, at the very least it hits the proper emotional notes for a fittingly bittersweet farewell. “I’m Your Man” and “The Prize” are worthy successors in a long line of Spiritualized songs wherein Pierce takes foundational American musical forms—in this case, classic soul—and twists them to fit his cosmic rock vision. Meanwhile, the gleaming, Americana-tinged “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” is quietly life-affirming, as Pierce seeks and finds sun-streamed beauty in an account of a mundane road trip. It’s the most optimistic song on an otherwise playfully dichotomous album that sees Pierce sounding alternately world-weary and starry-eyed, lacing bits of winking cynicism between fits of sweet romanticism.
“A Perfect Miracle” is swooning and sentimental, harkening back to a time during the late ’90s when Pierce was competing with the likes of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev to seemingly reinvent the Disney orchestra sound. But after expending a couple of verses on sketching what seems like a fairy-tale romance, Pierce has a hilariously fickle change of heart: “Darling, you know, I’m sorry/I won’t get to see you this week/Lately I’ve found I don’t need you around/I don’t think it’s working out anyway.” Just as Pierce’s aging, wispy voice contrasts with the lush, silvery music throughout And Nothing Hurt, love never quite wins out, but it never dies either. “And maybe/It’s just impossible to know/If I should stay here with you, dear,” he professes on “The Prize” as the band plays a warm, pleading soul vamp behind him. Even if Pierce himself sounds like he’s ready to pack it in, his billowing sonic concoctions never leave anything but a feel-good impression behind.
Those concoctions are indeed ostensibly as elaborate as ever: The sheer amount of elements in each mix is enough to compel one to smash one’s own head against the wall in secondhand agony over how painstaking it must have been to record and layer them all together without the aid of pro-studio amenities. As commendable a feat as that was, And Nothing Hurt isn’t entirely aurally satisfying by typical Spiritualized standards. The genius of an album like 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space doesn’t just lie in its number of overdubs, but in the way so many instruments blend and bounce off one another, creating an auditory environment that, as a listener, almost feels physically inhabitable. The flat, digital hiss of laptop-recorded music sands down instrumental textures and doesn’t allow for that kind of sonic transcendence, and detracts from And Nothing Hurt’s potential. If this sounds like an audiophile’s nitpick, simply listen to the album’s token adrenaline-fueled rockers, “On the Sunshine” and the first half of “The Morning After,” on which the guitars sound thin and static-y and Pierce’s tired, over-mixed vocals sap the songs of their energy.
The album’s most sonically compelling segment, though, is in fact its noisiest, fully embracing the absurdity of this whole home-recording experiment. After bopping along for four-and-a-half minutes, Pierce’s voice drops out and “The Morning After” explodes into an exaggeratedly cacophonous din for the next three. Even for a guy known for his noisy drones going back to the Spacemen 3, this is a doozy. It’s all blaring, out-of-tune horns and piercing guitar noises—necessarily compressed into an indeterminate blast of jumbled noise that pushes home recording as far as it can possibly go. If it’s the last time we hear Pierce turn ugly noise into something beautiful, so be it.
Label: Fat Possum Release Date: September 7, 2018 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