It would be easy to dismiss Steven Tyler’s first solo album as a frivolous exercise by a past-his-prime, attention-seeking celebrity. But, it turns out, We’re All Somebody from Somewhere isn’t only sporadically enjoyable, but also worthy of serious appraisal. Indeed, intentionally or not, much of the album serves as a fascinating case study on how, these days, the term “country music” is more of a marketing label than a genre, as Tyler and his collaborators manage to distill the alleged death of arena rock and its rebirth as modern-day pop country into a 55-minute runtime. Unfortunately, in equal measure, it’s also a testament to the depths to which Tyler is willing to superficially pander in order to remain commercially relevant.
For anyone who’s been paying attention for the past couple of decades, it’s no secret that the poppy, crowd-pleasing brand of arena rock that ruled the charts in the 1970s and ’80s, and to which Aerosmith was of course a central contributor, never really went away. Instead, when, in the ’90s, the genre quickly began to wane in popularity and street cred in the face of hip-hop and alt-rock’s increasing commercial success, Garth Brooks, Mutt Lange, and others simply slapped a cowboy hat on it and called it country. Since then, most Top 40 country has owed far more to, say, Def Leppard than Hank Williams. Now, country hits are more often peppered with references to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen than to Waylon, Willie, and Cash.
In this environment, We’re All Somebody from Somewhere fits in perfectly. The fact that it’s Tyler singing these songs—and he’s very much still in fine voice—instead of a guy with a Southern accent eliminates any conceit that modern country doesn’t share the same DNA with the likes of Aerosmith. All you need to make it “country” are a few fiddles and banjos, some dumb, corny lyrics about whiskey, Jesus, and America, and a gilded album cover with giant paisley font on it. Tyler is happy to oblige on all counts.
Tyler co-wrote 12 of the album’s 15 songs with an array of hit-making Nashville songwriters (the exceptions being two covers and an ill-advised, dirge-like rearrangement of “Janie’s Got a Gun”). “Only Heaven” is a cheesy power ballad in the vein of “Crazy” and “Cryin’,” while “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly & Me” is the same type of strutting, generic, Stones-aping rocker that Aerosmith has been churning out since the mid ’70s. The fact that one can easily imagine both of them appearing on a Brad Paisley album is more indicative of the current state of country music than of Tyler changing his stylistic approach.
In fact, at times Tyler even expands rather than restricts his musical palette. On the beautiful, lilting ballad “It Ain’t Easy,” the gentle pedal steel line feels more like an organic, fitting inclusion than a tacked on genre signifier. Other songs, like the stark, blues-y “Hold On (Won’t Let Go),” the dark, building murder ballad “My Own Worst Enemy,” and the title track barely bother with such overtures, other than a couple of passing lyrics. Still, these songs are effective as country or any other kind of music; the title track in particular is an appealing piece of genre-bending, marrying a funky backbeat, rootsy mandolin strumming, and honking New Orleans-style horns surprisingly well.
Tyler didn’t have to dumb down his songwriting to make an album that would be accepted by the country music community, but on much of We’re All Somebody from Somewhere, he did it anyway. There’s a very clear dividing line between the album cuts and the potential singles, all of which, in true 21st-century fashion, are far more pop than country in the traditional sense. The worst offender is the painfully moronic “RED, WHITE & YOU,” an utterly generic anthem that would sound stupid and insincere with Toby Keith at the mic; with Tyler doing the singing, it’s the musical equivalent of a Northern politician faking a down-home accent at a Southern rally. Other songs, like the melodramatic lead single “Love Is Your Name” and “Sweet Louisiana,” have a similar effect with their overdone banjo, fiddle, and drum-loop instrumentation, treacly melodies, and feigned regionalism. These songs aren’t just pure fluff; they also insult the listener’s intelligence.
Label: Dot Release Date: July 15, 2016 Buy: Amazon
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
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
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