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Review: Sugarland, The Incredible Machine

1.5

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Sugarland, The Incredible Machine

On The Incredible Machine, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles has finally stopped affecting that ridiculous caricature of a Southern drawl that has marred many of her otherwise fantastic vocal performances. Ask and you shall receive, right? Unfortunately, that’s the full extent of the good news that the duo’s fourth album, The Incredible Machine, brings. Though its style alone makes it a sure bet to be hailed as progressive by those who only like country music that doesn’t sound a damn thing like country music, and just as sure to be reviled by country music purists, the real problems with the album are with its failures of execution and its inexplicable aesthetic choices.

Even the album’s packaging is flawed. Nettles and Kristian Bush have claimed that they drew inspiration for the album’s imagery from the Steampunk genre of science fiction. If somewhat dated as a point of reference, that at least sounds interesting as a soundbite in an interview, but it suggests a thematic depth the album utterly fails to provide. Moreover, it sounds a whole lot more “artistic” than saying you lifted your cover art and title from a kids’ computer game. Mechanical and fantasy images don’t figure into the material here other than on the title track, which ultimately presents the whole Steampunk angle as an excuse for Bush and Nettles to play dress-up. And even then, their shallow reading of the genre misses its grittier undertones entirely: It just looks like they sent some costumes from Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd to the drycleaners.

The choice of imagery never resolves into a greater aesthetic, which is disappointing, but the problems with styling are far less troubling than The Incredible Machine‘s actual music. Sugarland have never resembled a traditional country act, but their previous albums at least retained some of the genre’s most important signifiers, even as the band considered a broader musical landscape. While I have no interest in vilifying the duo for their aspirations to cross over to a pop audience, The Incredible Machine does stand to alienate at least some portion of their core fanbase, because it isn’t a country album. Not even a little bit.

Artists should have the creative freedom to make the types of albums they want to make, regardless of genre labels; on Love on the Inside, the duo showcased that they can pull off adult-leaning pop pretty well. That album’s excellent cover of the Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” with Little Big Town and Jake Owen suggested that Sugarland probably had a full pop album in them sooner rather than later. But The Incredible Machine isn’t a good pop album by any stretch of the imagination.

If their misappropriation of Steampunk doesn’t work, Sugarland’s co-opting VH1’s mid-‘90s playlist as their raison d’être works even less well. There isn’t a song on The Incredible Machine that doesn’t draw immediate and unfavorable comparisons to MOR ‘90s music that wasn’t particularly good at the time and that certainly doesn’t sound any more contemporary or progressive some 20 years later. The closest the album comes to relevant pop is the peppy lead single “Stuck Like Glue,” which plays out as a sped-up version of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” right down to the reggae-for-white-people breakdown in the middle. And however catchy your single might be, when Mr. A-Z is the closest you come to relevance, you really ought to recognize the trouble you’re in.

The album sets its tone early, as opener “All We Are” finds Nettles screaming the holy hell out some Hagar-era Van Halen arena rock. That she has the pipes to pull that off is a given at this point, but the song’s deafening bombast, including Bush’s campy “We are!” shouts in the refrain, isn’t helped by the fact that Nettles doesn’t bother to enunciate half of her consonants. She could be singing in Sanskrit or Esperanto or Hopelandic and the song would have exactly the same numbing effect. Her poor articulation is also a problem on the title track, in which she repeatedly shouts the word “calling” in a way that sounds more like “cow lick” or “garlic.”

That’s a shame, really, since “Incredible Machine” is one of the few tracks on the album to make a strong production decision. The clockwork-like piano figure that drives the track forward is a smart, self-referential choice that’s in service to the song itself, which speaks of the human heart as a machine made of “blood and love and lust and steam.” Granted, that piano figure also makes the song sound like Coldplay at their most banal, but it at least works in context. The “Interlude” reprise of the song midway through the record is far less successful since it loses the piano figure and instead allows Bush to perform an impersonation of David Gray, right down to a hint of a British accent.

Again, these are not great influences for any act to be flaunting with such willful abandon. The didactic message of “Stand Up” and the torch ballad “Shine the Light” (which Nettles slurs into something that sounds more like “I wish on delight,” but so it goes) both sound like relics of the VH1’s Divas Live concerts, and the uptempo “Every Girl Like Me” has the same sterile, studio-slick production of something like Jennifer Paige’s “Crush.” How any of this is supposed to be progressive or innovative, I have no idea.

It may or may not be coincidental that the album’s best song, “Little Miss,” is the only one that even hints at Sugarland’s roots as a country act. Country music is filled with woman-on-the-verge song cycles, and “Little Miss” puts a creative structural spin on that convention. That it’s also the most restrained cut on the album in terms of both its production and performance makes it an obvious standout, but it’s a strong enough song that it can stand on its own merits.

“Little Miss” also draws the limitations of the rest of the album’s songwriting into sharp relief, since it’s one of the only songs to include any first-person details to ground its lyrics in reality or give them a fully realized point of view. “Tonight” attempts to fill its fundamental emptiness with glory notes, while “Find the Beat Again” and “Wide Open” are the kind of empty-headed uplift that has made so much of Martina McBride’s career a waste. What’s most frustrating about the album is that Sugarland, even at their most pop-leaning, has repeatedly proven that they’re capable of much better than this.

If there’s any value at all to The Incredible Machine, then, it’s as a talking point about changing genre definitions. Even putting its production aside, this is an album that rejects all of the hallmarks of country songwriting entirely. The most successful pop-country singles are those that incorporate strong pop hooks into the economy of language, first-person authenticity, and emphasis on linear narratives that are the foundations of country songs. I’m no traditionalist by any stretch, but I’d say that it’s instructive to explore why The Incredible Machine doesn’t scan as a country album.

There’s likely something of interest to be said about how formats have shifted over the last decade, such that the influx of hip-hop-based music across the pop mainstream has made country the new adult Top 40. Acts like Darius Rucker, Uncle Kracker, and Jewel have attempted to make that shift all the more literal, and their relative successes have hinged on how they’ve attempted to fall in line with what’s contemporary at country radio. It’s that “contemporary” tag that’s most problematic for Sugarland in their crossover bid. Instead of looking to someone like Rucker as an example of how to make a successful transition from one genre to another, what they’ve done on The Incredible Machine is attempt to take the sounds of adult Top 40 radio from the heyday of Jewel and Hootie and the Blowfish.

Though “Stuck Like Glue” would be a good bet to score some pop airplay alongside Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” or any of Taylor Swift’s singles, it’s hard to imagine a modern pop audience going for the majority of this material, and country audiences have already proven resistant to Sugarland’s new direction, with many radio stations editing the dancehall bridge out of the single altogether. That context is important, since The Incredible Machine stands to be a transitional album for Sugarland. Many country fans are going to dismiss the album simply because Sugarland has gone pop, when the far greater issue is that The Incredible Machine is just awful of its own accord.

Label: Mercury Release Date: October 19, 2010 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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