Who could’ve guessed that a bunch of nerdy kids with guitars from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s would leave such an enduring imprint on popular music? But with acts like The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, The Rapture, and Hot Hot Heat aping the moves of their spastic, genre-blurring predecessors (take a bow Public Image Limited, Gang Of Four, Orange Juice, XTC, and Devo), it’s obvious that the musical era commonly referred to as New Wave had far more to it than just being those few years after punk when people danced a little better. And from that era, one album, from one band, serves as a timeless signpost of a period where artists were not only unafraid to experiment within the idiom of the pop song, they were practically expected to. The band: Talking Heads. The album: Remain In Light.
Bug-eyed vocalist/guitarist David Byrne, ex-Modern Lover/keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, and the husband-and-wife rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz had already begun to introduce African elements into their particular brand of art school rock n’ roll with 1979’s Fear Of Music. But with Light, the band (along with co-producer/director-of-the-flow Brian Eno) cast their subversions of the pop form into a whole new element, forming songs out of loops (still a relatively unique approach for the time), and letting rhythm, repetition, and continuous vocal counterplay between Byrne’s distinctive yelps and the soulful contributions from backing vocalists such as Nona Hendryx steer the course. The results were simply magical.
Take, for example, the album’s most enduring track, “Once In A Lifetime.” Framed by the simplest of grooves (Weymouth’s two-note bass line and Frantz’s fairly funky drum loop), as well as layer upon layer of Harrison’s burbling keyboard, skitch-skitch rhythm guitar, and odd, random noises, the track provides ample room for Byrne’s lyric (which, with its “You may find yourself…” refrain, resembles more an evangelist’s rant than a pop lyric) to hover, bounce, and jab itself into memory. Put this song on the system at any hipster dance joint, perhaps somewhere after Hot Hot Heat or The Killers (if your audience will tolerate such “commercial fluff”), and watch the room explode. Has anyone done a mash-up with this track yet?
Beyond its attention to groove and manipulations of conventional songwriting, the album is also remarkable for another element—the contributions of guest guitarist Adrian Belew. Having served as a sideman to Zappa and Bowie and on the verge of launching his own legacy with demented prog institution King Crimson, Belew added the kind of guitar solos to the band’s soundscapes that were simply unfathomable for most players. The oppressive funk thump of “Born Under Punches” is highlighted by Belew’s section, where his Stratocaster sounds more like a malfunctioning computer on the Starship Enterprise than any stringed instrument, while his solo swoops, careens, and glides like a thrill-seeking pilot at an air show on the buoyant, exultant “The Great Curve.”
Lyrically and vocally, Byrne applied the new, forward-thinking sonic approach to his writing as well. Past self-referential snippets like “Artists Only” and observations of single topics (“Drugs,” “Heaven,” etc.) were eschewed in favor of evocative Burroughs-like cut-ups, and while it’s sometimes unclear what Byrne is talking about (“I’m a tumbler/Born under punches/I’m so thin”), it always seems to serve the mood cast by the music. Socio-political streams of consciousness seem to exist within the lyrics, perhaps most effectively on the strangely relevant “Listening Wind,” depicting the efforts of a mail-bomber, driven to his actions by “The wind in my heart/The dust in my head.”
With Remain In Light, Talking Heads took what was being increasingly regarded as a generally cerebral extension of punk and turned it into something far more global in musical and lyrical scope. And the fact that this new Head Music crossed so many lines and introduced so many new elements to not only their own vocabulary as a band but to pop music in general (hell, Byrne even raps in “Crosseyed & Painless”) proves that Byrne and Co. truly had their fingers on the metronomic pulse of modern culture, mirroring it with their music, all the while casting a watchful eye ahead to where it could go next. And that’s what essential pop music—from any era—always does.
Label: Sire Release Date: November 6, 1980 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