Traditionally, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones duke it out for the tenuous title of Greatest Band Ever. Occasionally, the Beach Boys or Led Zeppelin are part of the discussion, but rarely, if ever, are the Doors mentioned. The band’s ringleader, Jim Morrison, was too much of a pinup—and, eventually, too much of a drunk—for their music to be taken seriously. Had the Doors began a few years earlier (that is, had they not emerged from inside the drug revolution of the late ’60s), they may have had the chance to mature and hone their skills as a band before transposing their music to the world of psychedelic rock the way the Fab Four had done so successfully around the same time.
But if the Beatles had Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club and the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, then the Doors’s answer was Strange Days. The liner notes of the 40th-anniversary edition of the album details how, in a pre-online-leak world, engineer Bruce Botnick snagged an early copy of Sgt. Pepper’s and played it for the Doors, inspiring the band, along with producer Paul Rothchild, to invent new methods of studio recording. This experimentation can be heard in the very first notes of the title track, as Ray Manzarek’s spacey keyboards set the tone for Morrison’s eerie, distorted warning, “Strange days have found us.” It’s the perfect introduction to a perfectly strange album.
Horsewhips, Manzarek’s prepared piano, and screams of agony float ominously through the echo chamber of “Horse Latitudes”: “When the still sea conspires in armor/And her sullen and aborted/Current breed tiny monsters/True sailing is dead.” Set to a poem written by Morrison in high school after seeing a picture of horses being thrown off a boat, the track segues into “Moonlight Drive,” one of the singer’s earliest compositions. Bouncy piano and Robby Krieger’s bottleneck guitar provide a sunny, almost tropical atmospheric juxtaposition to Morrison’s sinister vocals and lyrics (“You reach a hand to hold me/But I can’t be your guide”) that end with an implied murder-suicide. The Doors were a distinctly Californian band, but this was most certainly not the Beach Boys’s Golden State.
“Strange Days” makes reference to “bodies confused, memories misused,” while “People Are Strange” ostensibly addresses the alienation of hippie culture, hinting at a shift in Morrison’s view of the decadent lifestyle he so ceremoniously endorsed on The Doors just a few short months earlier. If he’d truly opened the doors of perception, maybe he didn’t like what was on the other side—or, perhaps, sudden fame made his indulgences more readily available and, thus, revolting. Where he once traded Debbie Downer for a spontaneous Twentieth Century Fox, “Unhappy Girl” finds Morrison genuinely interested in the titular girl’s sadness. Later, at the very end of “I Can’t See Your Face in My Mind,” he employs his self-described “psychedelic Sinatra” baritone to distill a simple but sentimentally plaintive truth: “I won’t need your picture until we say goodbye.”
It’s hard to find the hits on Strange Days; indeed, there weren’t many and the singles that were released didn’t even crack the Top 10. The album’s most accessible, straightforward rock tune is the racy “Love Me Two Times,” which features a virtuosic harpsichord solo and one of the band’s grooviest guitar riffs. But while The Doors had more frequent, obvious peaks, the quirky Strange Days is a more ambitious, unified work. There are fewer filler tracks and each song carries as much weight as the one before and after it.
You can hear the world weep on “When The Music’s Over,” the 11-minute, apocalyptic ode to music and Mother Earth that closes the album and embodies both the improvisational, instrumental aspects of “Light My Fire” and the epic drama of “The End.” When Morrison asks to hear “the scream of the butterfly,” Manzarek and Krieger’s instruments answer obediently. At one point, the entire band grows quiet and everything drops out except for the bass (notable since it was played by a session musician and not an actual member of the band) until they all scream, “We want the world and we want it now!” (Along with the addition of Morrison asking for another take at the end of the song, the lyric is heightened in the mix on the expanded version of the album.) It’s exemplary of the troubling dichotomy of the so-called flower children, especially following a line like “What have they done to the Earth?,” where the blame is placed solely on previous generations. Strange Days exists as a document of a sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary, and often twisted era of fear and idealism.
Label: Elektra Release Date: -85431600 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