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Review: The Mars Volta, The Bedlam in Goliath

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The Mars Volta, The Bedlam in Goliath

Given the decidedly pharmaceutical bent of the Mars Volta’s output (their first two full-lengths were both concept albums inspired by the separate overdose deaths of two of the band’s associates), it’s a wonder that no one at their record label has tried to slip them some Adderall. Alternatively, maybe they’re just taking wayyy too much of America’s favorite amphetamine. In either case, the song remains the same: If any band ever cried out for focus, blessed focus, it’s this one. The differences between the Mars Volta and its magesterial, seminal predecessor, At the Drive-In, from whose ashes they rose like some sort of epically distracted pigeon, have been documented to death, but that doesn’t make them easier to get past. It’s no longer news that where ATDI rocked, Mars Volta wanks, but that’s no reason to stop with the ridicule.

But what wanking! It’s true that all of the playing on The Bedlam in Goliath, their fourth LP, is tremendously solid. In fact, the main thing that they transmit here is overwhelming technical proficiency. You can’t say that their homebrewed prog-punk-metal-free jazz sounds easy on the ole carpal tunnels, and there is a market for this kind of thing. Still, let’s accept the premise that favorable comparisons to Steve Vai and Joe Satriani are a low bar. Virtuosity in service of vision: awesome, dude. Virtuosity in search of purpose: tiring. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Some songs, like the butterfly-bee hybridized funk of “Ilyena” and the throwback wah-wah-whomp of “Goliath” are, actually, songs.

Sadly, most of these songs are not really songs, because that’s not what the Mars Volta do. Braintrust members Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala have never lacked for ideas, but their output screams so consistently for an editor’s loving scalpel as to approach absurdity. Take, for instance, “Cavalettas,” which at 9:32 is the album’s longest track by a good, uh, 24 seconds. We start with a crushing burst of guitar and percussion that quickly gives way to a swinging, frenetic double-time stomp. Most of the instrumentation then drops out in favor of an insistent riff, over which Bixler-Zavala scats urgently while gradually being subsumed in a squall of digital effects. The whole thing then fades away rather abruptly in favor of a drunkenly soloing flute. At the three-minute mark, there’s a sound that can only be described as the sound of a recording studio actually screaming, and the whole affair shifts, abruptly, again, back toward where it started. Then we wash, rinse, repeat, with plenty of improvised-sounding flute and trumpet and the repeatedly emphasized lyric, “I am a deaf con of angora goats.” Fade out over dubbed-out piano and the sound of madding crowds.

One of the problems is that the band’s preferred hyperactive-paranoid-fractured mode is perhaps best when applied, as it was on their first two albums, to questions of life and death and other gravities, though, let’s face it, the caterwauling and fickle attitude toward song structure could be pretty grating then too. Sadly, this album takes sound and fury, signifying nothing, to new depths, as it is—seriously—a concept cycle concerning a ouija board-like divination toy that Rodriguez-Lopez bought that was possessed by an evil spirit. The press kit features a completely insane six-page brief by Bizarro fiction author Jeremy Robert Johnson detailing all the various sadness/coincidence allegedly caused by the haunted board game: How it tested the band’s resolve and nearly broke their spirits, but once they buried it and tossed off its star-crossed influence, they emerged stronger than ever. If there were any acknowledgment, on any level, that any of this—the sprawling, brutal nonsensicality, the batshit magical realism, the flute—were meant to be taken some way other than dead bloody seriously, maybe that would be okay. Maybe it would be an excellent jest. As it is, though, the joke is unintentional, and on them.

Label: Universal Release Date: January 28, 2008 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.

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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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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.

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Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

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

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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.

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Joe Jackson, Fool

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

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