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Review: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong

4.0

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The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are so fucking cute I can barely even deal with it. Press photos courtesy of Slumberland (cute!) Records show the three guys in the band posing in crewnecks and cardigans, trying in vain to outshine their adorable Asian keyboardist (named Peggy Wang!). Should you suppose that any of this is at all a put-on, well, just give Belong the minute or so it needs to hit its first giddy chorus and try to resist feeling a little punch-drunk yourself. I don’t care how ideologically invested you are in the edgy-sexy-scary quadrants of underground rock, if you can listen to Belong on a sunny day and not enjoy the experience, then you’re a fundamentally unhappy person and the new Strokes record on repeat forever is the fate you deserve.

There’s a recurring criticism of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart that cites their terminal lack of danger or eroticism as grounds for dismissal, which I suppose I would find convincing were I of the opinion that guitar rock can/should be reduced to the virility cult which male rock critics have constructed around Mick Jagger’s storied junk (guess the gender of the NME writer who writes the album off as “flaccid”).

However flagrantly the Pains of Being Pure at Heart transgress rock’s norms of leather-fetishizing machismo, they just as clearly embody nearly all of the values that make rock fun to listen to. Belong showcases a young band operating at an impressive level of cohesion and consistency, knocking out hook after sugary hook with a sticking rate that would be commendable for a band with twice their songwriting experience. The dazzling interplay between synth and guitar leads and the robotic precision of the rhythm section are also not to be scoffed at. Sure, it’s not the most technically demanding music, but there’s an undeniable grace to the nimbleness with which the melodies intertwine, the way that a sudden keyboard blast or thunder-peal of distortion will explode out of a song, or the way that the drums will suddenly jump from post-punk pummeling to stadium-sized chug. “Belong” nails the alchemy of swoon and snarl as only disciples of Smashing Pumpkins could, while “Girl of 1000 Dreams” splits the difference between grunge and power-pop. And through it all, there’s not a note out of place.

Certainly some of the credit is due to Belong‘s star production team. Flood and Alan Moulder worked on the seminal albums by My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Ride that so clearly constitute this band’s sonic DNA, so it’s little surprise that they’ve contributed more than a spit-shine to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart sound. Belong sounds like a big-budget rock album, all strings and keys chiming and echoing with punctual majesty. Their self-titled debut’s lo-fi scuzz has been scraped clean, and the resulting product often sounds as much like the Cars as any of the band’s noisier influences. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart‘s ragged pop sensibility was certainly part of its appeal, but Belong gives the impression that a brighter, cleaner sound suits the band much better.

Besides, the hi-fi treatment gives the Pains of Being Pure at Heart the chance to try on new sounds. Wang, for example, contributes louder and brighter melodies to the songs on Belong, her synthesizer a cinema-sized presence where it was previously just a counterpoint to the guitars. “The Body” and “Even in Dreams” are almost straight-ahead new wave, and—no surprise—the band proves adept at recreating that genre’s lush melodicism. Generally speaking, everything about Belong is shiner and more romantic than the last album; if The Pains of Being Pure at Heart depicted an eternal Saturday in the lives of a few sensitive American teenagers, Belong catches those same kids dolled up for a perpetual prom night. Everyone’s still gangly and helpless before their own hormones, but now there’s formal wear involved. And even if no one succeeds at spiking the punch, you can bet that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart will be blissed out and tipsy regardless. They’re like that all the time.

Label: Slumberland Release Date: March 29, 2011 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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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

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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.

3.0

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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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