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Review: Tori Amos, American Doll Posse

3.5

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Tori Amos, American Doll Posse

Tori Amos’s fourth consecutive album that’s threatened to be swallowed whole by its macro-level structure, American Doll Posse comes with so much prerequisite work that its most immediate effect will be to alienate however many casual fans she has remaining while reaffirming the devotion of her die-hard constituency. That its gimmick—the album is “written” and “performed” by five distinct personae, each of whom comes with her own classical goddess archetype as inspiration and each of whom has her own blog to make for a more fully-developed point of view—is so easy to dismiss as Amos’s already mile-wide self-indulgent streak multiplied by five is unfortunate, then, because American Doll Posse is, if not quite a full-on return to form, Amos’s richest album since 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel. Unlike its three predecessors (the unfocused post-feminist covers album Strange Little Girls, the monotonous Scarlet’s Walk, and the terribly-written, bloated The Beekeeper), this is an album that is at least intermittently enhanced by its concept.

Moreover, the best songs on American Doll Posse have strong enough lyrics and melodies to stand on their own, without getting into whether Amos is singing as Tori, Pip, Isabel, Clyde, or Santa (who, incidentally, looks a lot like Helen Mirren in awards-show glam). For those who choose to put the time into the album, there’s some fertile territory to be found, particularly in how the perspectives of the most fully-realized dolls (Isabel, with her informed, sharply observed political outrage; the frank, aggressive sexuality of Pip; and Clyde’s ironic interest in stripping away artifice) reconcile with Amos’s own aesthetic. But, with 23 songs to pore over, eventually the women start to repeat themselves to diminished returns (Isabel, it seems, is anti-war) and to become increasingly indistinct. Which may be part of the point, but it’s one that Amos could’ve made far more concisely. Interestingly enough, the songs that would make for the most obvious cuts—and, truly, Amos needs an internal editor almost as badly as Ryan Adams does—are the ones credited to “Tori.” The lone exception there is “Big Wheel,” Amos’s finest single in ages, which surprises for its country-inflected production and which showcases the extent to which she’s rediscovered her pulse and her sly sense of humor.

For too long now, Amos has been exploiting her fans’ willingness to attach profound meaning to even her most cloying wordplays—starting with the first line of To Venus And Back (“Father, I’ve killed my monkey/I let it out to taste the sweet of spring”) and descending from there. But on “Big Wheel,” when she chants, “I am a M.I.L.F./Don’t you forget,” she’s letting her audience back in on the joke, and that accessibility makes her occasional lapse into idiosyncratic syntax or abrasive vocal tics a whole lot less insufferable. Even more helpful in that regard, though, are the memorable melodic hooks on standout tracks like “Bouncing Off Clouds” and the gorgeous “Roosterspur Bridge,” and the forceful, distorted guitars on “Teenage Hustling” and “You Can Bring Your Dog,” which recall the roughest edges of songs like “God” and “She’s Your Cocaine.” There are missteps—“Programmable Soda” is one of her most awkward, forced metaphors, while “Code Red” collapses at the line “Victory is an elusive whore”—but the songs on American Doll Posse that really work are reminders of how gifted a songwriter Amos is.

If still too uneven and entirely too overstuffed to rank among her most essential albums, American Doll Posse is certainly Amos’s most ambitious record, both for the breadth of its sound and for the scope of its driving concept. While that concept is unwieldy and problematic (those blogs demonstrate that Amos’s prose is every bit as cryptic as her worst lyrics), what’s encouraging about American Doll Posse is that, for the first time this decade, it sounds like Amos was as inspired in creating the music for an album as she was in creating the story behind it. The album works about as well as pop music as it does as a concept piece, and in both cases in works pretty well. Whatever becomes of Clyde, Pip, Isabel, and Santa from this point, it’s just comforting to know that Tori Amos is still in there.

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Label: Epic Release Date: April 29, 2007 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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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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