The 10th proper studio album in a career that has balanced impressive commercial stats (eight #1 singles, gold or platinum certifications for each of her albums, multiple wins at the Grammys, CMAs, and ACMs) with a remarkable degree of consistent quality-control that not even the best of her contemporaries can match, Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love is an album characterized by significant departures for Trisha Yearwood. The most obvious departure is from her major-label contract—a move that many ’90s veteran acts like Dwight Yoakam and Pam Tillis have already made with excellent results. After 16 years with MCA, Yearwood followed Scott Borchetta, who had helped mold her career since her debut single, “She’s in Love with the Boy,” shot to #1 back in 1991, to one of Nashville’s new “big” indie labels, Big Machine. The move to an independent label won’t suddenly have anyone mistaking Yearwood for alt-country singers like Neko Case or Carolyn Mark; instead, the most noticeable change is that Big Machine is small enough to give Yearwood the individual attention her talent deserves but, thanks to the successes of Jack Ingram and Taylor Swift, also has the muscle to give her a strong promotional push after MCA slacked off on her last two records.
Another significant departure, though, comes from the album that Big Machine is lucky enough to have to promote. To this point in her career, Yearwood’s artistic highpoints—the woman-on-the-verge stone country cycle of 1993’s Hearts in Armor and the sophisticated, soulful adult-pop of 2000’s Real Live Woman—have come on the heels of her divorces. Heaven, however, is the first album Yearwood has recorded since her high-profile marriage to superstar Garth Brooks (who is now, it’s worth noting, on the Big Machine roster). And breaking with form, it happens to be one of her absolute finest albums.
For well over a decade now, Yearwood has been one of, if not the, best singers recording in any popular genre, with a combination of technical power and range, an intuitive, thoughtful command of phrasing, and a real sense of presence. So it’s really saying something that she’s never sounded better than she does on Heaven. Though she’s best known for her pop-leaning ballads, it’s her bluesier uptempo numbers and her more traditional country cuts that best showcase the breadth of her skill, and the album gives her plenty of shine on both. On the fiery lead single and title track, for instance, Yearwood doesn’t “sing” so much as deliver a pew-jumping sermon, and her performance is all the more effective because of how well she uses dynamics to emphasize key lines and build momentum. Yearwood can belt and growl better than just about anyone, but what makes her such a superior vocalist is that she knows when it’s in service of the song. The way she lapses into her upper register for a near-yodel on the bridge to “Cowboys Are My Weakness” is a genuinely clever and effective nod to the song’s deliberate retro style, while the way she swallows her vowels on the traditional country ballad “Help Me” recalls vintage Tammy Wynette. It’s amazing, really, that Yearwood is still finding new ways to use her voice and all the more remarkable that her instincts are so consistently right.
Simply as a vocal showcase, Heaven would merit high praise, but the album ranks among her best work because of the strength of the songs. Yearwood’s ear for quality material distinguishes her from her peers almost as much as her voice does, and song-for-song this is perhaps the strongest, most cohesive collection she has yet assembled. The title track, by Clay Mills and Tia Sillers, uses an unconventional triptych structure to explore relationships between the three “big” themes in country music, and the album’s remaining 12 songs elaborate on those themes with striking detail. Karyn Rochelle is credited on four of the album’s best songs, including the raucous, bitter kiss-off “Nothin’ About You Is Good for Me” and the emotionally raw post-breakup ballad “This Is Me You’re Talking To.” The standout song, though, is “The Dreaming Fields,” a stately hymn for the loss of the family farm that’s as mournful and melancholy as anything Yearwood has ever recorded and which might be the best song that the acclaimed team of Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison have ever written.
There simply isn’t a weak song on the record. And Garth Fundis, who produced all of Yearwood’s albums except her two slickest pop efforts (1998’s Where Your Road Leads and 2001’s Inside Out), smartly plays to the diversity of the material—the horn section on the exceptional “Nothin’ Bout Memphis” works perfectly, the fiddle on “Cowboys Are My Weakness” doesn’t come across as hokey, and the smoking rhythm section comes through in the foreground on the title track—while keeping the record firmly grounded in contemporary country. Combining Fundis’s production with Yearwood’s performances and the songs’ memorable hooks, at least half of the album’s tracks would make for viable radio singles. Hopefully, Big Machine will make better choices in that regard than MCA did, because if country radio has any sense left at all, Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love should allow Yearwood to return to the top of the charts. It’s a career-best effort from one of the genre’s all-time greatest vocalists and a testament to the vitality, intelligence, and soulfulness of modern country’s best music.
Label: Big Machine Release Date: November 11, 2007 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