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Review: Underworld, Oblivion with Bells

3.0

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Underworld, Oblivion with Bells

Before I even heard Oblivion with Bells, Underworld’s first album (or their first album available in physical CD form, as opposed to a string of Internet-only releases that led up to this) in five years, I had already planned out a review praising Underworld. Praising them for their reluctance to follow nearly every one of their peers in the 1990s electronica boom in trying to keep their sound fresh with needless intra-genre interpolations. Praising them for keeping a low profile, hunkering down, and turning out unfussy, danceable tributes to digital ennui. Praising them for not embarrassing themselves in the new millennium as the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Moby, and especially Prodigy all have. Praising them for their consistency and self-awareness of their own métier.

From dubnobasswithmyheadman to A Hundred Days Off (with their characteristic “Born Slippy .nuxx” as an anomalous mega-hit right down the center of that timeline), Underworld were techno’s supremely dependable “B” students. Call them the white, British Masters at Work. Even at their very best (the opening stretch of 1999’s Beaucoup Fish) they may have lacked the showy innovation and raw talent that marked the genre’s “A” benchmarks, but dance music can be a surprisingly conservative genre and good headphone music can sometimes thrive on the sort of even-tempered professionalism that would risk clearing the dance floor. In that sense, I love Underworld the way many cinephiles revere Budd Boetticher, Lamont Johnson, or even Clint Eastwood.

Unfortunately, Oblivion throws a wrench into that line of thought, though it clearly meshes with their previous incarnations and eventually emerges as a listenable album in its own right (on headphones, naturally). The gorgeous, blue ennui that marked the varying tempos of “Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You,” “Pearl’s Girl,” and “Sola Sistim” is still present, perhaps even a bit more pronounced in the aftermath of “Two Months Off” (a blinding wall of sunny synth bliss that I presumed would portend a bright future for vocalist Karl Hyde, post-alcoholism). But the structure of the album reveals the band clearly wrenching themselves away from their debt to dance. The opening one-two of “Crocodile” and “Beautiful Burnout” is completely serviceable, though the overt harmonic complexity of both leans a tad hard on Underworld’s latent prog-rock underpinnings. On all previous albums, these would form the downtempo middle section before kicking off into something like “Rowla” or “Kittens.” Here, they serve as a kickoff that warms us up for…nothing.

It’s not like there wasn’t material to choose from. Underworld have been working at it for five years, and their string of Internet-only EPs are peppered with evidence they can still turn up the adrenaline: the live EP Lovely Broken Thing‘s opening diptych of “JAL to Tokyo,” a very worthy dirty epic (included as a bonus track on the iTunes version, thankfully), and “Billy Goat,” a pistons-pumping cyclone of synthesized drum riffs, certainly shames “Crocodile”/“Beautiful Burnout” for pogo-sticking momentum. But the more one listens to Oblivion, the more the fatalism of their song titles becomes apparent. A transition has taken place and Underworld has apparently now moved on from dance music, a move many expected them to take when their significantly younger collaborator Darren Emerson left the band in 2000.

As for maintaining the stasis of their heretofore dependable career, only “Ring Road” really upsets the apple cart, but no more than did “Bruce Lee” on Beaucoup Fish. In both, Hyde clumsily assimilates his stream of consciousness word jazz with hip-hop beats, never really finding a synthesis between the two. Whereas the “life kid, suck the box” refrain of “Bruce Lee” registered as Underworld’s version of a novelty gag, the bemused street scene portraiture of “Ring Road” is lumbering at best. But, like the rest of the album, the content of “Ring Road” remains Underworldian even when the form diverges (and by content, I mean the subtle pessimistic undertow of their music, not the slashed and hacked advertising copy that forms their lyrical content).

By album’s end, they’re alternating elegant, beautiful piano noodlings (“Good Morning Cockerel,” in which one can still detect the influence of Gabriel Yared, with whom they collaborated on the soundtrack to Breaking and Entering) with throwbacks to their 1980s pop-rock era (the guitar-centric “Boy, Boy, Boy”), gluing everything together with truly insignificant filler (“Cuddle Bunny vs. the Celtic Villages”). Anything but dance music, it seems, though their insistent doldrums are often enough to carry listeners through the entire stretch if only to reach the even-tempered “Best Mamgau Ever.” With Oblivion, Underworld have cashed in the hard-fought credibility they earned through an until-now consistent career, but the result is still more fascinating than the efforts of those still seeking credibility of their own.

Label: Side One Recordings Release Date: October 17, 2007 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy Is Eclectic but Unmemorable

Neither the album’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs.

2.5

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Why You So Crazy

The music video for “Be Alright,” the lead single from the Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy, takes the viewer on an interactive 360-degree tour of the Odditorium, a city block-sized building in Portland that was purchased by the band in 2002 in order to serve as their headquarters and recording studio. On one level, it’s clever viral marketing, as the Odditorium is a commercial space, with booking information available online and a public-facing wine bar in the corner. But more importantly, it’s also a revealing glimpse at the cloistered conditions that have produced the last 15 years of the Dandys’s increasingly insular music.

Why You So Crazy unfolds in what is clearly meant to be a dizzying array of styles: from the 1930s Hollywood gloss of opening track “Fred N Ginger” (complete with an artificial 78 r.p.m. vinyl crackle), to the campfire gospel of “Sins Are Forgiven,” to the warped synth-pop of “To the Church.” Minute production details abound throughout: a stray melodica amid the tightly coiled electro of “Terraform”; a spectral, high-pitched piano line floating above the churning guitars of “Be Alright”; a general cacophony of Eno-esque electronic gurgles on the country pastiches “Highlife” and “Motor City Steel.” In short, the album sounds exactly like the product of a band with their own personal recording complex at their disposal and only the most nominal commercial pressures to fulfill.

Unfortunately, neither Why You So Crazy’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs. For all their stylistic diversity, most of the tracks here ride a single musical hook, like the metronomic bassline that opens “Thee Elegant Bum,” until they’ve reached an ostensibly acceptable length. It’s to the Dandys’s credit that their definition of acceptable song lengths no longer extends to the seven-, nine-, and 12-minute dirges that dominate 2005’s Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, the album that not coincidentally put an end to their short-lived major label phase. But this is cold comfort when the four-and-a-half minutes of undulating synthesizer and droning guitar feedback that comprise “Next Thing I Know” seems to stretch into a small eternity.

Even frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, not exactly a high-energy singer in the first place, seems to sleepwalk through much of the album—an impression enhanced when keyboardist Zia McCabe takes the lead for “Highlife.” Not only does McCabe’s Dolly Parton-ish chirp provide a welcome respite from Taylor-Taylor’s laconic drawl, but it makes for an instructive comparison with his blasé performance on the stylistically similar “Motor City Steel.” Neither song does much with the country genre besides wallow in its clichés, but while McCabe commits to her performance, Taylor-Taylor remains distant, exaggerating his pronunciation of Paris’s “Charlie DO-gal” airport as if he’s afraid of being taken too seriously. Similarly cloying is “Small Town Girls,” a paean to provincial womanizing that would feel trite had it been recorded when Taylor-Taylor was 21, let alone his current age of 51.

Of course, aesthetic distance isn’t necessarily a sin. Just ask Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger, to name two of the Dandys’s more obvious influences. Nor, for that matter, is self-indulgence without its artistic virtues. Jack White—another survivor of the early-2000s alt-rock scene with his own recording complex (two of them, in fact)—released an album last year that Slant’s own Jeremy Winograd described as “at times close to unlistenable,” but at least it provided the creative spark White seemed to be looking for. The Dandy Warhols, by contrast, just seem to be treading water: releasing an album because they can and, with 2019 marking their 25th anniversary as a band, because they think they should. And while there are no wrong reasons to make music, there may be no reason less compelling than obligation.

Release Date: January 25, 2019 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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