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Review: Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love You: The Best of Whitney Houston

I Will Always Love You feels like half celebration of an immense talent and half depressing cautionary tale.

 

3.5

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Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love You: The Best of Whitney Houston

It’s strange to think that, 27 years after her debut, it took Whitney Houston’s death for her record label to finally put out a proper greatest-hits collection. The Greatest Hits, from 2000, was divided into ballads and dance songs, with the latter lamentably represented by garish house remixes by the likes of Thunderpuss and Hex Hector. It’s the original versions of Houston’s dance songs, in fact, that have aged the best. Her ballads from the ‘80s and early ‘90s were seemingly designed to flaunt her vocal supremacy—the kind of songs employed by singers to wow judges on Star Search and, later, American Idol, and which were almost singlehandedly responsible for two decades of melisma and caterwauling from Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Christina Aguilera.

Hits like “Greatest Love of All” and “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” found Houston belting in full voice during the very first chorus, with nowhere to go but into all-out histrionics by song’s end; it’s no coincidence that both titles end with an open vowel, allowing her to throw her head back, drop her jaw, and open up and say “ah.” It was only in retrospect, after Houston had so mercilessly damaged her voice by the turn of the century from overuse and drug abuse, that these songs turned from perennial nuisances into awe-inspiring reminders of just how impressive her voice used to be. In particular, “One Moment in Time,” the unabashedly cheesy and bombastic theme song for the 1988 Summer Olympics, is a marvel thanks to Houston’s glass-shattering vocal performance.

That song, along with career highlights “Step By Step” and the Alicia Keys-penned “Million Dollar Bill,” the best track from Houston’s swan song, I Look to You, are sadly relegated to the digital deluxe version of I Will Always Love You: The Best of Whitney Houston. The standard version of the album, requisitely focused on Houston’s biggest chart hits, is heavy on the first decade of her career, with only one track or less representing each of the singer’s post-Bodyguard releases (nothing from the “crack is whack”-era Just Whitney, which, despite spawning some decent singles, even the deluxe edition pretends never happened).

That Houston didn’t write her own material is starkly juxtaposed by the fact that her performances of those songs make it virtually impossible to imagine anyone else singing them; that some of the most quintessential “Whitney” songs were covers (“Greatest Love of All,” “I Will Always Love You,” “I’m Every Woman”) is further testament to, if not her gift for interpretation, her ability to—in her prime—out-sing just about anyone. But even a voice like Houston’s couldn’t save dreck like her schmaltzy debut single, “You Give Good Love,” and the even schmaltzier follow-up, “Saving All My Love for You,” about a young woman preparing for the arrival of her married lover. Her powerful pipes were put to better use on uptempo tracks that matched her over-the-top performances with equally over-the-top productions, like the electric guitar-infused “So Emotional,” the ecstatic “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” and, despite its aerobics-grade sound design, “How Will I Know,” which, ironically, was originally intended for Janet Jackson, whose vocal ability and range is the complete antithesis of Houston’s.

It’s easy to forget just how radical “I Will Always Love You” was at the time of its release: The entire first verse and chorus of the song is sung by Houston in hushed a cappella, a tough sell for even the most adventurous radio programmer in any era. But while that mega hit proudly displayed her range, and the smooth “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” and the reggae-hued “My Love Is Your Love” went on to disprove the suspicion that she was incapable of practicing restraint or conveying emotion in any form other than shouting, Houston’s greatest performance is one of sheer vocal muscle: “I’m Every Woman.” Put simply, she sang the shit out Chaka Khan’s 1978 disco hit, and what she does at the end of the bridge is nothing short of supernatural.

You don’t need to hear that song alongside “I Look to You” or the album’s sole new offering, the uninspiring Jermaine Dupri production “Never Give Up,” to put the decline of Houston’s instrument into stark relief. But placing them together on the same disc—and with “I Look to You” in a newly revamped version featuring R. Kelly, no less—makes I Will Always Love You feel less like a celebration of an immense talent than a depressing cautionary tale of self-destruction.

Label: RCA Release Date: November 13, 2012 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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