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Review: Xzibit, Napalm

Napalm’s dexterous versification is reserved for something very much like politics.

3.5

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Xzibit, Napalm

Xzibit hasn’t released an album in six years, a period he mainly spent installing hot tubs in sedans. Now, after one label bounce and a couple of false starts, the rapper has finally dropped Napalm on an unsuspecting and largely unconcerned world. After all, it’s been a long time since 2000’s Up in Smoke Tour, which introduced Xzibit to CD-hoarding white teens, and his acting efforts never put him in the league of Ice Cube or even Ice-T. There were rumors of tax evasion; there were public splits with old smoking buddies. Most of all, there were no records, which is poor form for a guy who built an early rep for the hard grind.

On the new album, Xzibit has some choice words for the programming bigwigs at MTV who cancelled Pimp My Ride, which the rapper hosted: “I hated MTV for tryin’ to play me like a mockery/But that don’t bother me/I just fulfill my fuckin’ contract/A small price to pay just to get your peace of mind back.” Otherwise, his trademark blunt aggression sidesteps self-pity and suggests a certain degree of maturation. Lyrically, the album is dense, occasionally overwhelmingly so, an arresting volley of one-liners, internal rhymes, and extended diatribes spat with pleasing vigor. Beat-wise, “X to the Z” (because he relishes referring to himself in exponential terms) behaves as though the last six years never happened: none of that Eurobeat business, and only the tiniest hint of an Auto-Tune flourish. Napalm comes on in old-school fashion, with beats as mere vehicles for lyrics, and lyrics that work on a reassuring number of levels. Guest spots are sparing and well-chosen. Certain tracks could have appeared on a vintage Wu-Tang album.

While the first single, “Up Out the Way,” and “Louis XIII,” produced by Dr. Dre, both go in one ear and out the other, other songs stick. Veteran producer Rick Rock mans most of the album’s tracks, including the two most memorable party anthems, “Enjoy the Night” and “Dos Equis.” The Akon-produced “Movies,” meanwhile, begins with a ’50s-style cinematic horn flourish before a synth/drum/bass figure kicks in and Game offers some useful couplets (“All these eyes lookin’ through peepholes/That’s why I don’t trust nobody but God and Tim Tebow”), as does X, who strings a semi-coherent verse out of a straight series of film titles. The hooks throughout the album are less memorable than the verses, which boast impressive extended rhymes and a rhythm-flipping sensibility that smacks of early Busta Rhymes.

The question of personal growth may not interest X’s audience, who never expected much in that department, but that audience has sought more prolific pastures anyway. Napalm involves less rough sex than previous albums, its dexterous versification reserved for something very much like politics. “Nothin’ ever compares with the strength of a free mind/You’ll find the most dangerous weapon ever acquired by mankind/Use it to fight for your freedom/And oppress your oppressors,” Xzibit advises on “Everything.” As an inspirational case study, he gestures to his own lucre: “Look where it took me/And make that money stack higher than giraffe pussy.” Freeing your mind is good for business—a potent philosophy, one 2Pac beat him to by 15 years, but without the vivid safari metaphor.

If Xzibit’s been watching a lot of Animal Planet during his years off, he’s also been reading the paper. On the title track, over Rage Against the Machine-style guitar thrash, the rapper draws parallels between gangster violence and government exploitation of soldiers. More unsettling and equally effective is a soundbite from Staff Sergeant Shilo Harris, a veteran robbed of three fingers and both ears by an IED in Iraq, that’s sampled on “Meaning of Life.” The moral of resilience—common in rap, but especially central to this album—comes at the end of the song, and in Harris’s own words: “The only person that can set you free is yourself.” At least 50% of the murders and executions on Napalm have political undertones; count it as progress that Xzibit’s threatening enemies with waterboarding and predator drones rather than Glocks and blades. Domestic matters get airtime as well, especially in “Stand Tall”: “Right or wrong, if Trayvon was my little man/I woulda take a chainsaw to Zimmerman.”

How seriously we’re meant to take those threats is a debate as old as rap, but if Robert Christgau can call Eminem’s murder fantasies a “satiric, cautionary fiction,” then Xzibit should be allowed to channel whatever cultural id he pleases. The album is so lyrically dense that it defies any kind of imposed coherence. It can certainly be a slog. Younger or less attentive listeners may simply be confused by the digs against Eminem and manager Paul Rosenberg, and few clubs will be spinning tracks on which you can almost hear X’s brow furrowing. But if the recession has lent a new imperative to the hustle and grind (X isn’t the only aging dude who’s found himself out of work and in trouble with the IRS), then maybe we can all take a little something from “Forever a G,” where Xzibit cuts in on Wiz Khalifa to offer this mantra: “The greatest trick the devil ever put together/Was that self-destruction is better than striving for perfection/I see that doubt can quickly grow and spread like an infection/Initiative to live and use your common sense as a weapon.” From a rapper used to weapons of a more semi-automatic variety, this is all alarmingly responsible.

Label: Open Bar Entertainment Release Date: October 9, 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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