(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, October 15, 2010

CD review - Guster, Easy Wonderful (2010)

It's been a long four year wait for Guster fans. The new album, Easy Wonderful, is full of well executed, catchy tunes. On the whole, it's happier and poppier than Ganging Up On The Sun, but it's not a total disconnect. A lot of the new songs follow the model set in C'mon: optimistic and hopeful sounding music crossed with ambivalent lyrics. On Easy Wonderful this robs many of the lyrics of their sting.

For example, on This Is How It Feels To Have a Broken Heart, the lyrics talk about the "darkest day" when the singer was dumped. The music is somewhere between Abba and Stevie Wonder's My Cherie Amour. The synth washes, dance beat, and mix all evoke the disco era, but this is saved by instrumentation. Banjo, percussion, and a harmonica/melodica sound go a long way towards breaking the disco spell. Still, the upbeat sound is at odds with the self-pitying lyrics. It even misses irony.

Continuing on the cheery side, the ukulele on What You Call Love turns it into a beach sing along. The vocals are tight and the arrangement is well balanced and supports the lyrics better, in part because the song's perspective is more assertive:
What you call love, is just urgency
What you call love, a place you turn in an emergency
But you give up, when it's not what you want it to be
But that's not love, what you call love
The subtle horns hiding in the background step forward during the bridge to add their brightness.

Easy Wonderful is full of nicely crafted touches. One of the loosest moments comes in the solo for Bad Bad World. The song itself is a tight, piano driven groove and it has some really sweet David Bowie moments (Sound and Vision from Low). That solo, though, is unselfconscious and unconcerned with posturing. It sounds effortless and free. It's a nice bit of icing for this catchy ear worm.

My other favorite song is Jesus and Mary. The dark groove and lyrics cooperate well, making this track stand out as more honest somehow. The verses are vaguely ska, like old Clash or Madness. The chorus opens up into a lusher sound, which provides a balancing openness. The bass and drums drive the song and eventually build a delicious tension -- "So, maybe let's go start a war...".

It's easier to hear some of the influences on Easy Wonderful than on Guster's earlier albums: the Paul Simon feel of Hercules, the Trey Anastasio feel of Well, and channeling Badfinger for Jonah. The overall effect is vaguely retro pop music delivered with an indie rock mindset. It's easy to listen to repeatedly and the songs are all fairly good. But that uniformity makes it harder for specific songs to stand out. The shift to a darker sound is a big reason why Jesus and Mary does make a stronger impression.

I'll pair Easy Wonderful with a Becks Dark lager: it's tasty but not too challenging. Sometimes, that's exactly what you want.

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