Alesso, A$AP Rocky, The Vaccines and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Rapper A$AP Rocky attends the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studios on April 21, 2015 in New York.
Mike Pont/WireImage/Getty Images

This week, Swedish DJ Alesso releases his debut album, showcasing his signature blend of EDM and pop, rapper A$AP Rocky drops his new album a week earlier than expected as a surprise, British band The Vaccines polish their sound, jazz trio The Bad Plus join forces with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and indie-rockers Unknown Mortal Orchestra assemble more woozy, retro-leaning grooves. It wasn’t the busiest of release weeks, but there are still some releases worth noting.

PHOTO: Alesso - "Forever"
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Alesso’s “Forever” **

Swedish DJ Alesso’s debut album, “Forever” offers up an extremely strange mixture of sounds. First, it starts off with the double punch of “Profondo” and “Payday.” The former is a profoundly unlikable assortment of aimless synth squeaks and squiggles, while the latter is a more assembled progression on the same musical signature. It is one of the most questionable openings to a major-label record in some time, and it becomes abundantly clear right away that Alesso’s chief trick when dealing in the instrumental realm is pitch-shifting samples higher and higher until they become ear-shattering. This borders on standard EDM at its most formulaic and yet, at its most sonically-challenging, you have to give Alesso credit for getting a major label to take a chance on something this abrasive.

On the flipside, Alesso offers up extremely streamlined pop. On the positive side of the coin is the Tove Lo-assisted, David Bowie-quoting “Heroes (We Could Be)” which while it is the strongest cut here, doesn’t come anywhere near close to anything from Lo’s tremendously fantastic “Queen Of The Clouds” album from last year.

Alesso’s pop side hits its lamest breaking point with the syrupy “Scars,” featuring Ryan Tedder, but then again Tedder, while a popular songsmith with much of the pop crowd has always stuck to a very generic formula. This is also the case with the collaboration with Tedder’s band, OneRepublic, “If I Lose Myself.” Of the trends that have taken over pop radio lately, what I have come to call the “forced anthem” has become most annoying to me. The forced-anthem seems to be Tedder’s key trick and while it may be catchy to some people, it quickly gets stale for me.

Don’t get me wrong, “Forever” shows promise in Alesso, but it doesn’t show a middle ground. It also doesn’t provide a particularly compelling listen. Does he want to release hard, abrasive electronic music or does he want to release factory pop? His ambition is clear, but he rarely achieves true excitement and balance on either end of the spectrum. On the noisy, experimental end, there are few jaw-droppingly cool moments and on the pop-end, it is obvious that formula takes over. So while this album has its moments, it can’t help but disappoint due to its overall lack of distinct personality. Hopefully next time, Alesso will take more chances and deliver something more unique. He has such potential.

Focus Tracks:

“Heroes (We Could Be)" There’s a reason why this is a hit and it is because Tove Lo is one of the best pop voices to emerge in recent years. While this song smacks of “uplifting” clichés, its power still can’t be denied mainly because she is able to sell it well. While this song is a deserved hit, it still lacks Lo’s signature edge.

“Sweet Escape” (Featuring Sirena) This feels like it plays off of a similar formula as “Heroes,” with Sirena in Tove Lo’s role and it, too works, even if its mere presence after the former is by its nature somewhat repetitive.

“All This Love” (Featuring Noonie Bao) This is a third, factory-issued pop song with a friendly and capable female voice. (This time, it is Noonie Bao. ) It’s worth a listen and has tremendous hit potential, but its similarity to the other two key highlights point to Alesso’s lack of ideas. For that reason, this track plays better by itself than it does within the album’s context.

PHOTO: A$AP Rocky - "At Long Last A$AP"
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A$AP Rocky’s “AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP” ***

A$AP Rocky’s new album, “AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP,” was dropped a week early as a surprise and on this guest-filled offering, the New York-based rapper explores a lot of ground. Rocky has quite a lot of heavy-hitters in his corner. M.I.A., Kanye West, YasIin Bey (still labeled as Mos Def in the credits for some reason), Juicy J, Lil Wayne and ScHoolboy Q are just a few of these guests.

Like his 2013 debut, “Long Live A$AP,” this record offers up a mix of streetwise, darkly lit tales of the world according to Rocky. This means that sometimes voices are pitch-shifted as they are on the ode to syrup, “Fine Wine” and sometimes things can get a little ugly as they do with Rocky’s much-discussed, Rita Ora insult on “Better Things.” This is a warped, often alienating record and sometimes Rocky doesn’t keep your attention fully, since the beats and his flow tend to veer towards the dreary side. Other times, surprises really grab you. “Everyday” and “Back Home” both end the record with a bright burst of energy, while the sung “LSD” (which stands for “Love Sex Dreams”) is a virtual revelation, even if its slight hint of autotune distracts from the track’s otherwise immaculate allure.

There are plenty of reasons why “AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP” will be discussed by music critics -- both good and bad -- but even though this isn’t a new hip-hop classic doesn’t mean that is doesn’t have its moments. There is a thick, druggy haze throughout the set, and its often slow, twisted energy sometimes feels like it is holding Rocky a little back from the pack. He still manages to hit some high-points when he gets going on the still lethargic, but authoritative “Excuse You,” and he manages to begin the set right with the tale of a greedy pastor exploiting the faith of his flock on “Holy Ghost."

On this album, A$AP Rocky doesn’t shy away from controversy. He approaches it head-on. And yes, there is an element here of the somewhat new “emo-rap” genre. With maturity, Rocky’s potential will shine through. Keep in mind, this is only his second major step.

Focus Tracks:

“LSD” This is a captivating track from start to finish with a hypnotic bassline and an erotically-fueled sense of vulnerability.

“Everyday” (Featuring Rod Stewart, Miguel and Mark Ronson) Rod Stewart is sampled here. He’s not there in the flesh. This song works because of the interplay between Rocky, the Stewart sample and Miguel, who also repeats Stewart’s hook.

“Back Home” (Featuring Mos Def and Acyde) It is Mos who’s presence brings this track home. It also has a comforting, vintage soulfulness that in comparison to the murkiness found on the rest of the record sounds refreshing.

PHOTO: The Vaccines - "English Graffiti"
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The Vaccines’ “English Graffiti” ***1/2

The Vaccines’ third album, “English Graffiti” finds the British band refining their sound and adding a little pop sparkle to their production. The edges are sanded off of the guitar fuzz, in order to make the songs glisten for a pop audience. This isn’t a bad move, necessarily, but it does lessen their bite a little, considering the fact that it makes the majority of the songs sound slick and shiny.

Opener, “Handsome” is the typical quick kind of starter track that this band has offered before, but guess what? It’s the weakest (and most grating) track on the entire record This is an album that does best when it exhibits a darker undercurrent. Where this band is known for a certain kind of peppiness, this record’s best moments often occur when darker, more introspective sounds enter the mix. “Dream Lover,” the synth-driven “Minimal Affection” and the dream-like “Want You So Bad,” show this newer side to the band quite well.

The majority of this album sounds like the band got tired of the signature sound exhibited on their first two albums. Surprisingly, this record’s chief co-producer is Dave Fridmann, who isn’t really known for glossy records. He’s known for his work with The Flaming Lips, Longwave and Mercury Rev. When he worked with Phantom Planet (on their self-titled album) and Sleater-Kinney on “The Woods,” Fridmann emphasized both bands at their loudest and most consuming. There’s a touch of that brash, distorted feel on “Bikini Island,” but for the most part, by his standards this is a pretty streamlined record.

Lead singer Justin Hayward-Young shows his range more than before. “Maybe I Could Hold You” is a rather tender and sweet ballad. In fact, the majority of the record finds the band in a swooning mode.

“English Graffiti” goes by quickly in a brisk 35 minutes, and yet it leaves an impression, showing the Vaccines as a band that has continued to grow. This is an album that goes pop without sacrificing much. There are no forced anthems. It is just a collection of enjoyable hooks with possible hit potential.

Focus Tracks:

“Dream Lover” It is obvious throughout the majority of the record that recent albums by the Arctic Monkeys have provided a key bit of inspiration, and here they exhibit their own version of that sound with a dark and gnarly sense of tension.

“Want You So Bad” The title says it all. This song is pure longing coated in a blues-y pop bluster.

“Maybe I Could Hold You” Again, the dark edges show through and coat this love song with an underlying sense of dismay.

PHOTO: The Bad Plus Joshua Redman - "The Bad Plus Joshua Redman"
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The Bad Plus Joshua Redman’s “The Bad Plus Joshua Redman” ****1/2

Jazz trio The Bad Plus are usually known for adding a bit of rock-like energy to a classic jazz setup, but on their latest set, they team up with famed saxophonist Joshua Redman. The results end up sounding like what is perhaps the most straight-forward album in their entire discography. They keep their attitude, but with Redman, they create an album very much honed in the classic mold of the greats. This is jazz in the larger, most classic sense. Sure, there are freak-outs and sonic explorations, like for instance on the album’s thirteen-minute closer, “Silence Is The Question” or the nearly “free-jazz”-fueled, scale-driven chaos heard on “Faith Through Error,” but adding Redman to the mix gives them even more power. This is jazz in the traditions set forth by the likes of Miles, Coltrane and Brubeck. If you are frustrated that the majority of what gets labeled “jazz” is sadly in the “smooth jazz” realm and thus not adherent to the genre’s strict, improvisational-based rules, this album sounds like a breath of fresh air.

Drummer, David King still hits his kit with a lot of force, which makes his work really stand out and get your attention. This is especially true on “As The Moment Slips Away” and the King-penned, “Beauty Has It Hard.” What is nice about this record is that feels like it captures a real moment in time. There is equality between the players with all four men contributing to the writing credits. Each song is penned by an individual member , with bassist Reid Anderson penning the most, but it always sounds like the work of a continuous collective working towards a common goal. Joshua Redman has awakened something in the Bad Plus and he has proven himself to be a fitting fourth to their sonic puzzle. I hope this glorious partnership continues on more records to come. This album offers an expected jolt. The union of The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman creates a super-group of sorts that actually lives up to the implied hype and plays like an actual sum of its parts.

Focus Tracks:

“Dirty Blonde” The signature riff Redman plays on here is instantly memorable and really stands out in a big way.

“Silence Is The Question” Considering this track takes up a large percentage of this stellar album, it can’t help but be a highlight, exhibiting a slow build and then a crashing sonic-dismemberment. It is the kind of construction and destruction that has made The Bad Plus stand out from the start.

“As The Moment Slips Away” This is the kind of jazz that makes you think of the classics. It is the perfect soundtrack for subway rides and yet it has a contemplative edge to its construction.

PHOTO: Unknown Mortal Orchestra - "Multi-Love"
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Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s “Multi-Love” ***1/2

Ruban Nielson’s third Unknown Mortal Orchestra album finds the Portland, Oregon-based New Zealander working with the same experimental approach that fueled his outfit’s first two records, but “Multi-Love” is a tad more funky than its predecessors. "Like Acid Rain” sounds like a warped answer to the Jackson 5 while the wah-wah-driven “Ur Life One Night” sounds like a funhouse response to Prince. This is groovy, soulful album filtered through a dingy, playful, lo-fi-garage-rock screen.That combination of sounds may make it a polarizing listen for some, but this is a thick, bass-y set with an analog hiss-throughout that almost comes off like a purposeful decoration. It is safe to say that few modern records sound like this one, since to a certain degree this sounds like a lost relic from the late-sixties or early seventies.

At only nine songs, this album makes an impression more with its sense of style than with its individual songs. This is sounds like the deeper, freakier, more experimental side of the famed “Nuggets” compilations of the past, or like the kind of thing vintage radio DJs would sneak onto the air when no one was looking in hopes of adding some flavor to the hit parade.

Although it can be a little fuzzy in its presentation, Nielson stays true to the “Orchestra” in his band’s moniker, as horns and strings occasionally enter the mix. (Odds are, nearly all these extra instruments are synths, but still the orchestral feel is occasionally realized in essence.) To some, “Multi-Love” may be an acquired taste, but if it catches you, it will leave you effectively hooked.

Focus Tracks:

“Like Acid Rain” The thick, melodic bass part sticks out in combination with the sometimes chaotically funky drum-work. At 2 minutes, this is the shortest song on the album, but it is an easy winner.

“Necessary Evil” The built-in blues-driven dustiness to this track really serves as an asset. The horn and organ work add sophistication to the track, as well.

“The World Is Crowded” In a good way, this song plays like “Lite-Radio” R&B from another era.

Next Week: The latest from Florence + The Machine, a collaborative album from country greats Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Faith No More, Brandon Flowers, Zedd and more.

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