Blur, Josh Groban, Zac Brown Band, Raekwon and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Josh Groban performs songs from his album "Stages" at The Shops at Columbus Circle on April 28, 2015 in New York.
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This week ‘90s Britpop legends Blur makes a triumphant return, Josh Groban sings some classic show tunes, the members of the Zac Brown Band continue to smudge the edges between country and rock, Wu-Tang member Raekwon brings along an all-star cast on his latest effort, Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore drops a stunning instrumental electronic record as “MG,” Everclear members re-establish their rock roots (even though they have always been a rock band) and Canadian chill outfit Braids releases another enveloping, sonically stunning collection. Spring is firmly in gear, as is the release calendar.

PHOTO: Blurs "The Magic Whip"
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Blur’s "The Magic Whip” ****

It’s been 12 years since Blur dropped their last full-length, “Think Tank.” It has been 16 years since they released an album with their full lineup, since guitarist Graham Coxon left the band in the middle of recording “Think Tank.” A lot has changed since that last record. Damon Albarn’s budding Gorillaz side-project continued to be an enduring hit. He also formed two other side bands (The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Rocket Juice & The Moon) and released a pair of solo records. Graham Coxon went on to release a number of solo records (The most notable probably being 2004’s remarkable “Happiness In Magazines” ) Bassist Alex James became a food columnist and he wrote a book, while drummer Dave Rowntree became a political activist.

With all this change, you’d expect “The Magic Whip” to sound far removed from the band’s other work. But like the three stray, stand-alone singles the band has released in recent years -- “Fool’s Day,” “The Puritan” and “Under The Westway” -- this album builds really nicely on their legacy. “Lonesome Street,” for instance, sounds like it has a “Parklife”-esque jauntiness with a fuzziness more akin to their self-titled album and “13.”

Maybe this album doesn’t stand apart because this band have always been the biggest shape-shifters of the ‘90s “Britpop” era, comfortable with every genre from punk to new-wave to more traditional Kinks-style classic sounds. So, in some ways, this album just feels like they picked up where they left off. That being said, while it does stand well with every one of their other records, the majority of this album has a cold, alienating electronic tinge. The tone is “Ice Cream Man” goes well with the neon-lit, Chinese-charactered cone that is on the cover. This is a starkly modern-sounding record, building off of some of the darker aspects of “Think Tank” while still maintaining a bit of a playful edge. While their tremendously underrated last album was a very political, dire response to a post-9/11 world, this album has some lighter moments, although you can’t help but associate the sadly desolate “New World Towers” with ghosts of that tragedy. In general, this album is a potent mix of fuzzy guitars and bizarre synths.

There’s also a bit of an impending, apocalyptic sense of melancholy in both “There Are Too Many of Us” and the strikingly Bowie-esque “Thought I Was A Spaceman.” Even “Go Out,” which on the surface is a rocker, has a bit of a disturbed undercurrent.

The members of Blur still know who they are and what works. “The Magic Whip” is often oddly captivating. Let’s hope this is the start of a new beginning for this band and that we don’t have to wait another 12 years for a follow-up.

Focus Tracks:

“Lonesome Street” They chose wisely to begin the album with probably the most “Blur-sounding” song on the set, finding a middle-ground somewhere between the playful “Country House” and the immediate fuzziness of “Song 2” and “Bugman.” Yep, that is the stuff, alright!

“I Broadcast” This song pairs an ‘80s-style flinching quality with some grungy almost surf-like guitars. That keyboard line sure is bizarrely interesting.

“Ice Cream Man” There is something about this song that makes me tremendously uneasy. Perhaps it is the tension between the subject matter (which should be happy) and the song’s menacingly hypnotic tone. You get the feeling this ice cream man is up to something sinister and the song’s cryptic lyrics add to that notion. This song is actually more reminiscent of Albarn’s work with Gorillaz more than previous Blur work.

PHOTO: Josh Grobans "Stages" (Deluxe)
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Josh Groban’s “Stages” (Deluxe Edition) ***

Whatever you think of Josh Groban, you have to give the guy credit. He can really sing. Although his delivery can at times be melodramatic (especially for the biggest cynic among us) his brand of vocal ability reflects an old-school ethos. He has the kind of voice that used to be common on Broadway. Does that make him a hit-maker? No. But hits have never been his goal. He obviously wants to be a singer of the grandest kind and “Stages” finds him handling classics from shows like “A Chorus Line,” “Carousel” and “Les Miserables,” just to name a few. He even delivers a decent take of “Pure Imagination” from “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory,” which I’m guessing is the first time in history that Josh Groban and Primus have covered the same song within a year of each other.

Does this album set forth on any new ground? No. Does it change your previous perceptions of these classic songs? No. Is it a groundbreaking album in any way? Not really. But that is not why this kind of album exists. “Stages” merely shows a strong singer handling classic, time-tested material. While it doesn’t change Groban’s career in any way, shape or form and it probably won’t get him any new fans, that should be enough. Groban knows the drill. He knows that generations have been raised on the likes Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. While this is an undeniably safe record, it is one that should please his audience. Do we need yet another cover of “Over The Rainbow?” No. Some of these songs have been so frequently covered by others that this record almost feels like a redundant exercise. Nevertheless, Groban delivers each performance with an impressive level of skill.

The deluxe version has two bonus tracks, including “Gold Can Turn To Sand” (From “Kristina”) and “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” (from Les Miserables.)

Focus Tracks:

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” (From “Carousel”) Groban effectively captures this song’s marching rise and captures its soaring melody. Backed by a powerful orchestra, this rendition sounds especially theatrical.

“Try To Remember” (From The Fantasticks”) This rendition has a soft, relaxed jazzy feeling and Groban perfectly captures the song’s wistful sense of nostalgia.

“Old Devil Moon” (Featuring Chris Botti) (From “Finian’s Rainbow") This rendition is particularly dramatic, but it works quite effectively.

PHOTO: Braidss "Deep In The Iris"
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Zac Brown Band’s “Jekyll + Hyde” **1/2

There’s no doubt that the goal of Zac Brown Band’s new album “Jekyll + Hyde” is to broaden their fan base beyond their country-rock bounds. And yes, performing with Dave Grohl at the CMA’s to an audience of shocked country stars was a good start. And yes this is the proper follow-up to an EP of songs that Grohl produced. They obviously feel they need to go further into the ether. This is both an admirable goal and a foolish one. It’s admirable because yes, they should stretch themselves out and become as eclectic as they possibly can, but it is foolish because the results here sometimes don’t live up to the promise.

Opener, “Beautiful Drug” is over-produced pop-fluff, again with that forced anthemic quality that plagues too much of pop radio. It winds up possessing a bland quality one would normally associate with The Fray or Imagine Dragons. The whole love-as-a-drug metaphor is so tired. “Loving You Easy” sounds like one of those nondescript ballads that Jason Mraz usually writes being filtered through a bit of seventies soul.

This album does offer up surprises. “Bittersweet” is a nice bit of folk, while putting the Chris Cornell-assisted “Heavy Is The Head” next to the Sara Bareilles-assisted big-band number “Mango Tree” provides a weird but nice sense of shock. Although the former does suffer from suffocating vocal production (it’s not autotune, but it is something in that vein) and guitar work that is messy in the wrong way.

Does this album show this band has range? Yes. But too often these song still seem like formulaic pieces. While it is odd to find Cee-Lo Green among this album’s producers, this is still a mainstream, country album with all the hallmarks intact, even if it does take a few momentary turns. The production is often this album’s biggest enemy. With a more consistent, rawer approach, some of these songs would shine better. It would help, too, if all the surprise moves didn’t come off as so carefully calculated. (Is that a turntable swipe I hear on “Young And Wild?”) Here, the Zac Brown Band prove they have what it takes to dabble in other genres, but they need to work on executing this skill in a more organic way. They should probably study the work of successful shape-shifters like Ryan Adams and even Beck to get this down. The standard-issue Nashville studio gloss is holding them back. While “Jekyll + Hyde” shows promise, it falls slightly short. But it still has its moments.

Focus Tracks:

“Heavy Is The Head” (Featuring Chris Cornell) In spite of my above criticisms, this is the song that sticks out the most. If you strip away all the sonic tricks, Cornell’s hook still seals this song’s hit status. Part of me wants to hear Soundgarden fully tackle this song.

“Mango Tree” (Featuring Sara Bareilles) You’ll probably check your iPod to make sure it didn’t switch albums accidentally, and this shift sort of comes off like a parlor trick, but it actually works quite well, even if it does provide a sense of instant shock.

“Tomorrow Never Comes” This bluegrass-meets-lite-EDM track is a pretty decent song underneath the sonic manipulation. An acoustic version would do it full justice.

PHOTO: Raekwons "Fly International Luxurious Art"
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Raekwon’s “Fly International Luxurious Art” ****

Raekwon’s latest will probably be polarizing among the Wu-Tang purists. The beats here can be on the pop and R&B side and lack the usual RZA-style dankness. It’s admittedly strange hearing Raekwon rap next to sunny-sounding hooks from the likes of Estelle and Melanie Fiona. BUT…. This album wins in a big way because of its immense and surprising guest-list and its overall execution.

Sure, Ghostface Killah is here. The two have been a stellar tag-team ever since the classic “Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx,” but on this same record, you find A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz, Busta Rhymes and Rick Ross. The clincher though is when Snoop Dogg shows up on “1,2 1,2.” Growing up with tales of east and west coast rap battles, how refreshing is it to hear Snoop dropping some verses on a Wu-associated album? In all truth, this doesn’t feel like a Raekwon record because it has so many guests, but it feels like a massive hip-hop summit with each participant adding a piece to the giant puzzle. If you don’t like hip-hop and you can’t handle Wu-Tang style lyrical grit, look elsewhere, but this album is a clear winner full of banging beats that will reverberate against your eardrums. When Assassin enters and busts some dancehall-ready verses on “Sound boy Kill It,” he cements it as an unstoppable party jam.

Indeed, Raekwon the Chef can still make an appealing stew. This album has some jaw-dropping moments and shows him to be a great unifier. You’d expect more Wu-Tang members to show up, but it is almost better that this time around he stretched way beyond his usual circle. Sure, the skits involving an overly-decadent airline can go a touch too far (with some questionable acting from the bit players) but that’s not what this album is really about. This is a celebration of hip-hop bringing together generations of performers. This album may lack sonic grime, but maybe that’s part of the goal. This album’s sparkly nature could partially be an effort to remind a mainstream audience how hip-hop should sound. In the long-run any issues that this record has wind up being minor. With “Fly International Luxurious Art,” Raekwon and company deliver one killer collection.

Focus Tracks:

“1,2 1,2” (Featuring Snoop Dogg) The importance of this track can’t be understated and it packs a great deal of authority. On top of that Raekwon and Snoop sound like they are having a great deal of fun working together.

“Sound Boy Kill It” (Featuring Melanie Fiona and Assassin) This track delivers a really potent mix, anchored by its amazing, tripping beat.

“Wall To Wall” (Featuring French Montana and Busta Rhymes) French Montana is just OK on this track, but Raekwon delivers the kind of verse you’d expect and Busta Rhymes actually makes the song with his spectacularly raspy delivery, dropping a pretty impressive verse.

PHOTO: MGs "MG"
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MG’s “MG” ****

In case it isn’t clear, MG is Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore. Here, he delivers a truly riveting, forward-thinking instrumental record. It is actually somewhat surprising that that record is instrumental considering Gore’s previous solo outings haven’t been, but its score-like nature actually helps it succeed in an unusual way. This album, not surprisingly plays like an instrumental version of Depeche Mode and their darkest. Think about their 1997 hit “Barrel Of A Gun” or the brief instrumental interludes that were on “Violator.” Like Nine Inch Nails’ “Ghosts i-iv,” this album shows all of its performer’s gifts without uttering a word. In fact Gore has a very similar sense of focus to Trent Reznor, allowing bits of industrial fuzz and feedback to ooze their way into a world otherwise full of laser-sharp synths. Occasionally, too this album has serene moments where the warmer synths are allowed to take over.

This album is closer to Gore’s more experimental Depeche Mode work. In fact, it works as a fitting follow-up to the impressively experimental “Delta Machine.” If you are a fan of Depeche Mode or even a fan of any sort of experimental electronic score music, this album should definitely be on your list. My guess is because of its nature and the fact that it is being release under “MG” and not under Gore’s proper name, it could potentially be a record many fans would miss. This is an often beautiful and clearly groundbreaking record and it shouldn’t be a secret.

Focus Tracks:

“Pinking” If you like this track’s bouncy chimes, odds are, you will enjoy this entire record. It serves as the perfect opening for what’s to come.

“Swanning” This song’s bass-line almost sounds like a dishwasher going through its cycle while being filtered through a some sort of synth. There’s definitely something ominous afoot.

“Stealth” This sounds like modern answer to a vintage video-game score in the best way, evoking memories of encountering difficult and tedious levels on the classic Nintendo. It is a compelling piece of score as well.

PHOTO: Everclears "Black Is The New Black"
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Everclear’s “Black Is The New Black” ***1/2

With every Everclear record, you are reminded of Art Alexakis’ clear formula. After all, if you really think about it, “Santa Monica,” “Father Of Mine,” “I Will Buy You A New Life” and even “Everything To Everyone” are all variations on the same sonic idea. Still, Alexakis is always able to churn this obvious blueprint into enough gold to make it more interesting than expected.

The last Everclear album, 2012’s “Invisible Stars” should have had a huge hit with the amazing, “Jackie Robinson” and was a surprisingly vital record that mainstream rock radio seemingly ignored. Now on “Black Is The New Black,” Alexakis re-emerges with a sizable amount of sludge. Sure, the formula shows up clearly on “Complacent,” but at this point such a maneuver strangely inter-locks these songs and makes them sound more familiar and less like shameless rehashes. The songs that play most to this sound now come off like a connected series. In “Complacent,” when he sings, “I think I’m better now. I am not angry anymore,” it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself, which actually, in turn pulls the listener further into the song.

Alexakis’ inscription on the inside of the album reads, “This album is a result of me acknowledging and reaffirming my love for Rock and Roll and loud guitars.” Such a sentiment is a bit of a misnomer, since his sound has always been somewhat consistent, with the exception of the retro-minded “AM Radio.” But even that song fit within the formula. This album is admittedly harder than its predecessor, but he’s always been an obvious lover of rock.

What has always pushed Alexakis beyond the mere formula has been his knack for telling stories. As predicted, these are mostly troubled tales from his past. Here on “You” he openly discusses being sexually assaulted as a child, saying, “I was raped when I was eight years old on a sunny afternoon.” Hearing this in a rock song is jarring, but for Alexakis, such a release have a cathartic quality. The more he talks about his emotional baggage, the more he can probably help people with the same struggles. That kind of frankness was omnipresent in the nineties where people wore their hearts on their sleeves, but aside from Sia’s masterpiece “1000 Forms Of Fear” from last year, that kind of authentic, dark realism is too often missing from a pop radio landscape that tries to distract people from their demons instead of allowing them to face them.

“Black Is The New Black” offers more of the same from Everclear, but it has a surprising amount of determination behind it. Sure, it has its awkward moments like Art’s semi-rapped verses in “Simple and Plain,” but Alexakis is a true survivor whose music is obviously a therapeutic outlet. It’s probably easy for some to dismiss this band as third-rate grunge, but to do so would probably be a mistake. Listen to them with new ears and you might find that they are actually under-rated.

Focus Tracks:

“Complacent” As mentioned above, this is probably the best and most textbook example of what this band does best.

“This Is Your Death Song” This song offers some Nirvana-esque chording and marries it with a pop-punk-flavored melodic core. This song has some real sludge, but in spite of its dark quality it has a catchy, likable quality.

“Pretty Bomb” This is another punk rave-up, recalling some of the better, quicker, more frenetic moments of 1995’s “Sparkle And Fade.”

PHOTO: Zac Brown Bands "Jekyll + Hyde"
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Braids’ “Deep In The Iris” ****

Following up the chilled and excellent “Flourish // Perish” is not an enviable task. On that album, this Canadian electro outfit led by Raphaelle Standell-Preston found quite a moving, introspective airspace, with a lush, often hushed soundscapes. Often times Braids come off like a jazzier, more organic, less manic answer to their friends and current tour-mates Purity Ring.

“Deep In The Iris” maintains a bit of that energy, but this album is turned up a few notches. “Taste” is obviously a slice of cool Jessie Ware-esque pop, with the thought-provoking lyric, “We experience the love we think we deserve.” The song hints at a dangerous, psychologically-troubled relationship that is doomed but magnetically inescapable.

On this album, Standell-Preston puts a lot out there and it isn’t as relaxed an affair its predecessor. “Miniskirt,” for instance is a biting song against a woman who enjoys men “like cake,” marveling how even in modern society such women are labeled “sluts” where as a man who is popular with the opposite sex is called a “womanizer, a Casanova” or “A lothario.” Really this is a song about equality and it is also a song against sexual assault. The “Miniskirt” in the title refers firmly to this. Just because a woman is wearing a short dress, it doesn’t mean she means to solicit unwanted attention. “My miniskirt is all my own,” Standell-Preston sings and while this is a message that has been conveyed before, in many circles it is one that still needs to be reiterated.

“Deep in the Iris” is a weightier effort, subject-wise than its predecessor and doesn’t quite have that album’s sense of sonic serenity, but it is a record that has important issues to address. Ultimately, it probably ends up being as winning as “Flourish // Perish” but for very different reasons.

Focus Tracks:

“Miniskirt” This track’s weight is an unavoidable centerpiece. It addresses our society’s double-standards towards the sexes in an extremely compelling way. Outside of the subject matter, the instrumentation is quite gorgeously delivered.

“Sore Eyes” Anchored by a shimmery, shaking synth line, this is some effectively thought-provoking electro-lounge pop.

“Blondie” With its main riff being fed through a bit-crushing filter, this track beautifully mixes some surreal sonic textures with touches of light drum’n’bass. This is also among Standell-Preston’s more soar vocal performances as well.

Next Week: New music from Best Coast, My Morning Jacket and more.

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