This week Bob Dylan drops a three-disc album of American standards, Aimee Mann releases another collection that is sure to be a high-point in her discography, Nelly Furtado drops a dynamic comeback album, the members of the metal-band Mastodon release a new album, electronic and dance duo Goldfrapp blend hard and delicate sounds and Richard Edwards of Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s goes solo.
|Bob Dylan’s “Triplicate” ***|
I’m not sure what Bob Dylan is doing with his career at this point. “Triplicate” is a three-disc collection of American standards. This follows the similar thread as 2015’s “Shadows in the Night” and last year’s “Fallen Angels.” It’s not that this album doesn’t sound all right. Like the previous two offerings, the end results are more interesting in practice than they might seem on paper. It is fascinating to hear Dylan’s signature, scraggly voice singing these songs we are used to hearing perfectly crooned. His version of “Stormy Weather,” for instance actually sounds foreboding, and this kind of reading of these songs is infinitely more compelling than the average cover treatment they usually receive.
At the same time, this album and its two immediate predecessors aren’t the kind of records that Dylan’s fans probably expect or even want. No one has probably ever been listening to “Blood on the Tracks” or “Blonde on Blonde” and said, “I wonder how this guy would sound singing ‘Sentimental Journey’ or ‘Stardust.’”
It makes you wonder what Dylan’s game plan is here. Was 2012’s “Tempest” his last album of originals? These late-period records provide a momentary fascination, but Dylan’s own, unique poetic sense is missed. He does the majority of these 30 songs justice, but these songs have been done repeatedly by other artists. Sure, he probably wants to pay tribute to songs he heard throughout his youth, but considering he just won the Nobel Prize for his own writing, hearing him do these songs seems like a bit of a wasted move. How many other versions of “As Time Goes By” do you already know? Probably many.
In the end, this is another decent offering from Dylan even if it is ultimately somewhat forgettable when compared with his original work. It is still a worthy endeavor and worthy of a recommendation.
“Braggin’” This opens up the second disc and Dylan’s version sounds particularly light-hearted. Considering the fact that Dylan isn’t really known for being brightly bouncy, I suppose that is saying something.
“September of My Years” This Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn composition is perfect for Dylan at this point and his raspy voice emphasizes the song’s lyrical weariness.
“Stormy Weather” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a version of this song that sonically mirrored its title in the same way the first thirty seconds of this version does.
“Day In, Day Out” There’s something funny and off-putting about Dylan singing upbeat big-band numbers, but it works because of the sheer element of surprise.
|Aimee Mann’s “Mental Illness” ****|
It is tempting to call Aimee Mann’s new album, “Mental Illness” a return to the dour, thought-provoking and inward-looking work of her “Magnolia” / “Bachelor No. 2” / “Lost in Space” period. Yes, sonically, it does share a lot of the same feelings as “Lost in Space,” in particular, but this record is likely to be pinned as a sad one, when in truth, it is quiet, but never truly morose. At 38 minutes, this is one of Mann’s tightest and most succinct sets to date, focusing on low-key, sharp-tongued songwriting. Where her last solo album, “Charmers” five years ago was bright, downright synthy offering, this record is firmly planted in mature soundscapes.
It is interesting to note the bell that begins lead single “Goose Snow Cone.” In some ways that touch recalls the ghostly-chimes that begin Mann’s Juliana Hatfield-assisted classic, “You Could Make a Killing,” while “Patient Zero” is a wonderfully detached narrative that is both compelling and menacing at the same time.
You may find yourself getting lost in this album’s sonic textures. The piano and orchestral work on “Poor Judge” immediately grab your ear as do the lush guitar textures on “Rollercoasters” and “Stuck in the Past.” This is among Mann’s most intimate work. She’s virtually whispering lines in your ear and charting out character studies like a great novelist. The details spelled out in the majestic “Philly Sinks” definitely grab your attention. “Mental Illness” gets to be a warmer record on repeated listens. It’s a deceptively subtle record, but it is also extremely rich with narrative flourishes. Aimee Mann continues to be one of the most gripping storytellers writing music today.
“Goose Snow Cone” This is an immediate Mann classic. Quiet and cinematic at the same time. With each repeated listen, a new detail comes into focus. As I write this, the way the bass bursts in from time to time seems to be grabbing my ear.
“Patient Zero” This is a terrifying tale of checking into an institution and perhaps not being allowed to ever leave. Mann sings, “You look around and think, ‘I’m in the right neighborhood,’” subtly adding the cutting aside, “But honey, you just moved in.”
“Philly Sinks” This would have fit very well in “Magnolia.” It shows Mann at a peak, capturing the thoughts of a troubled alcoholic womanizer.
|Nelly Furtado’s “The Ride” ****1/2|
Nelly Furtado has had a bit of an uneven career, but her sixth album, “The Ride” is not only tied for her best album song-wise with her 2000 debut, “Whoa, Nelly!” but it is quite possibly her most sonically fascinating record to date, bouncing from post-“Joanne,” Lady Gaga-esque ballads like “Carnival Games” to aggressively electro-sounding jams like “Live” and “Paris Sun.”
It’s very clear that Furtado is aiming to have “The Ride” be a huge success like the earthy “Whoa, Nelly!” and the sleek “Loose.” This comes off like an updated combination of those two records but on the whole it is a much stronger offering than “Loose,” with “Magic” sounding like a spring-into-summer-hit single waiting to happen and “Tap Dancing” sounding like a show-stopping ballad. In short, this album should, if there is any justice put Furtado back on the top of the pop charts.
Her ability to volley from bright pop to sly, somewhat exotic experimental material has always been admirable. Like her fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette, she is comfortable sometimes working both sides of that coin. The eastern-tinged “Right Road” is a keen example of that skill in practice. It’s a balance lesser performers could never pull off in such an effortless fashion. The fact that she then follows that up with the album closer, “Phoenix,” which recalls Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” in the best way, demonstrates her dexterity.
“The Ride” definitely delivers on its title. Given the right promotion and the right exposure and placement, this album has the potential to be a monster hit. This is an intelligent, effective pop record that deserves a wide audience. This is both an exciting listen and a bit of an artistic triumph.
“Magic” This is a song about the loss of innocence as one grows up and gets hardened by the world, but it is also an undeniable bit of indelible pop that should be making its way to major radio rotation if there is any justice.
“Cold Hard Truth” This is the album’s opener and it immediately wakes up your senses and makes you realize the kind of record you needed Furtado to make. She more than delivers. This sly bit of cow-bell, wah-wah, synth-funk will make you want to dance.
“Tap Dancing” Furtado is also a keen balladeer, a fact that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. This is one of the strongest ballads she has ever delivered.
|Mastodon’s “Emperor of Sand” ****|
Mastodon combine a skilled metallic charge, anchored by a knack for sludgy presentation with a post-grunge-era knack for melody. A metal band of the highest order, they also know a strong hook when they find one. They are currently one of the brightest and sharpest metal bands working today, fusing a prog-rock sensibility into their sound as well.
Their seventh album, “Emperor of Sand” does not disappoint, showcasing the kind of jaw-dropping hardness that one has come to expect from the band, as well as the signature vocal trade-offs between bassist Troy Sanders, guitarist Brent Hinds and drummer Brann Dailor. If you want a song with a catchy tune, they offer up the arena-sized “Show Yourself” that recalls the heyday of alt-rock radio hits. If you want something less forgiving with its force and weirder around the edges, both “Andromeda” and “Scorpion Breath” do the trick. These guys have become a respected institution in metal circles for a reason.
“Precious Stones” plays with stopping and starting rhythms with great flexibility and effective use of tempo-changes. Elsewhere on this album, there are moments with some synth-play and even some light vocoder work. “Emperor of Sand” shows off a lot of Mastodon’s overall strengths as a band. They are unpredictable in the best sense of the word and yet they efficiently allow their songs to build. This is metal for people who enjoy other forms of rock, as well.
“Show Yourself” This is a big, loud dynamic single, with the kind of chorus that you might expect from the likes of Soundgarden.
“Clandestiny” Perhaps the most prog-rock moment on the record, this track really stands out among the pack, especially with its complex synth solo which hits an apex with some (fitting) digitized voices.
“Andromeda” Whoa. This is indeed quite brutal at the beginning before it blossoms into more melodic passages. This is definitely quite a rollercoaster of a track.
|Goldfrapp’s “Sliver Eye” ****|
Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory’s seventh Goldfrapp studio album finds the ever sonically shifting duo working in their sweet-spot. In terms of their discography, “Silver Eye” sounds like 2003’s “Black Cherry,” with occasional nods to the more orchestral “Seventh Tree.” In other words, this album finds glee in slinky, sleazy-sounding electronic sounds, but it also has a softer elegance. Listen to “Systemagic” and you hear a thick stomp during the verses, with Alison Goldfrapp heading into more delicate territory during the bridge.
Goldfrapp records are always reliable, challenging offerings but you always get surprises and the enveloping “Tigerman” will likely cause you to pause what you are doing to listen to the odd textures as they wash over your eardrums. Then, of course, there is the oddly titled but slick, sultry and seductive "Moon in Your Mouth," which is destined to be a classic among their hits.
This is more of a dance offering than their last album, the lush and orchestral “Tales of Us,” but that album’s sense delicate focus remains here, even on the hardest beats this record has to offer. “Anymore” is a straight-up club banger, but the emphasis is still on Alison Goldfrapp’s soft, yet authoritative vocal delivery. The same can be said about “Become the One,” which sounds like it was influenced by the Knife but is still anchored by a gentle hum underneath the beat-work.
This is a record that takes a few listens to make its key points evident. As pounding as it is in places, it has an embedded subtlety.
“Silver Eye” balances the beauty and weirdness that have been longtime signatures of Goldfrapp’s music, making it yet another strong offering from the increasingly iconic duo. No doubt, like a lot of their previous work, this album’s tracks will be licensed a number of different places.
“Moon in Your Mouth” This has a palpable, powerfully erotic energy as its beat pumps away as if through a wall from the room next door and Alison Goldfrapp’s voice dances among a thick sea of warm synths.
“Systemagic” This has almost a rock charge to it, even if it sounds like a lost eighties pop hit. During several moments, the keyboards nearly devolve into walls of sonic fuzz with appealing results.
“Faux Suede Drifter” This is definitely the winner of the best song title of the week. It is a warm, enveloping ballad that showcases the duo’s softer side.
|Richard Edwards’ “Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset” ***1/2|
The solo debut from Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s’ leader, Richard Edwards may be a polarizing offering for fans of his band. Yes, Edwards keeps his songwriting skills intact, but at the same time, the edge found on key tracks like “Disease Tobacco Free” and “Will You Love Me Forever” is lessened, with the focus instead on Edwards’ softer, sweeter side.
“Lil Dead Eye-D” with the exception of its title and a few of its lyrics sounds like “lite” AM radio fare from the seventies, while “Git Paid” is an occasionally thought-provoking, bit of falsetto-driven soft rock that repeats the phrase “Get your hair did.”
Edwards deserves credit because at some level this is his mainstream crossover attempt. On another level, this is a willfully subversive collection upon closer inspection. Calling one of the best and brightest-sounding tracks on the record, “Pornographic Teens” makes it a tough sell to some, even though as a song, it finds Edwards exploring some Ryan Adams-esque material quite successfully. The same juxtaposition can be felt on “Sister Wives.”
This is mostly a collection of delicate California reflections. You might find yourself wondering what these songs would sound like with grungier, dirtier sounding backdrops. You may wish there was more of a balance between the subject matter and the delivery, but that uneasiness is put there on purpose to compel. It does the trick.
On “Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset” Richard Edwards shows the same skill he shows fronting Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s. The fact that it is presented from a different angle than usual might determine the audience this record will likely receive. This set is either a hold-over until the next Margot record or something to plant the seeds for a new beginning. In any case, it is weird but worthy sonic specimen.
“Fool” The biggest rock statement on the record. It’s nice to hear the guitars swell during the chorus, giving it some real push into the stratosphere.
“Postcard” It’s almost as if Edwards is trying to get closer to his inner balladeer. This track verges on a tender bit of sun-drenched country music.
"Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’” This is another strong, tender bit of songwriting that showcases Edwards’ best side. It should be noted here that this set was after all produced by industry veteran Rob Schnapf, who has helmed records by Elliott Smith, Beck and more.
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