Carrie Underwood, Elvis Costello, Vanessa Carlton and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Carrie Underwood performs at the Apple Music festival in London, Sept. 21, 2015.
David Jensen/AP Photo

This week Carrie Underwood releases her fifth album, Australian teen sensation 5 Seconds of Summer release their sophomore album, quirky harpist Joanna Newsom drops her latest album, newcomer Julien Baker delivers a stark, compelling debut, Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan teams up once again with production duo Soulsavers, Vanessa Carlton gets ethereal and Elvis Costello releases a compilation of some of his favorite tracks to coincide with the release of his recent memoir. Plenty to discuss this week as 2015 gets closer to its final stretch.

PHOTO: Carrie Underwood - "Storyteller"
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Carrie Underwood’s "Storyteller" ***1/2

Besides Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood still stands as the other big success among the "American Idol" champions and on her fifth album, "Storyteller," a decade removed from her initial success, her momentum does not appear to be slowing. This is a "contemporary country" record with all the bells and whistles, which essentially means it blurs the lines between country, rock and pop. The opener, "Renegade Runaway," for instance is a rather forceful, authoritative rocker with a hint of twang, while "Dirty Laundry" is a sassy, venomous kiss-off with pop aspirations.

On "Church Bells," Underwood combines some Americana-style banjo-play with a funky swagger. Topic-wise, this album is rather formulaic. Underwood tells tales of no-good men letting women down, general stories of people on the wrong path, along with mentions of heavy drinking and domestic conflicts. This is some heavy stuff, but at the same time it is the kind of downtrodden material that has filled country radio for generations. On the flipside, there's the country love song, "Heartbeat." Again, these songs fit a very clear formula, but Underwood has enough charisma to sell them even if they don't break new ground.

Underwood is a Nashville hit-maker for obvious reasons. She is a nuanced singer who can convey emotion in even the most basic of songs. She's able to display enough gravitas to push through every detail. So, even if these songs are a bit of country-by-the-numbers, she does her best to keep things interesting. And "Storyteller" is an apt title for this set since every track tells a different tale of someone's everyday struggle, whether it be the down-trodden waitress trying to make ends meet on "Smoke Break" or Cassie O'Grady, the woman who disappears amid a scandalous fury on "Choctaw County Affair."

Really there are a lot of songs here about people hard drinking and smoking like chimneys to forget their troubles. These are stories about hard-working, God-fearing people just trying to get by and survive. That is essentially the majority of country music as a genre in a nutshell and as she did on her signature song, "Jesus, Take The Wheel," on "Storyteller," Underwood proves (if you’ll pardon the pun) that this kind of narrative is still in her wheelhouse. This album should please most modern country fans. While it plays with conventional country tropes, it does so in an effectively appealing way. Underwood has proven herself yet again.

Focus Tracks:

"Smoke Break" In many ways this single feels like the album's thesis statement as Underwood sings about everyday folks just trying to find peace amidst the chaos of responsibility and hard work. Also, the hook is a real winner. Considering fewer and fewer people smoke these days, perhaps this title will soon seem outdated, but that is beside the point. As a single it is a winner that breaks Underwood's music down to its essence.

"Renegade Runaway" This song announces itself like a crack of thunder and it is probably the least "country" song on the record. You can tell that it really wants to be a bombastic club-banger and given the proper remix treatment, it really could deliver on that.

"The Girl You Think I Am" One of the quieter songs from the album's second half, this is a warm ballad about separating from home and suffering from growing pains. This is a song about finding yourself and determining your future. This is Underwood’s letter to her father expressing thanks for believing in her.

PHOTO: 5 Seconds Of Summer - "Sounds Good Feels Good"
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5 Seconds Of Summer's "Sounds Good Feels Good" (Deluxe Edition) **1/2

Australian sensation 5 Seconds Of Summer really desperately want to be Green Day. They really want to drive in the fact that they are a rock band. But the truth is, they are just another boy-band in a post One Direction world, only they've mixed in some Blink 182 and Newfound Glory-influence into the mix.

Really, it seems like this band wants to pillage the past for grasps at credibility. Opener "Money" for a moment even makes fleeting reference to Rancid’s "Time Bomb" and its "black" and "white" lyrical juxtaposition. The pretty horrible "She’s Kinda Hot"(in which singer Luke Hemmings complains about his girlfriend’s personality and then dismisses his complaints by saying, "but she's kinda hot, though") makes a passing lyrical reference to "having bad brains," as if to subtly say, "yeah, that's right, we just referenced Bad Brains." "Hey Everybody!" shamelessly nicks the melody of the verse section on Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf." They give Duran Duran credit in the liner notes, but this is done rather artlessly.

This album just plays like one tired cliché after another. Calling a song "Permanent Vacation" seems a little on-the-nose and you have to wonder if the band has heard the Aerosmith album of the same title. If you know your musical history, this is just a hodge-podge of borrowed elements. It's as if this band, which is mostly made of 19-year-olds, is trying to make a record to please tween and teenage girls while also aiming to please their parents by lifting from the past.

The truth is, though, when they go into ballad mode as they do on "Jet Black Heart" and "Catch Fire," the supposed "punk" elements go out the window and it just becomes pop with guitars in the mix. The majority of the second half of the album finds them exploring their softer side, all maintaining their big choruses full of "oh oh ohs" and "whoa whoa whoas."

The deluxe edition packs on three bonus tracks, "Airplanes," "San Francisco" and "Outer Space/Carry On." All of these songs add to the album and make it fuller without feeling like tacked on additions.

On the whole, on a base level "Sounds Good Feels Good" doesn’t play badly. It does sound good on some level, but it feels tremendously recycled and somewhat faceless, as if the band is just grasping at formulas. To people familiar with pop history, this can be an excruciating listen at times. However those people are not this record's target audience.

It can't be denied that this album lacks true depth. And some might say that this is just a pop record, so it isn’t supposed to have depth. To which I would say, no. The best pop records, the ones you remember most affectionately, always are centered by some sort of artistic goal. There's very little here that resonates in an authentic way.

Focus Tracks:

"Jet Black Heart" This is the best of the ballads. They are aiming for a Jimmy Eat World-brand of emo even if it is presented with a boy-band kind of sheen.

"Castaway" They really love those typically anthemic builders that currently populate pop radio. Lots of "whoas" punctuate key moments. This track is guilty of all of the above, but it has a decent hook and delivers a catchy chorus.

"Fly Away" Blink 182 and Green Day loom large as influences here, especially with the guitar and drum-work, even if the chorus does sound like typical pop. There’s perhaps a nod to a more confessional band like Something Corporate with the lyrical nods to geographic exploration. This song is a pale ghost in comparison to the above bands, but perhaps this will serve as an entry-level primer for listeners to prep them for the better stuff.

PHOTO: Joanna Newsom - "Divers"
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Joanna Newsom’s “Divers” ****

The people who have heard Joanna Newsom’s music will tell you it is an acquired taste. And it is. Many find her music polarizing, mainly because of her unique warble, where she coos and scowls drifting in and out of an unusual yowl. And the fact that her music is highly-orchestrated, usually anchored by her harp playing makes it at times sound like she’s a playful, friendly cartoon witch serenading the woodland creatures.

But “Divers,” Newsom’s fourth record in 11 years deserves a closer listen than what is immediately on the surface. The truth is, outside of our narrow pop-fueled expectations of how a song should be, this music is immensely dense and intricate. This album is not for the pop crowd. At her center, Newsom is more of a classical musician than a pop-songstress. Like Bjork as of late, her music is full of orchestral flourishes and peppered with a quirkiness that is all her own.

The electric piano and harpsichord combination on “Goose Eggs” evokes memories of Vince Guaraldi’s work on the “Peanuts” specials from the early 1970s, while single, “Sapokanikan” is a surprising, sweeping piano ballad that not only recalls the before-mentioned Bjork but Tori Amos and Kate Bush as well. When the drums kick in on “Leaving The City,” there is a real sense of rock momentum, but mostly this is a delicate, yet carefully crafted record full of lullabies, waltzes and cryptic lyrics covering everything from cartography, to revolution to modern-day New York City.

This music is in some ways crafted as if to evoke a smile from its listeners but unlike her husband Andy Samberg’s music with The Lonely Island, Newsom is quite serious in her level of musicianship, and her lyrics have a confidently intellectual bend. If this album comes off as polarizing it is because we are too trained to fit everything into boxes. The truth is, we really need musicians like Joanna Newsom to push us forward and out of comfortable ruts. If you are open to it and free of pretension and expectation, you might find that “Divers” is truly a beautifully constructed record.

Focus Tracks:

“Saponkanikan” The lyrics of this song are rambling and dense, but this is the kind of sweeping piece that one senses would make a good soundtrack for frolicking in the snow. One gets the idea that Newsom really should write a musical.

“Leaving The City” If people have found Newsom’s music polarizing in the past, they should listen to this track. It has considerable momentum as it constantly builds. This track puts all of Newsom’s best qualities on display.

“You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” There’s something about Newsom’s vocal tone here that recalls the affected tone Beth Gibbons of Portishead put on during sections of their 1997 self-titled record. (Think about “All Mine” for instance.) This is a delicate, classically-minded piece, but at the same time, when the organ chimes in for a few seconds, there’s a hint of a bit of Stereolab influence.

PHOTO: Julien Baker - "Sprained Ankle"
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Julien Baker’s “Sprained Ankle” ****1/2

Singer-songwriter Julien Baker is still a college student at Middle Tennessee State University, but somehow she has already delivered one of the best albums of the year. Quiet and heartbreaking, “Sprained Ankle” is a challenging, beautiful, epically sad offering of sparse acoustic guitar and piano ballads. Baker can do a great deal with just her guitar and her voice and like Torres and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield, she pens very effective, very personal sounding, often stark anthems that aren’t afraid to disturb. All three women are young and Southern and have complicated feelings about religion and the church in their music. (For Baker, “Rejoice” stands as her hymn questioning a deity. For Torres, it was the title-track to her excellent album, “Sprinter” and for Waxahatchee it is “You’re Damaged” from 2013’s “Cerulean Salt.”)

Baker knows how to tell a tale and how to bring forth expressive imagery in her work. The shots of the ambulance and the story about wrapping a car around a street-lamp in opener, “Blacktop” is gut-wrenching, especially when she refers to the “saline communion” dripping into her arm as she gets taken to the hospital.

Not only is the song-writing on these nine songs particularly sharp, bringing to mind the staggering intimacy of let’s say Elliott Smith’s “XO” or the quieter bits on Liz Phair’s “Exile In Guyville,” but the guitar-tone achieved with perhaps a touch of reverb and a touch of echo really hits home. The riff on “Something” paired with Baker’s sweet, clear voice is quite enveloping.

This is completely Baker’s show. Not only is Baker a gifted vocalist, she is an excellent guitarist who knows exactly how to effectively punctuate each song.

If “Sprained Ankle” makes anything clear it is that after college, Baker’s future is truly set. This is a quietly hypnotic, melancholy masterpiece.

Focus Tracks:

“Something” This is a beautiful song about insomnia and how one’s mind races. Again that signature riff and Baker’s clear voice are the reasons why this track really resonates. The sadness is really potent as well.

“Rejoice” This song is a prayer. It’s a sad and angry one in the wake of some sort of tragedy. Baker prays to a god she knows is listening but there’s a bit of survivor’s guilt embedded here. It ends with her screaming at the top of her lungs, “Why did you make them leave and make me stay?!” it’s quite powerful and this is also one of the catchiest tunes on the set.

“Brittle Boned” Baker really knows how to pair her words and melodies with minimalist riffs. This song maintains a quietly building momentum throughout.

PHOTO: Dave Gahan & Soulsavers - "Angels & Ghosts"
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Dave Gahan & Soulsavers’ “Angels & Ghosts” ****

Ever since Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan found his solo voice and his voice as a writer with 2003’s “Paper Monsters,” he has seemed to be newly awakened. This has spilled into the work with his regular band as he’s become a contributor to the writing.

On his second full-album collaboration with production duo Soulsavers (Ian Glover and Rich Machin) that awakening continues as he forges further into both gospel and blues territory. Both realms have served him well as a vocalist before. (See the Martin Gore-penned Depeche Mode classics “Personal Jesus” or “Condemnation” for proof.) The collaboration results in an earthy record thick with tension and righteous drive. Gahan’s voice also sounds particularly strong on this album. It’s perhaps the strongest it has ever been. But considering the impressive strength of Depeche Mode’s 2013 album “Delta Machine,” this album just continues a peak period for Gahan.

This isn’t a far-fetched progression from late-period Depeche Mode, who have frequently gone into blues balladry, but it is light years ahead of the synth-pop that made Gahan famous 34 years ago. This is a darkly mature record in the best way, fueled by a heavy haze of contemplation.

“Angels & Ghosts” should appeal to anyone who has loved Depeche Mode’s darker more rock-tinged side as well as anyone who has been following Gahan’s career. He seems to be getting stronger with age and outside of his regular band he has found ideal collaborators in Soulsavers.

Focus Tracks:

“Tempted” This not the Squeeze classic. This is a thick piece of R&B. This song has a sultry, romantic tone, as if it is a funkier cousin to Gahan’s tremendous “Bitter Apple” from “Paper Monsters.” This track should be getting a lot of airplay and it also has a lot of potential licensing possibilities.

“You Owe Me” There’s a western Gothic energy here on this slow, bluesy work-out, as if Gahan is telling off a rival and giving an ultimatum. With the religious imagery, I doubt this is the case, but it definitely hints in that direction.

“Lately” This is a plaintive piano ballad that plays well to Gahan’s voice, which has become a deep nuanced instrument over the years.

PHOTO: Vanessa Carlton - "Liberman"
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Vanessa Carlton’s “Liberman” (Deluxe Edition) ****

Vanessa Carlton’s 2002 debut single, “A Thousand Miles” was an unstoppably iconic single. It was the kind of single that puts a young singer-songwriter ultimately in an awkward place, because it was the kind of single that probably could not be repeated. Carlton spent a lot of time and energy trying to record another song as indelible as “A Thousand Miles” and she came up with some decent work, but nothing close to that initial success.

Fast forward to 2015. Slowly with each release, Carlton has been moving away from the piano pop that made her initially famous. Her latest album, “Liberman” finds her heading into more ethereal territory. This isn’t to say that Carlton isn’t still playing the piano. (She’s a player of devastating technical skill.) But it is clear that she’s discovered a fitting bit of edge. The songs here are quite strong, but they also have a dark, often foreboding tinge. No longer chasing the pop charts, it is evident that Carlton is just trying to make a powerful and intelligent record. And throughout the set, her voice and all the instruments are draped in just the right amount of reverb, giving this album a vaguely Gothic, dream-pop glow.

This is easily the most progressive album of Carlton’s career. (It also may be her best.) It is as if she made a conscious shift and suddenly everything clicked better than ever before. This album has a unifying sonic thread. From the opening of “Take It Easy” to the closing of “Ascension,” each song maintains the same sense of downtempo introspection. This is the kind of record you always knew Carlton had in her.

The bonus disc that comes packaged with the deluxe edition of this album consists of stripped-down “living room” performances of seven of the album’s 10 songs and a demo version of an eighth, stripping away the reverb and the production, thus showing these songs in a different light and giving them a live, fresh spark. In these versions, Carlton’s piano skill level is indeed a highlight and a key asset.

With “Liberman,” Vanessa Carlton goes through with the transformation she has long been heading towards. This shift is definitely a positive reinvention and it should definitely earn her new fans. I really hope this album gets the attention it deserves.

Focus Tracks:

“Unlock The Lock” There’s something wonderfully detached and deadpan about Carlton’s vocal delivery here which packs a subtle sense of menace. This song has arguably the simplest chorus on the set, but it somehow comes off like a sudden revelation.

“River” This is the brightest sounding song on the set and it should earn some airplay and please fans of her previous work while still fitting into this set’s mood.

“House Of Seven Swords” Throughout the set, there is a dreamlike, pseudo-electronic tone. Here when Carlton harmonizes with herself it almost sounds like she is beckoning the listener into the song.

PHOTO: Elvis Costello - "Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack"
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Elvis Costello’s “Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album” ****1/2

First off, the bad news. This is not a new Elvis Costello album. It’s actually a career-retrospective meant to serve as a companion piece to Costello’s new memoir, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.” The good news, however that these are all classics, even if there are a few odd picks from Costello’s catalog and there doesn’t seem to be any sort of rhyme or reason to the track order other than the fact that it supposedly correlates with the stories told in the book. Organizationally, this means to outsiders this may seem like a bit of a mess. If this is an issue, there are plenty of other, more traditionally sequenced best-of collections. Although, to be honest at this point in his career a perfect best-of chronicling Costello’s career would probably have to be a five- or six-disc boxed set.

The truth is, there is very little on this collection that you can’t get from other sources. Even the demo version of “Veronica” here was issued before on the Rhino double-disc reissue of Costello’s album “Spike.”

There are two previously unreleased tracks, “April 5th,” which features Rosanne Cash, John Leventhal and Kris Kristofferson and “I Can’t Turn It Off,” which is one of Costello’s very early recordings. The set closes with small anecdotes being read by the man himself. This just makes me want to hear the rest of the book in audio-form read with Costello’s inflections.

This is classic material arranged quite strangely, but it is classic material nonetheless. It’s one of the few records that puts The Roots, Burt Bacharach, George Jones, Allen Toussaint and The Brodsky Quartet in the same company. Does it miss some important Costello tunes? Certainly. But it also offers a scattered, yet strangely satisfying overview of his career.

Focus Tracks:

“All The Rage” This track from 1994’s “Brutal Youth” has always seemed to me to be one of Costello’s least celebrated masterpieces. The “disappearing ink” in his memoir’s title is a reference to a line in this song.

“Beyond Belief” This opener to 1982’s “Imperial Bedroom” is a potent bomb of a song. It’s the kind of song that musicologists should study based on its mere, tight construction. Somehow it is always building.

“Veronica (Demo)” One of the many songs Costello has co-written with Paul McCartney, this gets a fitting Buddy Holly-esque arrangement.

“When I was Cruel No. 2” From the severely under-rated 2002 masterpiece “When I Was Cruel,” this a seven minute slice of James Bond-esque trip-hop.

Next Week: New music from Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, G. Love & Special Sauce and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Death Cab for Cutie, Deerhunter and more.

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