Coldplay, Babyface, Rick Ross, Astropol Album Reviews

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This week we continue the annual December release-slowdown with the return of Babyface, Coldplay's new album, Rick Ross's very guest-heavy record and the debut full-length album from Astropol featuring Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John and Bebban Stenborg from Shout Out Louds.

As 2015 comes to a close, there are still new records to be enjoyed.

PHOTO: Coldplay - "A Head Full Of Dreams"
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Coldplay’s “A Head Full Of Dreams” ***1/2

Coldplay hasn’t been the same since 2011’s “Mylo Xyloto.” On that album it seemed that the band made a shift from being the indie-band-that-could to a group firmly aiming at the pop charts.

“A Head Full Of Dreams” may have a ridiculously corny title, and it may show its pop-intentions a little too overtly, but in comparison with “Mylo Xyloto” and last year’s “Ghost Stories,” it is the best of the three. Is it an indelible classic like “Parachutes” or “A Rush Of Blood To The Head?” By no means. It is firmly placed in the cookie-cutter pop radio world where everything is made to sound as homogeneous as possible. At the same time, Chris Martin and company’s old knack for songwriting seems to be trying to make a return. As “Magic” served as one of the only standouts on “Ghost Stories,” this album has the striking “Everglow,” which almost brings to mind the band’s “classic” period.

At first listen, “Adventure Of A Lifetime” sounds a bit like a cacophonous pop mess aiming for a post-“Get Lucky” brand of funk. As ridiculous as Martin’s refrain of “turn your magic on” is, and no matter how stale his repetition of both “feel my heart beating” and “we are diamonds” comes off, it is the kind of song that reluctantly wears you down on repeated listens.

Beyoncé’s guest appearance on “Hymn For The Weekend” makes the song sound more like an out-take from her self-titled album, rather than something from a Coldplay record, although, sonically it also sounds like it could be the spiritual companion-piece to Coldplay’s earlier song “Lost,” which was later remixed to become a collaboration with Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z.

This is an album that feels big. The fact that on “Up&Up,” Coldplay managed to get Noel Gallagher, Beyoncé and legendary vocalist Merry Clayton (of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” fame) all on the same track speaks volumes about their current stature, even if they are no longer at a creative peak. This is especially true since Gallagher hasn’t always had the nicest things to say about Coldplay. Of course, given Gallagher’s general demeanor with the press, these past comments may have been intended to be taken as tongue-in-cheek.

In general, “A Head Full Of Dreams” isn’t Coldplay at their best, but it isn’t horrible either. In some ways, it feels like an occasionally awkward rebirth of sorts. This is a shinier, more electro-tinged answer to the band’s sound with some added electro touches. All the organic elements of their early records are gone, but for the most part, this is a pretty promising batch of songs.

Focus Tracks:

“Everglow” This ballad is a real keeper. And am I crazy or does it sound like something Atmosphere should be rapping over? I hear this and I think of Slug’s mellower side. (I listen to it and I think of the backdrop of Atmosphere’s “Yesterday.”) This is a giant hit waiting to happen.

“Hymn For The Weekend” (Featuring Beyoncé) This is way better and more effective than their earlier Rihanna collaboration, “Princess Of China,” but partly because it is simply a stronger song. When Chris Martin sings, “I’m feeling drunk and high,” it automatically brings to mind Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love.”

“Army Of One” This track finds Coldplay fully embracing electro-pop and it works simply because the song has a really captivating melody which works well with the intertwined electronically manipulated vocal samples. If Coldplay had to stop being a rock band and embrace their poppier side, this is the way to do it well. You can hear co-producer Stargate’s influence all over this album. Interestingly, this track is stealthily merged with a song dubbed “X Marks The Spot.” This section of the track is unlisted and actually was produced by Daniel Green. Why it is not its own track, I have no clue. I suppose it is funny to name a song “X Marks The Spot” and then not even mark it with an actual X.

PHOTO: Babyface - "Return Of The Tender Lover"
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Babyface’s “Return Of The Tender Lover” ****

You could easily argue that in the late eighties, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds helped craft the mold for modern R&B-flavored pop. In fact, in its mere title alone, his new album, “Return Of The Tender Lover” positions itself as the sequel to his 1989 blockbuster pop record, “Tender Lover.” This was really the album that really established Babyface in all his glory, even if it was his second album and he’d worked behind the scenes with other artists, previously.

This album is intended to return Edmonds back to his roots. It has a very retro quality, right from the start, from the saxophone solos to the over-the-top guitar breaks, this album brings to mind “Lite” pop balladry from the past. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, the record is also delivered with a great deal of skill, keeping these worn touches from sounding cheesy and stale. Instead, these grooves envelop you like comfortingly nostalgic blanket.

Edmonds knows exactly what he’s doing when he’s courting his old fans. The mere presence of El DeBarge and After 7 in guest spots makes this abundantly clear. Of course, the fact that this album comes a year after his highly successful (and quite good) collaborative album with Toni Braxton, “Love, Marriage & Divorce” makes it clear that he knows that retreading the past can be quite lucrative.

Of course, the reason why an album like this stands out is because it returns us to a point when R&B was full of innocent songs about love. This album brings us back to the basics. It takes us back before R&B was suffocated with Autotune and performers looking for club hits. Edmonds still delivers a brand of old-school balladry at its best. He is still undeniably likeably smooth. His legacy at this point should be enough to prove the man is a legend in his genre. After all, over the years he has worked with everyone from Braxton and Paula Abdul to Madonna and Eric Clapton. He’s worked with both Barbara Streisand and Ariana Grande. He’s left an indelible stamp on pop music and this album shows his signature sound is still quite strong.

Of course, as an album, this is a more mature collection compared to the often bouncy and electro-flavored original “Tender Lover” album, but that comes with the territory. Babyface’s audience has grown and matured with him and unlike the original album, this one is not trying to establish a new pop standard. The ballads found here are much less bombastic than the highlights from that set.

The bottom line is, if you’ve ever been a fan of Babyface’s work, this record will probably not leave you disappointed. This album finds Babyface doing what Babyface does best. He’s still got that magic touch.

Focus Tracks:

“We’ve Got Love” Right from the beginning, with the squealing saxophone solo, this song delivers the kind of smooth R&B that somehow also brings to mind the narrow good side of “smooth jazz” radio that actually really isn’t actually jazz. But this is refreshingly retro and Babyface is able to work with these elements with a great deal of skill, keeping the track from being schmaltzy.

“Fight For Love” Babyface has always been a smooth balladeer and this is him working at the top of his game. He still rocks a quite effective falsetto in his vocal harmonies with himself.

“Standing Ovation” This is an album of solid ballads. He’s not trying conform to modern pop or club standards and this track is not only orchestral and sweeping, but it is packed with a vintage sense of romanticism. This is a blueprint that has been driven into the ground, but in Babyface’s hands, he can somehow make it still sound fresh and vital.

PHOTO: Rick Ross - "Black Market" (Deluxe)
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Rick Ross’ “Black Market”(Deluxe) ***

Listening to Rick Ross’ new album, it is clear from the number of guests that he is aiming for the pop charts. The album features guests as diverse as Nas, Future, DJ Premier, John Legend, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Cee-Lo Green and Chris Brown.

Brown’s presence on the record’s “Sorry” is problematic, as is Cee-Lo's, given their legal troubles over the past few years. These outside elements tend to overshadow the music.

Of course, anyone who has ever listened to Ross’ music knows that he is not the most sensitive person. People who listen to Rick Ross probably don’t expect him to be progressive. They expect him to be raw and rough around the edges.

Ross only gets a good hip-hop momentum going only a few times on the album. In comparison to last year’s “Mastermind,” this album comes off as a little phoned in, with the pop hooks taking a little bit more of a front-seat than they probably should. After all, “Can’t Say No” is little more than a modern remix of Mariah Carey’s “Can’t Let Go” and John Legend takes up the last minute-and-a-half of “Free Enterprise.”

Fans of Ross’ more aggressive work will be a little disappointed by this record, even if the beginning of the album shows a bit of the same bit of emo edge Ross exhibited on the “Mastermind” standout, “Thug Cry.” But in all, this is a bit of an unbalanced set. Rapping beside Nas on “One Of Us,” Ross seems mighty comfortable, and “Crocodile Python” has an appealingly cinematic, spaghetti-western kind of appeal to its sound. But on the other side of the coin is the rather empty and unimpressive “D.O.P.E.” which owes more to auto-tune manipulation than actual song-craft.

“Black Market” is a passably satisfying record, but too often it simply lacks the fire needed to push it ahead to the next level. It lacks jaw-dropping moments. (Nothing on here has the power of let’s say, “The Devil Is A Lie.”) Mostly it feels like Ross is just running in place and letting his guests do a lot of the heavy lifting. The album shows some diversity in its scope, but at the same time, it never really fully ignites its own flame. This album is OK, but Ross has made better.

Focus Tracks:

“Ghostwriter” This is a glimpse of the more hip-hop centered side of Ross, where he claims he is a ghost-writer for other artists. He doesn’t name names but his words and his authoritative attitude will most likely draw you in deeper into the track.

“Crocodile Python” Ross is at his best when paired with this kind of larger-than-life beat and this track has a very vintage feel thanks to a sample of Antman Wonder’s “Sleeping Giant.”

“Black Opium” (Featuring DJ Premier) The cut-up vocal samples and the turntable work undeniably belong to Premier and this track finds Ross and Premier working almost in a call-and-response sense of cohesion.

PHOTO: Astropol - "The Spin Were In"
Amazon.com
Astropol’s “The Spin We’re In” ****1/2

You may not have heard of Astropol, but they will definitely sound familiar to you if you’ve been paying attention to the indie rock coming out of Sweden. Astropol is in fact the new supergroup formed by Bebban Stenborg from Shout Out Louds, Bjorn Yttling from Peter Bjorn & John and a guy named Smash. Given the amount of pull and influence both PB&J and Shout Out Louds have in the Swedish indie rock scene, no doubt expectations should be high for the band’s full-length debut. The good news is, the album more than delivers.

Stenborg takes the lead and her voice is sweet, ethereal and sometimes a tad haunting as she sings over these songs that combine electro-pop, light shoegaze elements and dream-pop. Essentially, this album sounds exactly the way you would think it would, given its source. Somehow she is able to balance a keen melodic sense with a very present, nearly deadpan energy and these songs build in a very classic, affecting way.

Yttling has become one of the most prolific and important producers in the world. He has of course worked on records with Shout Out Louds and in addition to his work on his own records with PB&J, he has also worked with Lykke Li, The Caesars, Camera Obscura and more. It has become a rule of thumb that usually when you see Bjorn Yttling's name on a record, it’s going to be a pretty amazing piece of work.

This record is for people who like a bit of alt-rock edge with their pop. “Little Cloud” for instance is a hit waiting to happen, sounding a bit like the end of result if Chvrches decided to reinterpret The Jesus & Mary Chain, whereas “Just Before Our Love Got Lost” has a heartbreakingly beautiful building backdrop. All along, across the collection, fuzzed-out synths and guitars add interesting bits of texture.

As the year approaches its end, this is one of those late entry gems that should definitely be on your radar. With Astropol, we have a supergroup that lives up to the implied expectations. This is 2015’s last great album. It is definitely a record that should be on your radar.

Focus Tracks:

“Make Love Stay” This song is structurally interesting because it combines chugging, commanding beat with elements of fuzz-rock in such a way that when it takes off, it’s not unimaginable that it could become a left-field pop hit. As it progresses, it grows and swells at an incredible rate. This song ends up being anthemic, but not in a forced, artificially manipulated way.

“Just Before Our Love Got Lost” Stenborg finds a sweet spot on this album’s many ballads that tend to sound just as powerful as the upbeat tracks. This track, “Always You And Me” and the album’s closer, “Rain Down On You” exhibit a narrative almost lullaby-like sense of song-craft without sacrificing a shred of sonic momentum. If the melodies weren’t so entrancing, this wouldn’t work, but we’re dealing with some of the best pop pros working today.

“Little Cloud” Much like “Make Love Stay,” this track takes command and builds into a mighty pop song with a dynamite hook anchored in indie-rock fuzz. Again, if American pop radio was more forward-thinking, this could definitely be a hit.

The next column will be the annual list where I’ll post my picks for the 50 best albums of 2015. The year has flown by, but it has really given us a lot of excellent music.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from They Might Be Giants, Dweezil Zappa, Ty Segall and more.

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