Florence + The Machine, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Barenaked Ladies and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Florence Welch of Florence And The Machine perfoms onstage during the iHeartRadio LIVE performance and Q&A with Florence And The Machine on June 3, 2015 in New York City.
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for iHeart Media

This week is pretty busy. Florence + The Machine release another spellbinding album, pop and R&B sensation Jason Derulo goes further into the retro-eighties realm, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard team up for a collection of duets, the xx’s Jamie xx sort of goes solo, the Barenaked Ladies release album number 13, Ben Lee celebrates twenty years in the business by releasing a collection of low-key pop-rock and Indigo Girls show some impressive range. Musically speaking, June is off to an excellent start.

PHOTO: Florence + The Machines album "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful"
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Florence + The Machine’s “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful “ (Deluxe) ****1/2

Florence Welch’s third Florence + The Machine record turns up the guitars and turns down the orchestration in comparison to her past work and yet it still maintains her signature sense of dramatic mysticism. When I say it turns up the guitars, these songs still don’t have the raw, punk-driven pounce of “Kiss With A Fist,” the obvious sonic outlier from her debut, ”Lungs,” but songs like “What Kind Of Man” and “Ship To Wreck” are much closer to the rock world than they are to current pop. This is also Florence’s most soulful-sounding record to date, with a lot of stomping, pseudo R&B numbers. In effect Florence comes off as someone who holds PJ Harvey and Annie Lennox in equal regard.

Her 2011 album “Ceremonials” was an incredible record and this album follows up that modern masterpiece with an equal amount of skill on display. Much of that previous record was full of boomers like “Shake It Out” and “Heartlines.” This time around, Florence shows more range, as her voice routinely goes from a whisper to a shout. During this round, she is slightly more nuanced in her attack.

There is a quiet, subtly beautiful ambiance to “St. Jude,” while “Mother” becomes a funky rocker. Bonus track “Hiding” is a hand-clapping bit of eighties pop and “Delilah” is the kind of builder that has become Florence’s signature, peppered with some post-Motown pep.

Welch has proven herself to be a consistent leader, delivering three enveloping, entrancing records in a row. Like “Ceremonials,” “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” is issued in its deluxe form with extra tracks including a couple choice demos. This strategy worked before and it works again because it gives the work on the whole a more complete context. Florence + The Machine once again has delivered another future classic. This is music that will no doubt prove itself to be timeless. Florence is a key example once again proving that sometimes intelligent, well-made records do crossover to the pop charts.

Focus Tracks:

“Ship To Wreck” Were you expecting a harp? Maybe a swirling piano? This album begins with an upbeat, acoustic guitar-driven rock song. This maintains many of Florence’s key signatures, but this also awakens senses of both urgency and maturity.

“What Kind Of Man” This begins with a warped intro that is reminiscent of The Knife. Then, out of nowhere, a hard-edged riff comes in and throws you for a loop. Then the bass and drums kick in and Florence is in full-on authoritative mode. The bottom line is that it all works quite well.

“Mother” According to the liner-notes, this is the final track of the standard album. Again, it is another song where the guitars are up front, anchored by a sweet bass and drum combination that brings to mind the hypnotic electro chill of Air’s 1998 masterpiece, “Moon Safari.” Then, everything gets blown up by a hard-rocking chorus and as the song progresses, it ends with some potent acid-rock guitar fuzz.

PHOTO: Jason Derulos album, "Everything is 4"
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Jason Derulo’s “Everything Is 4” ***

Jason Derulo’s fourth album , the interestingly-titled “Everything Is 4,” continues to grow off last year’s “Talk Dirty” by going further into the electro-pop realm. “Get Ugly” is obviously building off the same formula of a shouted catch-phrase and then a signature riff. This formula made his last album’s “Talk Dirty To Me” such a hit. Meanwhile, key single “Want To Want Me” finds Derulo exploring shiny, pseudo ‘80’s pop territory, although I have to admit that some may find his falsetto work on this track to be quite grating.

“Cheyanne” is a better, more level-headed exploration of a similar sound. In some ways, this sounds like a brighter, poppier answer to the Weeknd.

“Pull-Up” again uses a “Talk Dirty”/”Get Ugly” formula, but it wins because it has an intriguing tune and is really well-delivered with a magnetic electro-clash sheen.

Things get a little less focused when Derulo decides to team himself with a wide variety of duet partners. He does alright with K. Michelle, offering up the slightly trippy R&B ballad “Love Like That.” Then, things get a tad wonky with the Meghan Trainor-assisted “Painkiller,” which ends up being a marginally decent song, but kind of loses its charm right off the bat when Derulo sings “M-Train!” and Trainor sings Derulo’s name, calling out to each other. It is an embarrassingly cheese-ball move. At least Derulo is now singing his own name less during his songs. It used to be one of his trademarks, but it got old really quickly.

Things get even stranger when Derulo teams with both Stevie Wonder and Keith Urban on “Broke.” Actually this song works better than it would seem to on paper. This is mainly due to Wonder’s harmonica skills.

On “Try Me,” Derulo easily out-sings Jennifer Lopez, whose voice is covered in obvious digital bubbles of auto-tune. The song would have been better with someone else. Derulo is better paired with Julia Michaels on the beautiful “Trade Hearts.”

Overall, I’m tempted to chastise Derulo and his producers for sticking to pop formula and making an overly glossy record, but you know what? This album on the whole actually works, showing a level of focus that Derulo’s albums have rarely possessed. This isn’t an astounding record, but it has enough enjoyable moments to merit a narrow recommendation.

Focus Tracks: “Trade Hearts” (featuring Julia Michaels) This is a surprisingly airy ballad. It definitely deserves to be a soaring pop hit. “Pull Up” This is a track packed with sexual innuendo, thinly disguising its sentiments with car-related metaphors but sonically it has some real space-age charm. One listen brings to mind neon-lit clubs. “Cheyanne” As referenced above, this song has a Weeknd/Michael Jackson vibe and yet it also sounds like a big hit off of a mid-eighties movie soundtrack. It’s funny how certain musical trends move in cycles.

PHOTO: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggards album, "Django & Jimmie"
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Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard’s “Django And Jimmie” ****

Named in honor of Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s latest duets album is a tribute to the way country music used to be before it was hijacked by the pop masses. This is a love letter to the classics, and these two titans of the genre thoroughly understand their own individually large statures.

This is a collection of mostly new songs. Some are written by Nelson. Some are written by Haggard. Some are written by other writers entirely. The pair also throw in a few choice covers. They sing Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” They also sing the Claude Gray hit, “Family Bible,” a song that Nelson wrote and reportedly sold for a mere hundred dollars in the late fifties. Nelson recorded his own version of the song originally in 1972. The version here is more Merle than Willie.

Really this album is a chance for these two figures to come together and wax nostalgic. Both men are outspoken outlaws of the country genre with tremendously wide appeal. They pay nice tribute to a fallen peer on “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” with both humor and style.

Nelson is 82. Haggard is 78. Thankfully neither one of them is showing any signs of slowing down. This should be mandatory listening for anyone who considers him or herself a country music fan.

Focus Tracks:

“Unfair Weather Friend” This ode to unconditional friendship is a perfect match for these two performers.

“Swinging Doors” A classic from Merle’s catalog, this is a warm ode to a welcoming bar that distracts you from your worries. It is typical, classic country fare done right.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” Dylan can probably also be considered a peer of theirs in a way, even if he is slightly younger and more in the folk and rock realms, but you can bet all three performers had some common influences. This steel-guitar flavored rendition of an early Dylan classic works quite well.

PHOTO: Jamie xxs album "In Colour"
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Jamie xx’s “In Colour” ****1/2

Jamie Smith of the band The xx releases his debut, solo full-length as Jamie xx, the name he’s been using since his band initially rose to fame. To be honest, this isn’t a true solo record, considering it has scattered guest appearances from his xx bandmates, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, but it has a different, brighter take on the group’s signature electro sound.

Really, this is most likely the most chilled, impressionistic party record of 2015, full of lush soundscapes and delicately-woven sonic elements. “In Colour” plays like a slick, DJ mix from the coolest of clubs. If Four Tet or Kruder & Dorfmeister were given a pop makeover, they might make something like this.

This is a serenely bombastic soundtrack full of unexpected sounds and clever touches. This is even true when rapper Young Thug enters the picture and delivers the unapologetically raunchy and quite graphic “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” a song which cleverly, stylistically bounces from classic doo-wop to modern electro-pop.

“In Colour” is a challenging record, but only in the way that it dares to put experimental sounds together that pop radio doesn’t tend to recognize in a way that the medium might ultimately find palatable. The truth is, this is an album many current pop fans would adore. The fact that the majority of this record is instrumental and sometimes a little out there shouldn’t be a deterring factor.

With “In Colour,” Jamie xx has made a record that is more satisfying than the two offerings from his band. He’s made a record that if given the play and attention it deserves will send ripples of influence throughout the mainstream.

To put it quite succinctly, “In Colour” is an important, utterly hypnotizing record. It’s a smartly-made, stripped down collection that is nearly ambient at times and yet still maintains possible pop potential.

Focus Tracks:

“Gosh” This is such a spacey rhythmic game, but it opens up the album with pitch-shifted vocal samples bouncing off a captivating drum-line. Nearly two minutes in, the bass brings some melody into the mix and the whole track really blossoms.

“Loud Places” (featuring Romy) and “SeeSaw” (featuring Romy) Both these tracks feature Jamie’s xx bandmate Romy Madley Croft. “Loud Places” is a rousing, almost gospel-driven ode to the club while “SeeSaw” is a reverb-drenched bit of sonic abstraction obscured by a driving beat. Both tracks indicate that when the group does reconvene to record album number three, the future will be quite bright.

“Sleep Sound” Here, an alarm-clock sound gives way to a chilled, house-driven haze. The track is peppered with some well-placed bits of sampled vocal harmony. It all sounds extremely slick.

PHOTO: Barenaked Ladies album "Silverball"
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Barenaked Ladies’ “Silverball” ***1/2

Twenty-three years after making its debut with “Gordon,” Barenaked Ladies is still going strong on its 13th studio album, “Silverball.” I’m sure every other review will mention this, but the band really did suffer a loss in 2009 when co-lead singer Steven Page left. This is the band’s third post-Page offering and like its two immediate predecessors, “Silverball” lacks the playfulness that used to be the band’s calling card.

Still, Ed Robertson has done a mighty fine job leading the band through this transition and picking up the slack as the band’s key front-man. Robertson has been an ace songwriter and offered up album highlights since the band’s beginning and that hasn’t changed, even if the quirk-factor has been turned down considerably.

Without Page, you still have keyboardist Kevin Hearn and bassist Jim Creeggan to still give the group’s albums a sense of variety. On earlier records, there was a fun contrast mainly between Page and Robertson. Thankfully, in Page’s absence there are still three considerably skilled songwriters in the band.

Probably due to its goofy name, I’m not sure this band has ever gotten the credit for its range and considerable eclecticism. Sure, it had hits with the silly “One Week” and “The Old Apartment,” but on the flipside, this has always been a multi-faceted group of musicians. Check out the seriously jazzy closer to 1994’s “Maybe You Should Drive,” “The Great Provider,” for proof. It has always, from the start, been an extremely eclectic band in its tastes and delivery.

That eclecticism is a little muted now on “Silverball,” which stays mostly in the middle of the “adult-alternative” realm. Still, there is murkiness in the guitar-textures of the appealing “Say What You Want,” and surprising heft in the opening riff of “Get Back Up.” The Farfisa-esque organ on “Narrow Streets” speaks volumes, as does the almost country-esque kick-drum on “Piece Of Cake.”

Yes, “Silverball” shows a mature version of this band, but they wear the maturity well. Considering it also sang the theme to “The Big Bang Theory” eight years ago, and thus, due to that show’s omnipresence in syndication -- presuming they got a good deal -- probably never actually have to work again, it is nice that the band is still going strong and evolving as a collective unit. “Silverball” is a worthy addition to its discography that proves that Barenaked Ladies still has plenty left to say. Here’s to another 23 years!

Focus Tracks:

“Crowded Streets” Yes, my main focus track is led by Jim Creeggan and not Robertson, but this jumpy bit of new-wave is the bounciest and most appealing song on the record and it really should be a key single.

“Silverball” This title-track is an appealing ballad that is given real texture with well-placed reverb and fuzz. It’s quite a beautifully-crafted track.

“Duct Tape Heart” This is probably the silliest record. Again, this has a new-wave core thanks to Hearn’s extremely eighties-flavored synth-line.

PHOTO: Ben Lees album "Love Is The Great Rebellion"
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Ben Lee’s “Love Is The Great Rebellion” **1/2

Ben Lee is on his 11th album. This feat is pretty incredible, considering he’s only 36 years old. But that’s what happens when you begin making records at a young age and in Lee’s case, “Love Is The Great Rebellion” comes 20 years after his debut, “Grandpaw Would.”

Lee has always had a mixed-bag of a career, showing early signs of greatness with 1997’s “Something To Remember Me By.” His early albums from when he was signed to the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label had an appealingly scrappy quality. He was presented as an impossibly young troubadour with a fitting Evan Dando fascination. Over time, he would experiment with different sounds. He successfully teamed with Dan The Automator on 2002’s trippy collection “Hey You. Yes You.” He then scored a decent hit -- partly probably thanks to a key placement in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” -- with “Catch My Disease” off of 2005’s “Awake Is The New Sleep.”

“Love Is The Great Rebellion” is his debut record for Warner Brothers and it is clear from the beginning that Lee is out to get a pop hit. In the process, this music seems a little dumbed down and simplified when compared to his career highlights. “Giving Up On Miracles,” and “Goodbye To Yesterday” sound like standard pop, middle-of-the-road fare. Unfortunately, it takes a few seconds of listening to “Big Love” to realize that it isn’t in fact a cover of The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” and “Happiness” tries to be cute and sweet -- and to a certain degree, it is -- but accidentally winds up being cloying and syrupy, in spite of a slightly funny cameo from Donovan.

There is considerable improvement in the beautiful “The Body Of Love,” which has easily the best riff and melody on the record. This positive upswing in quality continues with both “Everybody Dies” and “Everything Is OK,” but as the album goes on, it becomes abundantly clear that while this is not an objectionable record -- it actually sounds great thanks to producer and indie-rock veteran Brad Wood -- material-wise, it still lacks edge. These songs are pleasant, but they don’t excite or intrigue. Still, there are hidden glimpses of greatness for instance in the details in the lyrics to “The Universe Inside.”

Lee is no longer the restless teenager who made his first records. He’s a content family man, married to actress Ione Skye, which would also make him Donovan’s son-in-law. But too many of these songs take the simple route and there are very few actual surprises.

In the end, “Love Is The Great Rebellion” simply plays it too safe to make a true impact. Lee has done better in the past. He still has his huge pop breakthrough ahead of him. This record may surprise and end up giving him that reward. Only time will tell. But somehow this remains one of Lee’s most monochromatic offerings. I really want to like it more than I do.

Focus Tracks:

“The Body Of Love” Yes, this song does have that cheesy title, but as stated above it has a really beautiful melody and seems more artistically-centered than the majority of the rest of the record. If Lee is looking for a single, this is it.

“I’m Changing My Mind” This is an appealing pounding number, which is given an extra push by its inclusion of Ione Skye and basically their entire family on the background vocals. It also has one of the best choruses on the record. It all comes off very Beatle-y.

“Everybody Dies” This is a well-written ode to human-mortality. It deserves credit for being a very positive song about a very dark subject. Again, it is one of the album’s highlights.

PHOTO: Indigo Girls album "One Lost Day"
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Indigo Girls’ “One Lost Day” ****

The 14th Indigo Girls album “One Lost Day” is a vital and sonically varied collection. If you are thinking back to classics like “Closer To Fine” and you think this is going to be a mellow offering, you are in for a surprise. This album rocks quite effectively and quite often. Much of this record sounds similar to the work of Indigo Girls' fellow-Georgian indie-rock peers, R.E.M. The mandolin-work especially brings to mind Peter Buck’s work on signature cuts like “Losing My Religion.”

As expected, this disc handles some heavy issues. After all, Amy Ray and Emily Sailers have always been socially conscious and not afraid to shy away from controversy. “Findlay, Ohio 1968” tells a nostalgic, yet weighty tale of Nixon and Vietnam-era America, while “The Rise Of The Black Messiah” goes full-throttle against institutional racism and the ghosts of a southern system that once condoned slavery, turning a former plantation into a prison.

This is a rocking record with both Sailers and Ray singing with urgency throughout the set. If songs don’t fully rock, they have an ethereal quality, maintaining a sense of edge. For an act with a folkie-reputation, this album is never sleepy. Producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin does amazing work here. On “Southern California Is Your Girlfriend,” Ray and Sailers deliver some ace vocal lines, intertwining their harmonies sweetly in the tradition of the Beach Boys and the Mamas & The Papas.

This is just a really rich sounding record with some extremely strong songwriting. A soft acoustic number like “If I Don’t Leave Here Now” somehow has as much of an emotional wallop as a pounding, fuzzy rockabilly rocker like “Olympia Inn.” “Learned It On Me” similarly packs a punch, even with its bright, new-wave-sounding keyboard line.

“One Lost Day” finds the Indigo Girls still sounding refreshingly hungry 28 years after debutting. This is a very strong record.

Focus Tracks:

“The Rise Of The Black Messiah” As Amy Ray tells it in a behind-the-scenes YouTube clip, this was inspired by a letter she received from a prisoner from Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, who along with two other African-American inmates had been left in solitary confinement for 35 years. According to Ray, this prison apparently was built on grounds that used to be a plantation. The song soars with an unearthly power of gravity as it deals with the serious scars left by centuries of racism.

“Happy In The Sorrow Key” This is actually a bright rocker, which is typical of this album’s upbeat material. It really has a considerable heft in both its composition and its performance.

“Texas Was Clean” The way the piano echoes over the thick bass line at the beginning of this track tells you everything you need to know within the song’s first thirty seconds. Again, it is an excellent track.

Next week: The latest from Muse, Sharon Van Etten and more.

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