This week we have a lot of new releases on our plate. If there was any doubt, 10 years after her last solo album, Gwen Stefani further cements her pop transformation with her latest effort, Iggy Pop joins forces with Joshua Homme, Soul Asylum return with a revamped line-up, rave legends Underworld release their first proper album in six years, former Barenaked Ladies vocalist Steven Page drops a winning collection of songs, former Sonic Youth co-leader Kim Gordon unveils her new, arty duo Glitterbust, and Manchester band James returns with a striking new set. Pretty much everyone this week is a veteran of sorts. I guess it is a week dedicated to career survival and continued endurance.
|Gwen Stefani’s “This Is What The Truth Feels Like” **1/2|
It’s been 21 years since “Tragic Kingdom” propelled No Doubt to multi-platinum, mainstream success. Back then, Gwen Stefani was a new-wave loving, spritely ska-punk singer who obviously grew up loving Fishbone and Madonna in equal measure. Times have changed. Ten years after her last solo effort, “The Sweet Escape” and four years after No Doubt released the extremely pop-oriented (and sadly unremarkable) “Push And Shove,” Stefani has almost abandoned her rock side in search of her inner Katy Perry.
Since the beginning, she has used her relationships as a key stepping stone in her songwriting. There was a time when she feared she’d never get married or become a mother. The No Doubt classics “Hey You” and “Simple Kind Of Life” spell this out quite well. Now a mother, in the wake of the surprise breakup of her marriage to Bush’s Gavin Rossdale and facing a budding romance with country singer Blake Shelton, she has a lot of material to turn into pop gold.
“This Is What The Truth Feels Like” is not an easy album to pin down. It’s an uneven offering with some excellent moments and some awful ones as well. Opener, “Misery,” for instance is an ace slice of anthemic pop that is destined to be a hit, whereas “Red Flag” and “Naughty” are both downright atrocious. The main problem is that Stefani needs someone to tell her to stop trying to rap. She’s trying to sound threatening on “Red Flag,” but it really just sounds like someone is being scolded at a pep rally. I realize, “Hollaback Girl” was a big hit, but it was an embarrassing song. If she needed to know what song she should be using as a blueprint to her solo career, it is “Cool.” But her affected rapping even ruins the otherwise stellar reggae-infused “Where Would I Be?” when in the bridge she suddenly shouts, “Yeah, you puttin’ in overtime. / Yeah you scored / I am the prize! / WHAT??? UH-UH!” If this song is released as a single, this part of the song should be removed from the radio version.
Elsewhere, “You’re My Favorite” sounds like it is trying to go for the same dystopian electro-lullaby vibe that Melanie Martinez expertly achieved on her album “Cry Baby,” last year, only lacking that album’s edge. When she sings, “Mama, can I keep him? / I promise I’ll take care of him,” it seems like a juvenile (and creepy) sentiment from an adult woman. Too often Stefani seems ruled by a desire to be cutesy in an old-fashioned Betty Boop sort of way, when she should be focused on making her songs as strong as possible. Her reputation and legacy are established. She can now feel free to flesh out her sound and mature in a more effective way than this album shows.
This is not a bad album on the whole. “Truth,” “Make Me Like You” and “Rare” are all strong pop songs with decent hooks. Even Stefani’s possible ode to sexting, “Send Me A Picture,” kind of works. But the parts that don’t work on this collection overshadow the parts that do. The previously mentioned “Red Flag,” for instance, is more likely to be remembered for its terribleness than “Misery” will be for its greatness. During the chorus of “Red Flag” when Stefani shouts, “This is your punishment!” it becomes an unintended ironic sentiment.
Interestingly, the previously released single, “Baby Don’t Lie” is nowhere to be found on this set.
Stefani is an excellent front-woman. She can do better than this album. She needs to reconnect with her rock roots. (After all, many people forget that No Doubt came up in the same circle that also brought us Sublime.) “This Is What The Truth Feels Like” is by its nature, an unapologetic pop record. There would be nothing wrong with that if the album didn’t make some key missteps.
“Misery” This may be Stefani’s clearest vocal performance to date and the chorus is powerfully cathartic. During the verse portion, there’s a nice slap-bass sound that is probably actually a keyboard. One can imagine this song being a euphoric, chilled party jam.
“Truth” This is a decent example of a modern pop hit and at the same time, structurally it has echoes of the singles of Stefani’s '80s youth. Again, there’s something really appealing about her more intimate vocal tone, where she tones down her usually forced semi-operatic tone. She sounds more vocally comfortable than ever.
“Rare” This song kind of sounds like it belongs on a Sia record. Strangely Sia is not listed as one of the track’s writers, but this is a melancholy ballad that morphs into a subtle disco jam.
|Iggy Pop’s “Post Pop Depression” ***|
With the deaths of David Bowie and Lou Reed, Iggy Pop is the last standing figure in that iconic trio of friends. On “Post Pop Depression,” Iggy teams with Joshua Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age and Eagles Of Death Metal fame to make a new record.
Homme tries his best to give Iggy a decent lift and he often succeeds in giving these songs heft. On “Gardenia” and several other tracks here, it sounds like Iggy is aiming for a Bowie impression. Maybe that is in tribute to his fallen friend. The semi Asian-influenced sound of “American Valhalla” is no doubt meant to echo Bowie’s hit, “China Girl,” which Iggy co-wrote.
The older Iggy gets, the more menacing and lower his voice becomes. On “Search And Destroy,” he possessed a high snarl. Like most of his latter-day work, this album finds him sticking mostly to a low growl. The dark lounge opening of “Break Into Your Heart” sounds like a tongue-in-cheek impression of a Las Vegas showstopper at the moment of the apocalypse, while on “German Days,” he delivers what sounds like an uneasy, shaky aria. The latter’s title is most likely a reference to his period in Berlin with Bowie. On this track and on others, Iggy tends to be overshadowed in spots by the hard-edged, prog-heavy backing band consisting of Homme, Dean Fertita (of Queens Of The Stone Age and the Dead Weather) and the Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders. The band packs a lot of power and commands a great deal of attention.
On the flip side, “Chocolate Drops” can’t help but sound like weird rewrite of the “diarrhea” song. Given the song’s title and its chorus, I hope this resemblance is on purpose. If it isn’t, it is either unfortunate or a humorous accident depending on your viewpoint.
“Post Pop Depression” doesn’t have that many memorable moments. It is more a fitting and adequate reminder of where Iggy Pop currently stands. He’s surrounded by ghosts and yet he’s made some new friends. This album is not a classic but at the same time, it fittingly keeps the ball rolling while paying tribute to the past.
“Vulture” The vulture lurks wherever death is and no doubt mortality is on Iggy’s mind. This song is full of menace and dread even if the “woos” in Iggy’s chorus are vaguely humorous.
“Gardenia” This song has an effectively churning charge. Again, the ghost of Bowie is a strong presence here.
“Paraguay” The opening vocal refrain is unquestionably odd but this closer is quite strong once its low-key Nirvana-esque riff kicks into gear. Iggy’s spoken-word ending with its sense of aggression shows that his angry punk side still lives.
|Soul Asylum’s “Change Of Fortune” ***1/2|
Probably the weirdest thing about Soul Asylum’s new album, “Change Of Fortune” is that the only remaining original member of the band is leader Dave Pirner and yet this still sounds like a remarkably assured Soul Asylum record. He is joined by former Prince associate Michael Bland on drums, Justin Sharbono on guitar and Winston Roye on bass.
This doesn’t sound like Soul Asylum of their mainstream, watered-down heyday of “Runaway Train” and “Misery.” You can hear Pirner’s harder-edged roots seeping back into the mix on “Can’t Help It” and the Replacements-esque single “Supersonic.” Considering that Soul Asylum are from the same circle as Westerberg and company and that the Replacements’ bassist Tommy Stinson has spent time in both bands, this comparison is far from surprising.
The band’s last two records, “The Silver Lining” and “Delayed Reaction” found the band’s original core slowly falling apart after the death of original bassist Karl Mueller and the departure of guitarist Dan Murphy. Both those records were quite strong with “Delayed Reaction” being the better of the two. This record cements the band’s rebirth as Pirner’s driving force and he isn’t out to keep the status quo. He’s as scrappy and as experimental as ever.
“Make It Real” experiments with prog-y elements and vocal pitch-shifting. It might be polarizing to some, but this kind of experimentation on Pirner’s part more than thirty years into his band’s legacy is really refreshing. After the success with ballads in the '90s, the fact that he now is returning the band to rockier terrain while embracing modern sounds is admirable.
With “Change Of Fortune,” Soul Asylum aren’t aiming for the charts. Although if rock music was still played on mainstream radio, “Supersonic” would make a powerful statement. Really, this is the sound of Dave Pirner trying to make the best Soul Asylum record he can. The new band works really well. Let’s hope this lineup stays intact for some time to come. Is this record as nuanced as let’s say, “Grave Dancer’s Union?” Not quite. But it does serve as a strong reminder that this band is still around and still delivering enjoyable records. In the canon of '90s-era front-men, Pirner deserves more respect.
“Change Of Fortune” is a strikingly modern work. It doesn’t show Pirner mellowing. It shows him adapting quite well. Like the monkey on the album’s cover discovering a cell-phone in the face of rising waters, Pirner has learned how to experiment with new tools while maintaining his initial spark.
“Supersonic” This is a lightning bolt of a single that sounds like a summer hit of the past. It provides an anthemic punch in the best way, bringing to mind a sense of youthful optimism.
“Dealing” Another possible hit, this song has an appealingly off-kilter quality while still sounding like it fits into familiar territory.
“Can’t Help It” This track is a surprise. It merges a Led Zeppelin brand of energy with Pirner’s hardcore roots.
|Underworld’s “Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future” ***1/2|
Underworld’s newest album, the curiously-titled “Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future” finds Rick Smith and Karl Hyde delivering the same kind of pounding, Dada-esque house-flavored, rave-fueling jams you’d expect. At seven tracks and just over forty five minutes, this seems a little brief by their standards and it doesn’t possess the classic immediacy of “Second Toughest In The Infants” “Oblivion With Bells,” or even their last album “Barking.”
“Barbara” is the duo’s first album in six years and it still places them in club and it still features Hyde’s rambling and dizzying style of poetry. There’s a sense of hypnosis throughout and if this album is reminiscent of any other album in the band’s discography, it often plays like an earthier, more mature answer to 1999’s “Beaucoup Fish.” “I Exhale” feels just as rooted in rock as it does dance, at the same time almost recalling the group’s earliest roots. “If Rah” almost sounds like an answer to their previous track “Bruce Lee.”
Things get a little more interesting when they explore more melodic territory. “Motorhome,” for instance is full of atmospheric, ambient beauty. It leaves you wishing that Hyde and Smith had added a couple more tracks in this vein to the abbreviated set.
“Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future” finds Underworld as strange and enigmatic as ever. It may not be among their very best records, but it still has its charms and stands as a testament to their endurance and their visionary focus. It leaves you wanting more.
Twenty years after “Born Slippy” was used in “Trainspotting,” thus giving them a wider audience, they are still soundtracking the rave circuit. Like The Chemical Brothers did with last year’s excellent “Born In The Echoes” and The Prodigy did with the underrated “The Day Is My Enemy,” this album shows that many of the big electronic players of the late '90s still have a great deal more to say. This album is weirder and more artistically-minded than modern pop-flavored EDM, but at the same time, it still very much fits in a still vibrant corner of the club scene.
“Motorhome” There’s a subtly delicate quality to this song that forges into dreamier territory. It’s a slow-builder that gradually finds its own sense of lift. Like much of Underworld’s better work, there is a repetitive trance-like quality at work. In addition, this track has a strongly psychedelic vibe.
“Nylon Strung” Much like “Motorhome,” this finds the duo exploring a more melodic realm. The album’s closing trio of tracks have a euphoric, nearly dream-pop sensibility. Again, I wish the album had continued for a bit longer in this vein.
“If Rah” This is closer to Underworld’s more typical comfort zone with its harder driving beat and Hyde’s spoken beat poetry. One can imagine this getting a lot of club spins.
|Steven Page’s “Heal Thyself Pt. 1: Instinct” ****|
Former Barenaked Ladies singer, Steven Page has dropped his first album in six years and it plays like a power-pop rock opera of sorts about healing and redemption. It sounds subject-wise like it was crafted in response to dealing with the foibles of being human and at the same time, it finds Page delivering some of his sharpest melodies to date.
“The Work At Hand” is a glimmering slice of modern new-wave while “I Can See My House From Here,” has a timelessly elegant lift. “Here’s What It Takes” merges a classic pop sensibility with a strong horn-section. “Mama” is some sing-along reggae while “Surprise Surprise” is an open and frank call for help and a relief that dirty laundry is out in the open and being aired.
This album plays like a rich therapeutic venting session full of stories of odd behavior, struggles with religious notions and drugs. It’s hard to listen to listen to the drug references in “Here’s What It Takes” without being reminded of Page’s 2008 cocaine-related arrest that occurred just before he and his former bandmates parted ways.
This is an honest, highly appealing, highly catchy album meant (as its title suggests) to heal some obvious inner wounds. Its subjects may hit some nerves, but Page is an apt songsmith and he’s simply trying to make sense of things the best way he knows how. Through his art.
“I Can See My House From Here” This song tells the story of a late-night conversation with Jesus, but not in the way you are probably thinking. It depicts Jesus as having a flickering halo and wanting to be human again, telling Page’s protagonist, “You can go it alone.” The fact that Page borrows a small section of melody from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” speaks volumes about the way this was intended. Since this is a concept album about coping, it is interesting that in Page’s world even the deities have existential doubts. This may be Page’s sharpest piece of songwriting since “Brian Wilson.”
“The Work At Hand” This song has a tight, claustrophobic tension before it blasts into its hook-heavy center. It is spiky and dreamy sounding at the same time.
“Hole In The Moonlight” This is a mature piano ballad, showing once again that he is a gifted composer. Considering how jokey a writer he can be, Page does have a serious side. This album in general has a very snarky brand of energy, but his abilities as at craftsman are at their peak.
|Glitterbust’s “Glitterbust” ***|
First off, if you are unfamiliar with Kim Gordon’s work in Sonic Youth, you should stop reading this now and explore her former band’s discography before listening to this record. The debut from Gordon’s new duo with Alex Knost is perhaps the most difficult and polarizing record I have written about in this weekly column. Gordon is one of the architects on modern noise-rock. She’s an icon of the genre and there will be some people who listen to this album and get the same visceral feeling that many often peg on Yoko Ono.
Simply put, this is not an easy record. It is more sonic collage than it is a collection of songs. The five tracks here in nearly fifty-two minutes showcase some minimalistic guitar riffs, chaotic feedback breaks and buried bits of spoken-word. It’s safe to say that a great majority of the people reading this will probably have a difficult time with this album, but this plays to the more destructive side of her former band. If Sonic Youth hadn’t made challenging records back in the eighties, we wouldn’t have had bands like Nirvana in their wake.
This record treats guitar squeaks and heavy doses of amplifier hum like something that can liberally be scattered across a track. At times this is like a punk answer to “free jazz.” Only “The Highline,” with its still inaccessible qualities comes close to sounding like a real single. Elsewhere on tracks like “Soft Landing” and “Repetitive Differ,” this album plays like a score to an extremely unsettled film. Every now and then, the artful cacophony recedes to give way to a few fleeting seconds of subtle beauty, but this album is mostly about making a ruckus and perhaps blowing some speakers along the way.
There will be some who find this album pretentious. Yes, there is a feeling as if Gordon and Knost just went into the studio and played these tracks without much planning. To someone schooled on more traditional music, I can see how this might disappoint. But from another angle, in this age of records that are over-produced and retouched to the point that they lose a sense of humanity, this set’s volatility can come off as refreshing.
If you are looking for something similar but more accessible I suggest you explore Sonic Youth’s discography. Like Gordon’s (admittedly less outwardly raw) album with her other duo, “Body/Head,” it sounds like her post-Sonic Youth career will be anchored in more challenging work.
Perhaps the enhanced chaos in Gordon’s current music is meant to mirror the inner chaos caused by her much-publicized divorce from Thurston Moore that led to Sonic Youth’s disbandment in the first place. With “Glitterbust,” there is a potent sense of isolating aggression and brewing turmoil.
“The Highline” Possessing the album’s best and most concrete riff as well as its clearest (but still weird) vocal turn, this sounds like a Sonic Youth track from the deepest point of one of their artiest records. Will this have a chance to get radio play? Certainly not. This isn’t that kind of album. This is more about expression than it is about traditional song-structure.
|James’ “Girl At The End Of The World” ****|
Best known in the States for their 1993 hit, “Laid,” and the classic album sharing the same name, the band James have continued to release a string of strong releases in the more than two decades that have passed since. In all truth, 2016 marks the thirtieth anniversary of this Manchester, England band’s debut album “Stutter.”
Like many of their peers, at the thirty-year point they still sound just as vital as ever, adapting to modern sounds. “Girl At The End Of The World” is a sonically eclectic record, from the atmospheric build of opener, “B****,” to the electronic and club-ready groove of “Dear John,” to the more natural-sounding, yet still ethereal “Feet Of Clay.” Tim Booth’s familiar voice and his detailed lyrics remain the band’s true anchors.
If this album is meant to bring about images of the apocalypse, it is a comforting, neon-soaked version of the end of our existence. This is a very warm and welcoming record. When the lyrics turn philosophical on “Surfer’s Song” and “Feet Of Clay,” Booth makes it seem like everything will be OK. He’s been writing songs like this at least since the “Laid” standout-track “Sometimes (Lester Piggot),” which told a story about a boy being struck by lightning and gaining wisdom from the experience. This album on the whole, has a much happier tone than 2008’s biting anti-war statement, “Hey Ma,” but like the rest of their discography, it possesses a shared wit.
“Girl At The End Of The World” is a shiny, appealing record that should gain James new fans on an international scale. If you haven’t picked up a James album since Booth sang the iconic opening lines, “This bed is on fire with passionate love...” this is a great album for you to reacquaint yourself with the band’s work. While you are at it, though, please explore their other albums as well.
“Catapult” This song mixes an industrial drive with a warm, major-key melody and a subtle orchestral edge. It’s definitely not the kind of song you hear every day but it is the kind of song that should deliver James another hit single.
“Dear John” As mentioned above, this is an occasionally icy, club-ready good-bye letter. It’s got some truly intense synth-work and some interesting Y2K lyrical imagery.
“Girl At The End Of The World” The title-track is the album’s closer. Its opening guitar-work brings to mind the work of George Harrison. Booth sings this song as an anthem about enjoying life and the gifts it brings. Again, if this is about doomsday, it is also about a celebration of existence.
Next Week: New albums by Bob Mould, The Thermals, The Joy Formidable and more.
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