Halsey, Alt-J, Dan Auerbach and more music reviews

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This week alterna-pop singer Halsey drops her sophomore album, Alt-J experiment with their subtle third album, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach explores old-school pop-rock, Benjamin Booker combines blues, punk and gospel influences, Roger Waters delivers a scathing indictment of the state of the world, hip-hop icon Kool G Rap returns as hardcore as ever and Jack Antonoff releases his second Bleachers album.

PHOTO: Halseys new album, "hopeless fountain kingdom," was released on June 2, 2017.
Astralwerks
Halsey’s “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” (Deluxe) ****

I’ll admit after hearing her bland but weirdly successful collaboration with the Chainsmokers, “Closer,” that I was really worried the Halsey would lose artistic momentum on her sophomore album. Two years ago, “Badlands” was one of the most striking albums of the year with the singer establishing a unique spin on the contemporary pop sound with a commandingly confessional lyrical style. “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” has arrived and it is evident that I had no reason to worry. Not only does Halsey continue where she left off but she throws in some risky, bizarre but ear-catching moments, showing that she is not playing it safe.

This album is much brighter sounding than “Badlands,” even though it seems to have a recurring breakup theme, anchored by the “Romeo and Juliet”- minded tone of “The Prologue” and emphasized by both the spellbinding “Eyes Closed” and quite affecting electro-dance number “Strangers,” which features Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui. On “Sorry,” Halsey proves she can helm a bare piano ballad and on “Now or Never” she pleads for some sort of emotional reconciliation.

A slight digital wash is heard over this album. On “The Prologue” she uses the same vocoder effect used by Imogen Heap on “Hide and Seek.” Guest Quavo of Migos also uses a vocoder effect on his voice on “Lie,” which is a little distracting, but Halsey’s half of the song is stunning.

The deluxe edition comes with three extra songs. Like the deluxe edition of “Badlands,” the tracklists of the two versions are different, with the bonus songs spread throughout the album instead of tacked onto the end of the set. That means people who listen to the traditional album will miss out on the semitropical sounding electro-freak-out “Don’t Play,” the single-ready “Heaven is Waiting” and the distorted rock ballad ”Angel on Fire.” Like “Badlands,” the deluxe version of the album provides a better listen.

“Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” isn’t quite as immediate as “Badlands,” but it still shows Halsey near the front of the current pop class. Although it has a couple peculiar moments, those passages just add a bit of flavor to the record. Halsey remains as someone who is working with the modern, expected formula, while also adding a dynamic, alternative spin.

Focus Tracks:

“Sorry” Produced by Greg Kurstin, this piano ballad fits Halsey quite well. It has the chance to almost provide her with a moment similar to Adele’s “Hello,” even if it isn’t as booming.

“Strangers” (Featuring Lauren Jauregui) This is catchy breakup number with a dance beat, with both women playing a couple falling out of love. This is a monster club hit waiting to happen.

“Now or Never” This was definitely the right choice for the first single, with its appealing chorus that gains more momentum with repeated listens. Halsey’s attention to lyrical detail that almost has her attacking the song like she’s rapping her lyrics.

PHOTO: alt-Js new album, "Relaxer," was released on June 2, 2017.
Atlantic
Alt-J’s “Relaxer” ****

Alt-J’s third album, “Relaxer” takes an occasionally measured, minimalist approach. At only eight songs in 40 minutes it also stretches itself to play with sonic textures, often finding a meditative energy. Even on the CD jacket, nowhere does the name Alt-J appear in large letters. There is merely a triangle on the spine of the jewel box. If you didn’t know who recorded this album, you’d have to look in the fineprint to find the band’s website info.

“Relaxer” is not quite as defined as their last effort, “This is All Yours,” from 2014, but this album is still a bit of a triumph of subtlety. Lead single “3WW,” features Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell and comes off like a meditative combination between Nick Drake, the Velvet Underground and post-“Kid A” Radiohead. When it suddenly turns to a bright chorus, the sonic swell is almost by design meant to make the listeners swoon in shock.

Elsewhere, there’s a radical reworking of “House of the Rising Sun” and singer Marika Hackman guests and adds a chilling but beautiful energy to the folky “Last Year.”

This album only lifts the tempo a few times. “In Cold Blood” is a psychedelic, organ-led jam that sounds like it is reciting computer binary patterns and then there’s “Hit Me Like that Snare,” a ghostly, campy “Nuggets”-esque rocker anchored by weird synths and some off-putting background screams. In contrast, “Deadcrush” is a silky, single-ready electro-jam.

This album may take a few spins to connect. It is probably designed intentionally that way. It doesn’t hit you over the head. Its elements seep into your consciousness at their own pace. Considering that each one of Alt-J’s albums have been strikingly different from each other but always compelling, the release of “Relaxer” cements their place at the current art-rock forefront.

Focus Tracks:

“3WW” It takes a minute and 40 seconds before the vocals come in and during those hundred seconds you have one of the most stirring and profoundly mysterious musical intros of the year. Over the next three minutes, the song take a number of exciting twists and turns.

“Deadcrush” If post-2000 Radiohead decided to go “pop” with their drum machines, it might sound something like this. It is still a weird song, but the members of Alt-J know how work this groove in just the right way, inserting bizarre falsetto offshoots and elements of blues into the mix.

“Last Year” This is a haunted campfire lament for the ages. It is somehow simultaneously eerie and warm.

PHOTO: Dan Auerbachs new album, "Waiting On A Song," was released on June 2, 2017.
Nonesuch
Dan Auerbach’s “Waiting on a Song” ****1/2

Don’t be fooled by its corny title and standard cover photo, “Waiting on a Song” is a great record that finds the Black Keys’ leader tackling classic power-pop level songwriting. In fact, this is a bright, bold, catchy record that brings to mind classic songwriting of the past.

The title-track sounds like it could have been a lost gem by the Traveling Wiburys, while “Malibu Man” almost has a vintage Motown stomp. “Livin’ in Sin” sounds almost like a halfway-point between Buddy Holly and Spoon, while “Shine on Me” sounds a bit like it was influenced by '80s John Fogerty and the more light-hearted passages on Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever.”

Throughout the set, Auerbach sounds like he’s having a blast, as if he’s trying to write an indelible record to soundtrack the summer. This is a record that is occasionally somewhat silly but somehow never trivial. It’s just packed with great pop hooks and lots of energy.

“King of a One Horse Town” kind of sounds like what would happen if Jack Johnson’s “Flake” were reinterpreted by the band America with slight influence from Ennio Morricone in its orchestration. There’s beautiful tenderness in Auerbach’s delivery on “Never in My Wildest Dreams” that verges on a folk-rock answer to Burt Bacharach.

“Cherrybomb” is a funky piece that somehow finds Auerbach sounding like what would happen if Steve Miller had a touch of James Brown influence. “Stand By My Girl,” on the other hand is some handclapping, piano and guitar-led fun.

The album closes with the groovy, almost Al Green meets Isaac Hayes funk of “Undertow” and the spritely and jovial “Show Me.” There isn’t a dud on here and there isn’t a song here that you probably won’t find yourself wanting to hear on repeat eventually.

“Waiting on a Song” almost finds Auerbach essentially pillaging musical history and fusing different styles. At the same time, he proves that he’s more than up to the task, stretching way beyond the limits usually reached on the Black Keys’ albums. That’s saying something, considering he’s pretty much always sounded like he was open for sonic experimentation.

If you are looking for a new, punchy, fun record with a classic feel, this is that record.

Focus Tracks:

“Cherrybomb” Slick and silky and funky as hell, this sounds like it should soundtrack late night pool parties. In certain circles, if you put this song on, it would probably be extremely well-received. This sounds more organic than pop radio usually goes these days, but this still sounds like it could potentially cross over.

“Stand by My Girl” Was this written to soundtrack movie trailers? Maybe. I could imagine this song being both a hit and getting a lot of placements.

“Shine on Me” The call-and-response between the instruments is so infectious. It revels in its cheesiness and somehow benefits from being so bouncy.

PHOTO: Benjamin Bookers new album, "Witness," was released on June 2, 2017.
ATO Records
Benjamin Booker’s “Witness” ****

On his second album, “Witness,” Benjamin Booker lessens the punk elements in his lo-fi blues-rock approach, giving way to a more nuanced, organic, occasionally volatile version of R&B. Sure, fans of his raw 2014 self-titled album will immediately like opener, “Right on You,” but the softer, soul-searching found on “Motivation” is more typical, as is the Black Lives Matter Movement-influenced gospel of the title track, which features some nice, heavy lifting from the legendary Mavis Staples.

“Witness” is a slightly less sludgy and more soulful offering than Booker’s debut. It’s a little more measured with “Overtime” sounding like a raspier, slightly rougher answer to the old-school grooves of Leon Bridges, while “Truth Is Heavy” is a wonderfully casual bit of slow-burning funk.

Booker likes to volley between the softer side and louder sounds often times without warning. “Off the Ground” begins peacefully and then halfway through turns into a blistering slice of fuzz-rock. That is followed by the gospel-like piano-led prayer of “Carry” and the unhinged, texturally-charged, brief workout “All Was Well.”

Booker is gaining more layers to his sound as he progresses. If “Witness” proves anything, it is that Booker has absolutely no desire to be placed in one genre box. He wants to keep everything as interesting as he can for his listeners. This kind of unpredictability provides for a constantly compelling listen.

Focus Tracks:

“Witness” (Featuring Mavis Staples) Booker brings Mavis Staples with him on this gospel-fueled anthem. It’s fueled by a fear of seeing violence but serves also a rally cry to the masses to keep your head up in the face of adversity. Like the politically aware protest songs of the '60s, this song has a timeless message, trying to keep the peace and find answers during a time of civil unrest.

“Truth Is Heavy” This almost sounds like an infinitely better, more authentic answer to G. Love and Special Sauce. Hannah Cohen and Lauren Balthrop deliver some stirring background vocals on here, providing some effective call-and-response with Booker.

“Motivation” Booker delivers this heartfelt acoustic ballad with a great sense of drive. This song emphasizes his unusual voice, but it also brings the song’s emotional core as Booker sings, “Maybe all I need is a little motivation. / If I want it, I can have it.”

PHOTO: Roger Waters new album, "Is This The Life We Really Want?," was released on June 2, 2017.
Columbia
Roger Waters’ “Is This the Life We Really Want?” ****

“Is This the Life We Really Want” is only Roger Waters’ fourth solo studio album and his first in 25 years. In between, he’s released a few live albums, a couple of which have been live performances of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” and he wrote an opera, “Ça Ira.” that he recorded in 2005.

Here, he joins forces with producer Nigel Godrich, most famous for his work with the likes of Radiohead and Beck, essentially making an extremely political record that aims to lie somewhere between Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer.” As an album, this is a whirling mass, packed with background chatter made up of time clocks and other such automations. Happy New Year wishes are a recurring theme but at the same time Waters spins a modern geopolitical dystopian narrative. The title track begins with an audio clip of President Donald Trump lecturing CNN, while “Picture That” has the venomous line, “Picture a leader, with no f---ing brains.”

“Broken Bones” examines the world after World War II with some possible historical revisionism and explains how people born in different places experience different realities. The death of “the American Dream” is given special attention. Waters is quietly giving his disapproval in the current political shift, saying, “We can say ‘f--- you. We will not listen to your bulls--- and lies.’”

Just about everything about this record is extremely loaded from a political standpoint from “The Last Refugee,” to the explosive and driving “Bird in a Gale.” There is gentleness later on the set on the tender “Wait for Her” bit for the most part, this record seems to be born out of frustration with the current political regime in power.

Fans of Pink Floyd will have plenty to like here. Some of these songs sound like cousins of classics like “Wish You Were Here“ and “Comfortably Numb.” As an album, it sometimes comes off as more of a pointed lecture than a means for enjoyment. It is more earnest than it is catchy but at the same time, it works the same cerebral ground that Waters has always traced. This is an often dark, harrowing, and challenging set.

Focus Tracks:

“Is This the Life We Live We Really Want?” Waters delivers a dark state of the world, detailing the war between the haves and have-nots, to a population left numbed by reality TV. He runs off a damning list of social injustices that society often treats as “normal.”

“Picture That” Waters again lists, bringing up violence at home, a society with little sense of justice, Guantanamo Bay, wounded veterans coming back from Afghanistan…. It goes on and on. This is obviously an album that fell out of him in response to the chaotic state of society. The kicker is when he declares, “There’s no such thing as being too greedy.” This is him standing up to “the man.”

“Wait for Her” Amidst the political unrest sits this tender love song. Of course “she” could be symbolic of peace and justice after all the upheaval. A new political savior of sorts.

PHOTO: Kool G Raps new album, "Return of the Don," was released on June 2, 2017.
Clockwork Music/Full Mettle
Kool G Rap’s “Return of the Don” ***1/2

If you are unfamiliar with Kool G Rap, in the '90s he was a firm fixture and establisher in the New York gangsta-rap scene. With a hard-hitting, authoritative, unapologetically no nonsense, raw style, he helped define the genre, both by himself and on the records he made with DJ Polo. In the '80s, he and Polo were part of Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, so if you know anything about hip-hop history, you know that his essence is partially embedded in the very fiber of hip-hop.

Right from the beginning with his brash, opening verse that will easily scare away the easily offended you know that Kool G Rap is tackling his first album in six years with purpose. Like many of his peers, no doubt he’s seeing what the new generation is doing and trying to return the music to its core roots.

He’s brought along some company as well. Only two of the 11 tracks on “Return of the Don” find Kool G Rap without a guest. He raps beside Raekwon on the flute-assisted Wu-Tang-esque “Out for that Life.” On “Wise Guys,” which featured a dynamite scratch-breakdown, he’s joined by Lil Frame and Freeway. N.O.R.E. shows up “Criminal Outfit.” The late Sean Price even appears with Ransom on “Popped Off.”

This record obviously isn’t for everyone. These are tales of street hustling often delivered in the bluntest of terms. Sometimes this is a bit disappointing and can cross a line in various ways, especially when it comes to casually homophobic references by guests, however, those people expecting something more uplifting or sensitive obviously haven’t done their research. This music is about rawness, violence and griminess. In other words, this album firmly earns its parental warning sticker. As occasionally troubling as this record can be, the beats are tight and the mood is set.

“Return of the Don” is definitely rough around the edges, but fans of Kool G Rap’s previous work expect that kind of approach from him. Most of all, in 2017 this record will take you back to the days when hip-hop thrived on gritty rhymes over dusty, well-crafted beats.

The biggest complaint about “The Return of the Don” is that at under 40 minutes, it seems a little short and Kool G Rap, who is to many a legendary MC, perhaps doesn’t get quite enough time behind the mic. Nevertheless, upon his return, he definitely make an impression.

Focus Tracks:

“Out for that Life” (Featuring Raekwon) This track should please any Wu-Tang or “Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx” fan and Kool G Rap and Raekwon make a dynamic combination.

“Capitol Hill" (Featuring Manolo Rose, Sheek Louch and Cormega) This is another track that mentions drug-trafficking over a mournful, yet slamming beat. Cormega is particular drops an excellent verse.

“Times Up” Over a sharp, organ-fueled beat, this is where Kool G Rap firmly establishes his return with some rapid-fire lyricism.

PHOTO: Bleachers new album, "Gone Now," was released on June 2, 2017.
RCA
Bleachers’ “Gone Now” **1/2

Jack Antonoff is a talented musician and a great producer. His 2014 Bleachers album, “Strange Desire” was full of eighties-style anthems like “I Want to Get Better” and “Rollercoaster,” both of which improved on his higher profile work on the album “Some Nights” from his band Fun.

Listening to “Gone Now,” it is evident Antonoff has some decent instincts and some lofty intentions. It doesn’t feel like he can do these songs the justice they need and they could use some rearrangement. Like any good Jersey boy who grew up around “Born in the U.S.A.” was released, Bruce Springsteen seems like a bigger influence here, and there is kind of a forced-anthemic, rambling quality that’s immediately heard on the opener “Dream of Mickey Mantle,” although I have to give Antonoff credit for ingeniously tying the first two songs together by sampling the second song, “Goodmorning,” and embedding said sample into the beginning of the record.

The electro-funk of “Hate That You Know Me” is kind of embarrassing in his hands, although he has supposedly done a lot of work on Lorde’s upcoming “Melodrama,” and this is a song that would probably suit her voice better.

“Don’t Take the Money” actually works until the chorus when it suddenly begins to sound like an awkward Taylor Swift song. This isn’t surprising considering the fact that Antonoff contributed to “1989,” and has a continuing association with Swift but the whooping vocal affectation he puts on just sounds like it doesn’t fit his voice.

The party chatter and vocal snippets on “Everybody Lost Somebody” combined with just about all the other elements, make this sound too much like a calculated crowdpleaser. The horn section works, but this is just ridiculously self-aware and the misfiring falsetto bridge and the half-spoken section doesn’t do it any favors either.

Too often on this record Antonoff uses elements that should result in sure-fire hits but somehow stumbles. “Let’s Get Married” sounds OK on the surface, but if you really look deeply, there isn’t much to the song and the sped-up vocal snippets in between chorus rave-up just add a bizarre wrinkle. There’s a lot of sugar here, but surprisingly little substance. Plus, as the album progresses, Antonoff’s formula becomes apparent. Loud, sometimes garish choruses give way to quieter reductionist, confessional bridges. After a while, once you know all the beats, sadly, if you are astute, you can predict them coming.

When vocoders enter the picture on “Goodbye,” which sort of works like a reprise to “Goodmorning,” it just seems like an ill-fitting moment. Even worse is the sonically disastrous “Foreign Girls” which ends the album with a misfire.

To Antonoff’s credit, he has still compiled a 12-song set that connects. Parts get recalled and swirl back later to great effect. Even though Antonoff has some undeniable talent, the semi-fatal flaw of “Gone Now” is that it works too hard to be relatable. At this point, it’d be nice to hear Antonoff write a song that didn’t seem to be about young, party-going people under-pressure pondering the fact that time is passing as they dance to a booming hook. He has better chops at his disposal.

“Gone Now” does disappoint, but it isn’t a wash. You’ll just wish it had more authentic soulfulness and didn’t come off like it was written from a formula.

Focus Tracks:

“Goodmorning” Is it me or does this sound like a rambling cousin to Lorde’s “Liability?” Both songs owe a bit of a debt to David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes.” Nevertheless, this is among the better tracks here.

“Nothing is U” This almost serves as Antonoff’s giant prom-ready anthem and as it swells it delivers.

“I Miss Those Days” Although it suffers from a lot of the problems listed above, this is still an enjoyable bit of musical nostalgia. In spite of its use of formula, it works.

Next Week: New music from Phoenix, Rancid and more.

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