This week One Direction’s Harry Styles goes solo, Paramore follow-up their self-titled record with an eighties-style throwback, three-fourths of No Doubt join forces with Davey Havok of AFI to form Dreamcar, Todd Rundgren releases an electro-tinged, guest-filled record and the Zac Brown Band explore their roots.
|Harry Styles’ “Harry Styles” ***1/2|
The biggest surprise with Harry Styles’ debut solo album is how far it strays from One Direction-territory. With this record, Styles reinvents himself as a singer-songwriter in a classic mold. The Beatles shine as bright influences here with “Sweet Creature” echoing “Blackbird” and the quite affecting “Two Ghosts” bringing to mind George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.”
Styles finds a really sweet spot when he sings soft ballads. Opener “Meet Me in the Hallway” sounds like it may have been influenced by “OK Computer”-era Radiohead while the nearly six-minute, politically-fueled single, “Sign of the Times” verges on the Harry Nilsson/Badfinger realm. It is evident Styles is courting older listeners and aiming to mature his sound. He effectively succeeds. He only stumbles when he tries to turn up the volume. “Only Angel” sounds like a fourth-rate T-Rex imitation, while “Kiwi” just sounds like a rock and roll stereotypical joke, culminating in Styles screaming, “I’m having your baby! / It’s none of your business.” Yes, these attempts to rock out mar the otherwise excellent record. He doesn’t know how to rock well yet, but with time he will learn.
“Woman” works pretty well on the verses but deserves a better chorus than just Styles repeating the word “Woman!” Sure, the missteps are clear as day, but it has to be understood that Styles is learning and when he isn’t accidentally stumbling, he’s nailing his intended sound perfectly.
“Ever Since New York” is a minor masterpiece while “From the Dining Table” delivers a hushed anthem of heartbreak.
Harry Styles proves himself to be way more than just a typical former boy-band member. He is setting to prove himself as worthy to people who would never have listened to One Direction. What the One Direction fans will think of this record remains to be seen. Hopefully their tastes will have matured along with Styles. Here he begins a new chapter, gains new respectability and proves that although he still has room to grow he still has a bright future ahead.
“Ever Since New York” This is a stunning, affecting bit of balladry. It’s a beautiful piece of work that will surprise most fans expecting a straight-up pop record. There’s heartbreak in Styles’ voice but again New York is set up as a backdrop packed with unadulterated romanticism. In some ways it echoes the feelings that PJ Harvey’s 2000 album “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.” I’m thinking specifically of Harvey’s song, “You Said Something.” (And yes. Never in my life would I have imagined comparing Harry Styles to PJ Harvey.)
“Meet Me in the Hallway” A weirder and more nuanced beginning to the record than his fans would probably expect, but this track is definitely fueled by a magical, ethereal quality.
“Two Ghosts” The above-mentioned Harrison influence is really strong here, as Styles sings about a broken relationship and trying to reclaim his sense of humanity. There’s been speculation in the press that some of these broken-hearted songs are about Taylor Swift. Only Styles knows their true source of inspiration.
|Paramore’s “After Laughter” ***|
After re-defining themselves with an authoritative self-titled record in 2013, the members of Paramore return with a significantly more pop and dance-minded record. “After Laughter” has a strong eighties sheen and it is hard to listen to opener “Hard Times” without thinking it sounds like a bit of a response to Sia’s pop hits over the last few years. Singer Hayley Williams comes off like a cheer-leader, prompting a pep-rally crowd on “Rose-Colored Boy.”
While the self-titled record was aiming for indie-rock cred, this album is aiming more for the radio. It’s partially a let-down, considering the strides they made on the last record. To some this will seem like a step back. To others it will seem like a step forward.
The band is also slightly more complete than it was the last time around, with the return of longtime drummer Zac Farro returning into the fold. That being said, they still don’t have a bassist, with the album’s co-producer, Justin Meldal-Johnsen (who is a frequent collaborator with Beck and who also worked on their last record) handling bass duties.
There’s bouncy fun in “Told You So” and you are left wondering if the bummed demeanor that Williams approaches “Fake Happy” with is put on, at least at the beginning before the song charges into a typical pop-dance number.
There is range here. “26” is an acoustic lament of sorts, but there is a feeling that the band aren’t pushing themselves as far as they can. It’s a pretty record that is well-produced, but it lacks that extra sense of edge that was felt on this album’s predecessor. You wish this album had a touch of the underlying punk charge that served as a backbone for songs like “Now” and “Anklebiters.”
It isn’t like this album doesn’t have its own highlights. The chiming synth-pattern on “Pool” demands to hypnotize every listener, ushering the song into a glowing apex. “Idle Worship” similarly has an elastic bounce and a really strong chorus. Similarly the rambling spoken-word vocal workout hidden deeply in the mix of “No Friend” is a surprising development. It sounds like a deeply embedded, earnest prayer of sorts, which isn’t surprising if you know anything about the band’s history.
“After Laughter” is a bright, shiny record with decent potential. With Meldal-Johnsen, Williams, Farro and guitarist/co-producer Tyler York have made a record that is aiming to be a fun collection for the summer. It’s a fine record, but it might wear its intentions a little too firmly on its sleeve.
“Idle Worship” Williams pushes her vocals here, providing the most elaborately uplifting moment on the record. This is an ace slice of pop that works well with complex shifts.
“Told You So” The pitch-shifting vocals serve as a bit of a distraction, but this track provides an uplifting, party-ready good time.
“Forgiveness” A ballad with a slight ska-like tone to its guitar-work. Here the band works an unusual rhythm quite well. The song gets better with each listen.
|Dreamcar’s “Dreamcar” ***|
Dreamcar is a super-group made up of Tom Dumont, Tony Kanal and Adrian Young of No Doubt with AFI’s Davey Havok . In other words, it’s No Doubt with Havok in the place of Gwen Stefani. You’d think given the ska-punk chops that No Doubt showed on “Tragic Kingdom” and the fact that before their MTV-ready makeover, AFI were a pretty decent punk band that this would bring out the harder side of the band-members’ influences, but no. Both No Doubt and AFI have a huge new-wave thread going through their work, so Dreamcar pays tribute to everyone from Duran Duran and Echo & the Bunnymen to the Cure and New Order. This is a bit of an eighties throwback. A well-executed one but it sometimes hits its marks a little too exactly.
On songs like the single, “Kill for Candy” and the opener “After I Confessed,” you know exactly all of their influences within the first ten seconds. While there aren’t any real duds here, there also aren’t any moments that really take you by surprise. Dumont, Kanal and Young are a tight combo, though and it is probably something that you forget given No Doubt’s lack of output as of late. This is a much better and more satisfying record than “Push & Shove,” even though it is a different beast. Havok for his part shows that he would have fit well in the eighties fronting a band like this. The bouncy pop of “All the Dead Girls” comes off quite well as does “The Assailant.” While you’ll find yourself perhaps hoping for some punk-y riffs, this is still an effective combination.
Kanal gets to do a lot of bass-slapping on “Do Nothing” and “On the Charts,” and he and Dumont have some nice interplay with neon-hued reggae rhythms and on the whole this album is rather consistent, even if it isn’t the great leap that one might expect.
Here’s hoping that Dreamcar continue as a band and that they show more range on their sophomore outing. In the meantime, this is a merely satisfying debut.
“All the Dead Girls” A beat reminiscent of Green Day’s “Longview” gives way to an unexpectedly bright bit of pop. This might be too sugary for some. For others it will be a hit waiting to happen.
“Kill for Candy” The retro quality of this song initially took me aback, but after a few listens it has won me over. It is surprisingly on-the-nose with its sound which works both as a benefit and a detractor. Still it is fun.
“After I Confessed” Again, this sounds like a lost eighties hit, with Havok’s vocal-line evoking memories of Johnny Hates Jazz’s “Shattered Dreams,” a song which has historically shown to be a rather important hit.
|Todd Rundgren’s “White Knight” ***1/2|
Late-period Todd Rundgren is hard to pin down. He has become obsessed with electronic sounds. Thankfully “White Night” is infinitely better than the cartoonish disaster that was 2015’s “Global,” showcasing glimpses of the classic songwriter hiding behind all the elaborate synth work. Immediately, from the start of “Come,” it is evident that this is a much better thought out and more successful venture. Rundgren works a cool, electro-funk, pseudo hip-hop groove on “I Got Your Back,” getting help from Dam-Funk and KK Watson.
This album also has a bizarrely diverse cast of guest performers featuring everyone from expected peers like Joe Walsh, Daryl Hall and Donald Fagan to the legendary Betty LaVette. Things get more interesting on “Deaf Ears” when Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross show up and Robyn’s presence on “That Could Have Been Me” is completely unexpected.
You will probably wonder who the audience for this record actually will be, considering that this is so far removed from hits like “Hello, It’s Me” or “Bang on the Drum All Day,” but here this album is a bit of an odd mixture between decent songwriting and synthesizer experimentation. The wide range of veterans on here speaks to Rundgren’s respected place in history. Some of these textures sound a bit dated, but one gets the feeling that Rundgren likes to play with environmental elements, toying with his audience’s concept of how his records should sound. “Buy My T” for instance sounds like vintage Zapp & Roger and George Clinton- minded electro-dance music. It sounds kind of like it is tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time, throughout this set Rundgren and his guests sound like they are having some very odd fun.
“White Knight” will definitely be a polarizing offering, but it shows Rundgren stretching himself out as an artist.
“Deaf Ears” (Featuring Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) I suppose it isn’t a surprise that the coolest moment on this album is the one with Reznor and Ross. With Rundgren they create something hypnotizing and ear-catching. This is a bold exercise in trip-hop.
“That Could Have Been Me” (Featuring Robyn) Robyn firmly takes the lead firmly here, making this sound more like a Rundgren-produced single than a standard collaboration.
“Tin Foil Hat” (Featuring Donald Fagan) This sounds like a left-field, space-age answer to Steely Dan. It’s a little off-putting, but that might be the idea. It is playfully twisted, fitting with the song’s title. With mentions of “draining the swamp” and “alternative facts,” there is no doubt that this song is aimed towards Donald Trump and his administration.
|Zac Brown Band’s “Welcome Home” ***|
The Zac Brown Band follows up their star-studded genre-shifting offering “Jekyll + Hyde” with “Welcome Home,” an album that essentially returns them back to their country roots, as evident from the opening track, “Roots.” Along the way they stick in clichéd songs like the whiskey and love-themed “Real Thing” with its chorus, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing” and on the soulful “Long Haul,” Brown establishes he is “in it for the long haul.” This album may not be imaginative or innovative, but there is something comforting about how it sticks to formulas. It’s a reliable country record.
“2 Places at 1 Time” is a bit syrupy in its approach on one level but on another it is quite sweeping in its execution, making it effective overall. There’s a good, down-home feeling to “Family Table.” Brown and his band are working with a wide sonic tent and at the same time they are working more in their wheelhouse than they were on “Jekyll + Hyde.” “My Old Man” is a decent ballad and it doesn’t stretch them beyond their boundaries.
There’s a jazzy quality to “Start Over” and it perhaps treads closely to both the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” and the Kinks’ “Come Dancing” in an odd way.
As the album winds down and you hear the closing ballad, “All the Best,” it becomes clear that “Welcome Home” is about going full circle. This is a deep study of youthful nostalgia. It’s an enjoyable record even if it doesn’t necessarily cast a large shadow.
“Roots” Perhaps the essence of the album, this is full of exuberance as Brown recalls his youth and starting a band. It’s a bit basic, but it does the job.
“My Old Man” A tribute to looking up to one’s father. It is sentimental and tugs at the heartstrings, but this song will mean a lot to many people in its intended audience. It is a soft anthem to responsible fatherhood.
“Start Over” The most interesting track, production-wise on the record. It has the captivating quality and a surprisingly vaguely tropical vibe. Pharrell Williams sings backup and is a credited writer here.
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