Jill Scott, Prince Royce, Eleni Mandell, Lea DeLaria and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Jill Scott performs on June 30, 2015 in New York.
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This week R&B singer Jill Scott returns to music after a four-year absence, Latin-pop singer Prince Royce makes his English-language debut, Los Angeles-based singer Eleni Mandell releases her tenth album, “Orange Is the New Black” star Lea DeLaria covers David Bowie, Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices fame releases the second album by his new band Ricked Wicky and underground hip-hop legend Kool Keith teams up with producer L’Orange. Once again, here’s another week where there is potentially something for everybody.

PHOTO: Jill Scott "Woman"
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Jill Scott’s “Woman” ****

On her first album in four years, Jill Scott reasserts herself as one of the most soulful and earthy voices working in R&B today. “Woman” is a bit of a step up from Scott’s last offering, “The Light Of The Sun,” which sometimes sounded like it wanted to squeeze her into a more generic R&B mold. In contrast, this album recalls the grounded neo-soul of her debut “Who Is Jill Scott? Words And Sounds, Vol. 1.” For instance, “Jahraymecofasola” and “Fool’s Gold” sound like they came from the same source that gave us “A Long Walk” and “Love Rain” fifteen years ago.

Maybe Scott sensed she was inching towards formula on her last release because this album has quite a bit of surprises. “Say Thank You,” for instance, has a prolonged guitar solo that verges on acid rock, while “Beautiful Love (Featuring BJ The Chicago Kid) is backed by a swirling beat that sounds like something Beck and the Dust Brothers might have put on a section of “Odelay.”

Scott also is game for revving up for up-tempo numbers. She nails “Run Run Run,” the break-up anthem, “Closure” and the Motown-esque raver, “Coming To You.”

“Woman” isn't just Scott’s return. It is an eclectic, enjoyable collection that stands out as a different, refreshing breeze amid a sea of records that all sound the same. This is a neo-soul wake-up call. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Scott has a vintage and unquestionable talent. She can command a room when given the right song and she can do so without any pop flourishes.

Like all of Scott’s previous albums, “Woman” reaffirms that she is the real deal, showcasing one of her best song-sets to date. Over the last decade and a half, she has positioned herself as one of the best and most reliable players in the current R&B field of performers. She might not have quite the level of fame or notoriety that she deserves, but Scott is quite often truly an impressive force.

Focus Tracks:

“Jahraymecofasola” Over a “Dear Prudence” bass-line, Scott delivers this beautiful, future classic bit of confessional R&B. This song is delicate and entrancing at the same time.

“Fool’s Gold” Scott is able to turn heartbreak into this stunning, driving song. This track is among her best to date, packed with underlying, seething yet restrained anger.

“Say Thank You” This psychedelic track would be one of the last tracks I would have expected from Jill Scott but it completely works on all levels. It is always great when artists think outside the box.

PHOTO: Prince Royce "Double Vision" (Deluxe Edition)
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Prince Royce’s “Double Vision” (Deluxe Edition) ***

Calling “Double Vision” Prince Royce’s first English language record may be sort of accurate, but at the same time, the Latin singer has always lived in a Spanglish world. His Latin releases had passing bits of English, just as this album has a bit of Spanish. But the main aspect about this record that should be highlighted is the fact that this is Prince Royce’s major pop statement. Most of the Latin elements of his music have been stripped away. Sure, there are still occasional hints, like on the Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull-assisted “Back It Up,” or the syncopated-rhythmed “Seal It With A Kiss,” but for the most part, this is Anglo club music of the trendiest and most formulaic kind.

Royce drops a ballad here and there (see “Lucky One” or “Extraordinary”) but too often Royce is left sounding like a slightly auto-tuned, less inventive answer to The Weeknd mixed with Jason Derulo's electro-pop swagger. It’s not all bad. The bass-line on “Handcuffs” is quite stunning and the song has a catchy tune, but the song’s impact is significantly lessened by the digital effect over Royce’s voice. He doesn't need these effects. The guy can sing.

“Stuck On A Feeling” is a hackneyed club jam that even Snoop Dogg can’t save while “Lie To Me” may be the set’s best pop moment, undercut by the ridiculous lines, “Show me yours. / I’ll show you mine” in the chorus.

“There For You” is one of the few overtly Latin-sounding tracks on the record that doesn't sell out the sound with an electro-sheen. Sure, it has some hip-hop influence, but it shows how much better this album could have been if it didn't aim so strongly at the clubs.

The uneven quality of “Double Vision” makes it a bit of a frustrating listen because most of the time it dulls down any unique aspects that Prince Royce could have brought to the English-language pop game. It has some cool moments, admittedly, but on too many of the tracks most of the Latin aspects have been shaved away, which is a bit disappointing. This is club bubblegum with vaguely Latin accents.

Although uneven, this is still an alright record. It has a lot of issues, but it is still worth three stars. Prince Royce has more potential than this set shows. He has a winning presence and a strong voice, which helps bring this album over to the winning side. Perhaps with maturity and time he will be allowed to forge his own way and distinguish himself more.

The deluxe edition of the album has four bonus tracks, including “Lay You Down,” which has one of the most Latin-sounding grooves on the record. The same goes for “With You.” They should have been standard album tracks. Not only that, but “With You” would make a great single.

Weirdly, the bonus tracks come off as the work of a much more appealing artist than the ones on the main album. Rearranged with some key omissions and some remixing, this could have easily been a much better perhaps even four-star album. If you dig deeply enough, there are some gems here.

Focus Tracks:

“Lie To Me” In spite of the hilarious chorus, this is a great summer pop hit. It shows what Royce can do with a great melody.

“There For You” More of the album should have worked off of this sound instead of the stale club-beat cliches.

“With You” (Deluxe Edition) This is a stunner of a pop track. As I said above, if I were sequencing this album, this definitely would have wound up on the main album.

PHOTO: Eleni Mandell "Dark Lights Up"
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Eleni Mandell’s “Dark Lights Up” ****

On her tenth album in 16 years, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell changes her sound once more. Each one of her albums has a strikingly different mood, from the dark cabaret sounds of 2002’s “Snakebite,” to the art-rock leanings of 2009’s “Artificial Fire.”

“Dark Lights Up” sounds for the most part like a meditation on the country-pop of the late fifties and early sixties. Mandell has no twang in her voice and she doesn't put one on for effect. But songs like “Cold Snap” and “What Love Can Do” easily recall a time that is perceived to be simpler. “Cold Snap” in many ways sounds like Mandell’s response to Roger Miller’s “King Of The Road.”

On this album, Mandell seems dropped suddenly from another time. Nothing about this album screams 2015. Much like the majority of Mandell’s work, this album is gloriously timeless. “China Garden Buffet” is a stunning piece that is likely to make even the most jaded listeners swoon. Similarly, the opening piano riff of “Town Called Heartache” recalls Vince Guaraldi at his most playful.

If you are a fan of Mandell’s previous albums, this album is highly recommended. It seems like a cousin to her amazing 2007 album, “Miracle Of Five,” and even sounds like a downbeat relative of her 2004 album, “Afternoon.”

Ten albums in, Eleni Mandell is still growing her audience and she deserves more attention than she generally receives. Considering that she began her career as an art-house singer with a strong fascination with the music of Tom Waits, her evolution has been a marvel to behold. With each successive album, she shows a new layer and this collection of lovelorn whimsical ballads hits the spot.

Focus Tracks:

“China Garden Buffet” This sweeping five-minute waltz serves as the album’s elegant centerpiece. It’s a must listen.

“Cold Snap” There’s something really beautiful about this song and it plays like a lost gem from a forgotten time. The snapping after the title is a nice touch.

“Magic Pair Of Shoes” This album has a soft, whimsical quality and calling such a delicate song “Magic Pair Of Shoes” adds to this feeling.

PHOTO: Lea DeLaria "House Of David"
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Lea DeLaria’s “House Of David” ****

Lea DeLaria is most known to audiences for her striking portrayal of Big Boo on “Orange Is the New Black.” No doubt because of that show’s huge popularity, “House Of David,” which is her sixth album, will get a much larger audience than any of her previous records. It may surprise some people to find out that DeLaria is a Broadway veteran and seasoned jazz singer. Given her gruff exterior as Big Boo, it may also come as a nice surprise that she has such a beautiful voice.

“House Of David” is a full album of David Bowie covers. While most covers albums can come off as stale exercises, DeLaria pays loving tribute to one of her idols nicely while making the songs her own with jazzy arrangements. She ignores the latter part Bowie’s career, essentially working from the time period from “Space Oddity” through “Let’s Dance.” She turns “Rebel Rebel” into a bit of a trippy bossa nova, still keeping the signature guitar riff intact. She turns “Suffragette City” into a duet with Janis Siegel. “Let’s Dance” becomes a walking bass exercise. She makes “Golden Years” sounds like a Utopian slice of lounge-infused blues. “Starman” is stripped down to its ethereal essence. “Modern Love” is similarly stripped of its eighties sheen and turned into a six-minute Broadway ballad.

With a lesser vocalist, all these tweaks could come off as embarrassing or hack-y, but DeLaria -- with her band and producers -- know how to pull this off without turning Bowie’s work into cheesy elevator music. This is a record that was made with love for the original source material and it shows. It helps that DeLaria doesn't have an overly emotive voice and she isn't one for needless vocal flourishes. In other words, she never over-sings. She knows exactly how to handle these songs. Of course, a look through the liner notes and it is evident that this is an album she has been planning ever since she first heard Bowie sing in 1972.

“House Of David” is more than just a covers record. It is a collection that should make both DeLaria and Bowie quite proud. I’d actually love to hear Bowie’s reaction to this collection. Lea DeLaria has definitely done this album the right way.

Focus Tracks:

“Golden Years” Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that this song could become so serene. The original is such a righteously gnarly slice of seventies funk.

“Life On Mars” Really this song was meant to be slowed down to bring out a Broadway elegance. Don’t believe me? Listen to this.

“Space Oddity” This song is almost an untouchable classic. But DeLaria does it justice.

PHOTO: Ricked Wicky "King Heavy Metal"
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Ricked Wicky’s “King Heavy Metal” ***1/2

“King Heavy Metal” is the second release from former Guided By Voices leader Robert Pollard’s new band, Ricked Wicky. The first was “I Sell The Circus,” which was just released this past February. As Pollard did with GBV and with his solo career, Ricked Wicky is apparently also set to be as prolific an endeavor. This means that like his other work, the output might not be even, since we are probably hearing every experiment that comes to Pollard’s mind. If we aren't and there is in fact more in the vaults, that is truly impressive given his elevated level of output.

“King Heavy Metal” isn't quite as immediately appealing as “I Sell The Circus,” but it has its moments. Opener “Jargon Of Clones” possesses that vintage lo-fi power-pop GBV sound, while “Come Into My Wig Shop” is one of the trippiest and weirdest offerings Pollard has ever passed along. I mean that in a good way. “This Has Been My Picture” offers large riffage paired with lo-fi vocal delivery that will fuzz up your speakers while “Ogling Blarest” is a wonderfully strange bit of unapologetically arty sludge-rock.

Truth be told, if you are a huge Guided By Voices fan, Ricked Wicky continues to just sound like a continuation of Pollard’s impressively long discography. He may be one of indie rock’s least understood geniuses and while some of these songs are surprisingly hard-edged, they still sound like GBV in an experimental mode. (Is that a drum machine on “Earth Among Men?”) Interestingly, even though everything Pollard writes sounds very much interconnected with the rest of his discography, he really doesn’t repeat himself. He doesn’t seem to be running out of ideas any time soon either. He might be one of the best writers of pop hooks that pop radio ignored. It’s always been obvious that Pollard has played off of a messier, more ragged version of a blueprint not dissimilar from the one used by R.E.M. at the peak of the band's powers.

“King Heavy Metal” offers many strange surprises. While more unsettled than its predecessor, it continues Pollard’s creative journey nicely. Guided By Voices may no longer exist in name, but with Ricked Wicky, the band's continues to live on in some way.

Focus Tracks:

“Jargon Of Clones” I have no idea what this song means, but it is a warm two-minute rocker with an appealing pop hook. It is exactly the kind of track GBV fans would expect. Is it the next “Game Of Pricks,” “Chasing Heather Crazy” or “The Best Of Jill Hives?” Not quite, but it is stunning nonetheless.

“Ogling Blarest” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Pollard and company deliver anything so disarmingly sludgy and unhinged. It is a side I quite enjoy, even as it collapses into pure sonic chaos.

“Walk Through Glass” Yet another stunningly brief track, this track comes off like a tipsy declaration to a future society. It sounds glorious and at the same time, somewhat dystopian.

PHOTO: LOrange & Kool Keith "Time? Astonishing!"
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L’Orange & Kool Keith’s “Time? Astonishing!” ***1/2

At just over a half-hour, the collaboration between hip-hop producer L’Orange and Ultramagnetic MCs’ Kool Keith comes off a bit like twelve stray, brief snippets of hip-hop anchored by playful, vintage lo-fi production. Kool Keith is probably most famous for his collaboration with Dan “The Automator” as Dr. Octagon. This album doesn’t quite have the enigmatic pull of Dr. Octagon’s landmark 1997 set, but it still stands out in today’s field of hip-hop.

Kool Keith has always had a random love for the bizarre. He’s always been more chaotic in his flow than his peers and he always has reveled in taboo-testing rhymes, wallowing in subjects that could offend squares. But he always raps with a kind of off-kilter sense of abstraction. His verses on “The Green Ray” and “Twenty Fifty Three” sound like the work of a madcap beat-poet and on the latter, guest Mr. Lif effectively works to mirror his style of flow.

In fact, besides Mr. Lif, this album has a host of the underground’s most under-rated MC’s. Among them, J-Live shows up on “The Traveler” and MC Paul Barman drops a song-length verse on “Suspended Animation.”

“Time? Astonishing!” needs repeated listening in order to fully sink in. Its brevity is both its friend and its enemy. L’Orange’s beats are often woozy, busy, marvelous concoctions. This is dusty, often strange stuff. On “Dr. Bipolar,” Keith pays brief homage to his Dr. Octagon work as L’Orange plays a beat that sounds like it is being played on vintage vinyl through a megaphone. There are a lot of interesting cuts throughout the track’s beat and this marks one of the few points where L’Orange steals focus away from Keith or any one of his guest’s verses.

If you are looking for inventive and often intriguingly odd hip-hop, this record is for you. This definitely isn’t cookie-cutter hip-hop. Of course, cookie-cutter hip-hop has never been Kool Keith’s bag. He’s always been strikingly unique.

Focus Tracks:

“The Traveler” (Featuring J-Live) This is perhaps the album’s thesis statement since it seems to revolve around the concept of time travel. It also showcases one of the set’s most straight-forward beats. J-Live also brings some clarity in his verse.

“The Wanderer” Anchored by a fuzzy, jazzy piano loop, this track finds Keith at his most cerebral and most chaotic. This track is equally puzzling as it is hypnotic.

“I Need Out Of This World” (Featuring Mindsone) This track has one of the best beats on the record and L’Orange makes the most of the scratchiness of his sample source-material. Definitely some bizarre stuff. It sounds like some sort of fun house mirror reflection of De La Soul’s “Plug Tunin’.”

Next Week: The latest from Titus Andronicus, Joss Stone and more.

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