Kacey Musgraves, Bully, Wolf Alice, Pete Rock and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Kacey Musgraves performs during the 2015 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 12, 2015 in Manchester, Tenn.
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This week, country singer Kacey Musgraves releases her second major-label album, rock bands Bully and Wolf Alice make impressive full-length debuts, hip-hop titan Pete Rock releases a new instrumental collection, young singer Leon Bridges drops some vintage, '60s-style soul and singer Rickie Lee Jones continues to experiment on her latest. Quite frankly, as far as the quality of the releases go, this is one of the best release weeks in a long time, so keep reading. There are a lot of great new albums to discover.

PHOTO: Kacey Musgraves - "Pageant Material"
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Kacey Musgraves’ “Pageant Material” ****

Listening to Kacey Musgraves’ fifth album and her second major-label release, “Pageant Material” it is clear that she’s closer to a classic country mold than the polished watered-down twangy pop that passes for country these days. “Pageant Material” has a little gloss, but it isn’t suffocated by in the process and Musgraves’ straight-forward nature is more likely to (perhaps wrongly) place her almost in the “alt-country” realm. There’s laughable sarcasm and genuine emotion in the title-track , while opener “High Time” recalls the country side of Jenny Lewis’ Rilo Kiley work.

Although this album has its share of polish, there is something authentic about Musgraves’ writing. She’s able to pull off a down-home chorus like “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy” (on “Biscuits”) without sounding corny. But in truth, it is Musgraves’ attitude and her crystal-clear voice that helps sell this record. This was part of the reason she didn’t sound out of place singing alongside Brian Wilson on his latest album, “No Pier Pressure.”

But the bottom line is that this album works because these songs don’t condescend to the country audience with stereotypes like most of the hit country songs written by committee tend to do. There’s wit in Musgraves’ delivery that could reach her an audience beyond the country faithful. The mere fact that Willie Nelson appears on the hidden track, “Are You Sure,” indicates what side of the country fence Musgraves sits. “Pageant Material” is a gutsy, humorous record that alternates between sweetness and bile.

Focus Tracks:

“Die Fun” There’s a sadness in this song’s reflective quality, but at the same time, its carpe diem attitude is appealing as Musgraves sings, “Let’s love hard, live fast, die fun.” Enjoy yourself and live life to the fullest before your time is up.

“Family Is Family” This ode to family is classic. Especially with the chorus, “Family is family in church or in prison. / You get what you get and don’t get to pick ‘em.”

“Dime Store Cowgirl” This is a song about not forgetting who you are and where you belong. This kind of song has been done many times before, but Musgraves is able to give this song some authentic heart.

PHOTO: Bully - "Feels Like"
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Bully’s “Feels Like” ****1/2

The members of Nashville's Bully offer the mainstream exactly the rock record we need in 2015. This is grungy rock and the fact that it appears on Columbia records may mean that rock is heading back into the mainstream. And yet, this is a record that plays well alongside similar-sounding bands like Best Coast and Alvvays.

Between this record, Best Coast’s major-label debut, “California Nights” and Speedy Ortiz’s excellent “Foil Deer,” we are definitely headed towards a grungy revival. (As a side-note it is interesting to observe that most of the new rock bands really making waves are led by women.) What this means is that the powers that be who control “I Heart Radio” and other cooperate radio pop franchises shouldn’t ignore a single like Bully’s “Trying,” which is a dynamite arena-rock fest which finds front-woman Alicia Bognanno thinking deeply about her life after “praying for (her) period all week.” People who think rock like this doesn’t belong on pop radio are too young to remember the nineties when even Sonic Youth even got some pop radio spins of “Bull In The Heather.”

Bully’s “Feels Like” is a righteous awakening of a rock beast. In just over a half hour the band rips through 11 songs, from the opening thunderous pound of “I Remember” to the bonus secret track “Sharktooth.” For those of us who bought Bully’s self-titled debut EP last year, 4 of the 5 tracks get the re-recorded treatment here. Only the EP’s “Poetic Trash” is missing here. There is a song called “Trash” on the album, but at most, this could be seen as a slower, more destructive overhauled and severely rewritten cousin of the former. The latter could actually be seen as a possible sequel to the first track.

As the album goes on, it becomes overwhelmingly evident that this is an uncompromisingly raw statement. This feels like a dose of Steve Albini-influenced rock with a catchy core. Bognanno serves as producer. She also co-engineered the record with Jon San Paolo. The Albini comparison makes perfect sense when you know that Bognanno interned at Albini’s studio. It is clear she learned all the important techniques.

In short, Bully are remarkably assured band, blasting through barriers with gusto. They deserve to be a top-tier act. As a bonus, their drummer is named Stewart Copeland, which probably means they are destined to be classic.

“Feels Like” feels as effortless as it does authoritative. This is yet another step pointing to grunge’s imminent return. This record may be brief, but something tells me it will be historically important. This is a band you should know.

Focus Tracks: “Trying”This may be the big rock song of the summer and yet it brims with as much pop-driven catchiness as it does with punk drive. “Brainfreeze” This peppy number was a standout of last year’s EP and here in its re-recorded form it gets slightly more refined. “Too Tough” This slow-walking bass-driven pounder stomps into your eardrums with authority. Again, this is another possible hit waiting to happen, partly thanks to some clever bits of guitar distortion.

PHOTO: Wolf Alice - "My Love Is Cool"
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Wolf Alice’s “My Love Is Cool“ ****1/2

Like Bully, Wolf Alice show a rock spark returning to the mainstream consciousness. While Bully were picked up by Columbia, Wolf Alice were picked up by RCA. Whereas Bully are in the grungy realm, Wolf Alice are British and working more in the shoegaze and dream-pop realm and lead singer Ellie Rowsell often singing between a seductive coo and a visceral shout. This album often works the “loud/quiet/loud” formula in the best way possible.

For a record that has just seen release this week, “My Love Is Cool” has a number of singles that will be immediately recognizable to people who have followed the band over the last two years. Main single, “Moaning Lisa Smile” was on their “Creature Songs” EP last year, and on the whole the album more than delivers on the promise of that EP and its 2013 predecessor, “Blush.”

Along with Rowsell, all the other group members, Joff Oddie, Theo Ellis and Joel Amey sing backup, with Amey (who is the band’s drummer) taking an effective lead-vocal turn on the sweeping “Swallowtail.”

You have to admire a band that takes a song with a pounding, shouted, ominous chorus with a Pixies-esque siren-like guitar wail and dubs it with a name like “Fluffy.” In some ways, this band reminds me of the heavy, churning leanings of The Joy Formidable in the way that they can volley from serene pop beauty to all out guitar-fuzz driven mayhem, but Wolf Alice have much more goth-driven intentions.

Buckle up, “My Love Is Cool” is a profoundly warm and enveloping record that will keep you on your toes. It is best heard on full-blast on a decent set of speakers. No doubt, this album is the grand, major entrance from a band making their name with a distinct sound and a keen sense of eclecticism. This is only the beginning.

Focus Tracks:

“Your Loves Whore” Yes, this song has the least radio-friendly title on the album, but it is the biggest winner on the record, thanks to a killer chorus and a truly tuneful bassline.

“Moaning Lisa Smile” Another beautifully executed song with a delightfully subversive title that might frighten away the squares, this is a grungy ode that owes equal debt both Kurt Cobain and My Bloody Valentine. It is a sonic behemoth at its peak that will make you want to hit the repeat button as soon as its 2 minutes and forty seconds are over.

“Swallowtail” This is stunningly beautiful and Joel Amey shows off his impressive falsetto as the song twists and turns.

PHOTO: Pete Rock - "PeteSrumentals 2"
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Pete Rock’s “PeteStrumentals 2” ****

Pete Rock is one of the greatest DJs in hip-hop history. His beat for his 1992 hit with C.L. Smooth, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” is one of the best beats of the era, Over the years he has done sublime guest production work for the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, Das EFX, Method Man, Rah Digga, Run DMC and more. In other words, if there has been an important figure in hip-hop over the last twenty-five years, chances are (s)he has at one time or another crossed paths with Pete Rock on record.

Like turntablism, instrumental hip-hop doesn’t get its due in the mainstream and yet as classics like J Dilla’s “Donuts” or Madlib’s “Beat Konducta” series have proven, these records can be stunning examples of elevating the genre to a different plain. Like Dilla and Madlib, Pete Rock has always been steeped in jazz and classic soul influences. This is Rock’s follow-up to his first “PeteStrumentals” record from 2001 and interestingly it doesn’t come with a list of samples, but one can guess it would be quite a long and deep list. Like any masterful DJ, Pete Rock is an ace in his craft and understands sound-manipulation quite strongly.

Over the course of an hour, “PeteStrumentals 2” gives us a seamless 20-track, constantly moving song-set. Pete Rock loves playing with loops and he’s got one of the greatest ears in the business for catchy grooves, whether it is the piano loop on “My My Baby” or the horns heard on tracks like “On & On” or “Accelerate.” He loves the funk and that love runs through the James Brown sampling, “PR 4 Prez,” plus “One, Two, A Few More” and his Dilla tribute, “Dilla Bounce (R.I.P.)”

If anything, records like “PeteStrumentals 2” prove that knowing your way around a sampler can be as tricky as playing any other instrument. The hip-hop DJ with the right level of skill deserves the same level of respect as the jazz, soul or rock greats being sampled. This is a stunning collection. It’s a fantastic album for cool chill-out sessions or as a backdrop for an epic freestyle session. This is an eclectic and often entrancing assortment of grooves as Pete Rock continues to prove his legendary status.

Focus Tracks:

“Beat Goes On” You’ve got to love the scratchy nature of Pete Rock’s work, bringing hip-hop back to its turntable-based essence. This stands out more as electro-drum machine grooves take over the hip-hop landscape over sample-based hip-hop. This groove is extremely smooth with its piano, string and guitar interplay.

“Play Yo Horn” This is Pete Rock at his most authoritative and there is a lot going on just below the surface. (What is that sound in the background? Is it a crowd cheering? Is it a movie monster? Is it an explosion?)

“Dilla Bounce (R.I.P.)” It’s always nice hearing one of Dilla’s peers paying tribute. 9 years after his death, his absence is still felt greatly.

PHOTO: Leon Bridges - "Coming Home"
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Leon Bridges’ “Coming Home” ****1/2

Leon Bridges delivers vintage soul in the vein of Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, Lloyd Price and Sam Cooke. The man has carved out a retro place for himself and listening to the wonderfully dusty-sounds heard on his debut, “Coming Home,” it is hard to believe he was only born in 1989. This sounds like a vintage sixties record in all the best ways. This is the kind of R&B that R&B radio has forgotten, complete with tight instrumentation, crooned melodies and analog fuzz. You could sneak a song like “Better Man” or the title-track into the rotation on the oldies station and tell the audience it was by a recently unearthed lost great and people most likely wouldn’t doubt you.

Bridges even manages to summon this classic energy better than similarly-minded artists like James Hunter or even (if you want to stretch) Alabama Shakes, partly because nothing about this record from start to finish indicates that it is the product of 2015. It has enough retro fuzz that even the tape sounds appropriately aged. This would come off as a mere gimmick if the songs weren’t so strong, but every track on here sounds like a lost slice of soul, from the love ballad of “Brown Skin Girl” to the dance number “Twistin’ & Groovin’.” While this isn’t the most original, it fills a void in the musical landscape with incredible skill. Leon Bridges is a star, building off of a very classic blueprint.

"Coming Home” is a brand new record that sounds like something that would have been played in regular rotation fifty years ago. With the gospel flavor of “River” and “Shine,” it is hard to tell where this record will be played. It’d be great if like Amy Winehouse’s retro “Back To Black,” something from this album was picked up by the pop stations and played in heavy rotation, but only time will tell.

The bottom line is that with “Coming Home,” Leon Bridges achieves all of his goals and makes quite a stunning entrance. With this album, while imitating the classics, Bridges has crafted a classic of his own.

Focus Tracks:

“Better Man” In 1965, this song would’ve been huge as Bridges pleads, “I’d swim the Mississippi River if you’d give me another start.” This is a flawless track in this style and it is refreshing to know that songs of this ilk are still being produced.

“River” This is a rather sparse, acoustic guitar-led ballad with gospel undertones. It strips Bridges’ soulfulness down to its essence. Few performers today can pull off a song of this level with such uncompromising conviction.

“Twistin’ & Groovin’” This feels like an effective update on the kind of blues that gave us Wilbert Harrison’s 1959 hit, “Kansas City.”

PHOTO: Rickie Lee Jones - "The Other Side Of Desire"
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Rickie Lee Jones’ “The Other Side Of Desire” ***1/2

At times it feels like after she scored a bona fide hit with “Chuck E’s In Love” in 1979 that Rickie Lee Jones decided purposely to spend the rest of her career expanding her horizons and experimenting. While her voice hasn’t changed a bit over the years, she has offered up some adventurously strange records over the years. The ethereal trip-hop experimentation 1997’s ”Ghostyhead” and the stark, minimalist covers collection “The Devil You Know” from 2012 both come to mind. It is clear that once she became a known name, Jones has always freely followed her muse, which frankly is admirable.

“The Other Side Of Desire” is a collection of originals that maintains all of Jones’ signatures. Her voice is still girlish and clear and she is full humorous quirks. Nowhere is that more clear than on the opener, “Jimmy Choos,” where once she says the title in the lyrics she repeats the phrase “the Choos shoes” over and over again. Jones goes the country route nicely with “Valtz De Mon Pere (Lovers’ Waltz)” and sings with an odd, but successful put-on inflection on “Blinded By The Hunt.” The end result sounds a bit like Lily Tomlin singing a song while doing her Edith Ann impression.

“Christmas In New Orleans” sounds like Jones’ response to The Pogues’ and Kristy MaColl’s “Fairytail Of New York” at first and then blossoms into something uniquely beautiful.

This, overall is an often peculiar record. Some fans of Jones’ highest profile early work might be turned off by its offbeat charm, but one gets the feeling that that is the way Jones wants it to play. She calls her own shots and she doesn’t care whom she pleases and whom she turns off in the process. That being said, as of late, this actually may be considered one of her more accessible sets. Still, this is the work of a fearless artist not shying away from experimental growth.

Focus Tracks:

“Jimmy Choos” Part of me thinks this might be Jones trying to slyly secure some sort of endorsement deal, but on the other hand, this opener, before it repeats the name over and over again is a nice bit of bizarre, story-telling blues.

“Infinity” This is another nice bit of songwriting, anchored by a ticking metronome and an ear-catching piano signature.

“Christmas In New Orleans” Mentioned above, this also has a semi-drunken, reflective Tom Waits quality in its careful but world-weary execution.

Next Week: The latest from Neil Young, Miguel, Failure and more.

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