Kendrick Lamar, John Mayer and more music reviews

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This week Kendrick Lamar drops his eagerly awaited new album, John Mayer compiles his recent EPs and some new tracks into a full album, Barenaked Ladies join forces with a cappella legends the Persuasions for a trip through their catalog of songs, ambient/trip-hop artist Jen Gloeckner releases her first new album in seven years, and we take a look at the much-buzzed-about album from indie-rock act Oso Oso. It wasn't a very big release week, but there are still plenty of albums to discuss.

PHOTO: Kendrick Lamars new album "Damn.," was released, April 14, 2017.
Aftermath
Kendrick Lamar's "DAMN." ****1/2

Kendrick Lamar's proper follow-up to "To Pimp a Butterfly" continues to place him in the front of hip-hop's current class. "DAMN." is an eclectic, engaging ride that builds on the organic feeling of "To Pimp a Butterfly" but it also has a smoother, less chaotic sound of its own.

Repeated themes show up. At one point Lamar laments that his grandmother has died, saying "ain't nobody prayin' for me." It becomes a recurring line. He rallies against newscasters isolating his lyrics on "DNA." and urges people to keep their cool on the righteous single, "HUMBLE." Humility isn't something often associated with hip-hop, but Kendrick is a unique figure who blends adept lyricism with a worldly sensibility beyond his years. You sense he knows something you don't as you are listening, which makes this record all the more alluring. He's as much a traditional MC as he is an enlightened beat-poet.

When the members of U2 show up on the second-half of "XXX." it is a bit of a shock. Surprisingly, they stay rather subdued and Bono never steals focus from the groove. The Rihanna collaboration "ROYALTY." also fits. You get the idea that this record on the whole is meant to please fans of both "good kid, m.A.A.d city" and "To Pimp a Butterfly," as it volleys between electro-tinged and more natural productions. Lamar is magnetic enough to have you follow him wherever he goes. The pitch-shifting funk of "PRIDE." continues to show Lamar as a ground-breaker and a trend-setter.

Like its full-length predecessor, this record stands as a conceptual piece of art. The idea of singles seems almost beside the point. Lamar is just trying to make the best records he can. It's refreshing to hear.

He's got plenty to say, too. Throughout the set he addresses various issues of political unrest, although in a slightly less pointed way than he did on "To Pimp a Butterfly." This is more of an inward-looking record with biblical subtext. The concepts of life and death come up repeatedly and with titles like "PRIDE." and "LUST." it is as if he's going through the list of the seven deadly sins. Of course, not all the sins are covered, but at its core this album is looking for meaning in existence and survival. The fact that he's named all of the tracks and the album itself in all capital letters with a period firmly placed, cements the fact that he wants his points to really sink into your eardrums.

The laundry list he spells out on "FEEL." is almost like a state of the world according to Kendrick. He's easily at the top of his class and deserves to be considered among the best and most compelling lyricists to ever grab the mic.

"Whatever happens on earth stays on earth" is another repeated refrain. With "DAMN.," Kendrick Lamar ponders mere existence and goes infinitely deeper than many of his peers. This is an album about life and death struggles and thinking about how you leave this world. But then again, on opener "BLOOD.," his protagonist gets shot trying to help someone. The message is almost that you should try your best to be good but nonetheless you might die in the process. Perhaps you'll get resurrected.

No matter how deeply you listen to "DAMN." it is definitely an album that will make you think and will spark conversation.

Focus tracks:

"HUMBLE." This is an immediate banger of a track with an authoritative stomp. At one point that has received a lot of media attention, he raps against the practice of Photoshopping women's bodies in magazines, saying, "Show me something natural." Such an enlightened view is nice to hear within the context of this track's otherwise hard-core swagger. This song and album might be too much for some, but if that is the case, this record wasn't made for you.

"XXX." (Featuring U2) This song works in two parts. The first part finds Kendrick rapping at a near whisper about the everyday struggles about surviving in modern-day America. When Kendrick starts talking about a protagonist named Johnny, giving a list that begins, "Johnny don't want to go to school no more," you wonder if, given the subject, he is paying tribute to David Bowie by nodding to his hit, "I'm Afraid of Americans." Before his death, Bowie had said that Kendrick Lamar had been a big influence on the making of "Blackstar." If Bowie had lived, perhaps he would have been on this album. Instead, the second half of this track finds the members of U2 uncharacteristically and successfully working a jazzy groove.

"FEEL." This list of grievances is delivered with a sense of fury even though the beat is hushed and chilled. This contrast makes the song really come to life. Lamar has always been good at expressing his emotions and spelling out political outrage in a compelling manner.

PHOTO: John Mayers new album "The Search For Everything" was released, April 14, 2017.
Columbia Records
John Mayer’s "The Search for Everything" ***

As I predicted, after releasing two four-song EPs, John Mayer has now dropped a complete 12 track album containing those eight previously released songs plus four more. Also, as I suspected, as a 12 song collection, "The Search for Everything" holds together much more cohesively than it did when it was divided. The low-key nature of many of these songs means that they needed more of a context in which to truly blossom. Mayer has wisely chosen to rearrange the track-order which makes the album flow more effectively.

"Love on the Weekend" and the still ridiculously titled "Emoji of a Wave" still stand out as key tracks, but newer tracks like "In the Blood" and the outstanding ballad "Never on the Day You Leave" flesh out the album to a fuller extent, making this sound like a semi-satisfying and complete collection.

Still, sometimes this record wallows in the cloying end of the smooth-jazz realm, and while the "Theme from 'The Search for Everything'" is technically impressive and sweeping on one level, it also kind of sounds like the background music you'd hear while on hold or reading your five-day weather forecast as it flashes across the screen.

In the end, "The Search for Everything" winds up being a somewhat successful and decent record, even if many of my previous criticisms from the reviews of the EPs still stand. It is still quite sleepy. Mayer is a very talented musician and this is a nuanced, sometimes slow record that still has its charms. While skilled, this collection frequently struggles to build momentum. It's a set of songs that is often too subtle for its own good, even if its winning moments shine.

"The Search for Everything" provides a real lesson. Some albums should never be divided up into pieces. Not only did the EP strategy do these songs a massive disservice by presenting them oddly, but it also reeked of record-industry money-grabbing, taking advantage of fans. It would have been a better, more consumer-friendly strategy to put the album up for a digital pre-order and release the EP songs slowly. Having the audience buy songs twice is an abuse of power akin to the $18.98 master-list CD prices of years ago. One could argue such disregard for the fans and their wallets led to piracy, the mp3-boom and the current rise of streaming. Although, when you consider the EPs from a streaming perspective, the value to the actual customer is taken out of the equation. From that angle, of course it just makes modern music come off as recyclable.

"The Search for Everything" proves that the album as a format still matters. Certain songs are better and pop more within a larger context. In the fast-paced current pop economy, sometimes the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. Context is still important.

Focus tracks:

"In the Blood" This is easily the best song on the record. It has a vibe that recalls Elbow's "My Sad Captains," having Mayer working a melodic slow-burning build.

"Never on the Day You Leave" This ballad is also new, and it should be a single. It's tender but not syrupy. This shows the full potential of Mayer's lighter side.

"Emoji of a Wave" I still don't like the title and this still sounds like Mayer's answer to James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," but it still catches my ear.

PHOTO: The Barenaked Ladies release a new album, "Ladies & Gentlemen: Barenaked Ladies & Persuasions Import," April 14, 2017.
Import
Barenaked Ladies and the Persuasions’ "Ladies and Gentlemen: Barenaked Ladies and the Persuasions” ****

Should we be concerned that this is the second Barenaked Ladies release in a row after last year's "BNL Rocks Red Rocks" to find them exploring their back catalog? Probably not, since we are less than two years ahead of their last studio album of originals.

True to its title, this record finds Barenaked Ladies being joined by a cappella legends the Persuasions for a trip through their songbook. Part of me wonders if these legacy jaunts are in part meant to reclaim the songs that used to be fronted by ex-member Steven Page. If that is the case, it is an interesting move. The version of "The Old Apartment" here definitely brings out the song's soulful edges while maintaining its twisted spirit, while "One Week" was meant for more of a stripped-down approach.

Of course, the album is set off by two post-Page gems, with a stellar reading of Jim Creeggan's new-wave nugget "Narrow Streets" and a fitting reading of the Ed Roberson-led "Gonna Walk." That is then followed by an excellent rendition of "Don't Shuffle Me Back," which was originally found on a solo record by BNL's keyboardist, Kevin Hearn.

In a way, this kind of record returns to BNL's roots. If you listen to "Gordon" or "Maybe You Should Drive," they used to be a band with a firm, jazz-driven core and tight, multi-layered harmonies. This makes the Persuasions perfect (but still unexpected) collaborators.

The tables get nicely turned when the two groups tackle the Persuasions' classic "Good Times," giving the song a strong backbone. Of course, this song will sound familiar to younger fans as well thanks to Jamie xx who sampled the original on his Young Thug & Popcaan-assisted track, "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times.)"

This record is full of surprises. "When I Fall," the Roberson-led standout from "Born on a Pirate Ship" sounds great backed by the Persuasions and the "Everything to Everyone" standout "Maybe Katie" gets new life, as well.

In the end, what should sound like a standard catalog romp ends up being a more than worthy addition to the band's discography.

Focus tracks:

"The Old Apartment" This is easily one of BNL's best, most melodic and lyrically dark songs to date and this rendition keeps all of these elements intact. In some ways, having the Persuasions out in front make the lyrics all the more shocking, adding a bit of bite.

"Good Times" It is nice to hear BNL added to Persuasions song, making this track a key outlier. The band adds a surprising swagger to the song.

"Narrow Streets" A standout on BNL's last album, "Silverball," this version gives the composition a nice swinging quality.

PHOTO: Jen Gloeckners new album "Vine," was released, April 14, 2017.
Spinning Head Records
Jen Gloeckner’s "Vine" ****

"Vine" is singer-songwriter Jen Gloeckner's third full-length album, following up her 2010 effort, "Mouth of Mars." If you are unfamiliar with Gloeckner's work, "Vine" is a great place to start because it finds her increasing the ethereal, semi-gothic, trippy elements of her previous work to create a cinematic collection that is often simultaneously enveloping and entrancing. This collection is bigger on mood than it is on hooks, but that just means it demands closer listening. There are orchestral flourishes throughout and heavy doses of dream-pop reverb but at the same time, if you listen to the highly appealing "Ginger Ale," Gloeckner comes off like a cross somewhere between Jesca Hoop and Bat For Lashes.

You get the feeling even though she rarely goes above a conversational tone that Gloeckner intended this record to be played at a very loud volume. There are also a couple tracks that give the instruments some clear room to breathe. "Firefly (War Dance)," with its semi-industrial, pounding beat and its sweeping sonic elements, sounds like it would fill every space of a room when put on at full-blast, while "Breathe" is a slow-burning, slightly haunting number that blends trip-hop, alt-rock and jazzier elements into an appealing concoction.

In a different life, at a different time, Gloeckner would have been a different kind of singer. Strip away the reverb on "Counting Sheep" and you would have a doo-wop-flavored lullaby, while at its core, "Blowing Through" is a statelier ballad that makes excellent use of an echo-drenched woodwind section.

As an album, "Vine" is rich and full of left-field experimentation. It's not a record meant for mere passive listening, but then you hear a song like "Prayers" that has some subtle crossover potential thanks to its melodic instrumental refrains, it all becomes clearer. "Colors" also pulls you in with Gloeckner singing in her lower register, packing her voice with mournful emotion.

"Vine" sounds like a cohesive collection working in movements. This is a huge step forward for Gloeckner, who aptly mixes ambient elements with unsettling moments. The low, gravelly-voiced harmony vocals singing the lines "I know it's not that easy" in the background of "Row with the Flow" adds a playful hint of uneasiness just below the surface. If it catches you at the right moment, "Vine" will haunt you in all the right ways.

Focus tracks:

"Prayers" The most obvious choice for a single, this is a bold, reflective and anthemic example of Gloeckner working at the peak of her powers. The bright dream-pop aspects of this song send it firmly into the stratosphere.

"Ginger Ale" This track has a slightly darker undercurrent, but it has a near marching-band-like energy, playing like a slightly upbeat funeral procession.

"Sold" At under three minutes, this is one of the tightest and most complex compositions on the record. It still has a thought-provoking undertone and yet it builds into a mighty chorus. This closes the record and leaves you wanting more.

PHOTO: Oso Osos new album, "The Yunahon Mixtape," was released, March 3, 2017.
Seal Mountain Records
Oso Oso’s "The Yunahon Mixtape" ****1/2

This review is either late or early depending on your standpoint. Oso Oso is the project from indie-rock singer-songwriter Jade Lilitri. "The Yunahon Mixtape" is in fact a cohesive album and not really a mixtape. It was dropped onto Bandcamp in January, getting a full, wider digital release in March. The album will be released on CD and vinyl in May.

This is the kind of back-to-basics indie-rock record that is packed with a solid pop core. Lilitri has obviously been listening to a lot of Weezer and a lot of Jimmy Eat World and has in turn made his own little masterpiece of a record, adding his own unique spin.

Opening three tracks, "The Cool," "Reindeer Games" and "The Walk" all set this album off the right way. There's something instantly familiar and timeless about the execution here, as if it is from a well-honed indie-rock playbook, and yet Lilitri's sense for melody and his sense for arrangement are key reasons why this album succeeds. These songs stay with you and Lilitri adds an interesting touch by frequently spreading his vocal-lines across multiple tracks to create an appealing call-and-response effect. This is most notable on the stripped-down "Get There (When You're There)," which seems to alternate lines so that they subtly almost step on each other.

Like Car Seat Headrest's "Teens of Denial" from last year, this record is a wonderful throwback of a record which speaks to the fact that indie-rock is attempting to make a mighty mainstream comeback. If this record was released in 2001, it would have been huge, and in 2017 songs like "Great Big Beaches," "The Slope" and "Out of the Blue" sound like mighty breaths of nostalgia-infused fresh air.

There's not a weak song on "The Yunahon Mixtape," as Lilitri often plays to his strengths, crafting songs that play both to a strong fuzz-pop core and to the non-irksome side of emo. This record plays like a slow-building secret waiting to be discovered. It is time for Oso Oso's close-up. You may find yourself listening to this record on repeat.

Focus tracks:

"Reindeer Games" This is a wide-eyed indie-pop song that makes the most of its chorus of "I mean if you want / We can just stay here." But there is a retro bounce to this that brings forth memories of the early 2000s and bands like the Stills. There's a built-in youthful exuberance here that is both joyous and introspective.

"The Walk" No, this isn't the Cure song of the same title. This track finds Lilitri making the most of the multi-tracked vocals and aptly maneuvering through numerous tempo-shifts to make a multi-hued track with a bright, melodic chorus. The last minute gloriously rises to punk-pop simmer.

"Out of the Blue" This five-minute closer recalls the best elements of Weezer's "blue album." Like "The Walk," it is a song that works in movements. Roughly three minutes in, the song stops and shifts into what is a fitting ending but what could easily be a different song as Lilitri seemingly asks for forgiveness for mistakes in a relationship. Musically speaking, he has no reason to be sorry, even as he declares, "I f---ed up the process." No, you didn't, sir.

Next week: New music from Sheryl Crow, Ray Davies, Incubus and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from the Chainsmokers and Guided by Voices

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