Meghan Trainor, Corinne Bailey Rae, Jennifer Nettles and More Album Reviews

VIDEO: Meghan Trainor Performs Me Too
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This week Meghan Trainor releases her sophomore album, British singer, Corinne Bailey Rae releases her first album in six years, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles drops a new solo album, rapper Masta Ace looks back at his high school experience, New Order give last year’s “Music Complete” an extended treatment, and singer-songwriter Christopher the Conquered finally releases his much buzzed-about album, “I’m Giving Up on Rock & Roll.” It’s another highly busy week with something for just about everyone.

PHOTO: Meghan Trainor - "Thank You"
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Meghan Trainor’s “Thank You” **1/2

Fresh off winning the Grammy for Best New Artist, Meghan Trainor has quickly dropped her second album. Like her first one, this is another mixed bag that shows a performer with talent, but not necessarily the material to best showcase said talent. She trades the doo-wop sound of “All About That Bass” for some funk, faux hip-hop and some ballads that sound like she’s going toward Adele’s terrain. Of those styles, she has the best success with the latter. “Kindly Calm Me Down” is definitely the album’s best track by far.

At its core, this is an album about Trainor’s new-found fame. The post-“Gangnam Style” groove “Me Too” is supposed to be a confidence-boosting song, but it ends up being just about her bragging about the gold around her neck and how she’s now a V.I.P. But like her last album, “Thank You” is full of anthems about self-acceptance, like the LunchMoney Lewis-assisted, “I Love Me” and uplifting numbers like “I Won’t Let You Down.” Sometimes these songs succeed and sometimes they fall flat. “Dance Like Your Daddy,” is truly embarrassing, even if it is bound to cause a lot of commotion at some wedding reception you wish you weren’t attending sometime in the future. Similarly, “Champagne Problems,” full of its decadent complaints, doesn’t help anyone. The topic of such moaning was actually better-handled by “Weird Al” Yankovic a couple years back on his song, “First-World Problems.”

“No,” on the other-hand has its heart in the right place. There needs to be an anthem to shut down creepy dudes hitting on women who don’t want such attention. The problem is, it ends up being a rather gimmicky song that is built around a watered-down version of the kind of jams that both Destiny’s Child and En Vogue delivered years ago. Even the video with its dance routines in what looks like an empty warehouse looks like it is borrowing liberally from Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video.

“Thank You” isn’t a terrible record. It has its moments. Trainor is still finding her groove. As it turns out, she’s a better balladeer. That is made abundantly clear. In the meantime, this album shows her struggling with the pop world’s cookie-cutter machine. Does she have a brighter future? Hopefully, as soon as her real strengths are recognized. Does this album show her at her peak potential? My guess is a very confident no.

Focus Tracks:

“Kindly Calm Me Down” This should be a single, without a doubt. Again, it seems like a direct response to Adele’s “Hello,” but she nails this making it one of the album’s only complete success.

“Just a Friend to You” This ukulele-driven song again shows Trainor’s softer side in a beautiful way. Again, if this side was utilized more fully, it would probably change her current career trajectory.

“Me Too” I know. I had a lot of criticism for this track above. I stand by my comments. BUT, while this song has its flaws, it has stuck in my head like an earworm for the last few days. Sometimes catchiness can count. I also want to take this opportunity to applaud Trainor for demanding the original video get taken down and corrected upon discovering that she had apparently been Photoshopped. I’m actually amazed that someone tried to Photoshop her in the first place. Anyone who has heard “All About The Bass” would know that such a move would be contrary to her image and the message heard overall in her music.

PHOTO: Corinne Bailey Rae - "The Heart Speaks In Whispers"
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Corinne Bailey Rae’s “The Heart Speaks in Whispers” ****

Corinne Bailey Rae returns with her first album in six years. “The Heart Speaks in Whispers” isn’t quite same brand of relaxed, chilled R&B of her first album and it definitely isn’t the deep, heartbroken sadness of 2010’s “The Sea.” This is her most eclectic-sounding album to date and there are hints that she’s been influenced by everyone from Florence + The Machine to FKA twigs.

The airy synth-workout “Been to the Moon” ends up evolving into something quite jazzy, while “Green Aphrodisiac” is like smooth R&B gold. Bailey Rae’s voice is still as sweetly clear as ever, whether she’s delivering the Bill Withers-esque “Walk On” or the anthemic rock of “Stop Where You Are.”

This album’s cover with its bright rainbow backdrop couldn’t be more appropriate. This is by far Corinne Bailey Rae’s most multi-hued release to date. It may for some be an album that will sink in after a few spins, but there is a lot here to absorb. It’s quite a daring release between the spaced-out, chilled funk of “Horse-Print Dress,” the experimental (hummed?) bass accents on “Taken by Dreams” and the multiple, unexpected left turns on the opener, “The Skies Will Break.”

This isn’t an easy set to pin down, which in the end makes it more rewarding. Welcome back, Corinne Bailey Rae.

Focus Tracks:

“Green Aphrodisiac” This has slow-jam classic written all over it, anchored by an ethereal electric piano line as it blossoms into a semi-orchestral soft-funk-groove.

“Walk On” This may be the most soulful track on the album, which is saying a great deal as Bailey Rae works an earthy groove with all the gumption she can muster.

“Been to the Moon” This track’s freaky edges aren’t at the expense of the smoothness of the rest of the track, making it a highlight that isn’t afraid to take its cues from left field.

PHOTO: Jennifer Nettles - "Playing With Fire"
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Jennifer Nettles’ “Playing With Fire” ***1/2

Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles’ latest solo album, “Playing With Fire,” announces itself with a bang. The opening title track, with its loud, rocking energy and its bright synths sounds oddly like a countrified answer to a big '80s movie theme. (Think “The Heat Is on” by Glenn Frey or “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News.) It sounds dated but at the same time, the track sounds very appropriate, making an authoritative, slightly garish entrance. But in a world where country music has been corrupted by pop, Nettles has found a way to leave an impression. As retro as this song sounds, it’s still a bit of an old-school, bar-band rave-up.

Like 2014’s “That Girl,” “Playing With Fire,” continues to showcase Nettles as not only a formidable songwriter, but as a versatile performer. She also achieves a nice balance between country’s current pop realm and old-school balladry. “Hey Heartbreak” is twangy pop, while the gentle “Unlove You” is a truly effective ballad.

On the whole, this album is a much more produced, pronounced effort compared to her last album. This collection gets in your face one moment with “Drunk in Heels” and offers you a quality ballad with “Stupid Girl” the next.

Nettles almost sounds like different people as she goes from a whisper to a scream. Listen to “Chaser” and you’ll hear her range on display, while “Starting Over” is a ballad worthy of lighter waving in concert.

On the bonus track, “My House,” Nettles duets with Jennifer Lopez about how everyone’s day-to-day struggles are similar whether in the country or the city. The song is a bit cheesy, but it works. The biggest shock is that J.Lo doesn’t sound out of her element.

“Playing With Fire,” continues Jennifer Nettles’ solo journey quite effectively.

Focus Tracks:

“Unlove You” This is definitely the album’s biggest standout, again achieving an effective mix between classic country and pop ambition. The indicting lyric, “I wasn’t lost until you found me,” speaks volumes about heartbreak.

“Chaser” This has a nice riff and the song explodes quite nicely in its chorus. Do I sense a possible hint of Ani DiFranco's influence in the song’s syncopation?

“Playing With Fire” I said a lot about this track above, but it really does make a commanding entrance.

PHOTO: Masta Ace - "The Falling Season"
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Masta Ace’s “The Falling Season” ****

I’m not sure what is causing Masta Ace to look back and re-examine his life, but I’m really glad he is doing so. Much like 2012’s collaboration with MF DOOM, “Son of Yvonne,” his new album, “The Falling Season” looks back once more. While “Son of Yvonne” paid tribute to his late mother over a 74-minute span, “The Falling Season” tells the story of his high school experience. This was a time of turmoil. At the dawn of his freshman year, his family was supposed to move, but the move fell through at the last minute causing him to have to switch schools, commuting every day from Brownsville to Sheepshead Bay. If you know the geography of Brooklyn, that is quite a trek. This album documents his exposure to a wide variety of characters, with stories of high school survival.

This is an old-school-style hip-hop record that in many ways could have been released 20 years ago. It is actually pretty timeless. The main single, “Young Black Intelligent,” is not only one of the best rap singles of the year, it is one of the best singles of the year so far of any genre.

This album has real heart and it comes from a real place. The details of his high school experience are out on the table and while these memories are more than 30 years old, Ace gives us an interesting spin that walks the line between classic hip-hop and possible Broadway-style narrative. “The Falling Season” may very well be the hip-hop album you didn’t know you needed.

Focus Tracks:

“Young Black Intelligent” (Featuring Pav Bundy, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble & Chuck D) If there is any justice, this song should get a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance. My guess is, though when it comes for the nominations to be announced, this will be missing, which is a real shame. It’s a track for the ages.

“3000 Ave. X” (Featuring Your Old Droog) This is a track about picking high schools in Brooklyn. Over a fresh beat, Ace tells the story of how he ended up commuting to Sheepshead Bay.

“Mr. Bus Driver” (Featuring Nikky Bourbon) This tells the tales of what he sees on the bus ride home with great detail. Singer Nikky Bourbon does some excellent work on the track’s hook. Like these other two tracks, this really deserves airplay that let’s face it, it probably won’t get.

PHOTO: New Order - "Complete Music"
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New Order’s “Complete Music” ****

The members of New Order have been aces at presenting their music for the clubs since they emerged. Long-form versions of their singles have long been a part of their equation. Anyone who has heard extended versions of classics like “Temptation” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” can attest that that is true. With “Complete Music” the band presents fully extended mixes of every song on last year’s “Music Complete.” This causes the set to balloon to nearly 90 minutes, but ultimately this version of the record actually edges out the original version to provide a slightly superior listening experience.

New Order’s music has always been layered, thus this approach allows the grooves time to breathe as they get reconstructed and built back up again. This emphasizes the beauty in opener “Restless.” At the same time this also emphasizes the strange, rugged cowboy drawl adopted by guest Iggy Pop on the spoken-word piece “Stray Dog.” On “Music Complete,” this track was sort of an odd throwaway of sorts. Here, it is a little more interesting.

Sure, some people will be completely happy with the standard record, but this version truly proves to be an utterly successful exercise in elongation. I suppose the fact that every track from “Music Complete” is worthy of such a treatment, on its own is notable. This album-length approach is one they should continue in the future.

Focus Tracks:

“Plastic” (Extended Mix) This extended mix accentuates the club-ready nature of the original track and extends the introducing build. The song becomes a massively exciting nine-minute workout.

“Restless” (Extended Mix) This is another nine-minute cut that finds its best moments at is most deconstructive. This is a classic-level New Order track, so its bits and pieces really lend themselves to this treatment.

“Unlearn This Hatred” (Extended Mix) (Featuring Tom Rowlands) This extended version of this collaboration with The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands highlights the track’s overall toughness.

Read the original review of “Music Complete” here.

PHOTO: Christopher The Conquered - "Im Giving Up On Rock & Roll"
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Christopher The Conquered’s “I’m Giving Up on Rock & Roll” ***1/2

Christopher The Conquered is the alias of Iowa-based singer-songwriter Christopher Ford. This is his much buzzed about album that initially gained some steam thanks to high-profile fans like Ryan Adams and Natalie Prass.

This record is a cool throwback of sorts. It sounds like it could have been released sometime in the '70s. It is a pseudo-tongue-in-cheek (perhaps metaphorical) rock opera of sorts about giving up on the music industry. Ford has a highly animated, theatrical tone to his voice, coming off like a winking hybrid of Meat Loaf and Ben Folds. This set dives deeply into and completely commits to its over-the-top tendencies, from the exuberant background singers on the title-track to the sax-fueled intro to “Mystery.”

At its core though, this album is a theatrical mix of Broadway-ready flourishes, orchestral touches and good, old-fashioned song-craft. This is also a funny record. The song about crying, “Everybody Rains,” contains the nuggets of wisdom, “God invented crying so that we would go on trying,” and “You know you are so mellow when you have a salty pillow.”

This is a great and interesting way to make an entrance. At a mere 33 minutes, this album is succinct and the fact that the instrumentation sounds like it was recorded live adds punch.

Usually albums about being a rock star aren’t very interesting. But the fact that this is an account created seemingly to lampoon the conventions of a “Rock & Roll” lifestyle makes this a treat. It’s potential other meanings also are compelling.

This album won’t be for everybody, but if you are in on the jokes and down for an entertaining ride, “I’m Giving Up on Rock & Roll” plays like something special you’d find while digging through a bin of obscure vinyl.

Focus Tracks:

“What’s the Name of the Town?” This name-checking song is an old-school, down-home jam. It’s a narrative with a lot of detail, built around a strong hook. This is definitely sounds like a song not of this time. I mean that positively.

“I’m Not That Famous Yet” This closing track is the quietest on the set, but at the same time, the sense of restraint works to its benefit. When it rises and recedes, it does so quite effectively. The highlight of the track is the second verse, where Ford sings at the top of his voice (with a Freddie Mercury-like sense of assuredness) over a virtually bare backdrop, anchored by the song’s beat.

“Be a Good Person” This song about dropping troublesome habits will hopefully make you laugh. At the same time, it will probably also stick in your head.

Next Week: New music from Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Cyndi Lauper, Keith Urban, James Black and more.

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