Miranda Lambert's New Album Is a Soaring 'Double Dose of Heartbreak'

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This week Miranda Lambert delivers a new double album, Bruno Mars celebrates the R&B of his youth, Metallica make a forceful return, Canadian singer Jane Siberry delivers her first proper album in five years and Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh releases her latest solo album as a book. It’s another interesting and sonically diverse week as we approach Thanksgiving.

PHOTO: Bruno Mars "24K Magic".
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Bruno Mars’ '24K Magic' **

Bruno Mars’ goal with his third album was to pay tribute to the R&B of the early nineties. Some of these tracks (including the title-track) sound like throwbacks from the early-to-mid-eighties. Mars essentially goes on an electro R&B recycle-bin tour. “Uptown Funk” may have been a hit for Mars and Mark Ronson, but like that track, these songs are hopelessly derivative and this sound as if they were cut with formulas that worked much better in the past. Too often the songs here sound like carbon copies.

This is a shame. Mars is quite an entertainer, but here he is virtually constantly in disguise, essentially obscuring what has made him unique. You may find yourself putting this record on and then removing it in order to listen to the likes of Prince and Morris Day & The Time or even Zapp & Roger, since there are some electronic funk touches here.

“Perm” sounds like Mars is trying his best James Brown impression whereas “Chunky” brings to mind Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” with its call-and-response action between Mars and the keyboard-line during the chorus. This album essentially shows Mars putting on a variety of musical masks. Sure, he has enough skill to kind of pull it off from time to time, but given the fact that the man only drops a little over a half-hour of music every three or four years, this seems like a waste of his skills. It feels like he is piggybacking other people’s legacies instead of trying to build his own. He has more potential.

“That’s What I Like” will probably be a hit but it is a rather weak party anthem as Mars makes reference to the fact that he’s going to “wake up with no jammies.” You get the feeling that he wants to be headed in the direction of Keith Sweat, Johnny Gill, Boyz II Men, Jodeci and Shai, but his material is on the weak side.

From the drumroll that begins “Finesse,” you can tell that he is trying to pay tribute to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” and it seems like an awkward undertaking. Then there is the cheesy and cheap-sounding beat-work on the questionable “Calling All My Lovelies,” a song which features an answering-machine message from Halle Berry. (If you will recall, Pras from the Fugees’ solo album “Ghetto Superstar” featured 12 minutes of his answering machine. (I remember buying that record and thinking, “Man, I don’t care how many celebrities you know. I don’t want to hear your phone messages!”)

All is not lost, however because on the true ballads, Mars does kind of deliver. On “Versace on The Floor” he achieves the smoothness he is after and “Too Good to Say Goodbye” would make a great “love theme” for a movie, even if the lyrics are profoundly clichéd.

As an album, if you don’t listen closely, this collection can provide a passable, casual listen, but the overall, sinking feeling with “24K Magic” is that Mars is a bigger talent than this music allows him to show. He’s covering tired, recycled territory when he could be working on new sounds. It may ultimately be popular, but artistically it seems like a loss and a misstep.

Focus Tracks:

“Versace on The Floor” Again, Michael Jackson seems to be a strong influence on this ballad. Also when he hits those high notes, he kind of sounds like Terrence Trent D’Arby. This is a love and sex ballad about Mars’ lover removing her dress, but it is the best moment this collection has to offer, even with the cheeseball (maybe keytar???) solo.

“Too Good to Say Goodbye” The other key ballad on this record also sounds vaguely familiar. It sort of goes back to a much older Motown ballad-tradition, but also brings to mind some of the soft R&B of the mid-eighties.

PHOTO: Miranda Lambert, "The Weight Of These Wings".
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Miranda Lambert’s 'The Weight Of These Wings' ****

Miranda Lambert’s latest album is a sprawling double length set, clocking in at 94 minutes and containing 24 tracks. It’s ambitious for sure but it also strongly delivers the goods. Unlike a lot of her modern country peers, Lambert’s work here puts the focus on songwriting and not pop-hooks. This is a double dose of tunes about heartbreak delivered in a low-key manner that never feels forced.

This album isn’t glossy, either. It has appealing, no-frills production-style that allows the songs to blossom naturally. The fuzz that permeates “Ugly Lights” both on the guitar and on Lambert’s vocals has a striking quality that puts emphasis on the song’s lyrical mood.

The set is divided into two halves. The first is called “The Nerve” and the second called “The Heart.” That second half opens with a song called “Tin Man” where Lambert is talking the iconic character from “The Wizard Of Oz” from wanting a heart. There’s a strong sense of imagination and wit here and Lambert’s songs never feel like they were written with a fan-pleasing checklist of talking-points. Even when she hints at that kind of territory with the list-style lyrics on “We Should Be Friends,” she somehow rises above the mere clichés.

In her discography, this will no doubt be an important landmark of a record. Lambert’s name isn’t listed among the writers on all of these songs, but it is on most of them, suggesting this is the product of a creatively fertile period in her career. This is her first album after her divorce from Blake Shelton, which is most likely a direct result of this set’s down-tempo nature. But here, Lambert has discovered the beauty beneath the pain.

“The Weight Of These Wings” is a collection that shows that Miranda Lambert will not be grounded. She will let her feelings out and thus creatively soar.

Focus Tracks:

"Runnin’ Just in Case” This building opener has the makings of an iconic, modern country classic as Lambert peppers her lyrics with many details before singing, “It ain’t love that I’m chasin’./ But I’m runnin’ just in case.”

“Ugly Lights” This tribute to spending too many hours at a bar, staying out late and succumbing to one’s sadness hits home and it also works a nice rockabilly groove.

“Tomboy” With a tuneful refrain that momentarily recalls Soul Asylum’s “Black Gold” before bursting into an adventurous chorus, this anthem for Tomboys everywhere has a chance of becoming a bona fide hit. Along with the album’s main single, “Vice” this collection is full of such possibilities. This should be a big record for Lambert.

PHOTO: Metallica, "Hardwired? To Self-Destruct".
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Metallica’s “Hardwired…. To Self Destruct” (Deluxe Edition) **1/2

Metallica are undeniable metal gods to many. After all, throughout the eighties with classics like “Kill ‘Em All,” “Master Of Puppets” and “…And Justice For All” they helped redefine the metal genre with muscle and thrash-fueled power. In the nineties with the self-titled “Black Album,” and the “Load” and “Reload” albums, they became a band that scored radio hits, even if the “Load”/”Reload” combo was a polarizing period for their early fans. Over the subsequent years, they’d never really reclaim the greatness of those early records.

Some fans found the production on 2003’s streamlined “St. Anger” to be awkward in places, while 2008’s “Death Magnetic” was often cited in arguments against “the loudness wars,” the practice where albums are mastered at the point of distortion. When we last heard studio output from the band, they were teamed up with Lou Reed for “Lulu.” Considering it was Reed’s last recording, it’s a shame that that album is easily one of the most pretentious and humorously misguided albums to ever be released by a major label. It arguably marred the legacies of both acts.

So, post “Lulu,” it makes sense that Metallica would want to attempt to return to their roots. “Hardwired… To Self Destruct” at least has part of the formula right. It packs a lot of power and it is technically amazing in its sheer rhythmic precision. However, it is quite clear that the band didn’t bring songs to match. There’s a monotonous quality to this record as Lars Ulrich pounds away on his drum-kit and James Hetfield screams. Try as hard as they like, this 77-minute set feels a bit like a skilled but aimless pummel-fest.

While Kirk Hammett may deliver a few killer solos on tracks like “Atlas, Rise!” you get the feeling like there is lack of melodic feeling running through the set. This album winds up being sonically a bit boring, seemingly working with exercises of how long to churn the same note over and over repeatedly. “Now That We’re Dead” sounds like a poor rewrite attempt of “Enter Sandman,” even if it does take a few interesting turns during the chorus that doesn’t arrive until around the two-minute mark.

Loyal fans will enjoy head-banging to the insistent “Moth Into Flame” or getting lost in the mechanical math-rock construction on “Dream No More,” but this is not anywhere near the peaks the band once reached. Sure there might be one or two standout moments like on the quiet first seconds of “ManUNkind,” or the building “Am I Savage?” The Lemmy Kilmister tribute, “Murder One” has some intriguing moments, even though it does have the ham-fisted, a-little-too-on-the-nose chorus of “Aces high / Aces Wild / All the aces. / Aces ‘til you die.” It quickly becomes apparent that Metallica used to be a much more interesting band. Now, in spite of their still strong rhythmic skill, they have fallen into a pit of self-parody. "Hardwired… To Self Destruct” may please segments of the faithful, but it isn’t a noteworthy addition to their discography. This is a band playing by the numbers.

The deluxe edition comes packaged with a third disc with bonus tracks and a live set. This just reinforces the feeling from the standard version as they nail a cover of Deep Purple’s “When A Blind Man Cries” and work through some of their superior early material.

Focus Tracks:

“Moth Into Flame” This is easily the strongest song on the record which packs a punch and also has a more stable center.

“Hardwired” This song isn’t remarkable but it serves as a fitting, opening rally cry. Again, this is the kind of track Metallica could record in their sleep. It still packs a punch with its drive.

“ManUNkind” This does work up a formidable blues-metal groove, making it perhaps a notable selection.

PHOTO: Jane Siberry, "Angels Bend Closer".
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Jane Siberry’s “Angels Bend Closer” ***1/2

Arty and iconic Canadian singer, Jane Siberry delivers her first proper album in five years with “Angels Bend Closer” and if you are familiar with her signature sound, you can guess it is full of a lot of delicately quirky surprises. Siberry clearly stands out among the crowd with a Kate Bush-esque enigmatic sense, as she sings sweeping numbers like “In My Dream” and “Positively Beautiful.” And yet, she sounds right at home, alongside k.d. lang on “Living Statue.” The two previously met on record on the track “Calling All Angels,” which was first released in 1991 before ending up on Siberry’s 1993 album, “When I Was A Boy.”

Throughout this set Siberry maintains her mixture of religious and mystical imagery, with a classic-sense of focus. This album has a mesmerizing glow to its song-structures. “Anytime (ballad)” (not to be confused with the more upbeat “r&b” reading of the track a few songs later) makes the most of some echoing synths. There’s a lulling, oddly comforting sophistication to Siberry’s work. It is clear immediately why she is a cult-hero and revered figure up north. She possesses a poetic magnetism and nobility that allows you to follow rambling but fascinating songs like “Morag.” It’s almost as if Siberry is some sort of missing link somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Mary Margaret O’Hara.

Much of “Angels Bend Closer” is filled with eloquently written torch-songs. “Mama Hereby” is a hymn of hope in the face of losing one’s mother, while “Everything One Knew As A Child” perhaps is an ode to lost innocence seemingly told from outside points of view.

For some listeners, Siberry’s unique touches may be too precious and an acquired taste, but if you up for the ride, this album will give you plenty of left-turns to ponder. Thirty-five years since her solo debut, Jane Siberry has not lost her sense of mystique.

Focus Tracks:

“Living Statue” (Featuring k.d. lang) It isn’t until the three-minute mark when k.d. lang enters, but this kind of minimalist ballad allows both singers’ voices to shine.

“Anytime (ballad)” / “Anytime (r&b)” Both these versions bring out different aspects of this composition. The second, more upbeat version is probably more single-worthy and it makes you wonder how the rest of these softer songs would sound with a bit of a lift.

“Positively Beautiful” This is another uplifting song that turns into an effective mid-tempo pop song with some striking orchestral turns.

PHOTO: Kristin Hersh, "Wyatt At The Coyote Palace".
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Kristin Hersh’s “Wyatt At The Coyote Palace” ****

As she did with Throwing Muses’ tremendous 2013 album “Purgatory/Paradise,” and her 2010 solo album, “Crooked,” Kristin Hersh has once again decided to brilliantly go around the music industry by releasing her new solo album, “Wyatt At The Coyote Palace” as a book. You read that right. This double album is packaged in a hardcover book full of lyrics, artwork and short-stories and it is released, not by a record company, but by Omnibus press.

The 24 tracks here are a bit on the sparse side, dealing mostly within a ramshackle acoustic framework, with Hersh’s signature vocal rasp gripping your eardrums. I have contended before that she has Cobain-esque musical instincts in her knack for throwing in surprise minor-key notes. In fact, if there is a touchstone of comparison to describe this record’s sound, it is Nirvana’s acoustic work. That effect is felt on standout tracks like “Some Dumb Runaway” and “Between Piety And Desire.”

This is admittedly a downer of a record, meant to no doubt soundtrack one’s wallowing in autumnal malaise, so if are looking for something upbeat, this probably won’t be your record. Songs like “Hemmingway’s Tell,” “Killing Two Birds” and “Elysian Fields” do have their own sense of rock-driven lift, but that comes with cryptic and occasionally acerbic lyrics. Really, this collection sounds very nineties in the darkest and most captivating kind of way. Hersh often sets desolate scenes but if she grabs you, you’ll want to hear every word.

Hersh is an under-rated songwriter and she also packs her work here with some engaging sonic turns, bits of feedback and ghostly voices hidden deep in the mix.

This collection has an interwoven theme of dodging death. These songs and the stories in the book between them give some harrowing autobiographical snippets. In effect, this is a story that comes armed with its own soundtrack.

The set’s title is said to be derived from Hersh’s autistic son, Wyatt, and his fascination with an abandoned building that had been overrun by coyotes.

Packaging an album this way, in a hardcover book gives it more heft and makes you want to examine its details. This is a rich, seemingly achingly personal collection worthy of this treatment. Kristin Hersh should be commended for thinking outside of the box. She is a trailblazer, giving her indie rock a literary sense of importance. Coming merely months after her current band 50 Foot Wave’s EP, “Bath White,” it seems like 2016 has been a creatively fruitful year for her.

Focus Tracks:

“Soma Gone Slapstick” This minor-key rocker comes complete with a slapping rhythm that gives in an authoritative backbone. It’s got an appealingly unhinged quality.

“Hemingway’s Tell” Tune and structure-wise, this is one of the most accessible songs on the set, albeit with some mysteriously intriguing lyrics as Hersh finds her way, “swimming to normal.” This track recounts an experience of nearly drowning.

“Elysian Fields” Waking up after almost drowning, this song begins with the lines, “Morning. / How’s the air on Mars?” The track has a nice bit of fuzz and Hersh provides some likably haunting background vocals as well.

Next Week: Music from The Weeknd and more.

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