Mumford & Sons, Best Coast, My Morning Jacket, Ciara and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: From the left, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford, Country Winston Marshall and Ted Dwane of Mumford and Sons perform on Feb. 8, 2013 in Los Angeles.
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This week, Mumford & Sons abandons their banjo-driven sound, Best Coast gets streamlined for its major-label debut, the members of My Morning Jacket continue to mine classic rock touchstones while adding more futuristic elements, pop-R&B singer Ciara brings some attitude, singer-songwriter Torres leaves a very lasting impression, alt-country star Shelby Lynne continues to shine, Mikal Cronin mixes garage-rock and power-pop, Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan goes solo, and Canadian trio METZ bring some sincere noise. It was a loaded week and here is a breakdown of many of its most notable releases.

PHOTO: "Wilder Mind" by Mumford and Sons
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Mumford & Sons “Wilder Mind” **1/2

On its third offering, Mumford & Sons drops the banjos and the old-timey clothing and instead dresses in leather and adopts a new-wave leaning bounce. At its best, this sound reawakens the band and brings out a better side than its previous material. At its worst, this sound makes the band occasionally sound like a third-rate imitation of Coldplay and U2. This contrast is felt going from the opener “Tomkins Square Park,” which showcases the former, to the second track, single “Believe,” which showcases the latter.

This reinvention definitely has enlivened the band and it could have taken this opportunity to become something really interesting and insightful, akin to the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit. Instead, it went the safer route, flirting with Imagine Dragons and the Fray kind of blandness. Still, it is quite refreshing to hear Mumford & Sons deliver some upbeat rockers and stretch further than before. Of course, this album still has a bit of a faceless quality. Its beats are a bit too crisp. Its rises and falls are still more predictable than they should be. (“Ditmas,” for instance is designed a little too transparently to be a big, soaring rock hit.) While this album does feel fresh because it changes the band’s tone, it still sounds like Mumford & Sons has merely traded formulas. It rocks, but it lacks the edge found on early hit “Little Lion Man,” which still stands as the band’s creative high-point. The insightful band that made that song was robbed of its soulfulness by the band that ended up making the forced, earnest but empty balladry of “I Will Wait.”

No doubt, this record will alienate fans of the old sound. To them, I say, the banjos had become the stuff of hipster kitsch and it was time for a change. If the band has had trouble nailing down its place with the new, sonic transformation, it is bound to be expected.

“Wilder Mind” has a great deal of drive as an album. Its intentions are good, but it fails to stand apart from the rest of the middle-of-the-road rock that populates the airwaves. There were moments on its debut, “Sigh No More” that hinted at a darker sense of depth. If Mumford & Sons manages to somehow find harmony between that edge and this, more populist sound, they might be onto something. While this album shows promise and is in all a positive change after the last album, “Babel,” Mumford & Sons still has considerable ways to grow.

Focus Tracks

“The Wolf” This tightly-wound rocker is probably the most cohesive and appealing track, even if it also shows some of the set’s drawbacks as well. It still openly strives to be a bridge somewhere between David Bowie’s “Heroes” and INXS’ “Don’t Change.” While it lacks the classic nature of both those tracks, it still has a notable, grasping bite.

“Snake Eyes” This track has a hint of ominous energy I wish Mumford & Sons had explored more deeply on the rest of the record. When it rocks out, it takes off pretty decently.

“Hot Gates” This quiet closer has the focus of a hymn, even as it climbs and builds.

PHOTO: "California Nights" by Best Coast
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Best Coast’s “California Nights” ****

It’s safe to say with its third full-length and major-label debut that Best Coast can no longer be considered a “lo-fi” band. With this album, the duo of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno establish themselves in an extremely large way, building off the strides made on their 2013 “Fade Away” EP. “California Nights” is a powerfully executed record that seems to take its cues from Belinda Carlisle, Hole, Patsy Cline and the Jesus & Mary Chain in equal measure. There’s even a hint of Fleetwood Mac influence thrown in. In other words, this is a spacey, enveloping and consuming rock record with a pop core and a hint of old-school twang.

Cosentino has graduated from writing songs that sound like a teenager’s journal entries and, following the lead of the “Fade Away” track, “Who Have I Become?” she has continued to look inwards. On “So Unaware,” she asks, “What is life? / What is love? / What’s the meaning of it all? / Do I even care or is just that I’m so unaware?”

Mostly, this album is a pounding rock record that revels in pop bliss while still awash with crushing guitar walls that border on a shoe-gaze level of intensity and yet this is an extremely bright-sounding exercise. The one standout that isn’t squarely in this tradition is “Fading Fast,” which possesses firm, classic country and rockabilly roots.

Best Coast remains one of the most promising rock outfits to emerge within the last few years. The band also are one of the few acts that one can imagine possibly rebuilding a lasting bridge between the pop and alternative rock worlds. “California Nights” is and will be the first real rock record of the summer destined to be blasted on the beach on repeat. This is a glorious, unapologetic pop album, but it has a really strong rock core. It isn’t surprising that the band made the leap to the majors this time around. Cosentino and Bruno are experts at making songs that sound deceptively simple and yet maintain an effortlessly timeless quality. Of the crop of artists making waves in the indie rock world, they seem destined for much larger success. As an album, “California Nights” makes a booming, authoritative and beautiful splash.

Focus Tracks

“California Nights” There’s a dash of Mazzy Star-esque psychedelia in this sprawling title track. It would have made a great opener. It probably would have been a more magnetic beginning than the still excellent, “Feel OK,” but for some reason it is hidden on the second half of the record. Interestingly, on the vinyl version, the track order is slightly rearranged in comparison to both the CD and digital versions. On vinyl, this song sets off side two. If the set were uniform it would actually come one track later as it does on the other formats. I have no clue why this difference exists.

“Heaven Sent” If Belinda Carlisle had stayed true to her punk roots while making 1987’s “Heaven On Earth,” she probably would have made a track like this song. It also shows hints of “Celebrity Skin”-era Hole.

“Wasted Time” This album closer sounds like an update on the boardwalk strolls heard on Best Coast's debut “Crazy For You.” I could listen to Cosentino harmonize with herself in this Everly Brothers-esque style for endless amounts of time and this song is beautiful and haunting simultaneously.

PHOTO: "The Waterfall" by My Morning Jacket
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My Morning Jacket’s “The Waterfall” (Deluxe) ***1/2

Ever since what could be their artistic apex, “Z” in 2005, the members of My Morning Jacket have surfed a line somewhere between the Band and Pink Floyd-meets-Radiohead-style experimentation. My Morning Jacket has long abandoned being the straight-forward rock band it was on and before its 2003 album, “It Still Moves.”

There’s something to admire about My Morning Jacket’s shape shifting ways, even if occasionally it hits some strange moments. “Compound Fracture” sounds like an odd mixture between the funk of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman,” the airy quality of Washed Out, the pseudo jazziness of the Doobie Brothers and a touch of acid-rock. It gets stripped of its glossiness on the grungy alternate version packaged in the deluxe edition, but it still maintains that intriguing mixture to some degree.

“Like A River” sounds like Jim James’ answer to Fleet Foxes while “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)” verges on echo-drenched, fuzzy prog-rock mixed with California-based AM radio fare from the seventies.

Throughout the set, there are hints that the band wants to hold a place for “classic rock” fans everywhere. The guitar and drum-workouts throughout “Spring (Among The Living)” are very intriguing and show an effortless sense of musicianship. I wish the song went in more directions over its six minutes, but it does maintain a warm-yet-ominous tone. "The Waterfall” should please longtime fans and yet again establishes My Morning Jacket among the most forward-thinking adopters of the classic jam-band ethos. It’s an often woozily soulful collection that definitely takes some unexpected turns.

Focus Tracks

“Big Decisions” This song works really well because it is large and sweeping without a lot of transparent effort. It just has a really strong melody and a well-executed chorus.

“Only Memories Remain” This soulful, seven-minute closer plays like an extended R&B love ballad. And yet it also has a vibe similar to Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

“Get The Point” This track has an affecting vintage folk quality mixed with slight echoes of Harry Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”

PHOTO: "Jackie" by Ciara
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Ciara’s “Jackie” (Deluxe Edition) **1/2

Ciara’s sixth album “Jackie,” which is named after her mother, offers up more pop-flavored R&B with a few “dirty south” hip-hop elements. It’s an ambitious effort that tries to build itself up to be something important. And yes, the intro to what is essentially the title-track, “Jackie (B.M.F.)” indicates something orchestral might be on the way. What we get instead is a song where she spends a bit too much time repeating that she’s “a bad motherfu__a!” The track actually ends up misfiring in a big way.

“That’s How I’m Feelin’” does a little better, even with its overly-sugary synths and its predictable Pitbull cameo. Only when Missy Elliott comes in and drops a verse does the song feel like it goes beyond predictable pop. All this does, though, is make you wish you were listening to a Missy Elliott album instead because she has always known how to balance pop with hip-hop cool.

Still at her best, Ciara is adept at delivering lightly erotic, sensual R&B ballads. “Lullaby” and “Dance Like We’re Making Love” are both good examples of this. Still, like deliveries from most pop-R&B divas who aren’t Beyoncé, this album comes off as a generic offering crafted by a team of producers mining for a hit. Ciara has a lot of personality when she’s given something exciting to do. Sure, that “bad motherf__ka” bit doesn’t work, but in the same time, it shows a spark. Admittedly such a spark was similarly executed on Kelis’ “Caught Out There” and Beyoncé’s “Ring The Alarm.”

Too often Ciara is left with lackluster material. The list of designers and locales on “Stuck On You” screams like it wants to be a viral party anthem, but it just doesn’t have the backbone and feels like it is trying to start a fad. “Fly” sounds like run-of-the-mill dance pop from a decade ago and “I Bet” is a promising breakup ballad (perhaps inspired by her recent split with rapper Future) that feels half-written due to its smothering, rambling verses and its omnipresent “hype-man” back-up vocals. On the flip-side, the lullaby to her son, “I Got You,” is a really touching piece of work, even if it is covered in too many digital vocal effects.

Still, in general this album finds Ciara repeating phrases in choruses over and over again or throwing in one too many spoken-word bits to show some attitude. It too often feels like everything here is done for a calculated reason. It’s too self-aware. In general, this album doesn’t take enough chances and at this point in her career, this is the kind of record Ciara should have outgrown. Ciara deserves to make better albums. “Jackie” is a really uneven offering with a few narrow bits of promise. The two additional versions of “I Bet” included on the deluxe edition - one of which includes Joe Jonas - don’t correct this feeling.

Focus Tracks

“Only One” This is the only real killer song on the album. It’s a big pop ballad and Ciara nails it.

“Lullaby” This song definitely has flaws, but it has an effective hook that brings it over to the positive side.

“I Got You” Amidst all the pop sheen, this song stands out for its authentic intentions and its overall sweetness.

PHOTO: "Sprinter" by TORRES
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Torres’ “Sprinter” ****1/2

Singer-Songwriter Mackenzie Scott, AKA Torres, uses her second album, “Sprinter,” to beef up her sound while maintaining the sparse intimacy of her 2013 debut. Co-producer Rob Ellis’ longtime membership in PJ Harvey’s band and Scott’s sonic similarities to Harvey make for a perfect partnership. Yes, Scott does sound like a Harvey disciple, but born in the early nineties in the American south, she has a completely different frame of reference and her brand of art-rock is peppered, especially in its quieter moments, with a southern Gothic haunted edge. The soft but visceral “Son, You Are No Island,” for instance, is dense with ghosts.

In addition to the presence of Ellis, the presence of Portishead’s Adrian Utley in Scott’s back-up band gives this album a defining sense of coolness and it definitely evokes memories of albums being released out of the British alternative scene when Scott was essentially still a small child in Georgia.

Throughout the record Scott wrestles with religion, awkward traditions and being in touch with one’s roots. Her words are often as poetic as they are heartbreaking as she demands your attention. In some ways, her vocal tone brings to mind Sharon Van Etten. Scott guested on Van Etten’s future classic “Are We There” last year.

Scott is suited for both bare arrangements like “The Exchange” or louder fare like “New Skin” or the title track. She even handles a stunning ballad like “A Proper Polish Welcome” with great ease.

With “Sprinter,” Torres establishes herself as an artist of astonishing depth. This is quite simply one of the most spellbinding records to be released in 2015 so far. It is highly recommended listening.

Focus Tracks

“Sprinter” If you hear this song and like it, get the album. It has the kind of drive and the kind of subject matter that populates most of the rest of the record. Not only does this recall PJ Harvey at her finest, but Carina Round as well.

“Strange Hellos” This song begins with a nearly whispered apology and a tell-off in the next breath before it launches into a full-on rock attack. This track, which opens the record, perfectly captures the tension of the set on the whole.

“The Exchange” This is a tale about adoption records lost in a flood. Here, Scott uses water as a terrifying force. Paired with the closer from her self-titled 2013 album, “Waterfall.”

PHOTO: "I Cant Imagine" by Shelby Lynne
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Shelby Lynne’s “I Can’t Imagine” ***1/2

“I Can’t Imagine” is the fourteenth album by Shelby Lynne and it effectively fuses her mix of country and folk with a hint of soul. In 2000, Lynne won the “Best New Artist” Grammy on the heels of her landmark album, “I Am Shelby Lynne,” even though it was her sixth album. Since then, she has been firmly placed among the “alt-country” elite. I say “alt-country” because her style owes a bit too much to classic country sounds and dashes of other influenced to be fully embraced by modern mainstream country radio.

“I Can’t Imagine” is a rather laid-back effort, self-produced by Lynne and possessing a mellow, easy-going aura. It is somewhat singular in its tone, offering up some well-written country and blues fare. Only “Sold The Devil (Sunshine)” with its distinctly old-school R&B groove stands apart from the pack in a big way, although it is interesting to note that throughout a few of the tracks on the album, Lynne finds an unexpected fit with Clarence Greenwood, AKA Citizen Cope, who adds some nice background vocal work.

This isn’t a record that will drastically change Lynne’s career. It is merely a reminder of her skills. If some of these songs don’t make their impression the first time around, they will by the fourth. This album is often understated and in a way, its subtle touches can be seen as sets. Shelby Lynne remains an important, intelligent artist working within the fringes of the country genre.

Focus Tracks

“Sold The Devil (Sunshine)” This is the kind of song Sheryl Crow used to deliver, rooted in classic soul.

“Back Door Front Porch” This soft, easy bit of country has a lulling quality and yet it subtly packs a punch.

“Son Of A Gun” Sadly this isn’t a cover of the Nirvana song of the same title, but it does deliver a nice ballad with a touch of blues.

PHOTO: "MCII" by Mikal Cronin
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Mikal Cronin’s “MC III” ****

If you aren’t familiar with Mikal Cronin, he is a very talented garage-rock song-smith from the same California scene that produced Ty Segall. Cronin is probably best known for his association with Segall and his occasional performances with him. Unlike Segall, who’s music fuses a sixties garage-band style with a post-Nirvana, unhinged dose of adrenaline, Cronin’s music is more firmly in the power-pop realm and his third record showcases some glimmering doses of timeless California pop that fuses both fuzzy elements and orchestral ones into a very appealing mix.

“Control” is a winning piece of jangle pop, while “Alone” takes a highly dramatic symphonic build (are those French horns I hear?) and transforms it into a full-tilt rocker. This album is thick with tunes that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the mid-sixties, and even some of the arrangements are reminiscent of older times, but then a punk raver comes in like “Ready” and brings it all up to date. In other words, this is the perfect album for any fan of the classic “Nuggets” boxed sets. Even “Say,” with its new-wave bass-line and its heavy dose of cowbell, fits with that mold. Quite frankly, this is a very lofty exercise with higher-minded goals than your average lo-fi rock record. When you listen to the quiet and almost meditative tone of “Different,” it’s hard not to harken back to memories of the hushed side of Big Star and the mastery of both Alex Chilton and Chris Bell.

Mikal Cronin further establishes himself as a master and a tuneful pop-smith with some heavy rock edges. If you enjoy this record, you should pick up his first two releases as well. He deserves much more attention.

Focus Tracks

“Ready” This track is the closest Cronin gets to Segall-esque territory and he rips the roof off of the place.

“Alone” This song has a Moody Blues-esque build before it chimes into an affecting guitar-line that is punctuated by the remaining horn section.

“Gold” This is vintage, bluesy garage-rock with a post-grunge edge. The track ends with a Zeppelin-esque, Eastern-tinged breakdown.

PHOTO: "Non-Believers" by Mac McCaughan
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Mac McCaughan’s “Non-Believers” ****

As the lead-singer of Superchunk and the co-founder of Merge Records, Mac McCaughan has long established himself as one of the leaders in the indie rock world. Even if somehow you have never listened to Superchunk, you surely have to be familiar with Merge, which has become a massive force in the industry thanks to high-profile releases by the likes of Arcade Fire, She & Him and others.

The fact that this is McCaughan’s first solo album under his own name is a little remarkable, but keep in mind over the years he has had a variety of side-projects outside of Superchunk, the most notable of which is probably Portastatic, which actually started out as a solo project for McCaughan.

If you are wondering how “Non-Believers” sounds, it maintains McCaughan’s knack for melody but strips the Superchunk sound down considerably with electronic touches. “Mystery Flu” for instance verges on dream-pop with its beautiful keyboard tinkering. All along, McCaughan’s familiar and distinct, vocal tone takes you along on quite a journey.

There’s a built in sense of suburban nostalgia built into these songs that seem to suited to soundtrack teenage summer nights of hanging out with friends. At 47, McCaughan still captures a wonderfully youthful glow in his songs. It captures the same kind of wistfulness that used to be omnipresent on the earliest work of later indie rock followers like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart.

Knowing that McCaughan plays the majority of the instruments himself on “Non-Believers” gives it a bit of an intimate feel that is too often missing from albums today. It feels very much like a it was handmade. “Non-Believers” adds yet another gem to McCaughan’s collected discography.

Focus Tracks

“Mystery Flu” This may not be the most rocking song on the album, but it fully captures this album’s best qualities.

“Barely There” If Superchunk decided to do big, anthemic radio ballads, they would sound like this.

“Only Way Three” Again, this sounds like a stripped-down answer to Superchunk at their most pop-driven.

PHOTO: "II" by METZ
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METZ’s – “II” ****

On its second full-length, Toronto noise-rock act METZ delivers a half-hour of thrashing, abrasive sound. This is captivating aggression at its best. Like METZ's 2012 debut, this album is driven more by sound and emotion than by melody. If the most bile-fueled passages of Nirvana’s “Bleach,” “Incesticide” and “In Utero” were magnified and brought into a 2015 context, they’d sound like this. “II” is definitely the kind of work from the tradition started by “In Utero” producer Steve Albini and his multiple bands.

If you are looking for hummable tunes, look elsewhere. This album has hooks, but they are exercises in cathartic aggression. There’s a surf-pop song hiding underneath the layers of “Wait In Line,” but it is drowned in sound for a reason. One can only imagine the kind of ear-blowing power a set like this would have in the live context. Those who don’t listen to punk or hardcore probably won’t understand why I love this record, but it is a tightly-wound dose of adrenaline. This record, like its predecessor, makes a complete racket in all the right ways.

Members Hayden Menzies, Alex Edkins and Chris Slorach have yet again delivered an album that recalls the early, raucous days of Sub-Pop Records. Do I wish this record was longer? Of course! It is over in a blink, but it offers a satisfying sonic pummeling.

Focus Tracks

“Acetate” Over a blistering riff, the vocal line sounds like it is terrorized by a ghost. Compared to METZ's first record, there are more obvious bits of melody here hiding underneath the surface.

“Spit You Out” Nirvana’s influence is felt quite effectively. This sounds like a “Bleach” deep cut.

“Wait In Line” This is angry, fractured surf-rock being spit out over three minutes of fuzz.

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