Music Reviews: The Latest From Death Cab for Cutie, Ludacris, The Prodigy and More

PHOTO: Ringo Starr performs at The Peace Center, Feb. 17, 2015, in Greenville, South Carolina.
Chris McKay/Getty Images

This week, indie rock favorites Death Cab for Cutie returns, Ludacris drops his first new album in five years, The Prodigy blends signature sounds with newer sonic discoveries, Sufjan Stevens pays tribute to his late mother, former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland forms a new band and has a very tragic week, Ringo Starr continues to play off of his Beatles legacy, rapper Wale continues to pay tribute to “Seinfeld,” Boz Scaggs shows his versatility and singer-songwriter Hannah Cohen takes a striking step forward.

Behold! This week had what was most likely the heaviest release load of 2015 so far. It no doubt has something for just about every kind of music fan.

PHOTO: Album Review - Death cab For Cuties "Kintsugi"
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Death Cab for Cutie’s “Kintsugi” ****

To me, “Narrow Stairs” from 2008 stands as Death Cab for Cutie’s best album. No doubt many people may disagree with me, considering the popularity of other albums like “Transatlanticism” and “Plans,” but to me, that album captured everything that this band does best. Of course, it took me more than two years to get into the Postal Service album because of my initially cold reaction to Ben Gibbard’s lyrics, which I initially found cloying and a tad too twee. Similarly, outside of the single, “You’re a Tourist,” the band’s last album “Codes and Keys” didn’t play well for me because it was too bouncy and poppy. I prefer the down side of this band, which again, might be a different preference than some fans.

“Kintsugi,” the band’s latest record, finds Death Cab once again exploring more inward-facing, dour terrain, much like they did on “Narrow Stairs” and parts of “Plans.” This is a spacier, more ethereal record, and this darker, more reflective side allows the band to be at their best. There’s a sparse quality and a palpable sense of loss felt on this record. It is after all the first proper Death Cab album since Gibbard’s somewhat quiet divorce from Zooey Deschanel (although, he also did drop a solo record last year) and during the process of recording this album, co-founder, guitarist and producer Chris Walla left the band. Walla was apparently able to add something to the record, since he is still listed in its credits, but this sense of loss and new beginnings is felt in this album’s content.

“Black Sun” has an element of dumbfounded shock hidden beneath its well-toned textures and this is very much on the whole a very emotional exercise. Even on an upbeat song like “Good Help (Is Hard To Find)” there’s a sense of lost innocence with lines like “You’ll never have to hear the word ‘No’ if you keep your friends on the payroll.”

Like “Narrow Stairs,” this record maintains Gibbard’s lyrical style without the preciousness his phrasing sometimes achieves. If you like the band with more upbeat textures, this isn’t your record. If you like the peppiness of a song like “The Sound Of Settling,” this may not be your record. Really this feels like an album’s worth of responses to the “Narrow Stairs” tracks “I Will Possess Your Heart” and “Cath...” In the face of change, this band responds interestingly. It’s hard to tell how much Walla actually contributed to this album, but if this album is any indication, the band will probably still do fine without him. It is still sad to see him leave.

Focus Tracks:

“Black Sun” This lead single has an appealing, unapologetically stark quality. Maybe it is the song’s slow-motion video informing this impression, but it is a song thick with ripe tension.

“Hold No Guns” This song shows Gibbard in a stripped down, acoustic realm. It’s a pretty beautiful and haunting lullaby of sorts.

“Everything’s a Ceiling” Even this shiny, synth-y number has a darker undercurrent below its gleaming surface.

PHOTO: Album Review - Ludacris "Ludaversal"
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Ludacris’ “Ludaversal” ***1/2

On his eighth album, Ludacris further establishes himself as a rapper who can walk the pop and party side of the genre while also possessing lyrical skill. Really, if you look at the hip-hop artists getting the most airplay, they don’t often necessarily have the greatest sense of flow. Ludacris on the other hand has proven time and time again that he has a rapid-fire delivery that can silence any doubters of his prowess.

“Ludaversal” is a complex record. One moment he’s looking inward and pondering human tendencies as he is on the thought-provoking “Grass Is Always Greener,” the next he is making an old, tired joke about overactive Viagra and singing about getting drunk. Sometimes he goes too far, like on the Big K.R.I.T.-assisted “Come and See Me” where the two compare cars to women quite bluntly and nastily, but for the most part, this album shows that Luda’s “consciousness” side is growing.

When he focuses on straight-up lyrics or tries to make his listeners think, more often than not he turns up a real winner. It’s the tracks about material gains, the stereotypical club jams that don’t show him at his best. Still, five years after his last record, he’s maturing nicely as an artist and he plays well with this album’s diverse guest cast which includes Usher, Monica, Cee-Lo, Jason Aldean and more.

“Ludaversal” is not a perfect record by any stretch but it has a few standout classics that play to Ludacris’ overall appeal. After taking off a few years to make movies, it is good to see him return in rather strong form.

Focus Tracks:

“Grass Is Always Greener” Over a wonderfully chilly beat, Ludacris drops some life lessons about inherent fickleness using personal anecdotes. Not only does this show some striking maturity, but it also once again shows him as a great storyteller.

“Ocean Skies” (Featuring Monica) The day after Ludacris won a Grammy for the best rap album, his father, Wayne Bridges died. Luda raps about his father’s alcoholism hand-in-hand with stories about how much he loved him and how he “taught (him) to be a man.” This song is as honest as they come and a really affecting tribute. He says, “Tell your parents you love them. / You might not see them tomorrow.”

“Not Long” (Featuring Usher) This is a great inspirational track about Ludacris’ early career drive, anchored by a groovy, funk beat and a nice hook by Usher. Ludacris raps, “When critics write about my chronicles, I wonder if my hunger is felt in they abdominal.” As a writer, penning this review, I can say, without question, certainly! Eight albums in, he still sounds as hungry as ever.

PHOTO: Album Review - The Prodigys "The Day Is My Enemy"
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The Prodigy’s “The Day Is My Enemy” ****

I’ll be honest, the last Prodigy studio album, 2009’s “Invaders Must Die,” didn’t really impress me. Songs like “Omen” and “Take Me to the Hospital” were often too abrasive for their own good and at times the album on the whole came off as deafening and discombobulating. That disc’s one saving grace was the excellent “Stand Up.” With its straight-forward horn-section and drumming courtesy of Dave Grohl, the track really didn’t sound like anything the Prodigy had previously recorded.

“The Day Is My Enemy” is still quite abrasive and full of sonically difficult moments, but like 2004’s “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned” it also provides a thrilling listen amid the often dissonant layers of sound. It also feels like a more successful tour through the kinds of sounds explored on “Invaders Must Die.” Really, on this record, leader Liam Howlett returns the act to its hard-edged beginnings, tossing elements of electro-punk together with “b-boy” breakbeats. This album is also heavily informed by the new advances in modern EDM music, although, to be fair, Howlett seems to show no interest in catering to the poppy side of the genre that has given his younger peers their larger audience. While you can hear elements of “dub-step” breaking into the Prodigy’s formula in songs like “Ibiza” and “Roadblox,” a listen to the back-catalog proves that Howlett has been putting these kinds of spacey “drops” into his songs ever since the singles “Charly” and “Out Of Space” in 1992. In other words, he has spent the last 23 years as a key pioneer and a molder of the electronic genre.

Really, this album recalls the high-point reached with 1997’s “The Fat of the Land,” only it thankfully lacks the unnecessary shock of that album’s controversial single, “Smack My B______ Up,” a song which took a two-line quote from an Untramagnetic MCs track and paired it with an exploitative, very NSFW music video. With this album, Howlett and his team are less out to shock and more out to impress and show the new generation how it can be done. That isn’t to say that this album doesn’t earn its advisory sticker. It does, but it is less purposely shocking than some of Howlett’s previous work and is more groove-based.

With “The Day Is Enemy,” Howlett pairs his original “big-beat”, hip-hop and rock influences with the newer sounds. It is interesting to note his collaboration with dub-step DJ Flux Pavilion, and see it as a sign of his embrace of the current electronic crop. Will many people find this album difficult? Yes. By design, it is meant to be sonically challenging. This will no doubt be among the most polarizing records of the year, but it is also the brightest and most focused record The Prodigy has released in some time. It isn’t for everyone, but if you are up for the ride, it will envelop you as it pummels and stomps on your eardrums.

Focus Tracks:

“Destroy” With an intro that sounds like a broken video game, this song gives way to an effective big-beat workout. This is definitely the same group act that brought you their club-classic “Poison” two decades ago.

“Medicine” With its Eastern instrumentation, its hard-beat and guitar-work and its reggae-tinged vocals, this track provides a truly international sound.

“Rebel Radio” This track verges on heavy drum’n’bass during certain passages and goes through a number of interesting tempo-shifts.

PHOTO: Album Review - Sufjan Stevens "Carrie & Lowell"
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Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell” ****1/2

“Carrie & Lowell” is Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, named in honor of his mother and his stepfather. It’s a sweetly tender, quiet disc that was created in response to his mother’s 2012 death. hat Stevens has presented here is a collection of 11 eulogies, prayers and lullabies for a mother who apparently came and went several times over his lifetime. These are soft meditations on existence peppered with religious imagery. He forgives his mother’s ghost on “Death With Dignity” and on “John My Beloved,” he sings “There is only a shadow of me. / As a matter of speaking I’m dead.”

This is dark, intimate and beautiful record that tries to reconcile with an echo of a distant childhood, thus attempting to make peace with his troubled mother who was only a passingly available presence in his life. She was a bipolar schizophrenic who had issues with addiction and depression. She was only married to Lowell Brams during a short time during Stevens’ childhood, and while Stevens was mostly raised by his father, he would occasionally spend time with Carrie and Lowell during that period. He and Brams remain close. In fact Brams currently helps run Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty, so this must be a rough release for him as well.

This record is as stark as it is honest. It’s hard enough to lose a parent with whom you were close. But when your mother was like an apparition during her lifetime, how does one come to grips with her actual death? Nothing is sugar-coated here. While this record is full of tender poetry, some of its realizations land like a solid punch to the gut. This album plays like the soundtrack memories of innocent summers shot on Super-8. It has a built-in sepia patina. His love couldn’t save her from her demons. With a hushed whisper, Sufjan Stevens has delivered an album of undeniable power. This is a record packed with sadness, pain, confusion and love all is equal measure.

Focus Tracks:

“Fourth of July” This could be the best and most beautifully bothersome track of 2015 thus-far. Never has a song simultaneously summoned whimsical thoughts of staring at fireworks bursting in the sky and contemplations of mortality. This song has a flinch-worthy emotional heaviness similar to Elliott Smith’s “King’s Crossing.” But like that track, it is more beautiful for inciting that sort of response.

“John My Beloved” This track brings a similar mixture of feelings, all packaged in a softly angelic tune that sounds like it was specifically crafted for a disenchanted music box. here’s some biblical imagery thrown in for flavor, but this is really a very personal song disguised by past fables. Much like the rest of this album, this really shows the beautifully cathartic side of tragedy.

“Carrie & Lowell” This title track grasps for memories that feel close to forgotten. It has a gentle, fast-paced orchestral feel.

PHOTO: Album Review - Scott Weiland and the Wildabouts "Blaster"
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Scott Weiland and The Wildabouts’ “Blaster” **

First of all, the tragic news. This past Monday, a day before this album was released, the guitarist of Scott Weiland’s new band, The Wildabouts, Jeremy Brown died at the young age of 34. This is tremendously upsetting news and puts an undeniable shadow on this record’s release.

Given this fact and my overall appreciation for Weiland’s previous work, I wish I could say that I really enjoyed “Blaster,” but in truth, it lacks the focus or the drive of his previous efforts. While his Stone Temple Pilots work cemented his status as one as an epic, multi-talented, chameleon-like front-man and his solo records, “12 Bar Blues” and the fantastic “Happiness In Galoshes” each had their own unique charm, this record is honestly the most forgettable of Weiland’s career. This is surprisingly unfocussed, ham-fisted rock that doesn’t exhibit quite as many hues as Weiland’s previous work. “White Lightning” is the sound of sludgy, bluesy boredom, while “Way She Moves” suffers from a guitar solo that is messy and not in the good way. There’s a downright pointless cover of T-Rex’s “20TH Century Boy” and “Parachute” is a basic rock stomper. “Beach Pop” even has lame lines about “going to the rock show.” Too many of these songs come off as half-baked and under-developed.

There are small hints of Weiland’s previous greatness on a tiny handful of tracks, but mostly this album finds him adrift in generic territory. While 2009’s “Happiness In Galoshes” found him exploring a wide variety of sounds (particularly in its 2-disc deluxe version) this album often lacks a sense of purpose. Essentially, “Blaster” offers up a much messier, watered-down, less interesting version sounds he previously explored significantly more successfully. There’s just something severely missing in the formula this time around.

Focus Tracks:

“Amethyst” This is one of the only songs that works. The air it is given at the beginning helps and the contrast is felt when the track goes full-throttle. It feels completely formed unlike most of the rest of the record and shows a glimpse of the dynamic quality Weiland’s music usually possesses.

“Bleed Out” This marriage between new-wave synths and an energy that recalls the STP song “Unglued” stands as the album’s other standout success story, even if does devolve into a bit of a mess.

PHOTO: Ringo Starr performs at The Peace Center, Feb. 17, 2015, in Greenville, South Carolina.
Chris McKay/Getty Images
Ringo Starr’s “Postcards From Paradise” **1/2

Give Ringo Starr a lot of credit. At this point in his career, he doesn’t need to be releasing albums at an impressive level of frequency, but he really has had a busy schedule particularly in the last ten years or so. I’d say that of this batch of records, 2008’s “Liverpool 8” offers up the strongest batch of songs.

Ringo has always been a likable, enjoyable presence on record and with “Postcards From Paradise” that doesn’t change one bit. He still has that signature charisma and jovial appeal. In fact, Ringo remains cool and somehow still eternally youthful.

Still this album makes some key mistakes that keep it from being among his stronger records. Firstly, the person who decided to strongly autotune Ringo’s voice through the entirety of the record should be ashamed. That choice gives the album an alarmingly artificial sheen. He sounds like he’s singing through a digital filter throughout the entire set. Considering we are all familiar with his voice and have been thanks to his fifty-plus years of classic output, doing this to his voice is a strange move. Also, the album title brings to mind a weird Jimmy Buffett-like beach-bum association.

Like most of Ringo’s late-period output, this album is anchored firmly on the legacy of his past achievements. The title-track tries to stick as many Beatle song-titles into its lyrics as possible, while “Rory And The Hurricanes” is a loving ode to the skiffle band he drummed for before he was famously tagged to replace Pete Best in the Beatles.

The album also has a long list of esteemed collaborators, like Todd Rundgren, Van Dyke Parks, Dave Stewart, Joe Walsh and er ... Richard Marx. Ultimately, this just ends up being a way-too-shiny version of Starr’s late-period blueprint. While at this point, it isn’t necessary for him to forge new territory, this still feel s like a bit of a retread. That being said, I’m happy he’s still around and making records and he will forever be a legend.

Focus Tracks:

“Rory & The Hurricanes” All four Beatles have each offered up nostalgic tracks, but Ringo seems to do this at least once an album. The playful organ-work helps to send this song home.

“Island in the Sun” This is a slice of contemplative reggae peppered with life wisdom.

PHOTO: Album Review - Wales "The Album About Nothing"
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Wale’s “The Album About Nothing” ***1/2

Washington, D.C., rapper Wale’s obsession with “Seinfeld” is quite loving and endearing. He’s obviously a devoted super-fan. This album is the proper follow-up to his mixtape from years ago, “The Mixtape About Nothing” where in between hip-hop songs he puts both quotes from dialogue from the show as well as conversations with Seinfeld himself. The fact that Seinfeld obviously sees the value in this is also a credit to him. This is definitely the kind of strange crossover that neither Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David could have possibly envisioned.

If you are a “Seinfeld” fan but not a fan of hip-hop, I don’t recommend this album to you considering besides the constant references, this is essentially a normal hip-hop offering, but as he has on his previous records, Wale continues to prove himself as one of the most promising rappers still stuck somewhere on the cusp between the underground and the mainstream.

The album on the whole has a bit of electro R&B backdrop. It’s got some strangely inspired moments along the way, like when Wale marries a sample of George Costanza and Jerry having a conversation about accidentally saying “I Love You” with a pitch-shifted voice singing, “She don’t love you ...” on “The One Time In Houston.”

On the SZA-assisted “The Need To Know,” Wale perfectly raps about a possible friends-with-benefits situation with dialogue from the season 2 finale, “The Deal” where Jerry and Elaine set up a list of rules that allow them to have sex without ruining their friendship.

This is definitely the only album where you’ll find Jerry Seinfeld next to J Cole and Usher. This album, like “Seinfeld” really isn’t about nothing. Really this is about everyday issues, run-of-the-mill neurosis and concerns about interpersonal relationships. Mostly, the unlikely cultural marriage between Wale and Seinfeld stands as a strong testament to the tastes and legacies of both entertainers. It also in a way further cements Jerry as an all seeing Zen-master of sorts.

Focus Tracks:

“Matrimony” (Featuring Usher) Fueled by Seinfeld’s comparison of marriage to a rollercoaster, this song bursts into something truly beautiful about love and personal growth. Wale admits his nervousness about weddings and hints at possible abandonment worries. This shows Wale, Usher and Jerry Seinfeld in their best light. Finding love is difficult and hoping someone will stay with you for the rest of your life can be a tedious proposition. But sometimes you just have to let go of your concerns and trust your gut. Sometimes you need to give in to your heart.

“The Helium Balloon” Wale is concerned about floating away on the power of his dreams, but at the same time he doesn’t want to be shot down like a balloon by his detractors. The metaphor of the balloon is a thick and complex one. He wants to soar, but he wants to remain anchored.

“The Success” The fear of success is real because often when we get too comfortable we get complacent. Complacency means that we begin to lose our drive and it all becomes a vicious cycle.

PHOTO: Album Review - Boz Scaggs "A fool to Care"
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Boz Scaggs’ “A Fool To Care” ****

Fifty years since his debut as a “blue-eyed soul” singer, Boz Scaggs has delivered a beautifully compelling album of mostly covers, mining the blues, jazz and even the mid-tempo kind brand of croon-ready songs that made him famous. This album offers up a rich musical tapestry and a fresh walk through some of the edges of musical history.

Scaggs’ voice, too is just as smooth and versatile as ever. The album’s straight-forward production gives it an intimate feel. His band is tight, anchored by Ray Parker Jr. on guitar and Steve Jordan on drums. Scaggs duets well with his two high-profile guests, Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams and in all shows himself to be an effective all-around showman. This album succeeds, not only because it is tightly put together, but also because it doesn’t take an easy route with its material choices. Not that Scaggs has ever been known for making typical choices, but in all, this record shows many sides to his performing style quite well.

“A Fool to Care” in the end has a down-to-earth authenticity and it leaves you wondering what is coming up next. This record was obviously made with both love and skill.

Focus Tracks:

“Full of Fire” Here, Scaggs delivers a top-notch Al Green cover, complete with the funky smoothness that such an endeavor by definition demand. It’s a tall task and he more than succeeds.

“Last Tango on 16th Street” Scaggs take on this Jack Walroth song is the stuff of late-night cabarets. In a different light, it would make an excellent Tom Waits song, but Scaggs adds an unexpected tenderness to this track.

“There’s a Storm Comin’” This Richard Hawley track is given a beautiful reading and Jim Cox’s piano work here brings to mind a gentle snowfall.

PHOTO: Album Review - Hannah Cohens "Pleasure Boy"
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Hannah Cohen’s “Pleasure Boy” ***1/2

“Pleasure Boy” is Hannah Cohen’s second album, following her fantastic 2013 album “Child Bride.” This time around, the San Francisco-bred, New York-based singer goes for a bigger sound. While “Child Bride” offered up quiet, whispery, delicate folk music, “Pleasure Boy” aims for a bolder, more sensual and pop-driven approach. Often times, this album’s eight songs come off like a less flashy, more intelligent alternative response to the success of Lana Del Rey. It definitely mines similar chanteuse-like territory. But there is still a soft touch to Cohen’s sense of song-craft, making her more of a peer to someone like indie singer-songwriter like Lia Ices. Still, there’s an experimental jazzy touch felt near the end of the record on the tracks “Queen Of Ice” and “Take The Rest” that sets Cohen apart. Perhaps that jazzy touch isn’t a surprise when you know that her father is jazz drummer Myron Cohen.

“Pleasure Boy” is a shockingly brief tease of a record. It deserves to be longer. But it seems to be angling towards Hannah Cohen’s close-up. It is an advancement. Her voice is high, sweet and versatile, able to maneuver backgrounds that are both acoustic and electro-based. If this is the first you are hearing of her, I have a feeling this is only the beginning.

Focus Tracks:

“Keepsake” This song is a swirling electo-menace as Cohen’s protagonist hands her lover pieces of her broken heart and hears about the woman with whom he has presumably cheated. She begs him to leave the other women and rekindle their fractured love. This song’s peculiar tune is particularly captivating and downright entrancing.

“Claremont Song” This song plays like a gentle hymn to heartbreak and a tender goodbye.

“Baby” This quiet closer is the closest kin to the tracks from “Child Bride” here, and she possesses a Hope Sandoval-esque sense of fragility. Again, this feels like a post-heartbreak work as Cohen takes some jazz-infused vocal turns. It borders on a meditative sense of calm.

Next Week: The latest from Brian Wilson, Waxahatchee and more.

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