Record Release Rundown: The Latest From Ed Sheeran, Phish, Mastodon and More

PHOTO: British singer Ed Sheeran performs live during a concert at the Alexa on June 23, 2014 in Berlin, Germany.
Frank Hoensch/Redferns via Getty Images

This week Ed Sheeran makes his second official splash at mainstream gold, Phish returns after a five-year hiatus, Mastodon bring the rock, Bassnectar explores a wide variety of EDM sounds and RIFF RAFF delivers one of 2014’s most baffling records. As the summer kicks into gear, this proves to be a diverse week.

PHOTO: Ed Sheeran - "X"
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Ed Sheeran’s “x” **

Ed Sheeran’s “x” follows his debut “+.” It continues to offer up Sheeran’s sensitive acoustic guitar-heavy pop. At his best, Sheeran can offer up a level of song-craft not often given to his young, radio-listening audience. At his worst, he can be placed in sonic landscapes where he does not comfortably fit. His Pharrell collaboration, “Sing” is the album’s single and it is painfully awkward. As much as he wishes to have a funk and hip-hop-driven swagger, it just isn’t a pose that works in his favor. He attempted this kind of balances on “+” also, but here he has seemingly, unwisely upped the ante.

Too much of this record finds Sheeran trying to force the groove in the name of pop success. He’s trying to play rhythm games on tracks like “Don’t” and “Nina,” attempting an R&B rebirth. The truth is, Sheeran is in top form when he is delivering more straight ahead material. He can sing a soft acoustic ballad without coming off as stale or boring. But he seems determined to fuse hip-hop into his work, even actually flat-out rapping on “The Man,” but the style doesn’t bring out his best qualities. Sheeran may be a fan of hip-hop, but it truly does not suit him. That combined with an attempt at a Timberlake-style croon for smoothness could doom this album.

Sheeran can be a gifted writer, so the fact that “x,” like its predecessor is such a mixed bag leaning towards the negative side of the equation is frustrating. One can probably assume that his next few albums will be called something like “-,“ “/” and “=.” Let’s hope if he continues this title trend that by the end of the cycle he knows where his strengths truly lie.

Focus Tracks:

“I’m A Mess” This is a stirring example of what this album could have been. This track is melodically rich with a sense of tension. It shows what can happen when Sheeran shifts his focus from lyrical syncopation to tunefulness. By a long shot, this is the best song on the record.

“Tenerife Sea” This is a nice bit of lovelorn folk pop, even if the beginning sounds like he’s about to cover Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You.” But this kind of straight-forward love song is Sheeran’s specialty.

PHOTO: Phish - "Fuego"
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Phish’s “Fuego” ***1/2

On their first album in five years, the members of Vermont’s jam-band institution return in top form. The level of musicianship has always been high on their releases. After all, they have been playing as a band now for 30 years. Sometimes on their previous releases, their tracks’ elongated lengths and their occasional noodling tendencies made their albums a bit of a chore for non-diehards, but on “Fuego,” they sound refreshed, meaning that this is a rather lively release short on tedious passages.

It’s also a really crisp sounding record. When the other members harmonize with Trey Anastasio, it is as if they are all singing in the room with you. This is bright, old-fashioned band-know-how without major studio tricks. It is actually refreshing. This is also a pretty melodic set of songs, which means this record could easily win over people who have never heard Phish before.

Maybe due to their jam-band pedigree, it has become a little too easy to compare this band to the Grateful Dead, but they have always had a distinct quirkiness of their own. Comparing them strictly to the Dead does them a severe disservice. In all truth, on “Fuego,” the members of Phish deliver a modern take on the earthy sound that ruled the radio in the seventies. There are hints of the Band, Steely Dan and others throughout this set. Had Phish been around at the time of the inception of “Saturday Night Live,” their natural feel would have fit right in with the show’s original musical flavor. They are a throwback to the days when musicianship actually trumped pop flash.

The band only falters once on this 10-song set, on the disastrous hip-hop and funk experiment, “Wombat,” but the rest of the album makes a strong enough statement to forgive the momentary slide. In other words, “Fuego” for the most part is a strong record.

Focus Tracks:

“Halfway To The Moon” If Jackson Browne or Ben Folds were set up with a vaguely funky backdrop, they might come up with a track like this. Somehow it balances a pensive quality with a grooviness. Plus, it has a really excellent piano solo.

“Fuego” At over nine minutes in length, this opening title-track could potentially outstay its welcome. But it doesn’t because it stands as a constantly moving exercise in musical prowess. As the band rallies between rock edge and jazz freak outs, they show their skills.

“Winterqueen” This playful, reflective song brings to mind a jammy, ethereal response to INXS’ “Beautiful Girl.”

PHOTO: Mastodon - "Once More Round The Sun"
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Mastodon’s “Once More ‘Round The Sun” ***1/2

On “Once More ‘Round The Sun,” hard rock band, Mastadon continue where they left off on their excellent 2012 album, “The Hunter,” delivering top-notch sludge-rock full of heavy riffing and shouted vocals. This is dense material and it is a record that should please fans who have followed them across the span of their seven albums. These grooves are deeply steeped in a metallic churn. In fact, the hard-charging guitar-strength threatens to overpower the vocals that are buried in the mix. Never the less, Troy Sanders delivers his words in the kind of achingly monstrous bellow that would make Buzz Osborne proud.

This is quite a strong record, but there are a few moments that keep it from being on the level of “The Hunter.” Single, “High Road,” for instance is the weakest track on the record with its standard-issue metallic riffing, thus making the band sound generic when they are anything but. The previously mentioned mixing, too, could be seen as a potential flaw. There are some great tunes on here, but they are woefully obscured at times. Then again, their focus has almost always been on the guitars, but this time around the songs seem especially masked.

In the end, however, in spite of this, “Once More ‘Round The Sun” shows an impressive display from one of the sludgiest hard-rock bands working today. This album may not be perfect, but it deserves a wider audience all the same.

Focus Tracks:

“Tread Lightly” The opening track shows the range of what you are in for as a listener, from the moody acoustic jump-off to the build, to the belted out vocals. Prog-rock tempo shifts are all around, thus showing this band’s sonic sophistication.

“Once More ‘Round The Sun” A hard-edged rocker, the title track delivers 3 minutes of power with a sound wall that will blister your speakers. The layers of screeching fuzz possess an oddly lulling quality.

“Asleep In The Deep” This six-minute jam delivers a nice build with some palpable tension. Mastodon favor minor-key momentary shifts, which means many of their best melodies start off with pop-possibilities until sudden left turns bring forth a sense of sadness. Such intricacy separates them from the three-chord herd.

PHOTO: Bassnectar - "Noise vs. Beauty"
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Bassnectar’s “Noise Vs. Beauty” ***1/2

DJ Lorin Ashton, AKA Bassnectar has emerged as one of the more interesting figures in modern electronica, bridging the gap between the work of nineties artists like the Fatboy Slim and Chemical Brothers and the modern dub-steppers like Skrillex. “Noise Vs. Beauty” is a fitting name for a Bassnectar album, since like his previous album, the excellent “Vava Voom” from 2012, this record seesaws between delicate soundscapes and ear-drum-shattering cacophony. At times, it’s almost as if Bassnectar has equal claim to both the dub-step and the chill worlds.

Of course, this record is a bit less focused than its radical predecessor, “Loco Ono” for instance has the kind of dark, foreboding pound that wouldn’t sound out of place on The Prodigy’s “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned,” while the W. Darling-assisted “You & Me” is a lush, rave-ready track that wouldn’t sound out of place being licensed in a cutting-edge trailer for an indie film.

Throughout the set, this alternation between sounds can be both wonderfully dizzying and frustrating at the same time. One second, you are treated to what sounds like the audio equivalent of neon crystals gently falling from the sky, and the next you are being assaulted by a particularly skuzzy mass of bass-drops.

This is not a record for the faint of heart. But if you are open to its charms, you’ll find this album as rewarding as it is unpredictable. This is definitely an insane trip. Welcome to the forward-thinking, experimental, less populist side of modern EDM.

Focus Tracks:

“Ephemeral” This airy synth piece is partly a euphoric club-ready jam and partly a piece of movie score waiting to happen. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place in “Drive,” “Spring Breakers” or “The Bling Ring.”

“You & Me” (Featuring W. Darling) I know I mentioned this above, but it really is a stunning piece of work packed with warmth.

“Gnar” (Featuring The Upbeats) This is an authoritative hip-hop flavored track with a dub-step spin. Throwing dubstep bass maneuvers into an in your face hip-hop context still seems strikingly fresh when done well.

PHOTO: Riff Raff - "Neon Icon"
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RIFF RAFFs “Neon Icon” **

I’ll be honest. It is really hard to take RIFF RAFF seriously. With his cartoonish persona and his frequently nonsensical-to-nonexistent flow, it often feels like he is mocking hip-hop. He comes off less like someone wanting to advance the genre and more like someone just having a joke with the industry. Rumored to be the basis for James Franco’s absurd “Alien” character in the movie “Spring Breakers,” he seems to be asking to be parodied with his purposely ridiculous image.

Here’s the thing, “Neon Icon” is actually better than expected. Technically, it is considered his debut, but he’s been releasing a steady stream of independent releases over the last couple years. Most of these independent releases seem to have been created strictly as a marketing tool for RIFF to create a pile of music videos to flood Youtube. These songs are entertaining like a car-wreck you can’t steer your eyes from, but too nonsensical to be considered to be of true cultural value. Luckily, on this album, he actually reins in some of his (let’s just call them) “abstract” qualities. But nonetheless, you are still left with a clown-like figure who stands for all the worst materialistic aspects in hip-hop culture today. If this album is entertaining, it is entertaining out of sheer randomness. In other words, it is fascinating for all the wrong reasons. As I listen to this album, I find myself repeatedly asking, “Wait…what did I just hear??”

Perhaps RIFF RAFF is the kind of act the YouTube age asked for. He’s over the top, demanding your attention, seemingly compulsively maintaining an image fueled by excess. In truth he runs the risk of becoming the modern equivalent of Hammer or Vanilla Ice. It’s possible the people who are falling for his shtick now could be embarrassed by his presence in their collections five years from now. Then again, it is hard to say what the future may hold. Part of me really would love to hear what respected hip-hop purists like Chuck D. or Mos Def (now known as Yesiin Bey) think about what RIFF RAFF has done. “Neon Icon,” like the man who made it will go down as a polarizing work. Some may find it disrespectful. Others may view it more casually and celebrate it for its audaciousness. In any case, it will again open up a debate over what is and what isn’t “real hip-hop.” There is no denying this record’s utter bizarreness. It’s hard to tell if this album’s comedic elements are entirely intended.

Focus Tracks:

“Lava Glaciers” (Featuring Childish Gambino) First of all, Donald Glover (A.K.A. Childish Gambino) should have stayed far away from this record since he is infinitely more skilled than RIFF RAFF, even if he ends up quoting his own song, “Sweatpants.” Luckily, Glover gets what essentially amounts to a double verse length to express himself and the song succeeds, not only because of his presence, but because of Harry Fraud’s playfully psychedelic beat. “Introducing The Icon” On this opener, Riff Raff delivers his lines with a great deal of confidence. It sounds like he’s auditioning to put a verse into N.W.A.’s “Straight Out Of Compton.” While he is far from having Ice Cube or Eazy-E.’s level of skill, what he lacks in flow here he makes up for in attitude.

“Cool It Down” (Featuring Amber Coffman) Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman drops by to deliver a strong hook over a nice guitar-anchored beat

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Next Week: New music from Robin Thicke, the Jayhawks and more. Miss last week's? Get new music from Lana Del Rey, Linkin Park, Jennifer Lopez and more!

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