Music Reviews: The Latest from Imagine Dragons, the Juliana Hatfield Three, Kate Pierson and More

PHOTO: Musicians Daniel Wayne Sermon, Dan Reynolds, Dan Platzman and Ben McKee of Imagine Dragons perform on Feb. 5, 2015 in Los Angeles.
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This week Imagine Dragons hope to capture magic a second time with their sophomore effort, The Juliana Hatfield Three reunite to record their second album in 22 years, the B-52s’ Kate Pierson goes solo for the first time, French-Cuban act Ibeyi bring forth a Latin and African-influenced brand of worldly electro-tinged music, Swedish singer-songwriter José González drops his first solo album in eight years and Brooklyn noise rockers A Place To Bury Strangers playfully aim to drill your speakers with dense layers of sound. The year is picking up and we have a lot of winners this week. There are plenty of albums here to add to your list.

PHOTO: Imagine Dragons "Smoke + Mirrors"
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Imagine Dragons’ “Smoke + Mirrors” **

Las Vegas’ Imagine Dragons made a big splash with their first record, “Night Visions.” It was a formulaic pop-rock record but it still had clear winners in the singles “Radioactive” and “It’s Time,” even if the latter got the forced anthemic formula down to such a science that one could argue that it may actually have been slightly ripped off by American Authors’ “Best Day Of My Life” a year or so later.

“Smoke + Mirrors” finds the band confused in the face of fame. It’s obviously a critical moment in their career. They got the attention of the masses once. Can they get it again? The answer is complicated, but ultimately … er…probably. “Smoke + Mirrors” is a bit of a mess of a record and a bit faceless even compared to the basic pop of “Night Visions.” The band may have had hits, but they don’t sound unique in an ear-catching way. This still sounds like formula. “Shots” for instance sounds like an odd hybrid between the falsetto funk of Maroon 5 and the arena-rock anthems of Coldplay delivered in a gospel-chorus kind of way. The band tries to add elements of hip-hop and electro production on “Gold,” but the authoritative nature of that track doesn’t sound authentic or all that interesting.

The title-track sounds again like Coldplay. It sounds like a B-side off of “Mylo Xyloto.” Vocalist Dan Reynolds doesn’t hide his aspirations to be the American equivalent to Chris Martin and it ultimately makes him sound like an imitator and not like his own man. “It Comes Back To You” also seems very Coldplay-esque.

On the flipside, the forced bar-stomp on the bluesy “I’m So Sorry” is drowned in digital crunch and the Eastern-tinged pounding of “Friction” suffers the same over-zealous production. Although, on second thought, the latter probably has a chance to become the entrance music for a boxer or wrestler when it kicks in.

This album is a disappointment, but it does come through on a few of the ballads or slow-building tracks, but the best tracks are hidden as deep cuts. This shameless pop angling may ultimately work for the band since people like to get more of things that remind them of other things they have heard, but critically speaking this album doesn’t help the band cement their own legacy. Even if this album sells well, artistically and creatively it is a resounding “sophomore slump.” This is the sound of an aimless band trying on hats, hoping something will stick. There may be sonic eclecticism but there’s very little experimentation going on. This is the sound of bland, American rock at its least creative.

Focus Tracks:

“Polaroid” Yes, the slow boom/clap rhythm is straight out of a pop radio playbook, but melodically this is the best song on the album and it goes the most interesting places, even if its “I’m a midnight talker…” lyrics bring to mind a better song by the Steve Miller Band.

“I Bet My Life” The looped scream in the background can get pretty annoying, but this is still among the best songs on here. (This is one of the album’s singles and should do well.) Again, this is a highly formulaic radio-ready ballad, but it still has a slightly winning quality.

“Summer” There’s a vaguely eighties-esque new-wave tension going on here in this track’s bouncing rhythm. It has a swagger and a swing that is different than the rest of the record and thusly it stands out.

PHOTO: The Juliana Hatfield Three "Whatever, My Love"
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The Juliana Hatfield Three’s “Whatever, My Love” ****1/2

A lot will be made of “Whatever, My Love,” and a lot should be made about it. It is after all The Juliana Hatfield Three’s sophomore record, 22 years after their debut. To be fair, this is actually Hatfield’s 13th full-length under her own name and she’s been making quality records for quite a long time. But the Juliana Hatfield Three had the two biggest breakthroughs of her career with the radio hit, “My Sister” and the song “Spin The Bottle” which was prominently featured in the movie “Reality Bites.” Does that mean that this album or its 1993 predecessor are Hatfield’s best work to date? Not necessarily. Her best work is still the magnificent and under-rated 2008 album, “How To Walk Away,” but her JH3 work is definitely her most immediately iconic, and this album’s “Ordinary Guy” chugs along with the same nineties-style frenetic quality as “Spin The Bottle,” but instead of asking for “five minutes in a closet with you,” Hatfield is simply asking for a functional boyfriend. And if pop radio respected rock the way it did back in 1993, the mid-tempo “If I Could” would have a chance to be this album’s answer to that album’s “My Sister.”

Of course, Hatfield always surfed the line between soft-power-pop and blistering punk. Maybe that is why she and Evan Dando have always played so well together. One listen to darkly hilarious “Metal Fume Fever” from her 2000 album, “Juliana’s Pony: Total System Failure” and you know how weird things can get in Hatfield’s world. That undercurrent is strongly represented here by “Push Pin,” with its chorus, “Take the push pin out of my cranium.”

Really with the Juliana Hatfield Three, Hatfield has found her perfect power-trio. Drummer Todd Philips and bassist Dean Fisher give these songs the punch that they need. (Fun fact: Fisher is married to Tanya Donelly of Belly and Throwing Muses fame!)

The press might be quick to call this a “return to form” because of this trio’s reformation, and to a certain extent, yes, there is something familiar being recaptured, but at the same time, Hatfield has continued to make stellar records even when fewer people were noticing. Recently, she had a successful collaboration with Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws under the name Minor Alps and her 2012, self-titled covers record should be heard by more people.

Really, “Whatever My Love” is actually a stronger record the first JH3’s effort, “Become What You Are.” This is a quality rock record and it is clearly evident that this trio should continue to make even more albums together, but it also continues to prove that Hatfield is one of the most undervalued and consistent performers of the grunge era. She hasn’t lost a step. She is getting more powerful with time.

Focus Tracks:

“Parking Lots” The strongest song on the record is this fastly-strummed ballad that closes the album. She sings, “Don’t break down until you get to the parking lot. /Keep it together until you’re in your car. / Betrayed by the promise of a child / That took away half your smile.” These lyrics are gripping and full of pain and this track is among Hatfield’s most powerful pieces of work.

“Blame The Stylist” This plays like a sequel to the “Become What You Are” opener, “Supermodel,” rallying against the fashion industry and the forced uniformity of the fashion industry.

“If Only We Were Dogs” This humorous single wishes that humans could behave like dogs. Its video is making the internet rounds this week shows Hatfield begging for food and waiting outside of stores on all fours as if she was a dog. It’s as off-putting and funny at the same time. The song features a brief but blistering guitar solo from Hatfield, reminding the audience of her impressive level of skill.

“I Don’t Know What To Do With My Hands” Hatfield originally recorded this track on the Minor Alps record in 2013, but it gets an excellent reading here as well.

PHOTO: Kate Piersons "Guitars & Microphones"
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Kate Pierson’s “Guitars And Microphones” ****

It is kind of amazing to think that 36 years after her band the B-52s released their debut album, Kate Pierson is finally making her solo debut. As a listener, I had expected her to go solo long ago, perhaps on the heels of her highly publicized collaborations on R.E.M.’s “Out Of Time” in 1991, even if that pairing did somehow accidentally lead to what is perhaps the group’s most maligned single, “Shiny Happy People.” If I didn’t think she was going to go solo then, I definitely did a year later when she led “Revolution Earth,” one of the better tracks on the B-52s’ “Good Stuff” album. Really, a solo career always seemed to make sense for Pierson and considering her band didn’t release any studio albums between 1992 and 2008, when they came back with the under-rated “Funplex,” it is even more amazing that this move didn’t happen sooner.

Sia seems to be everywhere these days and on “Guitars And Microphones,” she serves as not only the album’s Executive Producer, but also as one of the key co-songwriters on the set, giving Pierson the new-wave jams she deserves. This album actually sounds like a remarkable throwback. Belinda Carlisle’s eighties output comes to mind, since the album’s title-track, “Bring Your Arms,” “Matrix” and “Crush Me With Your Love” all sort of sound like the work of an alternate-universe answer to the Go-Gos or like something off of Carlisle’s earliest solo records. It’s an interesting connection that comes as a bit of a surprise, even though it probably shouldn’t. Also these songs have a strikingly spiky quality without losing their pop appeal. This not only is due to Sia’s presence but also the Strokes’ Nick Valensi and super-producer Dallas Austin who are among the album’s contributors.

Still, this is undoubtedly Pierson’s show and “Guitars And Microphones” feels like a work that has long simmered inside her. Her voice is every bit as powerful as it has ever been and this album is both quirky and quite enjoyable, while maintaining the B-52s’ sense of campiness. In short, this album fully and completely delivers. Still, one wonders why it took Pierson so long to make this move and when we’ll get another B-52s album.

Focus Tracks:

“Guitars And Microphones” In 1986, this would have been a huge hit and by today’s standards it is still hit-worthy and a danceable gem of a track.

“Mister Sister” This is an anthem for those who grew up being forced to play with toy soldiers in the name of gender-stereotyping but who were always more at home going through their sisters’ closets looking for fishnets. The chorus of “Nothing hurts when you are a beautiful girl” is sung in a celebratory way. It’s all about learning to be comfortable in your own skin when otherwise you feel “betrayed by the mirror.”

“Bring Your Arms” This mid-temp track keeps its pep, balancing a ballad-like energy with a new-wave bounce.

PHOTO: Ibeyis self-titled album
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Ibeyi’s “Ibeyi” ****

Ibeyi is the duo consisting of Lisa Kaindé and Naomi Diaz, the twin daughters of late Buena Vista Social Club member Anga Diaz. On their impressive full-length, debut, the twins sing in English and the Nigerian language of Yoruba. (Their name translates to “twins” in Yoruba.) Considering the twins have ties to both France and Cuba, their debut creates quite an impressive international sonic stew. Produced by XL label-head, Richard Russell, these often sparse arrangements have an effortlessly jazzy sense of coolness bringing to mind Russell’s previous work with Gil-Scott Heron and Bobby Womack.

There’s an earthy bluesy quality to the single, “River,” with its lyrical baptismal imagery and its pseudo-hip-hop stomp. Ibeyi’s world is one where Latin and jazz influences merge with hip-hop and experimental electro influences, thus creating an appealing concoction.

Really, this is the kind of record that hopefully will reach beyond the “world music” crowd. One can perhaps imagine a world where “River” or “Stranger/Lover” could earn some airplay. The success of this album will be determined by how it is marketed. I believe like Gorillaz, FKA twigs and even M.I.A., this is outside of the box, but should find a wider audience than probably initially expected. It’s an album full of warmth, that is both spiritual and ever-so-slightly sensual with an earthy, rhythmically-charged soul.

The Diaz twins were only 11 when their father died suddenly, but now at 20 they are effectively building on the musical legacy helped set forth. This is an unusual and stirring collection of tremendous grace.

Focus Tracks:

“River” This is the clear standout track, made even more powerful by its video where the sisters are side-by-side floating. As one sings, the other goes underwater. It’s a wonder how they made the video without drowning. If my above thoughts haven’t made it clear, this deserves to be a hit.

“Faithful” This song about trying to find a lover who can be faithful and will be loyal. There’s something captivating in the way the Diaz twins pronounce the word “loyalty” and their sense of harmony here is pretty flawless.

“Stranger/Lover” This is an excellent song about lovers in the throes of an argument and about what it is like to discover that the person with whom you share your bed may not exactly be the person you thought you knew. Again, this is another strong potential single. It comes at either a moment of healing clarity or at a point where the couple breaks up.

PHOTO: José Gonzálezs "Vestiges & Claws"
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José González’ “Vestiges & Claws” ****1/2

Swedish singer-songwriter, José González took 8 years between solo records. To be fair, he recorded two albums with his band Junip in between, but the time has not worn badly on his sound. Like its two immediate predecessors, “Veneer” and “In Our Nature,” “Vestiges & Claws” showcases González’s unique brand of folk music. You can identify one of González’s records in an instant. For the most part, his albums always sound like it is possible that the microphones could have been placed in the body of his acoustic guitar. (I have no idea if this is the case, but if it isn’t, then all of his albums have been mastered to the near sonic breaking point, because when you listen to them on headphones, you feel like the acoustic guitar is playing right in your ear. Whatever specific recording techniques lead to this effect, it is definitely his trademark.) I’ve said this before, but to me González has a vaguely Gilbert O’Sullivan-quality to his voice. It’s a soft, whispery instrument, somehow even when he raises his voice and it is perfect for ballads like “The Forest.”

Maybe it is the wintery weather in New York right now, or the fact that I listened to this album the other night on my way home from the subway amidst the snowy and icy streets, but this provided the perfect soundtrack for such a trek. The softer songs were somehow accented by both the icy air and the street lights bouncing against the snow, while the more percussive tracks like “Leaf Off/The Cave” and “Let It Carry You” provided a wonderful sense of tension as I tried to maneuver around icy patches without wiping out and losing my balance.

Beneath the soft exterior, González definitely has some darker undertones. “What Will,” which mentions the album’s title prominently is simultaneously lulling and ominous. Again, it goes back to that intimate recording technique. He may be singing at near whisper and he may be playing an acoustic guitar, but he delivers every note like he wants it to resonate and rock. “Vestiges & Claws” is one of José González’s strongest albums in a discography without any noticeable weak spots.

Focus Tracks:

“With The Ink Of A Ghost” This enveloping opener is a textbook slow-builder from González. Two-and-a-half minutes in, it blossoms into a beautifully executed, melodic bridge that brings the entire track to life.

“Stories We Build, Stories We Tell” This track is built on a guitar-signature that reminds me of the bass-line of Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Devika (Goddess)” which was sampled famously by Digable Planets for their song “Pacifics” and was more recently used as part of the backdrop for rapper Pell’s “The Never.” This track possesses a similar brand of funkiness and González proves himself to be skilled guitar soloist.

“Let It Carry You” This song balances warmth and vague dissonance in a driving, rhythmically-charged mix. It may take a couple listens for this track’s intensity to stick, but once it does, you’ll be listening to it on repeat and closely inspecting its musical textures.

PHOTO: Transfixiations "A Place to Bury Strangers"
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A Place To Bury Strangers’ “Transfixiation” ****

A Place To Bury Strangers’ leader Oliver Ackermann designs guitar effects-pedals and has a respected company called Death By Audio. It is good to keep this in mind when listening to the band’s fourth full-length, “Transfixiation.” Ackermann has used the band as an outlet for sonic experimentation for years, but this record in particular is one of the artiest and most compelling uses of feedback, guitar-noise and general fuzz in recent memory. Sure, this Brooklyn band’s brand of noise-rock isn’t for everyone, but from the start of opener, “Supermaster,” it is evident that this record is going to be different than most of the other indie-rock records being championed. For one, A Place To Bury Strangers come off as the strange lovechild of Bauhaus and the Jesus & Mary Chain, but on this record in particular, Ackermann seems buried even more than usual. The clarity heard on previous single, “Keep Slipping Away” from what is perhaps the band’s career high-point, second album, “Exploding Head,” is now nowhere to be found. Instead, we get speaker-blowing goodness and the kind of power rarely attempted by other bands. In fact, this album ranks among the loudest and most destructive I have ever heard and it wins points for pushing the volume not only to 11, but really to 22.

This album continues this band’s progression nicely from their last album, “Worship.” And Ackermann’s vocals are even more echo-drenched than before, as if he’s muttering beneath the gothic, shoegazing cacophony. Really, from start to finish, this album is in full-on-assault mode. This album rarely possesses the brief moments of sonic reduction heard on the group’s previous records, and thus, it will probably be a polarizing release to some. But if it doesn’t give you a headache, you’ll think it is the rock album you’ve long awaited.

The vacuum-cleaner-esque hum of “Love High,” recalls My Bloody Valentine at their peak. Indeed, Ackermann and his bandmates seem to be using the late-eighties British, Irish and Scottish undergrounds as a source of inspiration, but there’s also a post-Sonic Youth New York sense of cool underneath it all and this isn’t merely an imitation. With “Transfixiation,” A Place To Bury Strangers push the noise-rock genre forward. It is a gleeful display of audio destruction. If you are looking for something clean and friendly, look elsewhere. This is a record that bathes in the glorious art-form of well-placed static and crashing sounds. This is a record that is simultaneously captivating and smothering. It also is the clear front-runner for the loudest and hardest record of 2015.

Focus Tracks:

“What We Don’t See” If you remove the guitar squeals and the well-placed layers of sonic gunk, you get a strongly danceable new-wave gem. It’s a bright, bold two-and-a-half-minute romp.

“Straight” The Sabbath-esque metallic freak-out at the beginning of this track is perhaps the clearest sonic moment of the record, but soon this tightly-wound rocker gets drenched in feedback as Ackermann begins to sing. This track is both vaguely funky and menacing simultaneously.

“Now It’s Over” This is another fleeting moment of near clarity, sounding as if someone took an early track by New Order or the Cure and covered it in a couple layers of distortion. Really, actually this sounds closer to Joy Division than New Order, even it brings to mind both acts.

Next week: New albums from Airborne Toxic Event, Alien Ant Farm and more.

Missed the latest review? Get the details of Drake's new album here.

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