Music Reviews: The Latest From Imogen Heap, Kimbra, Smokey Robinson and More

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This week Imogen Heap comes back to release her first proper full-length album in five years, New Zealand-native Kimbra releases her adventurous second record, Smokey Robinson sings his classics with some famous friends, Wiz Khalifa has pretty much one thing on his mind, the members of Bishop Allen return with more of their mild-mannered indie-rock and we listen to the soundtrack to the new movie, “If I Stay.” Strap yourselves in and put your finger on the play button because it is go time!

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Imogen Heap’s “Sparks” (Deluxe Version) ****

Imogen Heap isn’t a songwriter. She’s a composer. Her fourth solo album, “Sparks” is a remarkably dense song-set that moves with an agility more akin to classical music than pop. Her synths and vocal lines are painstakingly layered and intertwined with a great deal of care. These 14 songs aren't likely to get the pop traction they deserve because they are so wonderfully complex. Fans who have been paying close attention to Heap over the last few years, too will recognize six of these songs, since she began releasing a series of five singles (all featured here) as early as 2011. The sixth song making its second appearance is her collaboration with Deadmau5, “Telemiscommunications” which was originally the closing track to his record, “>Album Title Goes Here<.” In spite of the reruns, Heap has delivered a strong, flowing set. Each one of these songs fits well onto the record as a whole and actually blossoms within the bigger context.

This record may not be quite as immediate as her 2005 masterpiece, “Speak For Yourself,” which I still contend is one of the strongest records to emerge out of the last decade, but give it time and this collection will emerge as having plenty of gifts of its own.

Like she did with her last record, “Ellipse” in 2009, Heap has wisely chosen to release a two disc version of the album. The bonus disc includes instrumental versions of every track on the record. I can’t emphasize enough that this is the version you should get. Heap’s instrumentals put her in similar company with the likes of Prefuse 73 and Four Tet. She’s sonically gifted and her arrangements are stellar. The isolated instrumental tracks accentuate the tightness of her work. Classical pianist, Christopher O’Riley has famously recorded solo piano arrangements of songs by the likes of Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. I think Heap would also be worthy of this treatment if he is looking for another catalog to interpret. “Sparks” may not go down particularly easy in some places, but it will leave you astounded, while further cementing Heap as one of the strongest innovators working in the industry today.

Focus Tracks:

“The Listening Chair” This is the most challenging piece on the record. Over its five-and-a-half minutes this moves as if going through a series quick movements. Throughout the set on the whole, Heap explores various tones and Internationally-minded instrumentation. She loves exploring unusual terrain.

“Run-Time” This is the closest this album has to a traditional club hit and it is wisely one of the album’s singles. Heap, even in this context still shows tremendous care. The song plays like a sequel to “Clear The Area” from “Speak For Yourself.”

“Entanglement” Over what sounds like a broken clock chime and a beeping digital metronome, Heap sings a surprisingly sensual song over a comfortingly warm synth. A string-section comes in adding emphasis.

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Kimbra’s “The Golden Echo” ***

Since she emerged a couple years back as Gotye’s duet partner on the smash hit, “Somebody That I Used To Know,” New Zealand-native Kimbra has been associated with an edgy, trend-defying cool sensibility. But often times, it feels like there are two parts of her at war for attention. Listening to her last album, “Vows” and her live cover of the Nina Simone-popularized “Plain Gold Ring” and you hear an example of her unquestionable raw talent. But elsewhere on that record, she was often buried in over-zealous production in an effort to make something still unique but slick. Her second album, “The Golden Echo” is no different. There are moments like on the bluesy “Goldmine” where she shines. But then there’s “90’s Music,” the album’s grating single which actually is more of clashing sound-collage than a song. I sense it is her attempt to achieve something other-worldly like Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On,” but it doesn’t show Kimbra at her best.

Admittedly this song does play better when separated from its day-glow trippy, sugar-high of a video, but it is still quite bizarre any way you slice it. To Kimbra’s credit, she takes risks in a time when few others do. Even if some of her experiments seem heavy-handed, they are refreshing all the same.

Kimbra seems set on delivering something slightly disorienting over something with immediate appeal. The Bilal-assisted duet, “Everlovin’ Ya” is packed with falsetto digital wooziness. Overall “The Golden Echo” shows promise even if it often frustrates to find clarity. But then again, Kimbra’s brand of strangeness may be the pebble that needs to be tossed into the gears of the stagnant pop world. Let’s hope it catches on in a bigger way to usher in an interesting movement. One thing is clear. Kimbra is making records like no one else currently on the pop spectrum. If she manages to get some airplay in the States off this record, it might bode well for other more progressively alternative, electronic-leaning artists.

Focus Tracks:

“Goldmine” Kimbra is at her best with more soulful material where her weirder aspects are muted down to unique accents. This track hits the right balance, allowing her untouched vocal to effortlessly float over the marching groove.

“Nobody But You” This Motown-meets-disco ballad also hits a sweet spot, especially when the chorus hits its apex. This definitely sounds like a radio-ready hit, even if things get a little strange towards the end.

“Carolina” The harmonies are a little heavy, but this track possesses an appealing glow. Again, in typical Kimbra fashion, the song almost veers off track several times.

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Smokey Robinson’s “Smokey & Friends” *1/2

First off, if you are looking at the rating for this and saying to yourself, “Wait, these songs are classics,” I would say I agree with you, but this is the kind of limp, lazy, late-period duets record that has become all too common. Smokey Robinson is an absolute treasure and an American legend. These songs in their original form are timeless masterpieces. Why cover them again with a younger group of singers with arrangements that don’t do them justice? Modern studio wizardry can’t compare with the original backing by Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers. In comparison, the versions here, even with Robinson’s presence sound like rinky-dink karaoke. Randy Jackson’s dime-store pop production doesn’t do these songs any favors. If this collection had been produced by someone forward-thinking like Mark Ronson, we might have had something, but no.

Even people you think might do well here falter. Elton John sounds autotuned singing “The Tracks Of My Tears,” while the Mary J. Blige-assisted take of “Being With You” verges on elevator music. Jessie J can’t summon the soul to match the original take of “Cruisin’,” while even with Robinson by their side, Aloe Blacc, JC Chasez and Miguel are no match for the Temptations on “My Girl.” Steven Tyler has positively no business singing “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” and John Legend makes “The Quiet Storm” sound bland. Worst of all is the Gary Barlow-aided take on “Get Ready” that gives the song a “Lite” EDM make-over.

What is most frustrating is that Robinson shouldn’t be making this kind of record. At 74, he still has his voice and it still sounds great. Looking at a classic song-writing peer like Paul McCartney, who issued the ground-breaking “New” last year and now is surprisingly rumored to be working with Kanye West on collaborative material, it seems like Smokey also should be one of those evergreen figures who still mixes it up. This record finds him not only resting easily on his laurels but in a sense degrading his well-earned legacy. The overall effect is alarmingly depressing. If you want to listen to these songs, seek out the originals. This collection is needless blasphemy. Whether he realizes it or not, Smokey Robinson deserves something better.

Focus Tracks:

“The Tears Of A Clown” (Featuring Sheryl Crow) Although muted, this take stands as one of the better examples on the record. But Crow knows how to give Motown classics a better reading than this judging from her spot-on 2010 version of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

“Ooh Baby Baby” (Featuring Ledisi) Ledisi is suited to sing this song with Smokey even if the arrangement again is slightly sleepy.

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Wiz Khalifa’s “Blacc Hollywood” **

On his fourth album, Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa goes further into the realm of “stoner” rap. From the plume of smoke captured on the cover there is no doubt of the huge haze over this record. But that haze also makes this album someone one-dimensional. How many songs can someone write about smoke or bragging about “quality product?” Khalifa’s flow is at times very slow. (One sentence at a time slow, with simple, basic rhymes.) Interestingly, this album’s highlights come when either he has a guest to compete with or when he switches the subject. Otherwise he is stuck in the straight-forward electro-rap world with little excitement, coming off like a pot-obsessed combination between Drake and Kid Cudi. But he’s not as interesting as either and he certainly isn’t going to win anyone’s “best-in-the-game” contest.

When he hits an interesting groove, he messes it up in some way. He takes an effectively compelling electro-beat and turns it into the vacant derriere-ode “Ass Drop” while “Promises” has a beautifully airy backdrop but he chooses to be slightly autotuned and sing hackneyed lines like “I want to have my way with your body.” For the most part, this record plays like a collection of missed opportunities. “Promises” is the most frustrating track on the album. With some slight lyrical adjustments it could’ve really been something amazing.

I don’t really know if Khalifa wants to make songs that will appeal to anyone other than weed-enthusiasts, but too often as a collection, “Blacc Hollywood” feels like it is standing still. Whenever there is a glimpse of skill shown, it is all too quickly followed by a throwaway track. This record has a couple good moments but it is ultimately quite uneven.

Focus Tracks:

“House In The Hills” (Featuring Curren$y) This track where Khalifa eludes to his rough upbringing and states happily that he is “25 and not dead” possesses the kind of substance and flow that much of the rest of the album lacks. But then again, he’s rapping beside Curren$y whose distinctly deadpan flow sounds fascinatingly effortless.

“We Dem Boyz Remix” (Featuring Rick Ross ScHoolboy Q & Nas) Both versions of “We Dem Boyz” are on this album, but the remix is actually all you need. Although, Khalifa is surpassed by all three of his guests with of course Nas coming out on top.

“No Gain” In a way this track stands as a thesis statement for the album and what he hoped it to be. He says, “It ain’t no rush / I do things slow /Cuz it’s all about timing. / Some people think when you get to this point in life you made it. / I see so many settle for less / That’s when talent gets wasted.” This stands out not only because it is on point but ironically because throughout a lot of this record, Khalifa seems like he’s merely coasting, effectively wasting his own talent. There are glimpses here and on his other records that on the whole he can do better. From this verse, he obviously wants to deliver something more substantial. He may not immediately realize it, but currently for the most part he’s still settling for less.

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Bishop Allen’s “Lights Out” ***1/2

Aside from their fascinating and raw two-volume EP compilations from 2007, Boston-bred, Kingston, NY based band Bishop Allen have usually been known for only one or two great songs per record. “Middle Management” stood out like an excellently sore thumb on their 2007 album “Bishop Allen & The Broken String,” which is maybe why the track served as the rollicking centerpiece to a scene in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” The observational, camera and wedding-themed “Click, Click, Click, Click” also stood out from that record, while 2009’s “Grrrr…” brought us the funny opener, “Dimmer.” With the exception of the wildly overt “Middle Management,” throughout their career this band has put out smart, yet unassuming work that at times has hidden its charms by blending into the wallpaper. Thankfully, on “Lights Out” the band sounds a little more consistently perky, possessing a stronger punch than before while maintaining their intelligent pop sensibilities.

On this set the band almost achieve the balance they have long been seeking. There’s a lively bounce throughout and while there’s a slight touch of preciousness in Justin Rice’s often half-whispered delivery, there’s some nice song-craft here. Weirdly it seems like this band is waking up. This album is more consistent than their records usually have been in the past and deserves to earn them a larger audience.

Focus Tracks:

“No Conditions” This song begins as a whisper and quickly builds into the kind of loud rocker you wish the band would craft more often. During the chorus, the explosive guitar provides a wallop in stark contrast to the verse section. The loud/quiet/loud formula pretty much always works!

“Crows” This perhaps borrows a page from Vampire Weekend’s semi-African/semi calypso influence, but this is a surprisingly infectious tune, anchored by former We Are Scientists drummer Michael Tapper’s excellent beat work.

“Shadow” This nice acoustic closer is sweetly sung by Darbie Nowatka, who is also Justin Rice’s wife. Her contributions to the record add a whole other layer to the band’s sound.

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“If I Stay” Original Motion Picture Soundtrack ****

The soundtrack to “If I Stay” isn’t a calculated record-company grab like let’s say the “Twilight” soundtracks or “The Hunger Games” soundtracks. Not to insult those soundtracks, because they tend to be good even if they are a little too conspicuously and painstakingly constructed to move units. But this soundtrack is more akin to that of “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower,” “Garden State” or even in a way, “The Bling Ring” because it is obviously constructed to compliment the specific tone of the movie above all else.

The movie, based on Gayle Forman’s best-selling book, tells the story of Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) who after an accident ends up in a life and death struggle. Music is an extremely important part of the story, a point which director R.J. Cutler makes clear in this album’s liner notes. The record itself bounces from fuzzy indie rock to gentle ballads with great ease. Lucius’ “Until We Get Here” (also on their excellent album “Wildewoman” from last year) has an excellent indie-rock build like the Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” (which was famously used in “(500) Days Of Summer” ) while Beck’s “Morning” (from this year’s excellent “Morning Phase”) is repurposed here as well.

In the film, too, Mia’s boyfriend Adam has a band, Willamette Stone and they get 5 of the album’s 14 tracks, including a decent acoustic, cello-assisted take on Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today.” While this soundtrack plays with expected conventions of the teen-romance genre, it also takes some clever, unexpected chances. The movie is out this weekend and as I write this, it has yet to be released. Depending on how well it is received, this disc could potentially be seen as the treasured companion to a beloved film. No matter how well the movie does, this is still a strong, mood-setting compilation.

Focus Tracks:

“Karen Revisited” (Sonic Youth) This track is the most wonderful risk this soundtrack takes. Sonic Youth have been a fixture on teen-movie soundtracks since “Titanium Exposé” was used on the “Pump Up The Volume” soundtrack back in 1990, but this usage is a little different. First off, the song (which was originally Lee Ranaldo’s centerpiece of the band’s moody, post-9/11 meditation, “Murray Street” in 2002) is over 11 minutes long. Roughly 8 of those minutes are made up of feedback squeals and textural ambient sounds, making this no doubt a director’s dream to possibly score an unsettled scene. It will be interesting to see how this track was used in the film.

“Promise” (Ben Howard) I’ll be honest. As the closing track to Howard’s 2011 album, “Every Kingdom,” this song didn’t stand out for me quite in the way that it does in the context of this disc, but it is a beautiful piece full of emotion. The beginning of the track creates another challenging moment. (What is that sound that begins this track? Is it rain hitting a window? ) Like Ane Brun and Linnea Olsson’s “Halo” and Odessa’s “I Will Be There,” this provides a fitting emotional tug of the heartstrings.

“I Want What You Have” (Willamette Stone) For Adam’s band, the songs were written by members of various indie rock bands “I Want What You Have” was written by the Shining Mirrors” and it’s an upbeat rocker that sets the tone of the band well.

Next Week: Ariana Grande, The New Pornographers, J Mascis, The Rentals and more!

Missed last week's? The Latest From Sinead O’Connor, Michael Cera and more.

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