This week, singer-songwriter James Taylor drops his first album, mostly consisting of self-penned originals in over a decade, “American Idol”-alum Adam Lambert releases his latest album, Internet pop Phenom Ryn Weaver makes a striking debut, Third Eye Blind returns, Slum Village keep a “classic hip-hop” torch lit and electro/disco titan Giorgio Moroder re-emerges with a modern collection of high-profile guests. It's another diverse week.
|James Taylor’s “Before This World” ***1/2|
If you are familiar with the mellow folk-pop that has made James Taylor famous over the last forty-plus years, the good news is that his latest, “Before This World” doesn’t differ from this formula. To those who usually find his music a bit sleepy, he is particularly engaged here. This album actually plays to his best skills as a story-teller, whether it is the Red Sox-themed anthem, “Angels Of Fenway” or the war-time reflection of “Far Afghanistan.” He also tells a glorious tale of being lost in Canada on “SnowTime.”
Taylor's biggest asset may also be his biggest weakness. The fact that he doesn’t really switch-up his style is both a comfort and a little unsettling. The key way this album sounds like it is a product of 2015 and not the early-to-mid-seventies is through subjects Taylor chooses to tackle. His voice has not changed or aged a bit, giving this album a timeless quality.
This is a record packed with subtle, semi-orchestral beauty. "You And I Again,” with its pleasant string-work is a prime example of Taylor working at the peak of his powers.
While this album isn’t necessarily an astounding, remarkable restatement of purpose, it does show Taylor doing more of what is expected from him in his continued body of work. His consistency is truly admirable. Considering this is an album where nine out of the ten songs are originals and Taylor has spent much of the recent latter part of his career exploring covers, this record’s sturdiness is that much more impressive. This is his most self-written album since “October Road” back in 2002.
“Angels Of Fenway” This love-letter to the Boston Red Sox tells the story of “The Curse Of The Bambino” through the eyes of a grandmother born in 1918. She lives to see the Red Sox win the World Series again 86 years later. This song will no doubt become a real anthem for Boston sports fans.
“You And I Again” This is Taylor at his most gentle and most orchestrated. This is a ballad with a nearly classic sense of focus.
“Far Afghanistan” This is Taylor’s lament on the horrors of war. There’s an awful lot here. Historical facts about Afghanistan are mixed with a soldier’s prayers and the thoughts swirling through his inner psyche. This track is edgier than most would probably expect from Taylor. It has some really unexpected sonic grit that is a welcome addition to Taylor’s typical formula. This is almost a dirty slice of blues.
|Adam Lambert’s “The Original High”(Deluxe Version) ***|
Adam Lambert is probably still most famous for his stint on “American Idol.” His first album in three years is also his Warner Brothers debut and it is a confident, albeit formulaic pop record. This is a crisp collection and Lambert shows he has some dynamite pipes. The set has a unified quality to it as well, which is remarkable considering that it is essentially a compilation of Lambert’s work with a variety of writers and producers. The most common producers that wind up on the list are Max Martin and Shellback.
As defined a performer as Lambert is, and as well as he does with these songs, this album still does possess a factory-like quality on the whole, even if there are some really catchy and beautiful moments interspersed into its song-set. Lambert, for instance nails the soaring emotion in “There I Said It,” and he proves to be a fitting duet partner to Tove Lo on “Rumors.” Hit, “Ghost Town” easily bounces from an acoustic ballad to dub-step-flavored pop.
This is one of the few albums that actually does not benefit from its deluxe edition bonus tracks, of which the set offers three. “Shame” in particular sounds like a demo from 1984 and “These Boys” is a weak slice of lite-disco funk.
Overall, however, as an album, “The Original High” leaves a somewhat positive vibe. It doesn’t have any cringe-worthy moments outside of the above-mentioned bonus-tracks. Really its biggest flaw is that its uber-clean and slick production sounds like everything else on pop radio. Lambert is given more room than ever to stretch out. He deserves even more. As unique and gifted a performer as he is, part of me feels listening to this record that he still feels too constrained by “pop” ideals. A few more chances and risks could really prove to be potentially rewarding.
“Ghost Town” This main single and album opener begins in slow, melodic territory and then tethers back and forth in and out of club and “house” territory.
“Rumors” (Featuring Tove Lo) Tove Lo begins this song and this song recalls the excellent work on her “Queen Of The Clouds” last year. This should be a decent-sized hit for both of them.
“Things I Didn’t Say” A nicely but oddly-timed bell pattern gives way to a driving beat and a soaring chorus. This is Lambert working at his best.
|Ryn Weaver’s “The Fool” ****|
If you are unfamiliar with alterna-pop singer Ryn Weaver, you obviously weren’t one of the people captivated by the viral video for her buzz-worthy single, “OctaHate” last year. Weaver definitely has a unique presence and her distinct, sometimes heavy, quick vocal vibrato will set her apart with some and probably turn off others. If you happened to pick up her “Promises” EP that came out last year, all four of its tracks now appear with seven others on her impressive full-length debut, “The Fool.”
The most interesting aspect of this record is its behind-the-scenes collaborations between strange bedfellows. Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos is surprisingly one of the album’s main songwriters, co-writing a number of songs with Weaver who is credited under her name, Aryn Wuthrich. "OctaHate” alone has Weaver co-writing with Angelakos, Charli XCX, Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat. You would think this would be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, but no.
As an album, “The Fool” is a weirdly captivating, somewhat edgy sonic statement. It is definitely a work from a post-Florence Welch world. But, from the digitally-charged nearly tribal march of “Runaway” to the impossibly high vocal tweaks on the title-track, it is clear that not only is Weaver herself an interesting force, but she and her creative partners are out to make a record that fits with current pop radio standards but also plays with boundaries. The looped bells in “Stay Low” are a thing of beauty. Really, this album plays like a pop answer to the trip-hop flavored albums of the nineties. There are slight sonic echoes of possible influence from everything from Bjork’s “Post” to Poe’s “Hello” embedded deep in the fabric of this album and it is more singularly and uniquely minded than most current pop albums. Again, this album, while no doubt a “pop” album by design seems to hint at the coming of another “alternative” revolution. While this is a record written with many co-writers, it never seems faceless. It never seems suited for anyone but Weaver. It never seems like it was assembled by a committee.
Towards the end of the album when Weaver heads into more acoustic and/or earthy territory on songs like “Traveling Song” and “Here Is Home,” it doesn’t seem like a stretch when you consider the album’s “anything goes” eclectic approach that is established early on in the set.
In the end, “The Fool” ends up being a big, fascinating, captivating pop surprise. It should probably play like an overworked mess by the number of collaborators on its credits, but it is remarkably focused. Considering how many people known for big, formulaic pop records are present on this record, it actually plays like something infinitely more adventurous. This album is most likely a blockbuster waiting for its audience.
“OctaHate” One of the best pop songs of 2014 still remains a strong contender a year later. It is hard to listen to this song and not think of Weaver’s (perhaps understandably nervous) rocked out performance on Letterman earlier this year. When Letterman kissed and shook her hand, she wouldn’t let it go, as if to prolong the moment. That moment was both quirky and bizarrely endearing. In any case, this song is a one-of-a-kind oddball gem. It’s a pop song that doesn’t fit into an easy box, which is a really rare find these days.
“Traveling Song” This song couldn’t be more different than “OctaHate.” It’s a mature, airy slice of folk with slight electro-touches creeping in from the background.
“The Fool” This title-track is a sing-song-y groove that gets better with every listen. There are a lot of sonic details hidden beneath all the bells and whistles. You’ll notice different details with each spin.
|Third Eye Blind’s “Dopamine” ***1/2|
Third Eye Blind’s 1997 debut is one of the few mega-blockbuster albums of the nineties with which I never connected. I always found the “doo doo doo” chorus of “Semi Charmed Life” to be grating. The happy tone of that song combined with its tales of heavy drug-use never jived with me. "Graduate,” I didn’t find to be much of a song at all and I found “Jumper” to be a cloying PSA for suicide-prevention.
Why am I saying this? Well, “Dopamine,” the latest album by Stephan Jenkins’ latest incarnation of Third Eye Blind is in contrast with my feeling towards the band’s debut a surprisingly likable record. Maturity is Jenkins’ friend and he still sounds hungry for success. At the same time, this album sounds like a nice progression of the band’s signature sound, which is surprising because only Jenkins and drummer, Brad Hargreaves remain from the band’s classic lineup.
The main difference is that this is obviously not a record crafted with radio success in mind. Jenkins is still honing his craft and frankly (and surprisingly) the band ends up sounding like poppier cousin to Matt Pond PA. There’s a delicate, melodic tone to this record that emphasizes Jenkins’ best skills as a writer, even if the title-track with its background-vocals brings to mind “Semi-Charmed Life.” The core of this record lies in tender but rarely overly-affected ballads. And yet, the band’s signature bounciness remains intact on a track like “Rites Of Passage." Funny thing that Jenkins manages to make references to Bowie on both that song and on the excellent “Exiles.”
As an album, “Dopamine” is a surprisingly confident set. Considering this is the first Third Eye Blind album in six years and only the band’s fifth overall, this album shows significant growth and hints that the band’s best work is actually still ahead of them. Jenkins has hinted this might be the band’s last record. I actually hope that isn’t the case. From the rocking solo which adds depth to “Something In You” to the surprisingly unflinching ode to murder, “Blade,” this record shows some real guts and is much bolder than expected.
“Exiles” This is a beautifully building ballad that will recall high points like the “Blue”-era hit “Deep Inside Of You.” This is actually a better song.
“Shipboard Cook” This is another epic builder, but the song actually hits its highest points at its quietest, during its final minute or so. It still has a pretty appealing chorus.
“Blade” This is the most delicately-written song about stabbing a guy at a party. Is it twisted? By all means. But it is also strange hit-single material. As violent a song as this is, it also shows Jenkins at his most tender, This feels more like a dark character study than anything. But, if you really think about it, the majority of Third Eye Blind’s biggest hits have been catchy songs about really unsettling subjects.
|Slum Village’s “YES!” ****|
Detroit’s Slum Village make a triumphant return with their latest album, “YES!” Always a group with a shifting dynamic, only T3 still stands from the original trio, after the departures and deaths of both J Dilla (originally known as Jay Dee) and Baatin. But T3 still holds down the fort as he has since 2010 with Illa J and Young RJ by his side, bringing Slum Village far beyond where anyone would expect them to go considering their history. Even sweeter, there still seem to be some stray Dilla beats for the group to use, nine years after his untimely death from an incurable blood disease and Lupus. The tie-in to Dilla is a key factor, here.
Dilla remains one of the key titans in modern hip-hop whose legacy spans over many legends of the genre. With Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Dilla was also one-third of The Ummah, the production team behind the late-period releases by A Tribe Called Quest. He also produced tracks for De La Soul, MF DOOM, Ghostface Killah, the Roots and more. His loss is still felt in hip-hop today, even if he left a large collection of unused beats behind. The fact that these grooves still exist and haven’t reached their end means that T3 can still maintain a bit of the original Slum Village vibe, even if it is in a virtual sense. (Note: For more Dilla-listening pleasure, his 2006 album, “Donuts,” released on his last birthday and just three days before his death is still mandatory listening.)
As an album, “YES!” is a throwback to a classic era of hip-hop and it has got a lot of guests to back that up. De La Soul are on “Right Back.” Phife Dawg makes a welcome (and unfortunately rare) appearance on the Tribe-quoting “Push It Along.” Bilal sings the hook on “Love Is” This is a classic-minded album for hip-hop heads who cut their teeth in the nineties. It has a grittiness and a jazziness akin to Tribe and the Pharcyde. At the end of “Expressive,” over a thick bassline, the hook to Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” even gets briefly quoted.
“Yes Yes (Remix)” ends up being a gritty ode, thick with sexual bravado over a slick, smooth hook, while “Where We Come From” is a future hip-hop classic with a tight, enveloping flow. “Bonafide” in comparison plays like a bare-bones almost freestyle-esque workout. There’s a refreshing, organic feeling to this record that brings hip-hop back to a time when it was about grooves and flows instead of image. This feels like a dusty analog record in all the best ways. If you have been someone bemoaning the fact that hip-hop has seemingly lost its way as of late, “YES!” will have many reminders that hope still exists. The legend of Dilla lives on and against all odds, Slum Village continues to be a driving force in 2015.
“Where We Come From” This track has an undeniable momentum and a classic sense of drive, built off of an organ riff that is smoother and more subtle than silk. This is rapid-fire gold that is punctuated by an amazing drum solo that closes the track. It doesn’t get much better than this.
“Right Back” (Featuring De La Soul) De La Soul’s Posdnous drops the first verse of this brief jam over a mournful piano-riff, no doubt priming the scene for the Long Island trio’s impending return. Considering they just had the second most successful Kickstarter campaign in history, it is nice to hear them included alongside Slum Village.
“Push It Along” (Featuring Phife Dawg) His verse is shockingly brief, but again, it is nice hearing Phife paying tribute to his roots, 25 years after A Tribe Called Quest opened their debut “People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm” with their song of the same title.
|Giorgio Moroder’s “Déjà Vu” ***1/2|
At 75, disco and dance pioneer Giorgio Moroder makes a somewhat miraculous return with “Déjà Vu.”
Moroder made his name working with Donna Summer in the '70s and working on the classic “Flashdance” soundtrack in the eighties. After appearing on Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” two years ago, he has seemingly rebooted his career, easily adapting to modern EDM tastes. Throughout most of the record, Moroder finds great success. Only Britney Spears’ auto-tuned reading of Suzanne Vega’s classic “Tom’s Diner” falls positively flat and keeps this album from classic status. (See the previous Slum Village review. That song seems to be a particularly popular touchstone this week.)
Otherwise, with the likes of Sia (on the title-track) and Charli XCX (on “Diamonds”) Moroder crafts an updated version of his classic sound.
Kylie Minogue sounds at home on “Right Here, Right Now,” as does Kelis on “Back & Forth.” The opening instrumental, “4 U With Love” sounds gloriously cutting edge. Equally, the wonderfully-titled “74 Is The New 24” indicates the fact that this man obviously never took his finger off the pulse of modern dance music.
“Déjà Vu,” during the majority of its duration plays like a nice reminder of how dance music can play at its truest apex. Other than the ill-suited Spears collaboration, this album offers up an electro-pop heaven of sorts. Moroder is still this genre’s king.
“Deja Vu” (Featuring Sia) If there was ever any doubt, this track is proof that Sia would have done very well as a classic disco diva.
“Diamonds” (Featuring Charli XCX) Moroder puts Charli XCX over a dub-step-ready bassline paired with a demonic-sounding “Speak & Spell.” Given the fact that she usually does well over her own electro-clash-style grooves, she and Moroder are perfectly matched here.
“I Do This For You” (Featuring Marlene) This is a pretty dramatic dance ballad which brings to mind an updated answer to Moroder’s “Flashdance” work. It even has a pseudo-hip-hop club-banger cheer hidden beneath the peak of its chorus.
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