Music Reviews: The Latest From Kelly Clarkson, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds and More

PHOTO: Kelly Clarkson performs on Good Morning America, March 3, 2015.
ABC via Getty Images

This week, the original "American Idol" Kelly Clarkson returns with her latest album, the former co-leader of Oasis, Noel Gallagher, releases his second album with his band, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile shows she has true range on her latest album and electronic duo Purity Ring refine their pop sensibilities. There is a lot to enjoy in this week’s releases.

PHOTO: Kelly Clarkson - Piece By Piece
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Kelly Clarkson’s “Piece By Piece” (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2

Kelly Clarkson, the original “American Idol,” is still going strong in 2015 and “Piece By Piece” is a brightly-hued collection of post-Ellie Goulding, post-Charli XCX, post-Lorde synth-pop. Of course it still has Clarkson’s soulful stamp and she leans more towards bigger ballads than those other artists, so she ends up adding something of her own to the mixture. She finds an excellent collaborator in producer Greg Kurstin, who handles quite a few tracks on this record, giving it the kind modern version of ‘80’s pop-sheen. In fact, Kurstin is just one of four producers who work on this record and the team surprisingly makes a record with a seamless, unified glow.

This is definitely Clarkson’s EDM move, but this record doesn’t go with that predictable Avicii/David Guetta-style rave-ups. This album is much more nuanced and better crafted. One gets the feeling that Clarkson intends this as not only a step into the future but a love letter to the glorious pop of the eighties. “War Paint” and “Dance With Me” have a distinct Laura Branigan and Irene Cara kind of vibe. One gets the idea throughout half of this album that it could be the soundtrack to a modern remake of “Flashdance.”

Even weirder, the three tracks included as bonus cuts on the deluxe edition, “Bad Reputation,” “In The Blue” and “Second Wind” are among the best on the set. They shouldn’t only be bonus offerings. The album is quite back-loaded, with many of its best moments coming later in the set.

Elsewhere, “I Had A Dream,” is a necessary but unapologetically cheesy pep talk that might hit its anthemic marks with a touch too much gusto. It’s a minor complaint because Clarkson still gives the song momentum and actually makes it work. It also has a really positive message and it could be a potential hit, even if it does hit its points a little hard. Maybe it will end up being the inspirational anthem that was intended. Perhaps my feelings of doubt about it are coming from my own inner-cynic.

The guitar-line that begins the title track momentarily recalls Roxy Music’s “More Than This” and John Legend has a nice duet moment with the ballad “Run Run Run.”

In all, “Piece By Piece” is a very enjoyable pop album. Clarkson is here to stay and she continues to mold and grow with each album. She has chosen a fine group of collaborators here. (Sia’s stamp is all over “Let Your Tears Fall” and “Invincible” for instance.) Clarkson sounds extremely comfortable singing these synth-pop-flavored tracks.

Bonus points also go to the album’s design team. The holographic nature of the physical package is quite impressive.

Focus Tracks:

“Nostalgic” This is another track with the “Flashdance” kind of shine. In addition, it incorporates a sound similar to the best moments of Daft Punk’s “Discovery.” Clarkson was born to sing songs of this nature, connecting with her inner electro-disco diva.

“Take You High” The edgy vocal cut-ups and glitches on this track show a strong Ellie Goulding-influence. Clarkson’s songs should experiment with this vein more often. It adds a nice “alternative” edge. Plus, this song is quite an enthralling listen.

“Let Your Tears Fall” Part of me hopes that Sia someday releases a collection of her versions of songs she has written or co-written for other people. This is a hit waiting to happen and Clarkson is one of the few pop stars who can do Sia’s soaring melodies real justice since she has an incredible range. Songwriting-wise, the song exhibits the same kind of glorious pop catharsis that was felt on much of Sia’s “1000 Forms Of Fear” last year.

PHOTO: Noel Gallaghers High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday
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Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ “Chasing Yesterday” ****1/2

There are a few lines from “If I Had A Gun…,” the main single from Gallagher’s first High Flying Birds record that have been floating around continuously in my head in the nearly four years since I originally heard them. He sings, “Excuse me if I spoke too soon. / My eyes have always followed you around the room. / Cuz you’re the only god that I’ll ever need. / I’m holding on and waiting for the moment to find me.” To me, these words perfectly capture that feeling of being captivated by a beautiful woman who has just entered a room and trying to get the nerve to talk to her. For some reason, these words stick particularly with me more than anything else Gallagher has written, including the classics he made with Oasis.

“Chasing Yesterday,” Gallagher’s second post-Oasis release, isn’t an album of moments like its predecessor. It is consistently graceful throughout its 10-song, 44-minute span. This is a sonically expansive album that sounds like it was recorded live in a giant room. Each song is given a few seconds of warm-up to give the listener the feeling of being in the studio with the group.

This is also one of Gallagher’s most consistent song-sets in some time, recalling the high-points of “Definitely Maybe” and “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?” The opening of “Riverman” openly brings to mind “Wonderwall” with its strummed rhythm, while when he sings about the “setting sun” on “The Mexican,” you can’t help but think about his famous collaboration with the Chemical Brothers that he is maybe subconsciously name-checking. Rocker, “Lock All The Doors” has an urgency reminiscent of the title-track to “(What’s The Story (Morning Glory?)” It’s not that Gallagher is repeating himself. These songs are just obviously cut from the same cloth.

Johnny Marr guests, playing guitar on the closer, single “Ballad Of The Mighty I” which is interesting considering this album has a punchy precision similar to Marr’s last two solo records. Like Marr, maturity for Gallagher doesn’t mean a decline in liveliness. Both men are obviously honing their craft and making bold, bright records.

The title “Chasing Yesterday” seems like an in-joke about Gallagher trying to recapture the magic of the early Oasis records. In reality, he’s achieved his goal to create one of the most stirring collections of his career. Although, honestly this album’s jazz-like focus on instrumentation and knack for occasional, stray sax solos hints at more of a rebirth than a retread. This is Noel Gallagher at his very best.

Focus Tracks:

“You Know We Can’t Go Back” This is a frontrunner to be the peppiest, most upbeat song that Gallagher has ever written. It’s an insistent rocking hit waiting to happen.

“The Dying Of The Light” Gallagher has always been a master of this kind of consuming ballad that really draws in the listeners. Once again, this song is a successor to “Wonderwall.” But it also has a bit of the drive of the criminally under-rated Oasis song “Part Of The Queue.” Gallagher has mastered this tone of songwriting.

“The Ballad Of The Mighty I” This track shows real momentum, again maintaining both a strong sense of drama and a well-honed sense of musicianship.

PHOTO: Brandi Carlile - The Firewatchers Daughter
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Brandi Carlile’s “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” ****

Brandi Carlile’s fifth studio album, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” is also her first for label ATO after a near decade with Columbia. The album also continues her career nicely, offering up some high-quality singer-songwriter fare that surfs the lines between folk, country and rock. In fact, there are songs on here that are arguably closer to pure country than most of what gets played on mainstream country radio. “I Belong To You,” for instance sounds like a country gem from another era.

Carlile’s voice is also quite a powerful instrument and it has a nice cracking quality that packs it with emotion. A song like “Mainstream Kid” is a downright showstopper with a bluesy punch that borders on a punk-like intensity. In contrast, tracks like “Beginning To Feel The Years” and “The Eye” showcase a softer, more introspective approach. Throughout “The Firewatcher’s Daughter,” Carlile remains a singer-songwriter in a classic folk mold who isn’t afraid to rock out or go in a slightly pop-driven direction. Her bits of rasp and vibrato guide her well.

This is a beautifully made record that once again showcases Carlile as a performer who deserves a great deal more attention. It’s the kind of record that should appeal to certain segments of the indie-rock, folk and country audiences. Brandi Carlile is a one-of-a-kind entertainer with a troubadour’s spirit.

Focus Tracks:

“Mainstream Kid” This is an endlessly powerful track with the kind of fuzzed-out blues power Jack White has been aiming to reach for years. Here Carlile makes what should be one of her career-defining tracks.

“Blood, Muscle, Skin & Bone” This song has a pop-driven spikiness that Carlile wears well. It should be a hit.

“Wilder (We’re Chained)” Since her breakout hit, “The Story,” Carlile’s songs have had a strong narrative quality and this dose of acoustic folk-country proves that her ability to sell these kinds of intimate stories has not diminished. The song was written by her guitarist Tim Hanseroth but Carlile makes it her own with ease.

PHOTO: Purity Ring - Another Eternity
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Purity Ring’s “Another Eternity” ***1/2

Are you looking for a Canadian answer to Chvrches? Well, on their second album electronic duo Purity Ring have honed the electro sound of their first album into more of a pop-friendly confection. While their music has more of a crunk-y hip-hop backdrop, it’s hard not to see the similarities between Megan James’ sweet vocal tone and that of Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry. The two groups aren’t copying each other, because they are approaching similar terrain from different perspectives. Still the presence of both groups speaks to a growing trend of futuristic synth-pop that builds off of groundwork originally laid by groups like Depeche Mode.

Corin Roddick’s beats seem to angle towards the “club-banger” territory, fusing a gentler EDM sound with a pseudo hip-hop swagger. Songs like “Begin Again” and “Heartsigh” come from a more confident hit-minded workspace than anything off of their 2012 album “Shrines.” That album’s glitch attack often came off as cold and disorienting, whereas thus album oozes with a focused sense of warmth. Like fellow Canadian act, Braids, Purity Ring have created an enveloping, environmental sound that embraces all of the electronic tools at hand. James essentially has a note-perfect voice and so this album can even handle a few surprising uses of vocoder effects without throwing everything off balance.

There’s a slightly ominous energy coming from “Dust Hymn” and “Flood On The Floor” and if there is any justice, this kind of dance music that sometimes takes real chances should get some decent pop airplay.

As someone who didn’t really connect with “Shrines,” I have to say that this album shows some positive growth. With “Another Eternity,” the members of Purity Ring have delivered a strangely entrancing collection.

Focus Tracks:

“Begin Again” This is a beautiful piece which also brings to mind Bjork’s most accessible side. This album recalls trip-hop of the past with a pop coating.

“Bodyache” This track combines a tinkering piano-line, a bass-heavy, skittering drum-machine and a really infectious chorus. This track has strong hit potential.

“Heartsigh” This track is the perfect opener for the record, with its Sigur Ros-type piano-work and its gentle sense of beauty which somehow isn’t marred by the presence of some sort of siren sound that occasionally pops up in the background.

Next week: Madonna makes a high-profile return and more.

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