Music Reviews: The Latest From Mariah Carey, Sharon Van Etten, Neil Young and Cher Lloyd

PHOTO: Mariah Carey attends the 20th annual Valentines Day Wedding Event at The Empire State Building on Feb. 13, 2014 in New York.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

This week, Mariah Carey drops her first album in 5 years, Sharon Van Etten proves why she is one of indie-rock’s most promising stars, Neil Young takes a trip back in time and British pop singer Cher Lloyd delivers a spunky second album. It’s kind of a slow post-holiday week, but we found some gems.

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Mariah Carey’s “Me. I Am Mariah ... The Elusive Chanteuse”(Deluxe Edition) **1/2

It’s easy to scoff at the ridiculousness of the title of Mariah Carey’s latest record. And yes, it is quite a ridiculous title, the first part of which was apparently the title of a self-portrait she made when she was 3. It is clear from the opening track, “Cry,” that Mariah is trying to return to the kind of ballads that helped establish her 24 years ago, and she can still deliver these slow-burning Gospel-influenced love ballads. “I Am Me ...” is a much more consistent and better listen than let’s say, “The Emancipation Of Mimi,” but like much of her latter-day material, she seems to get lost in generic grooves that don’t really stick with the listeners. She’s also quite hushed for most of the record, singing the majority of the record at a near whisper. On the rare occasions she does go into her upper register, it seems like a shock.

This is actually one of the more satisfying Mariah records has released in a long time, in the way that it attempts to show all sides of Mariah’s style. It’s an eclectic mix of sounds, but still that initial spark is missing. It feels lethargic in places, as if Mariah is just going through the motions. She doesn’t sound quite as hungry as she once did. This is most noticeable when she is paired with guests like Nas and Miguel, who seem really excited to be there. The backdrops bounce around sonically, but sometimes Mariah’s vocals seem like they are just placed over these grooves.

In spite of the awful, groan-inducing title, this is actually one of Mariah’s least self-aware releases, which works in its favor. It’s built on nostalgia. (The look back into the past is so strong that Wale even quotes ODB’s refrain “Me and Mariah, go back like babies and pacifiers,” on “You Don’t Know What To Do.”) The problem is that these songs and performances aren’t particularly memorable. Her producers and collaborators sound inspired, throwing her disco grooves, club-bangers and harmonica-driven jams, but it doesn’t add up the way it should. There’s nothing here as indelible as the work, say, on her first three records. With better hooks, this album could have really changed Mariah’s game.

Focus Tracks:

“One More Try” Yes, Mariah covers George Michael’s “Faith”-era classic, and the song seemed really suited for her. It really stands out because it is quite a powerful song. Thankfully, it is included on all editions of the record and not just the deluxe edition.

“Meteorite” In the 1970’s, Mariah would’ve made an excellent disco diva and this sleek, chilled-out jam complete with a horn-section sounds surprisingly fresh.

“Supernatural” The use of her small kids’ voices on the track, being scratched and manipulated across the beat, make this track sound extremely cool and different. Plus, the family-bonding moment is strikingly sweet.

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Sharon Van Etten’s “Are We There" ****1/2

Sharon Van Etten has become one of the most distinct voices to emerge in the indie-rock scene over the last few years. On, “Are We There,” she manages to follow up her classic-level 2012 album “Tramp” with a piece of work that is equally mesmerizing and compelling. This is a brighter album, and the guitar dirges like that previous album’s “Warsaw” are traded for ethereal and electro-tinged soundscapes. But it is Van Etten’s attention to tuneful detail that sets her apart. Opener, “Afraid Of Nothing” plays like a slow-burning, building waltz. Like “Leonard,” the standout on “Tramp,” it makes the most of her soaring vocal abilities.

Van Etten really shows quite a bit of range here. This collection may be even more varied than “Tramp,” showcasing some tuneful and textured complexity. The organ line in “Your Love Is Killing Me” has a memorable warmth, as Van Etten sings a hymn to a dangerous love affair.

This is a compelling record, because even though it does sound bright, there is a mysterious energy that haunts just about every track. Instruments punch one moment and float away the next. On “You Know Me Well,” the riff is airy as the musical lines drift over each other and a drum pounds away ominously. It is clear from the beginning that this is one of the most arresting albums that 2014 has offered up so far.

Focus Tracks:

“Our Love” This gentle love song is somehow sadly comforting and slyly sexy at the same time. Honestly, in its quiet way it drills its way into your soul, and the handclaps ensure it will stay there. This is classic songwriting suited equally for slow-dances at both proms and weddings. It’s just a beautiful piece of work. It should be a single.

“Taking Chances” This is the actual first single, complete with an amazing video where Van Etten plays a Tarot card reader. In many ways, this song has the same kind of aloof detachment that Lana Del Rey has been trying to perfect. This track may take a few listens. It has a cool subtlety, even when pumping guitars come in during the chorus. Give it the attention it deserves. It is a slow-burning menace. And I mean that in the best way possible.

“I Know” Van Etten is comfortable here in this winding piano ballad, which again captures that mysterious mixture of sadness and warmth.

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Neil Young’s “A Letter Home” ***1/2

This is a collection of covers recorded by Neil Young in Jack White’s old-time-y, direct to vinyl record booth during a stop by White’s Third Man Records studio. The technology gives these songs a scratchy old-school patina. These are live takes at their most stripped-down essence. Of course, nowadays the sounds on this album sound more like an antiquated curiosity.

Hearing Young cover Dylan, Springsteen, Gordon Lightfoot, Tim Hardin and more as if he’s coming from the beginning part of the last century is a bit surreal. The “Voice-o-graph,” as the recording machine is known, shows every bit of rawness in each performance. But the immediacy of these performances stands out. Young stood in the booth and banged out everything you are hearing with no overdubs and no mixing. This is the way records were once made. It may sound like a well-worn 78 that has spent decades in a dank basement, but in an age of Autotune and excessively computerized production, this is a nice reminder of how far we’ve come, paired with an impressive display of musicianship. Sometimes it is nice to take a few steps back.

Focus Tracks:

“Girl From The North Country” It is truly strange how this Dylan classic almost seems perfectly suited for this kind of recording.

“If You Could Read My Mind” Gordon Lightfoot’s lite-radio classic in Young’s hands becomes even more tender. Maybe it’s because his voice has a less booming tone than Lightfoot’s. Young’s version is gentle.

“Crazy” / “On The Road Again” Young covers two Willie Nelson tracks from different parts of his career. The reading of “Crazy” is more traditional, whereas, “On The Road Again” is obviously assisted by White, since it includes guitar, piano and White’s distinctive high voice singing back-up.

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Cher Lloyd’s “Sorry I’m Late” ***1/2

British pop star Cher Lloyd significantly improves on her debut, “Sticks & Stones,” with her much more appealing second record, “Sorry I’m Late.” Truth be told, if you want to, there is a lot to pick on here, like the fact that “Just Be Mine,” the opening track, sounds more than a bit like M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” in its construction, or that “Killin’ It” follows the same formula as her previous hit, the Rihanna-esque “With Ur Love.” Plus the list on the T.I. assisted “I Wish” recalls Skee-Lo’s 1995 hit of the same title. But in the end, those complaints sort of fall by the wayside.

Yes, this record can be formulaic at times, but in other ways it surprises. When given a slick dance groove, Lloyd comes in charging like a champion fighter going for the title. She’s fierce and peppy at the same time with a likable scrappiness. On ballads, she almost changes into a completely different singer, exploring a whole different area of her voice.

Production-wise, there are some interesting touches as well. The sunny track “Dirty Love” gets an inexplicably amazing touch of drum’n’bass, while the pep-rally-after-dark-ready “M.F.P.O.T.Y.” has an interestingly elastic bass-line.

As much as the music snob in me perhaps wants to pick apart this album’s derivative aspects, I just can’t, because it’s a pop record with an impressive wallop of a punch and in the end, it is thoroughly entertaining. It’s just a fun album and that is all it is intended to be. Lloyd is an exploding charismatic firework of a performer and she carries this album to a new level. It is evident that she will get even better with each album she makes. Given her progress thus far, we now know she can achieve giant leaps. Keep in mind, just a couple years back she was essentially cannibalizing Neneh Cherry’s classic “Buffalo Stance” for her song “Playa Boi.” Thankfully, “Sorry I’m Late” doesn’t possess any such glaring missteps. This is a bit more than a guilty pleasure. Cher Lloyd has emerged for a victory lap.

Focus Tracks:

“Human” Polished pop radio-ready ballads don’t get much better than this and this track strongly bares the marks of its co-writer, singer-songwriter L.P. This sounds undeniably like a cousin to her hit “Into The Wild.” This is a meaty track for Lloyd and she drives it home, proving she can handle material with more substance. The bold drum-line adds an extra push to the track.

“Sweet Despair” Similarly, the darkly beautiful “Sweet Despair” delivers the goods in a big way and it deserves to be a hit as well. It also finds Lloyd working with an unlikely collaborator considering the song was co-written by the Gossip’s Beth Ditto. As Lloyd discusses a relationship gone wrong, she dares her lover to break her heart by saying, “Come on, put the knife in.” It’s a powerful moment.

“Bind Your Love” This is a big, dance-floor ready ballad mixing soaring vocals with electro elements. It is perfectly crafted for current pop radio standards. The bit of acoustic guitar is also a really nice touch.

Next Week: New music from Echo & The Bunnymen, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Bob Mould and more!

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Coldplay, R.E.M., The Roots, Phillip Phillips and more.

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