Music Reviews: The Latest From Panic! At The Disco, Anderson .Paak and Wray

PHOTO: Kenneth Harris and Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco perform during Live 105s BFD at Shoreline Amphitheatre, June 6, 2015, in Mountain View, Calif.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

I will be the first to admit that this year is not getting off to a good start. Not only is the January release schedule slow but in the last two weeks we have lost David Bowie, the EaglesGlenn Frey and Mott The Hoople’s Dale Griffin. It has also been a time of sadness in the music world. Bowie at least received his first #1 album on the U.S. Billboard chart with last week’s “Blackstar.” Although, it is kind of shocking that this hadn’t happened before and one wishes that this would have happened under better circumstances.

Still, the beginning of 2016 marches on. We have reviews of the latest from theatrical pop-rockers Panic! At The Disco as well as hip-hop artist/R&B singer Anderson .Paak and shoegaze/dream-pop act Wray. It may be a small load this week, but there are still records worth hearing.

PHOTO: Panic At The Disco - Death of a Bachelor
Panic! At The Disco’s “Death Of A Bachelor” ***

If you aren’t down with the Panic! At The Disco formula by now, the act’s first album in three years probably won’t change your mind. Faux-“punk” influences get mixed with dramatic pop and electronic elements to create a theatrical sonic spectacle. In other words, they still come off as a slightly more successful answer to Fall Out Boy. Actually, considering Panic! At The Disco as still a band is a bit of a misnomer. Only leader Brendon Urie remains, thus making this a solo album under his band’s name. Knowing that makes this album a bit more impressive since the sound of the set doesn’t come off as stripped down in the least. If Urie does gain some new fans here, it is because he really proves that he can do this on his own.

Urie samples the famous riff of the B-52’s “Rock Lobster” on “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time” and puts on his smoothest lounge-singer impression on the album’s title-track. This can be a pretty slick pop record, but it does impress in unexpected ways. Even if a song like “Crazy=Genius” sounds like a retread of the mini-swing-boom of the nineties mixed with some rock fire. The line, “You’re just like Mike Love but you’ll never be Brian Wilson” gives an indication that Urie knows his place in music history.

This album won’t change the world but it actually provides a somewhat decent listen. It’s among the least polarizing work Urie has ever made. “LA Devotee” brings to mind The Faint while “Golden Days” sounds like a pop cousin of We Are Scientists’ 2005 debut, “With Love & Squalor.”

“The Good The Bad & The Dirty” is evidence that this is at its core a pop record with guitars. It is barely rock but it has some surprising swagger.

With “The Death Of A Bachelor,” Brendon Urie takes a strong step into the future. This album will still earn some rightful criticism from its detractors. There are a few too many “whoa-oh-oh,” forced-anthemic breaks put on for the benefit of pop radio, but there’s still a spark worth investigating. Urie is still aiming for pop gold in a formulaic way but there are hints that a brighter, more inventive future may lie ahead.

Focus Tracks:

“Impossible Year” This show-stopping ballad is the album’s closer and it shows that when Urie turns down the pop bombast he can really find something interesting and compelling. Away from the party tracks and the forced elements, he is slowly developing into a maturing musical force. This track is for instance worlds away from “Victorious,” the somewhat grating opening track.

“Golden Days” If you give this song a few listens you realize that it is quite nuanced and multi-layered. The part right before the chorus where almost all the instrumentation recedes allowing Urie to quietly sing over a hushed chugging guitar, a time that may be the best moment on the whole album.

“Death Of A Bachelor” This title-track almost sounds like an electro-reggae answer to Frank Sinatra in some spots. It is simultaneously strange and great, even when Urie shifts to a more typical pop hook on the chorus. In any case, this is an unexpected and welcome throwback.

PHOTO: Anderson .Paak - Malibu
Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu” ****

Anderson .Paak is an R&B singer/rapper/drummer from California who has made a splash as a guest performer on records from everyone from Watsky to Dr. Dre. His second full-length, “Malibu” is a smooth workout that could make him a star on his own. On “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance,” his vocal cadence for instance brings to mind Kendrick Lamar, while this album’s overall groove sounds like D’Angelo without the woozy weirdness.

By modern hip-hop and R&B standards, sonically speaking this is a strikingly adventurous record. The guitar groove on the second half of “The Season | Carry Me” will wash over you with a comforting sense of warm psychedelia, whereas “Put Me Thru” has a bluesy pop appeal. Somehow on the whole this record finds a nice balance, catering to pop conventions while having an organic core.

This is not a January record. The glittering synths of the ScHoolboy Q-assisted “Am I Wrong?” for instance, screams to be played during a summer party. This album provides a laid-back semi-tropical energy in the dead of winter. On first listen, this set immediately beckons to be played on repeat.

.Paak effectively builds on the sounds of last year’s “Venice,” showing an impressive level of growth. The grooves are deep and enveloping. This album has the ambition of Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” without the political fervor. Both records hint that a renaissance in West Coast hip-hop is currently underway. Working with sharp, producers like Madlib, 9th Wonder, Hi-Tek and others as well as guests like jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper and bassist Pino Palladino, it is evident that .Paak is aiming to make an excellent record over one that plays to radio. Still, something about this sounds like a more polished answer to the sounds of the underground.

Really this is the kind of record you wish would get more radio attention. It simmers as it burns. But pop radio for some reason ignores R&B for the most part these days. The bottom line is, this is an excellent, soulful set anchored by smart production and excellent musicianship. This is a record that will no doubt only get better with more spins.

“Malibu” definitely showcases Anderson .Paak as an important emerging figure in the worlds of hip-hop and R&B. Keep your eyes peeled. He’s destined for greatness.

Focus Tracks:

“Celebrate” There’s a gospel-esque undercurrent to this track and its smooth, airy bounciness is at the center of its appeal. There’s a bit of a Sly Stone, “Everyday People” brand of energy. In many ways, this is a throwback placed in a more modern hip-hop context.

“The Dreamer” (Featuring Talib Kweli and the Timan Family Choir) This closing track is all about growing up watching television and dreaming of stardom. Again, this track has potent warmth and Kweli’s presence here only adds to the sense of earthy authenticity that seems to be at the core of .Paak’s aim.

“Room In Here” (Featuring The Game) .Paak definitely effectively mixes R&B with an amazing hip-hop drive as he sings and raps over a dusty jazz piano sample that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Nas record. The Game drops a verse too, that adds to the track’s smooth-lovin’ energy.

PHOTO: Wray - Hypatia
Wray’s “Hypatia” ****

Wray is a dream-pop and shoegaze band from Birmingham, Alabama and with “Hypatia” they have delivered a moving and gripping throwback to the classics of the genre. That isn’t to say this is a retread of what other bands have done. It effectively calls back bands like My Bloody Valentine and Fuzz, but the members of Wray prove they understand the dynamics of the genre perfectly.

This record could have easily emerged in the late eighties or early nineties and been a consoling source for lonesome teens to blast in their bedrooms while wistfully pondering the future, but in a more modern context, this record speaks to the still growing impact of the sub-genre. There’s something inherently appealing about vocals sung as a near whisper over shimmering guitar walls. Wray knew this quite well. Bassist/vocalist David Brown, guitarist/vocalist David Swatzell and drummer Blake Wimberly attack each track with a vintage sense of focus as if they are out to make a record to make their heroes proud. They have most likely succeeded.

“Hypertia” is the kind of record you want to blast so that the guitar textures will wash over your skin. This genre is also meant to be heard loudly so you can possibly discern the often muttered lyrics. That’s always part of the challenge, but with music like this it is evident that the words are meant as an emotive sonic tool to give the tracks another bit of texture. This is fun with ambiance in a dream-like way.

This record is definitely closer to the dream-pop side of the equation. This album is low on punishing guitar walls, although there are some cool spots on both “Diamond Gym” and “Jennifer” where a little feedback is allowed to emerge.

Some might argue that this set is a little derivative. It is, but in a good way. Shoegaze is very specific and throughout this set the members of Wray have undoubtedly nailed the hallmarks, thus making this record come off like a lost classic from the past.

There isn’t one dud here. “Hypatia” will pull you into its sonic sea. Keep an eye on Wray. From what I hear they are definitely on the right track.

Focus Tracks:

“Hypatia” The title-track is named for the ground-breaking Greek mathematician and astronomer who was said to be murdered after she became the head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria in the 4th century. It is an airy, yet slightly funky groove that begs to be heard more than once. This link to ancient academia also fits well with the genre.

“May 23rd” This is a consuming, yet welcoming trance-like groove anchored in repetition. Again the loud guitars serve as a keen textural asset.

“Jennifer” Possessing one of the album’s most melodic riffs has quite a bit of drive that is assisted by the bits of reverb. When the guitars take a sharper and more sour turn momentarily, it provides for an interesting bit of contrast.

Next week the album release schedule picks up to a more normal pace with new releases from Savages, Ty Segall and more.

Missed last week's? Get the review of David Bowie's final album, "Blackstar."

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