Music Reviews: The Latest From 5 Seconds of Summer, Common, La Roux and More

PHOTO: Common is pictured on June 29, 2014 in Los Angeles.
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This week, Australian boy-band sensation 5 Seconds Of Summer drop their full-length debut, Common drops his pointed and driven tenth studio album, Electro-act La Roux makes a return after a four-year absence, the Raveonettes drop a surprise album, Mike Doughty explores his Soul Coughing material once more, Dan the Automator teams up with actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Got A Girl and Canadian indie rockers Alvvays make an inspired debut. It’s yet another inspired and diverse week and there is a lot to dig into and discuss.

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5 Seconds Of Summer’s “5 Seconds Of Summer.” **

As much as they parade themselves as a rock band, 5 Seconds of Summer are simply a guitar-soaked Australian answer to One Direction. Some have tried to call this music “pop-punk,” but this is merely your typical boy-band fare with a layer of guitar placed loudly enough in the mix to obscure the vocals.

The amp levels shouldn’t fool you. These songs are tired anthems about summers that never end and girls who don’t know they are attractive. There are plenty of “Whoa! Whoa! Whoas!” and “Hey! Hey! Heys!” added for good measure as the boys croon about wanting to be older and making their loves stay. In other words, these are naïve love songs that sound factory-written to contain as many buzz-words as possible to drive the young women in their audience mad. The cynic in me even wonders if the name-checking of “American Apparel” in opener “She Looks So Perfect” is merely a lyrical choice or carefully targeted example of product-placement.

Yes, these songs do have a catchy quality, but it is in the most sugary and irksome way. To their credit, the members of the band are listed among the writers of their songs, but still there is something soulless and pinpointed about their approach. If this is “pop-punk,” it makes Green Day and Blink 182 come off in comparison like Minor Threat.

Most of the group’s fans are no doubt on the young side and just finding their own sense of musical taste. 5 Seconds of Summer should only be viewed as a stop-gap for fans before they discover the real thing. Until an older sibling passes down to them a copy of “Dookie” this will sadly seem legit to them. There’s nothing authentic or lasting here.

Focus Tracks:

“Everything I Didn’t Say” This goes for everything at once. The Bastille-like bellows at the beginning, the sensitive “boy-band” lovelorn tone and the big anthemic chorus will all add up to pop gold.

“Long Way Home” This song kind of succeeds even if it tries a little too hard. It works with a formula that Eve 6 did better and more intelligently on their album “Horrorscope,” but at the same time, its nostalgic lyrics, strong production and large chorus work in its favor.

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Common’s “Nobody’s Smiling” ****

Common’s been playing the hip-hop game for more than two decades now and has offered up a mixed bag of a discography, with a stronger lean towards the positive. His last slip was back in 2008 with the pop-leaning, semi thug-posing “Universal Mind Control.” He rebounded (as he usually does) extremely well with 2011’s “The Dreamer/The Believer.” Common is always at his best when he sticks to his “consciousness hip-hop” ideals, but occasionally he slips and gives you the kind of verse you don’t expect him to deliver.

“Nobody’s Smiling” shows Common doing what Common does best only with a dark, ominous edge. It doesn’t occupy quite the same murky space as The Roots’ “..And Then You Shoot Your Cousin,” but it is close. It’s a “state-of-the-hood” of sorts and the news isn’t good at all. Survival is the name of the game and it’s all about grinding and hustling trying to keep afloat in a busy, isolating world. The title track displays in unflinching terms the unhappiness all around. This is not Common in his sunny neo-soul mood. This is Common at his grittiest. The one R&B jam, “Real,” stands out on the album like a sore thumb amidst these grimy street tales. More typical is the spare Gospel-tinged “Kingdom” which has the feel of a funeral procession.

The beats on here for the most part are very progressive and experimental. The Jhene Aiko-assisted “Blak Majik” has a beat that seems purposely claustrophobic to make a symbolic point and “Hustle Harder” combines a spare soul sample with a booming, bass-heavy beat that echoes the everyday struggles of the people the track is about. If you are expecting something uplifting and whitewashed, this isn’t your record. If you are expecting a dose of “real hip-hop” with all the harsh honesty and unapologetic framework that comes with it, this is for you. If you listen to this album and it offends you in some way, you’ve obviously missed the point.

Focus Tracks:

“Speak My Piece” This is among the best tracks in Common’s whole discography. Over a cut-up Biggie sample, Common spits lines like the pro that he is over a sparse beat. The way the beat cuts sounds more like something from a progressive electronic record and yet the beat is pure hip-hop to the bone. There’s a static-like energy throughout most of the record, as if we are listening to a radio station fading slightly in and out of range. Perhaps this is on purpose since Common peppers bits of Chicago news radio throughout the record’s song-set.

“Out On Bond” (Featuring Vince Staples) Over a bass-heavy groove, Common tells the tale of a man just released from prison looking at the world around him with a wary eye. It is both effective and powerful. Nothing is as it seems when the system is against you.

“Rewind That” Common tells an origin story about his first days in hip-hop, talking about an early collaborator he let down and his beginnings in the Chicago hip-hop scene. The best part comes when he pays touching tribute to his fallen friend and onetime room-mate, producer extraordinaire J Dilla who died in 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday, of a Lupus-like condition. Dilla is a legend. This past week it was reported that his music equipment would go on display at the Smithsonian.

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La Roux’s “Trouble In Paradise” ***

There’s a reason why it took Elly Jackson more than four years to follow up La Roux’s successful debut. She started having panic attacks and at one point lost the upper range of her voice. In addition, she parted ways with her original La Roux partner Ben Langmaid. So there was a lot of stress leading up to the record, but this set is full of eighties-style synth fun that show few indications of the turmoil behind the scenes. In fact, this is a warmer, gentler record than the band’s debut. The bad news is, there isn’t anything quite as brash and vibrant as the last album’s standout hit, “Bulletproof,” but what there is instead is a more organic-sounding collection brimming with subtly sexually-charged odes.

Jackson is also turned down on this record, allowing a sultry energy to take over. One hopes that this lower-key approach will still find the pop audience it deserves. This is vibe-centric music for a tropical weekend, in case the color scheme of the cover art didn’t give you the clue. There’s also a hint that it was perhaps inspired by chase scenes on old episodes of “Miami Vice.”

In any case, Jackson proves she can change tones and still deliver an enjoyable record. This may be different than her first record but it still delivers the goods.

Focus Tracks:

“Kiss And Not Tell” There’s a playful, pseudo-rinky-dink quality to some of the beats on this album in an effect to sound more retro. “Kiss And Not Tell” sounds particularly pieced together with older technology, but it maintains a firm bounciness and firmly sits in the eighties-like space it intends. It’s one of the album’s most appealing tracks.

“Cruel Sexuality” If you are looking for Jackson’s softer side where she explores the gentler, more delicate parts of her voice, check out the chorus to “Cruel Sexuality.” Backed by a rubber-like bass-line this track has some low-key bounce. “Tropical Chancer” This sounds like it could’ve been on the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack. The steel drum-effect over the synthy electro groove is a wonderfully kitschy touch.

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The Raveonettes’ “Pe’ahi” ****

Coming as somewhat of a surprise release, the Ravonettes’ eighth album is one of their hardest hitting and most brutal-sounding to date. That’s really saying something when you consider that the Danish duo of Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have spent the last twelve years coating their records in abrasive fuzz. Considering their last two records have been a touch more serene, the explosive nature of “Pe’ahi” is greeted with both slight shock and amazement. Add to the mix the fact that the two have also incorporated some hip-hop influenced beat-loops into the mix and this becomes another creature entirely. There’s an industrial energy simmering beneath the surface and the overall effect can somehow make it sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain are playing simultaneously along with a dissonant Eric B and Rakim beat.

As usual, the duo combines fifties and sixties-style songcraft with shoegaze-style guitar-wash. Their occasionally shocking lyrics may cause an uncomfortable giggle, but this record stands out as one of the most authoritative and distinctive in their consistently great discography. If their last few releases made you think they were going soft, this one could easily melt your eardrums.

Focus Tracks:

“Sisters” This is a key track and it is especially cinematic as it bounces between a retro-surf lullaby of sorts and a thick wall of noise. If you want to feel the pogo-ing quality of the “loud/quiet/loud” effect taken to extremes, this is a textbook example.

“Killer In The Streets” This funky groove feels like a happy dance single covered in guitar-fuzz. It may be their most pop-targeted song since “Last Dance” from 2009’s “In And Out Of Control.” I urge any dance DJ to throw this into the mix. Take away the guitar-wash and it sounds like it would fit well on the radio between early nineties pop gems like Tara Kemp’s “Hold You Tight” and Maxi Priest’s “Close To You.” This song is like those songs’ gothier, more ominous cousin.

“Kill!” This Foo-led number is another one built on shocking levels of contrast and a thick, booming beat. The track has quite a rumbling quality and the looped bits of guitar-feedback sound like vintage hip-hop scratching breaks.

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Mike Doughty’s “Live At Ken’s House” ****

Former Soul Coughing leader, Mike Doughty has a new studio album, “Stellar Motel” coming out on September 16th, but as a stop-gap between releases he decided to once again pick up his old Soul Coughing material. He released a collection of some of these songs re-recorded and rearranged last year called “Circles, Super Bon Bon…” That collection did the material justice to a certain extent, even if Doughty’s current lo-fi approach sometimes slightly muted the power of the original compositions.

Listening to “Live At Ken’s House,” it is perhaps evident that Doughty felt that “Circles, Super Bon-Bon…” didn’t fully deliver on its promise to reinvent the Soul Coughing material. While that album was still good, this album far surpasses it. Actually, side by side, this one actually blows that one clear out of the water. Throughout the set Doughty teams with Puss N Boots’ Catherine Popper and drummer “Indiana” Pete Wilhoit to find the core of these songs. This is in many ways a return to form. This shows a side of Doughty that has been missing from his still thoroughly enjoyable solo work. This is the work of a funky beat-poet playing with samplers and weird experimental beats. The wisdom Doughty has gained in his more stripped-down solo work since Soul Coughing shines through and gives these songs more depth than before.

Considering both sides of his career, in some ways this record more than any other gives a full overview of Doughty’s capabilities. This is mandatory listening for any Soul Coughing fan who perhaps hasn’t been following his solo work and it serves as an interesting starting point for new fans. This is the rare live album that brings freshness to the material it covers. Considering the mixed feelings Doughty had about this material after Soul Coughing’s tumultuous breakup, it is nice to see him effectively reclaim it on his own terms.

Focus Tracks:

“Sugar Free Jazz” The original version of this was on 1994’s “Ruby Vroom,” and this is an EXCELLENT reinvention of the track. Doughty’s guitar-riff has a warmth not found in the original and Wilhoit’s drumming gives a drum-n-bass trippiness to the track not found in Yuval Gabay’s original beat. This version is better than the original.

“Lazybones” This “Irresistible Bliss” track gets sung over what sounds like a wonderfully icy 8-bit digital wash. It’s an inspired move.

“Circles” There’s a looseness found in this version of this hit single from “El Oso” that wasn’t found in the version on last year’s “Circles Super Bon Bon…” It is much more playful and alive, recapturing the spirit of the original.

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Got A Girl’s “I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now” ****

Dan The Automator and actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead struck up a friendship while he was scoring her movie “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” back in 2010. 4 years later, they have collaborated on disc as Got A Girl. I know what you are thinking. A career musician teaming with an actress? Does this sound like M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel’s She & Him? The answer is no. Automator is a hip-hop producer known for his work with Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School and Detron 3030. On the playfully titled, “I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now,” they dabble in more Bond-theme type territory. Winstead’s hushed vocals coo along with a chilled sweetness. She’s perfectly justified in entering the music business. This doesn’t come off in the least bit like a groan-worthy vanity project.

At its best, the album recalls acts like Portishead and Bitter:Sweet. Fans of Lana Del Rey may also be wise to check out this album. It is orchestrated fun with a hip-hop edge and a huge nod to sixties kitsch. If you were a fan of Mono’s 1997 trip-hop masterpiece, “Formica Blues,” this record should be right up your alley.

Please note that digitally there is a deluxe edition available with all the instrumental beats included. No doubt this will lead to free-styling and mixtape gold in certain progressive hip-hop circles.

Focus Tracks:

“Heavenly” This closing track serves as a thesis statement to the album and it also showcases one of Winstead’s sharpest and most soaring melodies. It should be a single sent for pop airplay. The progressive pop stations would probably play it.

“There’s A Revolution” This track plays like a 21st Century, shopping mall answer to Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual.” I mean that in the best way possible.

“I’ll Never Hold You Back” This track finds Winstead in gentle ballad mood with winning results. This is another potential single.

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Alvvays’ “Alvvays” ****

If you are an indie-rock fan and you haven’t heard Alvvays (pronounced “Always”) yet, you need to drop everything and pick up this album right now. This Canadian band isn’t doing anything particularly groundbreaking, since you can make easily draw comparisons to everyone from Velocity Girl to Best Coast, but they are carrying on an alt-rock tradition well with smart songwriting and strong hooks. This is noisy power-pop draped in layers of fuzz and echo. In other words, they are going across well-traveled territory, but they are doing so in a thoroughly effective way, leaving their own distinctive mark as they pass.

At nine songs and 32 minutes, this record comes off as a tad too brief, but it has no filler and Molly Rankin’s vocals have a warm and winsome appeal. Her melodies lean toward an exploratory and dense terrain. These songs aren’t as simple as they initially seem. Perhaps the layer of lo-fi fuzz purposely disguises the fact that these songs quickly take sharp turns.

One aspect that sets Alvvays apart from the pack is their knack for slightly sad-sounding jangle-pop. I can’t put my finger on exactly why this is true, but the guitar-lines that are often placed in front of the mix often have a morose lilt. This places a lot of emotion on the songs. Alvvays definitely deserve the level of buzz they are currently getting. This is enjoyable, timeless indie rock.

Focus Tracks:

“Archie, Marry Me” Forget the pseudo-sexist marriage anthem “Rude” by the band Magic! currently topping the charts. “Archie, Marry Me” is a better song about an impending marriage as a couple debates taking those next steps while they still have student loans and still “scour the streets for trouble” together every night. There’s realism in this song as the couple debates giving up all the formalities of a fancy wedding. Plus, there’s something nice about the proposal coming from the woman’s side, which effectively it is here, even though she is responding to the previous inklings from “Archie.”

“Party Police” The saddest-sounding riff on the record leads to the one of the most buoyant melodies. Rankin’s delivery here is especially deadpan here, even when she’s singing high notes, but somehow that just adds to the song’s emotional heft. Plus, it ends with a brief and excellent keyboard solo.

“Adult Diversion” This opener is ideal surf-ready beach music with a churning riff. It combines surf-rock with a sensitive “girl-group” kind of aesthetic.

Next Week: New releases from Tom Petty, Beck, Jenny Lewis and more.

Missed last week's? New releases from Jason Mraz, Morrissey, Puss N Boots and more!

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