Music Reviews: The Latest From Sinead O’Connor, Michael Cera and More

PHOTO: Sinead OConnor performs on stage at The Roundhouse, Aug. 12, 2014, in London.
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This week Sinead O’Connor makes a strong attempt to return herself to her early career glory with complicated results, hip-hop purists Dilated Peoples make a return, actor Michael Cera makes a surprise foray into the music world, The Gaslight Anthem beef up their sound, FKA twigs delivers some spaced-out, R&B that is both trippy and sensual, slam-poet turned rapper Watsky drops his latest and emerging British vocalist Laura Mvula gets the live orchestral treatment. It’s yet another varied week with plenty of sounds to explore.

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Sinead O’Connor’s “I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss” (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2

Sinead O’Connor’s 10th studio album is a peculiar beast. On the cover is a picture of Sinead in full make-up with a full head of hair (perhaps a wig) in a skin-tight outfit hugging an electric guitar. Wait. I thought this kind of picture was the reason why she began shaving her head in the first place? Perhaps this is meant to be ironic? A few months after getting into an online battle with Miley Cyrus, perhaps this is O’Connor having fun with a pop-star persona. But “I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss” is a complex, compelling album full of contradictions. “How Nice A Woman Can Be,” a bonus track on the deluxe edition has to be sarcastic as she sings, “Let me be your slave. / Please let me clean your house all day. / Please let me bake your bread / And tuck your babies into bed.” If it isn’t sarcastic, I am severely confused.

Elsewhere, though this record shows O’Connor in the rockiest, most accessible territory she’s explored in some time. This seems like the work of the same Sinead who brought us her earliest albums, not the quieter holy woman she became. Although “The Vishnu Room” and “Take Me To Church” still remind us of her spiritual status. But “The Voice Of My Doctor” rocks out like PJ Harvey. Lyrically, too this album is considerably more vulnerable and open than one would expect. O’Connor wants love. A lot of these songs aren’t afraid to show fragility. This appears to be O’Connor’s worthy attempt to court the mainstream once again after years on a spiritual walkabout. In many ways, this is a hearty and appealing return to form. It’s puzzling at times, but that fits the territory.

Focus Tracks:

“Your Green Jacket” Throughout most of the record, O’Connor sings, harmonizing with herself in multi-octave layers. “Your Green Jacket” works the best and sounds very much like a radio-ready single. (That’s if radio still paid attention to this kind of music.)

“The Voice Of My Doctor” As I said, this sounds a lot like PJ Harvey. It could’ve easily fit in as one of the more rocked out tracks on Harvey’s “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea.”

“Harbour” Interestingly, this appears to be O’Connor’s second song with this title. The first was her 2002 collaboration with Moby. And perhaps the songs are linked. There are other echoes of career throughout the record. After all, her last album in 2012 was called “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?” a phrase that is repeated during this album’s opening track, “How About I Be Me.” This album is in many ways a fleshed out sequel to that record. O’Connor is constructing an interconnected web and this collection seems to be firmly about reclaiming the past.

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Dilated Peoples’ “Directors Of Photography” ****

Though California-based, Dilated Peoples have always shared a kinship with the gritty back-to-basics hip-hop that came out of New York in the late eighties and early nineties. The jazz-infused, thick beats mixed the grimy flow-centric rhymes bring to mind a golden era of hip-hop before it went pop. The trio’s sixth album, and first in 7 years brings to mind all of those ideals. In today’s landscape in particular, DJ Babu’s skills at cutting up a sample sound like a cherished rarity. If the computerized beats of today are digital, this is straight-up analog with classic know-how being used to great effect.

Rappers Evidence and Rakaa Iriscience haven’t lost a step either. Their lyrics are on point while celebrating an old-school sound without sounding the least bit corny like let’s say Jurassic 5 for instance sometimes does. There’s a toughness here that keeps this record grounded. The beats, too are steeped in a classic mold, by the trio surround themselves with producers like DJ Premier, the Alchemist, 9th Wonder and more. If you are a hip-hop fan who needs to be reminded that “real hip-hop” isn’t dead, this disc provides some excellent beat-centric nourishment..

Dilated Peoples needed to come back and this is an excellent display of what they do best, whether they are rapping over dusty horn samples or old film dialogue, this shows a cerebral edge that owes equal parts to both Black Star and the sample-happy Wu-Tang. The jab at hasty two-second interviews by ill-informed hip-hop journalists during one of the segues is a nice touch. Real hip-hop keeps it real and can see right through transparent trickery.

Focus Tracks:

“Good As Gone” If you miss authoritative hip-hop full of thick bass and scratched vocal samples, this DJ Premier-helmed cut delivers.

“Directors” Over a marching-beat drum this track plays with the album’s title and serves as its first major statement. It has some real charge with its mournful piano loop.

“The Reversal” Another ace beat with a great deal of punch. This isn’t pop. This is hip-hop at its lyrical essence. With shout outs to Lauryn Hill and Slick Rick, Dilated Peoples have history on their minds.

PHOTO: Michael Cera attends the "This Is Our Youth" Cast Photo Call at Cort Theatre, Aug. 14, 2014, in New York City.
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Michael Cera’s “true that” ***

There’s a scene in the movie “Superbad” where Michael Cera and Jonah Hill are stuck at a party in an unfamiliar house. Cera’s character winds up in a room with a bunch of guys who want to know how he got there. One of them says, “That’s Jimmy’s brother.” (He’s not Jimmy’s brother.) It turns out Jimmy’s brother has an incredible voice and these half-inebriated guys order Cera sing, which leads to a humorous somewhat scared but eventually soulful vocal rendition of The Guess Who’s “These Eyes.” This is one of Cera’s many forays into music in his films. He also played instruments in the movies “Juno,” “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.” It was still a surprise this week when Cera dropped an unannounced album via his Bandcamp page. It’s not his first foray into the official music world, either. He played a little with the band Mister Heavenly and he scored his friend Charlyne Yi’s documentary, “Paper Heart” in 2009. And yet still he seems like an outsider.

But “true that” is a bizarrely enjoyable record full of lo-fi fuzz and homemade charm. If you want something polished, this definitely isn’t your record. Cera’s high, wispy singing voice can be polarizing, but the majority of the set learns towards the instrumental side, alternating between oddball folk songs, well-played saloon-style piano improvisations and intimate acoustic guitar bits that possess a vaguely Brazilian flavor. It’s a ramshackle collection sort of akin to Beck’s “Stereopathetic Soulmanure.” This is like the time one of your friends passed you a homemade album and said, “Hey, by the way, I make music.” (If you are in musical circles like I am, you’ll understand what I mean by this.) There’s a freshness and a rawness here that comes with the freedom of experimentation.

Again, those of you reading this who expect cleanly polished, produced records won’t probably understand why I kind of enjoyed this record. But if you are open to it, it might be one of the most oddly fascinating collections you hear this year. It does hit a couple sour moments but as Cera volleys between pseudo-Guaraldi-esque piano bits and songs that sound like the Beach Boys on a late-sixties bender, you have to admire his choices. He even chooses the two cover songs interestingly by approaching songs originally made by respected underground country singer Blaze Foley and songwriter-turned-screenwriter Roderick Falconer. This is a really edgy, strange set that will turn off some folks, but it has some charm. I actually want to hear more.

Focus Tracks:

“Of A Thursday” An instrumental cue, this is actually a beautiful piece of score that shows considerable skill on Cera’s part. This is definitely not what people are probably expecting. And the choice to seemingly place the mic across the room from the piano makes it feel like we hearing a loose, magical moment being captured on tape.

“Clay Pigeons” This Blaze Foley cover is a nice choice, again recalling Beck’s old-school, early country side. Cera changes a word or two from the original for slight comic effect, but this comes off as a winner.

“2048” Another instrumental, this track has a whimsical, precious warmth, eventually adding subtle distorted notes that sound lifted from a mangled classic Nintendo game. I half expect a Speak & Spell to enter the track near the end. (It doesn’t.) But it is grounded by the core repeated notes.

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The Gaslight Anthem’s “Get Hurt” (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2

A mere eight months after releasing a somewhat shoddy B-sides collection, The Gaslight Anthem deliver their fifth full-length and immediately it is evident that that January B-sides collection was intended to close a chapter in the band’s career. The glossy production on “Get Hurt” obscures the bar-band, Springsteen-like approach that has dogged this New Jersey band since their beginnings. (Springsteen’s influence is so strong in this band that it would probably be rare to find another review on the web that hasn’t mentioned him prominently. Their allegiance is painfully obvious.)

The polish actually separates them further from this often smothering level of influence. Sure, you can still hear echoes of the boss in Brian Fallon’s vocal delivery, but the new sound means that for once it isn’t all you hear. This record owes a lot to eighties arena-rock in general as well and this collection shows the band’s strengths better than ever before. This is also a better song-set than they usually deliver. It almost seems like the work of a different band.

Producer Mike Crossey (who has worked with the 1975, Jake Bugg, Arctic Monkeys and Razorlight) is a good match for the band and he is someone they should definitely work with again. I can’t emphasize this any more strongly. This isn’t a perfect record, but it is indeed a marked improvement for a band that has always shown promise but has never quite delivered at this level. If they make three more records with Crossey, they might be able to summon the timeless classic they so desperately want to make. This is a textbook example of the importance of the matching a band with the right producer.

If you’ve doubted the Gaslight Anthem in past, “Get Hurt” should provide you with a chance to re-evaluate. The deluxe edition comes with three bonus tracks that add to the album’s flow effectively.

Focus Tracks:

“Stray Paper” This actually verges on a glam eighties-style hit as Fallon bellows out his words with a palpable, tight tension.

“1,000 Years” Part of this sounds like it is from the same Replacement-style alter that Ryan Adams often also prays to. The riff is meaty and the chorus is huge. This album is meant to lift them up into another level of the stratosphere.

“Break Your Heart” This acoustic track serves the band well, cementing the album’s continuous theme of heartbreak.

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FKA twigs’ “LP1” ***

Tahliah Debrett Barnett is a former ballerina turned electronic-flavored R&B performer. She chose her stage name because as a dancer she was “formerly known as” Twigs, which was a nickname that stuck. Her music is both compelling and challenging. At its best it recalls the trip-hop progressive peaks of Tricky. At its worst, it sounds like Animal Collective trying to make a purposely difficult collaborative record with Grimes. But, even if this record isn’t an easy listen, it is a genre-pusher in a time when such records are hard to come by. There isn’t another record like this one currently on the shelves. It’s weird and ethereal. It comes from an arty place rather than a pop-driven one and tracks like “Lights On” and “Hours” are brimming with a lurid, seething sexuality. But this record definitely isn’t for everyone. On this side of the pond in particular, it's unlikely that something this willfully bizarre would get radio play. Yet, Twigs has been championed by the BBC in her homeland. It just proves how much more advanced and accepting the British pop landscape can be.

This is a mechanical attack of a record, anchored by twigs’ airy, helium voice. There are moments of breathy smoothness beneath the madness and the struggle to sort out the sonic tangling of the two is actually where the album finds its strength. Again, though, this is definitely not a ride for mere novices.

Focus Tracks:

“Pendulum” This is a highly sexualized track, which possesses a warm softness as Twigs sings “I’m a sweet little love-maker.” Her breathy coos quickly escalate into erotically-charged interplay, but at its core, this is just an ace piece of smooth-R&B. This track is gentle and never crass.

“Closer” With her beautifully reverbed voice, Twigs sings over an aerodynamic beat that possesses a subtle bounce.

“Kicks” This feels like a space-age meditative ballad before the bass-heavy beat kicks in full of the kind of atmospherics you used to hear out of England in the nineties. In some ways Twigs belongs in the trip-hop realm. In other ways she belongs with contemporary rising pop and R&B stars like Jessie Ware. She’s probably also sound good dueting with the Weeknd.

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Watsky’s “All You Can Do” **1/2

A nerdy, nasally-voiced guy rapping with rapid-fire vocal dexterity, George Watsky is like what would happen if MC Paul Barman had anything close to Eminem’s level of technical skill. While the results can be impressive, he also seems to be of the Lupe Fiasco school of wanting to insert a vocalist and a pop hook in between all his verses. If his beats were more interesting, this would be a whole other conversation.

Watsky can really drop a rhyme and he is able to tell stories and spin a lyrical web well in an unassuming bookish manner. If his beats had more heft, this might be something great. But as on his previous work, Watsky often ends up sounding more like someone at a local coffeehouse poetry slam contest. Watsky is from the spoken-word world originally and has a tremendous following as a live performer. He actually is a seasoned Slam poetry champion. In the live realm, he’s a more compelling performer. That sense of drive gets obscured on his albums.

This record, while packed with skill comes off like a hip-hop record meant for people who don’t normally listen to hip-hop. For all the imagery and funny references Watsky can summon, there’s a key element missing. It’s ultimately on the dull side. I mentioned MC Paul Barman before, but Barman’s music usually pops and goes that extra mile because he works with seasoned producers like Prince Paul and MF DOOM who understand his aim. Watsky needs someone like that backing him, up giving his rhymes the quirky complement they crave. He also needs to drop the sung hooks… even if he did somehow secure Stephen Stills on the album’s closer, “Cannonball.” The focus should be on Watsky’s rhymes and his grasp of language. Pop hooks mute and distract from his skill-level.

Focus Tracks:

“Whoa Whoa Whoa” Beat and hook-wise this sounds like a direct response to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “The Heist,” but Watsky drops a lightning-fast group of verses that really impresses. He also manages to drop some funny lines, perhaps taking a subtle swipe at Kanye when he says, “I thought I was an atheist until I realized I’m a god.”

“Ink Don’t Bleed” (Featuring Anderson.Paak) Anderson.Paak’s hook distracts a little, but Watsky manages to spin an impressive yarn, debating Woody Allen’s intentions one moment and discussing a character’s nerve damage from a tattoo the next.

“Grass Is Greener” This alternates Watsky’s sung hook over an acoustic guitar riff and his contemplative verses.

Laura Mvula’s “Laura Mvula with Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley at Abbey Road Studios (Live)” ****

Laura Mvula is a phenomenal British singer. Her album “Sing To The Moon” was one of the most enjoyable and surreal, great finds of 2013. So, now she has released a live album, which finds her backed by the expansive Metropole Orkest, making her songs all the more ethereal yet organic sounding. The track-list is the same as “Sing To The Moon,” only in jumbled order. Given this fact I want to give kudos to her record labels for not choosing to issue this as a mere bonus disc to some sort of expanded reissue of the year-old record. If this set proves anything, it is that those of us who championed Mvula last year were correct in doing so. This stands both as a great counterpart to the studio record and as a record in its own right. This is R&B of the highest form filled with classical and jazz touches. This is downright stately. This is mesmerizing. This is real talent.

Focus Tracks:

“Green Garden” This soulful, rhythmic exercise would make Nina Simone proud and it provides a nice workout both musically and vocally.

“Make Me Lovely” Like a magical entrance in a film, this track slowly ushers itself in with strong harps, horns and strings, building up to the song’s signature stomp. It’s almost like this has its own built-in Broadway-style overture.

“Flying Without You” With a vocal tone somewhere between Shirley Bassey and Amy Winehouse during the verse sections, Mvula sets up this song wonderfully and the full orchestra really adds punch.

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