This week Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers return with their first album in four years, Beck’s “Song Reader” becomes a star-studded compilation, former Rilo Kiley front-woman Jenny Lewis delivers her latest, Eric Clapton & Friends pay tribute to JJ Cale, 3-chord-punk icons The Muffs return and the latest from left-field hip-hop-outfit Shabazz Palaces featuring Ishmael Butler who you may remember as Butterfly from Digable Planets. So, yes, it is another busy and extremely varied week. Strap yourself in! This is a good week!
|Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “Hypnotic Eye” ****|
38 years since his debut, Tom Petty still offers up surprises. After the lackluster, bluesy “Mojo,” four years ago, his latest record, “Hypnotic Eye” finds him returning to his roots and rocking out while showing some new colors. It wasn’t that “Mojo” was a bad record. In fact, far from it. It just wasn’t Petty doing what Petty does best. It found the Heartbreakers reinventing themselves momentarily as a blues band. Perhaps that record had more of Mike Campbell’s stamp on it than Petty’s. The one truly great moment came on the decidedly un-bluesy “Something Good Coming.”
“Hypnotic Eye” on the other hand is sounds faster, looser and rawer, finding the band going back to the sounds of their earliest records. “American Dream Plan B” for instance is vintage Petty with a grizzled twist. Sure, it’d be nice to hear more songs in the Byrds-ian folk-rock vein of “Full Moon Fever” and “Into The Great Wide Open,” and to a certain degree there is a little of that hidden deep beneath the layers of fuzz coating tracks like “All You Can Carry” and “Forgotten Man.” In addition, there are a few stylistic surprises like the jazz-like turn on “Full-Grown Boy” or the bass-heavy jam session that opens “Fault Lines,” sounding momentarily like an answer to The Doors’ “L.A. Woman.”
“Hypnotic Eye” has a sense of relief to its song-set. Petty and his Heartbreakers remain a reliable machine. Like many of his previous records, this set is deserving of repeated listens. By Petty’s recent standards, the set’s 11 song, 45-minute playing time is relatively lean, but that tightness serves to its benefit. This is another stellar release added to an already classic discography.
“Forgotten Man” Simultaneously this track recalls both “American Girl” and “A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own.” This is down-and-dirty Petty in classic mode.
“American Dream Plan B” The opening track starts off as a basic, gutsy rocker and then builds to a more traditional Petty chorus and bridge. Mike Campbell’s solo adds some oomph, too.
“Red River” This is another one that any longtime Petty fan can get behind. Again, he’s got a knack for melodic, winning choruses. This song has some interesting textural touches as well and some nice interplay between Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench.
|Beck’s “Song Reader” ****1/2|
Back in December of 2012, after a long period of back-injury-inspired silence Beck both thrilled and frustrated his fans when he teamed up with McSweeney’s and released 20 new songs in sheet-music form. This meant that if you couldn’t read music, these songs would be hard for you to enjoy. It also meant that likely the first versions of these songs you would hear wouldn’t be from their talented author but rather from random youtubers from around the world.
Earlier this year, Beck released his first proper album in nearly six years, “Morning Phase,” and just a few months later we have the studio version of the “Song Reader.” There’s a catch, though. Beck himself only handles one of the tracks. The other 19 have been handed off to pros like Norah Jones, Jack White, Jack Black and Jeff Tweedy just to name a few. The idea was to team up with sunglass-maker Warby Parker and make this a benefit album for 826 National, a tutoring center focusing on guiding kids’ creativity and writing skills.
The set is as strong as any traditional Beck record. His writing is so distinct that you can hear him echoed in all these songs, even if Loudon Wainwright III sounds perfectly suited for singing the very appropriate, “Do, We? We Do” or if Jason Isbell perfectly rocks out the Riches-to-Rags tale of “Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings.” Bob Forrest’s take on “Saint Dude” brings to mind Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski,” while Juanes effectively turns “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard” into a slice of Spanish-language pop. Swamp Dogg’s, take on “America, Here’s My Boy,” sung from the point of view of a grieving wartime father, is touching, while David Johansen seems to be doing his best Tom Waits impression on “Rough On Rats.” Norah Jones turns “Just Noise” into a country classic from a different time, while the members of Fun. make “Please Leave A Light On While You Go” sound like a Broadway number from a lost, downbeat musical.
Beck continues to astonish with the growing sophistication of his craft. He really is one of the best writers of his generation.
“Heaven’s Ladder” (Beck) This is the one track that Beck keeps for himself and it sounds like an upbeat offshoot of “Morning Phase.” It may also be one of the most melodically complex and challenging tracks on the set.
“Title Of This Song” (Moses Sumney) This is a beautiful, achingly jazzy reading of this song. Over nearly five minutes, every lush detail of this composition seems magnified. Beck’s dark wit shows through when Sumney asks, “Was it a funeral or a wedding? / Or a séance for the bride whose affection had died?/ Some say love is suicide.” You can hear echoes of Beck’s “Cellphone’s Dead” is the harmonized vocal section.
“Sorry” (Laura Marling) British folk singer Laura Marling can always be counted on to deliver the goods and this sparse 2-minute take on this melodic lament is no exception. It’s an amazing song and a striking performance. It begs for repeat listens.
|Jenny Lewis’ “The Voyager” ****1/2|
Jenny Lewis’ third solo album and her first since “Acid Tongue,” six years ago find her continuing on that record’s refined, classic path. The former Rilo Kiley front-woman and former actress has interestingly become a torch-bearer for indie-rock with classic country touches. With each record, her voice too has become a stronger and more nuanced instrument, capable of conveying a strong amount of expression.
Most of these songs are deep character studies about people cast off to the fringes for various reasons. There are casual bits of sleaze here and there, but Lewis treats each character with a novelist’s care, focusing on the details to make sure each one gets his or her turn in the sun.
The semi-Sapphic, Parisian love-triangle tale in “Late Bloomer” is full of people and tiny-touches as Lewis’ narrator feels jealous as a female friend (and perhaps lover) begins to fall for a male writer friend. As the two women drift apart, there is a tangible feeling of loss.
Similarly, the Hell-bound down and dirty kiss-off, “You Can’t Outrun ‘Em” is filled with grit, vigor and bluesy soul while the Post-9/11 breakup tale, “New You” has sense of rebirth with its resilient tone and mentions of sobriety. The lyrical nod to Metallica is a nice touch.
Lewis is surrounded, too by singer-songwriters. Most of the album was co-produced by Ryan Adams and Mike Viola. Lewis and her singer-songwriter boyfriend, Jonathan Rice produced two tracks and the main single, “Just One Of The Guys” was produced by Beck. In other words, this is a top-notch record made by pros who know exactly what they are doing.
Along with “Acid Tongue,” “The Voyager” stands as Jenny Lewis’ second classic release.
“The Voyager” This title track is the best song on an album full of stellar material. An ethereal walk-about through a 7-11 in the center of the Cosmos, this song has a cinematic quality, as if it were the theme to some futuristic space Western. It is as beautiful as it is strangely unique. It deserves to be a single and it deserves to be a hit.
“Just One Of The Guys” As mentioned above, this track was the one song on the record produced by Beck and it is getting a lot of media attention for its video which features Lewis, Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart and Brie Larson all dressed as mustachioed men. But the song itself is a tender and honest one about societal expectations and the double-standards where it comes to gender. At one point all the reverb and fuzz goes away as Lewis crisply declares, “There’s only one difference between you and me. / When I look at myself, all I can see / I’m just another lady without a baby.” Yes, this is an effective anthem about biological clock panic. (Note: It is cool to see Beck and Lewis working together. One can guess that they may have known each other for a while considering she and his wife Marissa Ribisi played Reese Witherspoon’s friends together in the movie “Pleasantville.”)
“Slippery Slopes” This song plays like a harder-hitting sequel to the title track of Rilo Kiley’s last album, “Under The Black Light.” It borrows part of the same riff and it has equally glowing results.
|Eric Clapton & Friends’ “The Breeze (An Appreciation Of JJ Cale)” ***|
JJ Cale and Eric Clapton’s music go hand-in-hand. Cale famously wrote Clapton’s hits “Cocaine” and “After Midnight” and the two collaborated on an album in 2006. When Cale died last summer at the age of 74, no doubt Clapton felt he had to repay him for not only his influence but his friendship as well. Cale in many ways was Clapton’s strongest tie-in to the American Blues that has strongly flowed throughout most of his career. So, Clapton gathered friends like Tom Petty, John Mayer, Mark Knopfler, Derek Trucks and more to pay tribute to this man through his music.
It’s an effective exercise for the most part and his influence is greatly felt as these performers go through these gems from his body of work, however this collection while musically studied and well-mannered can come off as very workman-like. These are great slices of blues, but they are given for the most part these quiet, low key arrangements. They sound too polished when they should sound loose and unpredictable. With an added dose of rawness, these songs would really burst in the correct way. Listening to “Cajun Moon” or the Don White-assisted “Sensitive Kind,” these takes sound like the musicians were trying not to make too much noise in fear of waking the neighbors. Even Petty who sounds as spunky and rollicking as ever on his own album, “Hypnotic Eye” sounds remarkably sedate here. Still there’s quite a lot of considerable skill on hand from these industry veterans. And Cale’s legacy deserves to live on as one of the modern giants of the blues making this collection worthy of a mild recommendation. (The emphasis is on the mild.)
“Songbird” (Featuring Willie Nelson) Willie delivers a ballad like the best of them, but he knows that just because a song is slow in tempo doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be sleepy. When he delivers “Songbird” at a normal vocal level after so much near-whispered fare, his voice sounds like a wake-up call. Willie is a legend for a reason.
“Don’t Wait” (Featuring John Mayer) Mayer also offers up one of the only real doses of adrenaline with a blazing guitar riff. Still one can imagine in the live set-up this song could have ten times the impact.
“The Old Man & Me” (Featuring Tom Petty) This is one of the only times the mellow approach works, partly because Petty brings an other-worldly glow to this fisherman’s anthem, which nicely compliments the song’s winding tune.
|The Muffs’ “Whoop Dee Doo” ****|
After being let go as Kim Deal’s replacement as the Pixies’ bassist (reportedly for stage-diving) Kim Shattuck decided to re-form her nineties outfit the Muffs. “Whoop Dee Doo” is the band’s sixth album overall and their first proper album in a decade. Their sound hasn’t changed one bit. Fans of their hit single “Sad Tomorrow” or their cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America,” (famously used in the movie “Clueless”) will find many things to love here.
Still anchored by spiky, raw three chord punk numbers and by Shattuck’s uniquely raspy voice, the band sounds like they are in peak form. In fact, it’s hard to tell any time has passed at all. Shattuck has a guttural scowl that would probably make Courtney Love jealous. How she can scream like that and still have a voice at all is an amazing feat. But, The Muffs have always been from the same pop school of punk that brought us the Ramones and early Green Day records. The emphasis is on catchiness as much as it is on brutality. Keep in mind that before her time in the Muffs, Shattuck spent time in the one-time “Nuggets”-leaning neo-psychedelic band the Pandoras in the eighties. She’s a seasoned pro. She even produced this record. At this point, her band-mates Ronnie Barnett and Roy McDonald are equally seasoned. McDonald also drums for power-pop/punk veterans Redd Kross.
“Whoop Dee Doo” is a celebration of the greatness of the lacking of change. It’s a glorious time-bubble of a record where Shattuck still sings songs about weird neighbors, being bored and pondering the sadder parts of life with a sunny tinge. Her songs are still wonderfully quirky. The fact that she had such a brief tenure as the bassist of the Pixies is both their loss and our win. “Whoop Dee Doo” is a tremendous nineties throwback, showing that musical ideals of the alternative boom were actually timeless.
“Up And Down Around” At 4 minutes, this is the longest song on the record and quite a bit longer than a good portion of the other tracks. It’s also slower, but it finds Shattuck almost in ballad-mode, or at least as close to ballad mode as she gets. Yet, there’s still that fuzzy backbone simmering away giving the song real punch especially at the strongly appealing chorus. It’s the kind of song that would’ve gotten them airplay in 1995 that somehow radio now seems to now wrongly ignore.
“Cheezy” This harmonica-assisted slice of jangle-pop is a winking love song of sorts.
“I Get It” This is a fuzzy, paisley-soaked duet between Shattuck and Barnett, showcasing the band’s signature pop appeal.
|Shabazz Palaces’ “Lese Majesty” ***1/2|
Shabazz Palaces is the latest project from Ishmael Butler, whom hip-hop experts will remember as Butterfly from Digable Planets. Two decades ago, that group released a duo of hip-hop classics, “Reachin’ (A New Reflection Of Time And Space)” and the brilliant but woefully under-rated “Blowout Comb.” In the years between, Butler released an album with his project Cherrywine before joining forces with instrumentalist Tendai Maraire and re-emerging as Shabazz Palaces in 2009. Of course, the group initially didn’t readily reveal their identities. Butler’s voice, though is undeniably distinctive, though to anyone who ever listened to “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” on an extended loop. If Digable Planets found Butler experimenting with jazz, Shabazz Palaces is his acid-jazz-freakout-fusion period. Traditional hip-hop fans may have a lot of trouble with these dense digital soundscapes. The emphasis is obviously on creating cool sounds over busting rhymes, even if Butler’s lyrics are at times compelling. Like the duo’s previous album, “Black Up,” this is a woozy concoction that would be too out there for modern hip-hop radio. It’s another creative plane entirely. Drum machines go crazy and Butler’s voice is coated in various amounts of reverb and echo to create something both fascinating and alienating. The record is lean on radio-leaning fare and thick with artistic experimentation. In short, this isn’t hip-hop for your populist-leaning friends. This is deep mood music for late-night chill sessions where you contemplate the expanding universe. In comparison, Digable Planets were flat-out pop. If you are open to this record, it can be as alluring as it is difficult. As a hip-hop act signed to the heavily rock-oriented Seattle mainstay, Sub-Pop Records, Shabazz Palaces are likely to stand out. “Lese Majesty” is likely to be one of the weirder and most distinctive albums the label will release this year. It will confound as many listeners as it will attract, but it is worth the ride.
“Motion Sickness” One of the warmer, most cohesive grooves on the record as Butler’s (perhaps pitch-shifted voice) drops rhymes about financial obsessions over a watery synth-line.
“Forerunner Foray” The spoken sample that begins this track is probably the closest to a Digable Planets-type touch you are going to get on this record. Although in hindsight, this track kind of sounds like “Blowout Comb” going on some sort of hypnotic sonic bender.
“#CAKE” This cryptic track references various “pleasures” and is all about “having your cake and eating it, too.” The drum-machines and atmospheric elements are typical of the record’s dizzying sound but at the same time, in all its confusion, it seems to aim to capture the chaos of the complicated modern world. This album is probably very different from any record you are used to hearing.
Next week: new music from Spoon, Godsmack and more!
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