Music Reviews - Record Release Rundown: The Latest Michael Jackson, The Black Keys, Tori Amos and More

PHOTO: Michael Jacksons "Xscape"
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This week, we get another cobbled together, remixed and re-envisioned album of Michael Jackson music, the Black Keys return with a dark, psychedelic trip, Tori Amos and Dolly Parton each return to their roots, a new lineup of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart takes shape and Wes Anderson’s movie soundtracks get the tribute treatment.

PHOTO: Michael Jacksons "Xscape"
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Michael Jackson’s “Xscape” (Deluxe Edition) ***

The second raiding of the vaults of “The King Of Pop” yields better results than the unfortunate 2010 collection, “Michael.” Only eight songs make the cut, probably in an effort to spread the remains out as thinly as possible to ensure future releases. In its standard form, this album clocks in at a slight 34 minutes. In its deluxe form, you get all the original demos that were used as source material, plus an additional version of the single “Love Never Felt So Good” featuring Justin Timberlake. While the Timberlake add-on is a bit excessive and put there transparently as a marketing tool, the demos serve a purpose to give you a more well-rounded view of this collection as a whole. This is still a record company cash-grab, attempting to make the most of a dead artist’s catalog, but many of these songs fit in well in his repertoire. Some, like “Blue Gangsta,” even in their modernized form seem like half-written sketches that serve as filler at best, but others add to his legacy.

In the case of some of these tracks, however, it is obvious why they didn’t see release in the first place. “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” possessed a funkiness that recalls “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” but its lyrical mentions of sexual abuse and 12-year-old prostitutes have an unsettling, undesirable edge to them given the accusations made towards Jackson. And “Slave To The Rhythm” is kind of a loosely pieced together song about a woman working hard to make ends meet, using dancing as a lyrical metaphor.

In all, though, even though, this collection doesn’t feel completely like reheated leftovers. Given that he was a known perfectionist, Michael may not have liked this kind of release, but it serves as a satisfactory footnote to the star power he possessed.

Focus Tracks

“Love Never Felt So Good” This disco-esque song was co-written with Paul Anka in the early eighties. It was recorded by Johnny Mathis in 1984. Jackson’s versions here (without Timberlake) recall the best moments of “Off The Wall.” It’s just a smooth, winning groove.

“A Place With No Name” With a bass-line that sounds like a louder version of the backing for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Jackson repurposes elements of America’s “Horse With No Name.” It is definitely strange, but it’s an interesting experiment. Considering that years after Jackson probably made this, Janet used a sample of America’s “Ventura Highway” as the centerpiece for her hit “Someone To Call My Lover,” it makes for an interesting connection.

“Loving You” This sounds like a softer ballad from the “Thriller” era and like “Love Never Felt So Good,” it plays to Michael’s smoother side.

PHOTO: The Black Keys "Turn Blue"
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The Black Keys’ “Turn Blue” ****

From the acid-rock guitar solo that sets off the opening track, “Weight Of Love” it is evident that The Black Keys aren’t out to repeat themselves. “Turn Blue” is slower and more psychedelic than “Brothers” and “El Camino.” And even though this is the fourth time the Keys have worked with him, this is the album that bares Danger Mouse’s production stamp the most, with echoes of his work with Broken Bells, Electric Guest and Gorillaz. Considering how straightforward both “Brothers” and “El Camino” were, this record’s stabs at falsetto funk seem somewhat daring and dangerous. Old-school Black Keys fans may find this album’s direction to be a little too polished. One senses that this may go down as the most polarizing collection in their discography, but throughout the set, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney prove their versatility and if you are up for this romp into low-key psychedelia with a slight pop sheen, it will offer you great rewards.

This is a unified mood-piece meant for late-night chill-outs. It’s among the darkest and foggiest music that the duo has ever released, and thus will probably be less omnipresent in the culture licensing wise than the music on the band’s previous two records. As different and risky as it is, it still manages to impress.

Focus Tracks

“In Our Prime” This is a beautiful piano piece that morphs several times before it becomes first an organ jam and then a guitar-freak-out. Echoes of Zeppelin and Hendrix are as strong here, even if they are mixed with some post-eighties funky touches.

“Turn Blue” The title track and second song to be released as a single for the album is a slow, weary bit of blues that sounds like some late-night, rugged roadhouse band merged with a soft-rock hit of the eighties. As Auerbach sings in falsetto, “I really do hope you know there could be hell below” his high tone is packed with an ominous tension.

“Fever” This might be the most Danger Mouse-y song I’ve ever heard, showcasing all of the producer’s hallmarks. It has a strong, loudly pronounced bass-line. It has a sing-song-y keyboard riff. It has a sea of voices over the chorus. It’s amazing that a producer can possess such an obviously identifiable touch and yet, this song is undeniably the work of the Black Keys.

PHOTO: Tori Amos "Unrepentant Geraldines"
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Tori Amos’ “Unrepentant Geraldines” ****

Unlike most of her nineties peers, Tori Amos has continued with a steady stream of releases without any excessive breaks. “Unrepentant Geraldines” is Amos’ 14th studio album overall and her eighth to be released within the last 12 years. She also remains a rather reliable performer. If you tend to like Amos’ style, you’ll like this record. It is full of her typical sense of whimsy and intrigue with the kind of operatic and dramatic flourishes that she’s spent her career borrowing from Kate Bush. But, this is also one of Amos’ strongest sets songwriting-wise.

This is a predictable record in the best sense because it is reliable without being stale. As a songwriter, Amos’ tone has mellowed. This album doesn’t have the harder, progressive edges of say “Under The Pink,” but her approach hasn’t become any less intense. And yet, a few of these songs seem to be about passing time and worries about age. Amos, now 50, however still sounds very much like she always has. In fact, like a classical musician she has gained some sophistication. As someone who always favored complex arrangements to begin with, the fact that she’s become increasingly composerly over the years has only benefitted her.

The deluxe edition of the album has one extra track and is housed in a hardcover book. It is packaged with a DVD with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

“Unrepentant Geraldines” is a densely-woven collection that fits nicely among Amos’ best work. It shows that Amos’ skills remain as strong as ever. This is her strongest collection in a number of years.

Focus Tracks

“Promise” (Featuring Tash) This song is a beautifully amazing duet with Amos’ 13 year old daughter, Natashya Hawley (AKA Tash) who sounds excellent singing along with her mother in a call-and-response fashion. This isn’t Hawley’s first foray into her mother’s music. She was prominently featured on Amos’ 2011 album, “Night of Hunters.” It is obvious and remarkably evident that she has inherited her mother’s talents.

“Trouble’s Lament” This is the album’s single, which is an unsettled dark lullaby of sorts with lyrics about “the devil” and despair. Amos’ father after all was a preacher, so biblical imagery still stands as a narrative point. But this song almost has a late-Beatle-y stomp at the peak of its progression.

“Weatherman” In many ways, this is an old-school Tori Amos piano ballad where the focus is mainly on her voice and her excellent piano playing. Her tunes always take such interesting and unexpected sidetracks.

PHOTO: Dolly Partons "Blue Smoke"
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Dolly Parton’s “Blue Smoke” ***1/2

Dolly Parton thankfully doesn’t change. Now 68 and more than 50 years into her career, on “Blue Smoke,” Dolly offers the latest installment from the Dolly brand. She doesn’t give way to current pop-country trends, she just offers up her signature combination of strong performances and songs that fit her well. Old friends, Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson pop in to warmly remind you of her classic country peer-group and all three of them still sound like time has stood still.

Most of these tracks are originals, with the notable exception of an excellent reading Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” and a version (believe it or not) of Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me.” Honestly, the latter, with its gospel flavor plays better in Dolly’s hands than it did in Bon Jovi’s but it still isn’t a great song.

There’s nothing earth-shattering, ground-breaking or career-changing about this record, it’s just Dolly being Dolly and bringing the goods, blending her mainstream country and bluegrass roots. This is Dolly knowing exactly the kind of records her fans expect and delivering it. A couple more surprises would’ve probably been nice, but Dolly’s continued sameness is oddly comforting all the same.

Focus Tracks

“Don’t Think Twice” It might not seem obvious on paper, but this signature, early Dylan track is perfectly suited for Dolly.

“Blue Smoke” This title-track is a song about a train, and Dolly approaches in with bluegrass gusto, even making train sounds with her voice. She’s a performer who really gives it her all.

“Banks Of The Ohio” To give you an idea of Parton’s versatility, she can even pull off this song, a “Tom Dooley”-esque murder confession, delivered from the perspective of a jailed man.

PHOTO: The Pains Of Being Pure At Hearts "Days Of Abandon"
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The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s “Days Of Abandon” **1/2

Back in 2009, New York’s The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart issued a perfect debut album, full of loud guitars, lo-fi fun and hooks that didn’t quit. Two years later, they issued “Belong,” which besides its excellent Smashing Pumpkins-esque title-track let go of the fuzz-rock past and brought forth a sense of sonic clarity with mixed results. Now, the band has issued their third full-length, “Days Of Abandon” and they have almost fully given up their rock past, becoming merely a pleasant, mild-mannered twee band. In fact, they’ve finally become the self-aware emo band that their name has always indicated.

The opening track, “Art Smock” will seem tender to some and cloying to others. (I’m strongly in the latter camp.) Without the guitar-wall to sing over, front-man Kip Berman is reduced to a wispy near-whisper. It’s as if the band listened to Belle and Sebastian a little too long and decided to emulate their preciousness. Things don’t improve on the single, “Simple And Sure,” but as the album progresses it finds some satisfactory footing in a slight dream-pop landscape. By the end of the record, it mildly wins you over.

To be fair, this is almost a different band, with Berman, Kurt Feldman and Alexander Naidus holding down the fort from the original line-up. Keyboardist and original back-up vocalist, Peggy Wang has left the group, and in her place, they’ve added co-vocalist Jen Goma and horn-player Kelly Pratt.. To her credit, Goma’s vocal turns provide some album highlights and her presence adds to the band’s appeal, even if their new sound is a far cry from the kind of power the band used to possess. Towards the end of the record, the band makes a welcome slight return to its old fuzzy power-pop ways, but the material isn’t quite as strong as it once was.

Focus Tracks

“Until The Sun Explodes” This is the closest you get to the old Pains Of Being Pure At Heart sound, and it doesn’t appear until track 8. It’s a winning, fuzzy number, even if it is cleaner sounding than the fuzzy songs from their first record. It’s also over in a blink, clocking in at a mere 2:26.

“Beautiful You” If “Until The Sun Explodes” recalls the band’s debut, this six-minute track recalls the more mainstreamed sound of “Belong.” Honestly, this would’ve been a better single choice than “Simple And Sure.”

“Kelly” This peppy number led by Goma is appealing and lovely, even if it sounds like a completely different band than their previous material.

PHOTO: "I Saved Latin! A Tribute To Wes Anderson"
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“I Saved Latin! A Tribute To Wes Anderson” ****

Any fan of Wes Anderson knows what an important role music plays in his films. Since “Bottle Rocket” in 1996, he has scored the majority of his movies with hand-picked classics, the majority of which come from the sixties. One of his only true semi-contemporary uses to date was his effective use of Elliott Smith’s “Needle In The Hay” in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which fit in seamlessly with the rest of that film’s soundtrack. Over time, his use of this kind of music has actually lessened. “Moonrise Kingdom” had mostly a classical score, with a few nods to the old system, and most recently, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was all score and so that element was missed.

“I Saved Latin!” is a covers album containing songs used in “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” 23 covers in all handled are handled with expert care by some of the best of today’s batch of indie rockers. The vast majority are strikingly spot on. There could be nitpicking, perhaps about how Saint Motel shrank the length of the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” from its original 8 minutes to under just under 3, or how Generationals chose to mess with the rhythm of Creation’s “Making Time,” but the vast majority of changes here add interesting elements when paired with the originals.

This is pretty much a textbook example of how to do a covers album well. It was no easy feat, either, considering the original sources are basically untouchable classics.

Focus Tracks

“Needle In The Hay” (Juliana Hatfield) Handling a song used during an attempted suicide scene in “The Royal Tenenbaums” is rough. Considering Elliott Smith is believed to have killed himself a couple years after the movie, (there is still speculation about the circumstances around his death) this cover is an especially tall order and Juliana Hatfield, a huge Smith fan, herself manages to bring forth the song’s sadness, even with her bright voice. This version’s addition of a keyboard line somehow further accentuates the track’s sadness. This track would’ve fit very well on Hatfield’s excellent 2012 self-titled covers record.

“Fly” (Kristin Hersh) Another “Tenenbaums” track, this one from Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh, whose masterfully wounded-sounding rasp gives the appropriate level of gravity to Nick Drake’s existential plea, “Fly.”

“This Time Tomorrow” (Telekinesis!) Given his usual new-wave and punk influences, I wouldn’t have expected a cover of the Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow” (featured in “The Darjeeling Limited”) from Michael Benjamin Lerner of Telekinesis! His version is a perfect tribute to the original. It is faithful and utterly pristine.

“Margaret Yang’s Theme” (Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin) / “Five Years” (Santah) These are two separate tracks and in fact they bookend the set, but they deserve to be mentioned for going the extra step. The band Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin deserves credit here for being the only group here to choose a piece of Mark Mothersbaugh’s score (from “Rushmore”)as a source. Not only does the band Santah take on David Bowie’s “Five Years,” but they sing it in Portuguese like Seu Jorge’s character in “The Life Aquatic.” Next Week new releases from Coldplay, The Roots and more!

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