Neil Young, Miguel, Failure and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Miguel performs onstage in concert at 2015 BET Experience at Club Nokia on June 26, 2015 in Los Angeles.
Thaddaeus McAdams/FilmMagic/Getty Images

This week, Neil Young rages against corporate greed, R&B singer Miguel gets truly funky, nineties apocalyptic grunge act Failure return with their first album in 19 years, rapper Vince Staples releases his debut full-length, Matt Pond PA go in a more commercial direction on their first album in five years, indie rockers Good Old War drop a new album and buzz-band X Ambassadors release their long-awaited proper debut. We have a lot of new music to cover this holiday weekend.

PHOTO: Neil Young + Promise Of The Real - "The Monsanto Years"
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Neil Young & Promise Of The Real’s “The Monsanto Years” ***

Neil Young has had a prolific, if not uneven last few years. At his best, his recent albums have added texture and nuance to his latter-day discography. Go listen to 2010’s woefully under-rated and excellent “Le Noise,” if you want proof. But he’s also had a few clunkers, like that album’s slapdash follow-up of traditional covers, “Americana” or last year’s “Storytone” which generally suffered from weak writing.

“The Monsanto Years,” named after the highly controversial agrochemical company, finds Young as his pointiest and most political. He’s blunt and to the point here. The lyrics are more about his message than they are about artistic expression. This can make some of these songs a bit awkward and to be honest could make his message a bit heavy-handed even to people who agree with his observations about corporate greed and corruption.

This is an album of environmental rage and frustration. It is an album made with drive and purpose. Usually, this can lead to some of Young’s better work. His 2006 album, “Living With War,” for instance is as much a protest record of its time as any politically-driven record of the sixties. That same spirit is here, but it is somehow bogged down.

"People Want To Hear About Love” is a decent song about how people rather listen to bland songs about love than they do about pollution, environmental destruction, the loss of personal rights, etc. It’s a valid point. People rather spend time with the shiny distraction than focus on the impending disaster if given a choice. While this would sound better delivered in a less straight-forward way, it wouldn’t get Young’s point across in quite the same way. He wants his message to be a clear as possible. So if this album is very much on the noise, it is by that way by design as Young sings a chorus of “Too big to fail” on “Big Box” or goes against a coffee giant we all know on the cleverly-titled, “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop.”

On the whole, this is album-length thesis against GMOs, but on top of the message comes some pretty decent guitar work. What this album lacks in nuance, it nearly makes up for in riffs. While the time for lyrical subtlety has passed, that doesn’t mean that Young doesn’t want to make the album catchy and bouncy in the process.

The deluxe version of the album comes packaged with a DVD, showcasing an hour-long film about the making of the record. The live performances captured on film somehow have a little more impact than they do on disc. This is far from one of Young’s classics, but it is a good Young record in the way that it has a clear purpose. Some listeners may find this album a tad weighty and the people who will dig it will probably leave Young essentially preaching to the choir, but it is refreshing to know that in 2015, Young has not lost his protesting spirit.

Focus Tracks:

“A New Day For Love” This song has an admittedly phoned-in title, but it showcases some of Young’s best guitar and melody work on the record.

“Workin’ Man” This ode to farmers having to work and deal with Monsanto has the straight-forward, classic country blues feeling of some of Neil Young’s more classic work.

“If I Don’t Know” This again recalls some of the best elements of classic Young while slightly muting this album’s overall political intensions. It still mentions signature themes heard throughout the collection, thus keeping the message cohesive.

PHOTO: Miguel - "Wildheart"
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Miguel’s “Wildheart” ****

On “Wildheart,” Miguel’s third album, the singer goes further into the realm of what I would call “alternative R&B.” This is a rather progressive record, which is perhaps why Miguel is seen as someone pushing the genre forward.

If you can’t tell from the cover, this is a rather smooth, often erotically-charged record. Speaking of that cover and its liner notes, it looks like something out of a Renaissance painting sex manual. It’s a pretty daring and peculiar picture. But that is the point. It grabs your attention. This is a woozy, funky set. Songs like “Deal” and the Lenny Kravitz-assisted “Face The Sun” possess a casual rock-driven flare. In truth, there are very few records out right now that sound like this one. Smooth-loving groove “Coffee” can’t help but momentarily recall Spandau Ballet’s “True.”

There seems to be a thread going through this album, showing love and sex as a means to salvation. And there is a potent religiosity in the way Miguel approaches sultry material. The soft, groovy feel of this record even bleeds into unexpected places, including the gangsta-flavored ballad, ”NWA,” which finds Miguel matching a slick falsetto with a nearly whispered rap section from Kurupt.

This album offers a chilled, complex sonic concoction. It even sounds laid back when it is upbeat. “Waves” really moves, complete with some heavy cowbell action, but at the same time, the groove remains lush and almost pillow-like.

There's also a feeling that Miguel may have been listening to a lot of rock from the seventies during the making of this record. You can hear it clearly in the glam-rock guitar textures on “Hollywood Dreams.” And yes, Prince remains an obvious source of inspiration.

With “Wildheart,” Miguel has continued to distinguish himself by delivering a record with a distinctly driving, unifying tone. It’s a remarkably focused and often entrancing record.

Focus Tracks:

“Coffee” This is easily the catchiest and warmest song on the record, destined for pop greatness.

“The Valley” While “Coffee” has a romantic tinge, this is a slick, lusty ode to making a sex tape. The parental warning sticker is there for a reason. If you aren’t down for this kind of track, you should look elsewhere. There is a bit of Nine Inch Nails-inspired energy to this one. Watch this become the next “Closer.”

“Waves” The metaphor between surfing and sex is evident, but this song is actually subtle enough to become a hit and it has a radio-ready bounce.

“What’s Normal Anyway” This is a break from the tone of the rest of the record and is an important ode to identity confusion of various varieties and cultural expectations.

PHOTO: Failure - "The Heart Is A Monster"
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Failure’s “The Heart Is A Monster” ****1/2

Failure’s last album was “Fantastic Planet,” 19 years ago. Listen to that album and their new album, “The Heart Is A Monster” back-to-back and those nearly two decades nearly disappear. This album continues exactly where that album left off. Ken Andrews still sings over post-Cobain-ian, minor-key guitar progressions with a Beck-like deadpan tone. The songs are still extremely heavy and churning, packed with ethereal haze. There’s a highly cinematic approach at work here.

As a listener, I was always amazed that Failure even in the nineties always seemed to be a band only my coolest friends had ever heard. Considering “Stuck On You” from “Fantastic Planet” had one of the most beautiful videos of the decade, with a heavy, brightly-hued James Bond-theme influence, I always assumed they would make a bigger splash. Listen to their excellently grungy cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” on a late nineties tribute album and you get the idea of their versatility.

Andrews for his part on the off-time became a big time rock producer, most notably working with A Perfect Circle. He also worked on his other projects, Year Of The Rabbit and ON. Greg Edwards was in Autolux and drummer Kellii Scott was involved in a variety of projects including Blinker The Star and one of Louise Post’s latter-day reformations of Veruca Salt.

This album is probably just what longtime fans of Failure expect. It is a righteous return that finds dissonance in all the right places. A listen to “Atom City Queen,” “A.M. Amnesia” or “The Focus” will make plenty of people smile since they are all thick with the band’s signature heft.

Even if you’ve never heard Failure before, they are an important and highly focused band. If "The Heart Is A Monster” is your first taste of this Los Angeles band, it should be immediately evident why they have a devoted following. There is beauty in every crushing riff and every exercise in instrumental tone.

While these songs have a dour undercurrent, Andrews in particular leads the band in a way that the helps listeners will find each track’s underlying, inherent beauty. This album never pulls punches. It does exactly what it intends. It is yet another sign of 2015’s surprising and welcome return of grunge.

Focus Tracks:

“Mulholland Drive” Naming this as the first focus track may be misleading to some. It is the biggest sonic outlier of the record. The guitar crunch and atmospheric touches recede. This track sounds influenced by both the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and the psychedelic turns of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” But with the guitar-fuzz lessened, the tight orchestration heard here and below the surface on the rest of the record is revealed.

“AM Amnesia” This is more typical work from the band, as guitars crash over minor-key, sudden melodic shifts.

“I Can See Houses” This is a hushed, ominous meditation on a plane ride. Is the plane doomed? It is hard to say, but this song has the same kind of pregnant tension as Liz Phair’s classic, “Stratford-On-Guy.” There are also some nice melodic touches that bring to mind Trent Reznor’s softer side. This is definitely a song fueled by a fear of flying.

PHOTO: Vince Staples - "Summertime 06"
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Vince Staples’ “Summertime ‘06” ****

During the same week as his 22nd birthday, rapper Vince Staples has released his full-length debut album, “Summertime ’06,” following up last year’s “Hell Can Wait” EP. He also has recently gained some high-profile exposure thanks to recent collaborations with both Common and Earl Sweatshirt.

Music has sort of saved Staples. As a troubled youth in Long Beach, California, he fell in with a tough crowd and has a long family history of growing up with gangs. This background informs this gritty album. If you are looking for something sugar-coated and sweet, look elsewhere. This is a frank, dimly-lit collection which discusses drug dealing, violence, fallen friends, dead bodies and a fear of the police. As strident and strong as Staples sounds on here, there’s occasionally a slight sadness in his tone, perhaps noting his lost innocence.

This is an ominous and sparse collection. As highly controversial as this album can be, it never feels like it is shocking merely for attention. Each observational tale and bit feels like it has been lived and the record maintains an almost cathartic sensibility. Even when this album is upbeat, the backgrounds remain chilled and minor-toned. Even at its bounciest, this album never sounds celebratory, effectively mirroring the consuming darkness of the street life it portrays.

It makes sense that Staples would have appeared on Common’s amazing “Nobody’s Smiling” last year and Earl Sweatshirt’s “I Don’t Like S***. I don’t Go Outside,” this year. He’s blunt in his delivery, but there is a slight consciousness behind his intentions. This also shares a bit of the state of the nation anger and frustration that fuels some of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly.”

One note. On CD this is a double album. From a format standpoint, this is a needless waste of resources since it only clocks in at an hour on the whole. It can easily fit on one disc. This mysterious formatting issue aside, on “Summertime ’06,” Vince Staples doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t hold back. This is an unfiltered expression of his perspective. It may be too much for some listeners to handle, but it provides some intense food for thought in the process. This is a challenging and surprisingly gripping record.

Focus Tracks:

“Like It Is” This plays like a funeral march with a soft vocoder-assisted voice ushering in essentially a prayer-like calm before a clanging beat comes in. This track is towards the end of the record and it feels like Staples’ summery. His observations are biting and this is a touching plea for redemption after getting caught up in violence.

“Norf Norf” This is one of the most driven tracks on the record. It almost sounds like a party record. It isn’t. The most striking moment on the song is during the chorus when Staples completely changes his vocal tone completely and he repeatedly chants in a low, serious voice, “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police.”

"Lemme Know” (Featuring Jhene Aiko and DJ Dahi) Staples changes his tone and is able to sing in unison with Jhene Aiko over a pulsing groove.

PHOTO: Matt Pond PA - "The State Of Gold"
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Matt Pond PA’s “The State Of Gold” ****

On Matt Pond PA’s first album in five years, the indie rock outfit makes significant moves toward brighter territory. The shimmering synths that adorn the opener, “More No More” are begging for pop airplay and for his part, leader Matt Pond is able to coat his compositions in this neon sheen without sacrificing his signature sense of song-craft. These songs still sound like they were created by the same band that gave us signature tracks like “Brooklyn Stars” from 2005’s “Several Arrows Later” and the hauntingly sad anthem to love loss, “Remains” from 2010’s “The Dark Leaves.”

Does Pond sound like he’s been listening to an alarming (and surprising) amount of Katy Perry records? Weirdly, yes. But he’s got the songwriting chops often lacking in that brand of pop, so these songs sound like well-crafted pop confections that even the most judgmental of indie rock fans might enjoy without guilt. It’s a revelation of a metamorphosis.

If “Emptiness,” The Starting Line” and others all get ignored by the powers that be making decisions about what songs get airplay, it is a missed opportunity of massive proportions. This album also shares the same kind of retro-eighties-meets indie-rock appeal that fueled Sky Ferreira’s incredible but under-rated 2013 album “Night Time, My Time.” (It’s an unlikely comparison, I know, but it is an apt one.)

No doubt, this is Matt Pond PA’s most commercial and universally appealing album to date. If given the right audience, this record could be a commercial juggernaut. It’s a welcome turn for this band, even if it is one I never would have ever predicted.

“The State Of Gold” is a textbook example of how to appropriate a glossier sound and potentially open yourself up to a wider audience without selling out your initial artistic vision. While this album is remarkably bright, it is never incongruous with the band’s legacy. Many bands have tried this kind of turn. Few have succeeded to this degree.

Oh, and if this album does become a hit, I really hope the before mentioned “Remains” gets some retroactive airplay and in effect becomes a revisionist hit. Five years later, that song is still an epic monster of a song.

Focus Tracks:

“More No More” The adjustment in sound is felt immediately at the beginning of this opening track, but it works much like Tegan and Sara’s last album, “Heatthrob” worked in their favor. The change Matt Pond PA went through isn’t quite as drastic, but it is still a fitting comparison.

“Take Me With You” This is a bright, pounding dance song meant to be played on summer nights on the beach. Again, though, it still possesses Pond’s core sensibilities.

“Don’t Look Down” While still in the pop realm, this has a potent indie-rock urgency.

PHOTO: Good Old War - "Broken Into Better Shape"
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Good Old War’s “Broken Into Better Shape” ***

On their fourth album, pop-flavored, indie- rock outfit Good Old War deliver a keen collection of songs that have a gentle, articulate emo-like sensibility that sits them sonically somewhere between Jack’s Mannequin and the mellower side of Army Navy. This is the band’s first record since the departure of founding member Tim Arnold, turning the trio effectively into a duo and the transition is handled well. That being said, Arnold is credited as a writer on some of the songs and so his contribution to the band is still felt.

This is indie rock with radio potential. And it is evident that the band knows this. There are calculated “whoa whoa whoas” during the chorus of opener “Tell Me What You Want From Me” combined with shouted “heys!” Still, the band members still distinguish themselves with occasionally thoughtful lyrics and a knack for tuneful execution.

There’s an appealing quality to these songs even if at times it feels like we’ve heard these songs before. “I’m The One” throws a bit of a curveball with its sonic marriage between a reggae-tinged shuffle and a plucked banjo, while the scratchiness on “Broken Record” adds a pleasant quirkiness.

This isn’t a record that will change the world, but it is pleasant and enjoyable nonetheless. “Broken Into Better Shape” plays with formulas you know and Good Old War sound like quite a few other bands, but at the same time, what they’ve done here is worth a listen.

Focus Tracks:

“I’m The One” This is easily the most compelling, musically sophisticated track on the album.

“Broken Into Better Shape” This is an anthem about picking yourself up when things go wrong and making yourself better in the process. In other words, we learn from our mistakes. As the old adage goes, “Whatever doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.”

“Tell Me What You Want From Me” If you want a test track to see if this album generally is for you, this may be your best bet.

PHOTO: X Ambassadors - "VHS"
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X Ambassadors’ “VHS” ***1/2

Ithaca, New York band X Ambassadors make their full-length debut with “VHS,” a 20-track dose of radio-ready singer-songwriter pop with slightly funky undertones. The band consists of brothers Sam and Casey Harris and their friends Noah Feldshuh and Adam Levin.

There’s a pop sheen all over this record and the seven interludes on the record actually keep things interesting. They often threaten to sound like their friends Imagine Dragons, but the truth is, they have an experimental core that keeps them from suffering from the banality that often plagued Imagine Dragons on their latest album, “Smoke + Mirrors.” To their credit, Imagine Dragons show up on this album on the song, “Fear” and the results are impressive.

X Ambassadors have an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that can make them appealing. They can jump easily from the folk-pop of “Renegades” to the crooned R&B balladry of “Unsteady” to the drum-n-bass-flavored “Nervous.” To a certain degree this is a record that conforms to some questionable pop-radio aesthetics, but it is the chances this band takes that makes this record a worthwhile listen. Effectively, the band easily belongs in both the pop world and the experimental one. The imaginative beat-work on this record really sets it apart from the pack. Plus, their two collaborations with blues singer Jamie N Commons provide another interesting touch. (Their 2013 collaborative single, “Jungle” is on this album.)

“VHS” is a bright beginning for this band. Let’s hope when it comes to making their second record, they continue to nurture their experimental side and don’t dull down their edges.

Focus Tracks:

“Renegades” This key single is a nice slice of folk-pop. It’s a truly enjoyable song, but if you watch the video, it gives the song a whole new level of gravity, showing a variety of differently-abled athletes striving to reach their goals. It should be noted that this is no doubt of particular importance to the band considering keyboardist Casey Harris is himself blind. It is great that they have used their level of fame to put something inspiring into the world.

“Gorgeous” This is an unexpected serving of R&B-flavored pop and it really works.

“Fear” (Featuring Imagine Dragons) As I stated above, I was not a fan of Imagine Dragons’ latest record, but this is a mesmerizing sonic swirling attack. It is really busy, but if it grabs you, it will pull you further into its grasp.

Next Week: Things get a little altered. In the U.S., for years the release date has been Tuesday. Starting July 10th, for the most part a global release-date system is being adopted where new releases will be released on Fridays. When we return we’ll have reviews of the latest from Veruca Salt, Ghostface Killah and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Kacey Musgraves, Bully, Wolf Alice, Pete Rock and more.

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