Public Enemy, Titus Andronicus, Joss Stone and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Terminator X, S1W and Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy pose for a portrait in a studio.
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This week, hip-hop legends and Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Inductees Public Enemy drop a new record, rockers Titus Andronicus release a mighty rock opera, singer Joss Stone tries her hand at reggae, The Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr. releases his third full-length solo album and British R&B singer Lianne La Havas releases her beautiful second album. As usual, there is a lot to discuss.

PHOTO: Public Enemys "Man Plans God Laughs"
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Public Enemy’s “Man Plans God Laughs” ***1/2

The first thing that strikes you about Public Enemy’s 13th studio album is actually not its political righteousness but its forward-thinking sonic assault. Don’t get me wrong, Chuck D still packs the album with the uplifting, militant energy that has become his signature, but at the same time, beat-wise this is one of the weirdest and trippiest collections in the group’s discography. It is packed with futuristic electro sounds that in some ways recall the sonic palate often used by the Beastie Boys late in their career. This is one freaky collection of grooves and co-producer Gary G. Wiz really deserves some praise for his work.

This is also an astonishingly brief collection. The 11 tracks here only last for about 27 minutes. Many of the songs are barely over the two-minute mark. What does this mean? It means that this collection is more like P.E. from concentrate. Chuck still gets his points across and he does so rather succinctly. The title-track for instance is the main single and it is only two minutes and 4 seconds, but Chuck is able to summon the kind of persuasive energy only his commanding voice can.

As is usually the case, Chuck D is definitely the most dominant voice on this collection with Flavor Flav and Professor Griff only making brief appearances. In Griff’s case, perhaps that serves as an asset when you consider his troubling history of tremendously controversial and inflammatory remarks.

Content-wise, on “Man Plans, God Laughs,” this sense of smothering controversy is not heard. Like all of P.E.’s best records, this is an album of anger and wanting a change and in this climate where we are reading story after story about the killing unarmed African-Americans every day, it remains potent. Chuck is authoritative in his approach and he knows how to get the crowd lifted. He wants to raise awareness and he wants to boost hip-hop culture. He also knows how to rock a groove. At its core this record is a study on good versus evil and God versus the devil.

Even with its brevity, this record does take a few puzzling turns. The biggest is the Rolling Stones-sampling “Honky Tonk Rules” which puts P.E. over a blues backdrop while rewriting “Honkey Tonk Women.” Perhaps this isn’t so puzzling when you know Chuck D is a student of musical history and takes influence from some unexpected places.

On the whole, the album finds the group continuing their tradition of releasing, overly political hip-hop with a great deal of drive. Even if you don’t find yourself agreeing with everything the members say (both inside and outside the group) it still serves as an interesting ride. At 55, Chuck D still commands the room. He’s still changing the game.

Focus Tracks:

“Man Plans God Laughs” Named for a Yiddish proverb, this is an old-school rally to the troop “Do it for the culture. / Do it for the youth.” It even has a nice call back to “Fight The Power.”

“Those Who Know Know Who” The best beat on the record, anchored by a classic P.E. sample bent and turned into a freaky concoction that verges on dub-step.

“No Sympathy From The Devil” Perhaps another nod to the Stones, this electro-flavored track sets off the ominous tone of the album as Chuck drops verse about historical atrocities and makes it a struggle against good and evil. There’s a video for this song, too which puts video footage to match Chuck’s verses. This is in the vein of classic P.E. and all the momentum and controversy that usually come together from them. P.E. have always been about stirring the pot and questioning the system.

PHOTO: Titus Andronicus "The Most Lamentable Tragedy"
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Titus Andronicus’ “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” ***

Titus Andronicus’ fourth album is a sprawling and ambitious rock opera that spans 93 minutes over two discs. The New Jersey group mostly keeps a brisk punk pace throughout, anchored by Patrick Stickles’ furious, growling yelp, although on the second disc particularly shows some quieter more nuanced moments like the affecting, “No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming.”

Although this record is impressive in its scope and its execution, it doesn’t necessarily inspire repeated listens, since it is not particularly catchy. But what it lacks in hooks it makes up for in bile.

“Stranded (On My Own)” packs a lot of punk force while the brie f “Look Alive” and “Lookalike” both simmer with a hastened hardcore energy. “Mr. E. Mann” kind of sounds like a fuzzed-up answer to Bruce Springsteen & The E. Street Band, while the multi-sectioned “More Perfect Union” with its heavily orchestral background sounds ready for a larger stage. “Dimed Out” kind of sounds like a cross between Social Distortion and the Dropkick Murphys. The nine-minute “(S)he Said / (S)he Said” is filled with anger and sexually-charged angst. All along, “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” is a constantly moving, constantly shifting storm of emotion.

It’s fitting, too that Stickles and company would chose to cover The Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes,” considering Shane MacGowan seems to be a strong influence throughout the set. Similarly, the band’s revved-up reading of Daniel Johnston’s “I Had Lost My Mind” (re-titled, “I Lost My Mind (DJ)” fits quite well.

It’s hard to tell if Titus Andronicus have bigger plans for this piece of work. I suppose a play could be written around these songs. Presumably a band does not record such an album without loftier goals in mind, especially when you consider that on the album’s back cover this is dubbed “A Rock Opera In Five Acts.” If you aren’t a Titus Andronicus super-fan, this is probably only a good listen. On stage, given an appropriate Broadway boost, this might really shine.

Focus Tracks:

“Come On, Siobhan” This track provides the album’s most focused moment, fusing punk drive with Irish musical accents. Is this their answer to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On, Eileen?” Maybe.

“I’m Going Insane (Finish Him)” Admittedly, this song isn’t much on words, but it packs quite a lot of force. It’s like a sonic punch to the gut.

“Lonely Boy” With an intro that sounds like the beginning of a classic track by the Who, this quickly turns into a Clash-esque rockabilly number. There’s a nice Seinfeld reference too when Stickles sings, “I’ll open up the door and say ‘Hello, Newman.’” That’s funny.

PHOTO: Joss Stones "Water For Your Soul"
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Joss Stone’s “Water For Your Soul” ***1/2

On her first album in three years and her seventh album overall, British soulstress Joss Stone explores reggae and funk with rewarding results. It should be noted that key single, “Love Me” was co-written with Damien Marley, with whom she was in the poorly-named super-group Superheavy. Truth be told, all of the best and enjoyable moments on the pretty dreadful Superheavy album were curtesy of Stone and Marley since they kept things grounded when Mick Jagger got too hammy or when the songs got too busy.

The rest of the album finds Stone co-writing with a variety of other collaborators, the most common of which is Jonathan Shorten, with whom Stone has worked before. If you remember, 12 years ago, Stone burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old phenom with unstoppable pipes. In the years since, she has learned how to better hone and control her voice. In the early days, even though she was always impressive, Stone would sometimes over-sing. Now she has a more nuanced approach to her performance and that notion of clarity and control allows her to explore more varied terrain. “Star” for instance has a softly simmering quality that demands smooth subtlety from Stone. (The song also has some nice cowbell action.)

All throughout, Stone plays against different sounds whether it be the Spanish guitar heard on “Let Me Breathe,” a dub-y horn-section on “Harry’s Symphony,” the sitar and tablas on “Stuck On You” or driving, syncopated drums paired with a fiddle on “The Answer.” But overall, this is a reggae record at its core and Marley comes back on “Wake Up.” No doubt he and Stone hit it off and their collaboration served as a major influence on this collection.

Amazingly, Stone doesn’t sound out of place attempting to remake herself in more of a reggae mold. Rather, she adapts and makes the elements come together. In other words, this isn’t pure reggae. This is reggae spiked with Stone’s classic soul influences, that making “Water For Your Soul” a surprisingly refreshing offering.

Focus Tracks:

“Let Me Breathe” As mentioned above, this is reggae with a Latin influence. It is tremendously smooth and deserves to be a hit on both R&B and pop radio.

“The Answer” This song is tremendously rooted by its tight instrumentation. In the current climate of over-produced pop, something like this really stands out for all the right reasons. And yet it still maintains a pop-like sense of appeal.

“Love Me” This album opener sets off the album’s mellow vibe quite fittingly. This is a chilled, modern example built from a classic reggae mold.

PHOTO: Albert Hammond Jr.s "Momentary Masters"
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Albert Hammond Jr.’s “Momentary Masters” ****

Whenever Albert Hammond Jr. releases a solo record it is a joyous event. His solo albums offer up a more power-pop infused version of the music Hammond makes with the Strokes. In fact, as a solo artist, Hammond is infinitely more consistent in the quality of his output than the band that initially made him famous. On top of that, Hammond has a better singing voice than The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas. In other words, when he goes solo, it is usually a winning equation all around and his third full-length album, “Momentary Masters” is no different.

From beginning to end, this album is an enjoyable ride, fueled by the rhythmic instrumental interplay that has long been the signature of Hammond’s music. Keep in mind, the music is in Hammond’s genes. His father had a huge hit with “It Never Rains In Southern California” and co-wrote “The Air That I Breathe,” which became a huge hit for the Hollies. Like his father, Albert Jr. has the gift and it is evident throughout this record. He also has a gift for arrangement, considering his stellar, modern reading of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”

Like many of the best songs on the Strokes’ debut, “Is This It,” many of the songs on here bounce and tether with the rhythmic fortitude of a tightly-stretched rubber-band. Both “Coming To Getcha” and “Power Hungry” display this aspect of Hammond’s work quite well.

If you found yourself unimpressed by the last two Strokes records, this album should serve as a perfect palate-cleanser and restore your faith.

By himself, Hammond may not get the attention at the same level as he does with The Strokes and frankly, that is a shame. As a writer and a performer he is cut from a very classic mold. “Momentary Masters” is sure to leave a smile on your face.

Focus Tracks:

“Born Slippy” Yes, I too am a little disappointed this isn’t a cover of the Underworld classic of the same title, but this is a upbeat Strokes-esque number with a beautifully melodic chorus.

“Razors Edge” The bassline that begins this track sounds like a sped-up answer to Stereolab as this turns into a breakneck bit of melodic fuzz-rock. Again, like most of Hammond’s other work, this sounds like the work, this has the tight focus of a metronome.

“Coming To Getcha” This softer song gives Hammond a chance to really sing. His hushed tone brings forth something beautiful here. This song should be a single.

PHOTO: Lianne La Havas "Blood"
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Lianne La Havas’ “Blood” ****

The Brits know how to make classy, upscale, elegant R&B. Consider the records that have been released by the likes of Corinne Bailey Rae Laura Mvula and even Adele in recent years. Singer and guitarist Lianne La Havas cements her status in that company with her second album, “Blood,” a delicate, enveloping, sweeping album with a tremendous amount of pull. This is a very smooth collection packed with jazzy fortitude.

La Havas has a beautiful, buttery voice and this record is a touch more assured than her still impressive debut, “Is Your Love Big Enough?” This album’s “Green & Gold” sounds like a gem destined for the fanciest of club-settings. As she did on “Is Your Love Big Enough?” La Havas finds a great and willing writing collaborator in Matt Hales of Aqualung fame. Not only is Hales along for the ride, but so is R&B singer Sam Dew, uber-producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence + The Machine, Bloc Party) and electro-artist Jamie Lidell who all contribute at various points in the record.

Even though she gets help, this is undoubtedly La Havas’ show and this album offers up an occasionally dreamy mix of sonic elements. It shows the power of what happens when you combine a really gifted singer with some tight, modern instrumentation. La Havas sounds equally at home backed by a horn section as she does backed by a rumbling synth.

I’ve made this remark before in previous reviews, but in England, for the most part, they are really good about letting each one of their artists form a unique identity and La Havas definitely has her own style of well-orchestrated groove. With “Blood,” Lianne La Havas proves that she is even more ready for her international close-up. There’s no sophomore slump here.

Focus Tracks:

“Midnight” On this track, La Havas’ voice is paired with a beat that really slams with authority and a tight horn section. Somehow La Havas is able to keep the feeling still mellow with her softly assured vocal performance.

“Grow” This is an affecting mix of acoustic folk and a trip-hop beat. There are parts of this track that recall Tricky’s peak-period work with Martina Topley Bird. Again, the authoritative beat and La Havas’ pleasant voice make a striking combination.

“What You Don’t Do” This track is anchored by a glimmering synth that sets the perfect backdrop for La Havas’ cheery-yet-instructional vocal performance. The track also has a classically soulful sense of fortitude.

Next Week: The latest from Dr. Dre (Honestly, I’ll only believe it when I see it), Mac DeMarco, Chelsea Wolfe and more.

Missed last week/s? Get the latest from Jill Scott, Prince Royce, Eleni Mandell, Lea DeLaria and more.

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