Record Release Rundown: The Latest From Beck, St. Vincent, The Fray, Neneh Cherry

PHOTO: Becks "Morning Phase"
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This week, Beck returns with his first album in over 5 years, showcasing his mellower introspective side. Annie Clark releases her latest record as "St. Vincent," with a flashier sound palate at her disposal. Denver rockers, The Fray release their latest collection of radio-ready rock. Neneh Cherry teams up with Four Tet to release an innovative, experimental record. Rapper, Schoolboy Q delivers his new album "Oxymoron." Finally, Kid Cudi follows Beyonce's lead and drops a record on itunes with very little advance notice. It's a very busy week, so strap yourself in and put your headphones on. We have a lot to discuss.

PHOTO: Becks "Morning Phase"
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Beck's "Morning Phase" *****

If someone had told my teenage self 20 years ago that the guy who released the song "Loser" would become one of the most brilliant and varied performers of our time, I probably wouldn't have believed it. But it is true. And his ability for writing slow, melancholy hymns can initially be traced back to 1998's "Mutations," where the track "Nobody's Fault But My Own" proved to be a stark surprise. I remember clearly the day that album came out, popping it into my discman on the bus ride from the record store back to my college dorm and being struck and shocked by that track's raw beauty.

Two years removed from the Dust Brothers-assisted classic, "Odelay," "Mutations" was a classic of a different kind. But I would argue that from "Odelay" onward, Beck has done nothing but release differently-hued milestones. Releasing the funk-i-fied "Midnite Vultures" and the dour, morose "Sea Change," back-to-back was nothing short of a music industry miracle. Comparing the former's final track, "Debra" with the latter's opening track, "The Golden Age," it is amazing to think that these two songs sprang from the same source.

Beck hasn't released a proper album in almost six years, with 2008's "Modern Guilt" as his last release. This absence is said to be due to a painful back injury that kept him from playing guitar.

The thing is, if you look closely, he released more than an album's worth of material in the meantime, writing 4 songs for "Scott Pilgrim vs. The Word," recording a standout song with Bat For Lashes on a "Twilight" soundtrack, producing and collaborating on albums with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus, Childish Gambino and more. His song, "Looking For a Sign" was used as the theme to the movie, "Jeff Who Lives At Home."

In addition, he released three other stand-alone tracks reportedly from an album he shelved just last year, the best of which was "I Won't Be Long," which should already be rightly considered a minted classic. And what I have just listed doesn't even scratch the surface of his interim activities. He also started a "Record Club" where he and his friends got together and cover complete classic albums. For a man supposedly making a comeback, Beck has still remained as a constant presence throughout his "absence."

So, here is "Morning Phase," a record bound to get comparisons to 2002's "Sea Change," not only because of its tone, but because it was played with many of the same musicians. I acknowledge the "Sea Change" comparison, but am wary how much it should be emphasized. "Morning Phase" is on the surface, a cousin to "Sea Change," and yet it has a brighter, more optimistic feel. It also shows growth from "Sea Change" without diminishing that record's stellar legacy. "Morning Phase" is tied together neatly and almost feels like a classical suite, bound by a repeated refrain throughout which stands on its own as the gloriously ethereal opening track, "Cycle," which at just 40 seconds encapsulates the overall sound of the record without Beck having to sing a word.

I hesitate to use the phrase, but "Morning Phase" is one of the best "singer-songwriter" records to emerge in some time. It is a slow, mannered, majestic record celebrating both solitude and rebirth. Perhaps this mirrors Beck's recovery from his injuries. In any case, Beck adds another classic to his discography. In a short time when he morphs back into the cut-and-paste-hip-hop-alt-rock madman we also love, we will still marvel at this record's sheer serenity.

Beck told NPR's "All Things Considered" that for a bit he debated whether to put these mellower records out under another name to differentiate them from records like "Odelay." Frankly, I'm thrilled he hasn't done that. Having all of his work under one shared umbrella just highlights his amazing abilities as a performer. In the process, he's releasing albums we should be passing along to our children and grandchildren someday.

"Morning Phase" is the kind of record that requires keen attention to detail. It is a sweeping, stunning exercise in both sound and writing. It also pays nice tribute to the past. "Turn Away" sounds like Simon & Garfunkel and the opening strumming on "Blackbird Chain" is extremely Beatle-esque. Beck deserves to be in the company of those artists.

Focus Tracks:

"Waking Light" I'm not sure I have ever heard Beck make something quite as beautiful and densely intricate. This closes the record and it is simultaneously celebratory and haunting, wallowing and bathing in a vintage California glow, even if it was(as it turns out) mostly recorded in Nashville. This is a stunning and deft display on musicianship. As is the case on the rest of the record, the orchestral arrangement, expertly done by Beck's father, David Campbell really adds a sense of sonic depth. This is especially true over the closing guitar solo.

"Morning" Like "Waking Light," this song has a new dawn on the mind. It sounds like a happier, more settled response to "The Golden Age" from "Sea Change."

"Blue Moon" No, this isn't the classic made most famous by the Marcels, but it does kind of quote it when Beck sings the line, "left me standing all alone." This composition is actually a pretty airy slice of country-folk. It's the kind of composition that blooms increasingly with each successive listen.

"Wave" This song is built around the repeated string line of "Cycle." In Beck's "All Songs Considered" interview, Beck said this was the first track to emerge and so he essentially built the rest of the set around it. This is a tremendously eerie meditation where he shows impressive vocal prowess, going in and out of a troubled-sounding falsetto. It sounds like something Beck could've potentially recorded with Charlotte Gainsbourg a few years back.

"Say Goodbye" This country stroll is probably something that Johnny Cash would've loved. Cash, of course famously covered Beck's early cut "Rowboat" with Rick Rubin. It's too bad he didn't live to hear this record. In some ways, too, this is a more serious, non-electro-soaked cousin to Beck's 2000 collaboration with Air, "The Vagabond." In fact, in retrospect, that track may have proven to be a key precursor, foreshadowing the serious song-writing ahead.

"Heart Is A Drum" Steeped in an early folk-tradition, this track combines multi-part harmony with a plucked riff. As it picks up, a friendly piano line comes in. At various other points, you may hear an occasional backwards drum beat or an inverted vocal line. These touches are very subtle. There is no question that over time Beck has become a truly sophisticated writer.

PHOTO: St. Vincents "St. Vincent"
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St. Vincent's "St. Vincent" ***

If you count her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, this self-titled effort is Annie Clark's fifth album under her St. Vincent moniker. It also serves as her major-label debut as she has shifted from 4AD to Universal imprint Republic. And the glammy electro-clash sounds heard on the record show a new, somewhat unsettled direction for her. At times this provides a sleek backdrop while at other points it creates some dissatisfying tension. Guitars cut in and out like buzz-saws in a sharp mix that favors a jumpy form of menace. The mix pummels your ears with a beefy richness, even if sometimes the sonic textures catch you off guard with their harshness.

Clark is best at her most unsettling and detached. There is plenty of that side of her on display here. In fact, that element of her work is turned up to the enth degree. But in quite a few ways this stands as her flashiest record to date, which is saying a lot considering her records have usually showcased an experimental bend on pop production.

As she has since her debut, "Marry Me," Clark still inhabits a post-Kate Bush world, but has she now been listening to Grimes, too? There is a turgid toughness to many of these songs which disconnects them. There's a good song hiding under the weird synth horns heard on "Digital Witness," but it is buried, sounding a little like an out-take from Goldfrapp's "Black Cherry" being reinterpreted on a Casio keyboard from 1986.

Throughout the rest of the album, though, Clark has more success as she continues to build an impressive and unique catalog. This isn't her catchiest or best collection of songs to date, but it still has a great deal to offer. She's definitely a sonic visionary. Sometimes her experiments work and sometimes she falters, but nevertheless, the ride is always engaging.

Focus Tracks:

"Prince Johnny" On this slightly funky ballad, Clark's voice is firmly the center focus and in turn this ends up being the most beautifully constructed track on the record. It is subtle and sweet, and that restraint pays off. The track sways and swoons with ease.

"Regret" "Regret" stumbles in like a tipsy, off-kilter cousin to Electric Light Orchestra's "Do Ya," and it serves one of the only points where the clunky, heavy production really pays off in a big way. When the guitars recede, Clark delivers a high, affectingly lush chorus.

"Severed Crossed Fingers" Considering the disturbing image this title summons, it is nice to know that this is such an enjoyably beautiful number. Like "Prince Johnny," this is in ballad territory and one of the more subdued tracks. It is the closer, ending the album on a very high note. I'm not sure what Clark's lyrics mean when she sings about "Spitting our guts from their gears. / Draining our spleen over years," but the whole song is filled with this kind of joyfully twisted, cryptic poetry.

"Birth In Reverse" This song epitomizes the flinch-driven, sharp-edged sound of the record. It creates a weird claustrophobia during the verse section, but the song effectively unhinges during the chorus. Throughout, the track remains extremely tightly wound.

PHOTO: The Frays "Helios"
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The Fray's "Helios" **

If Coldplay want desperately to be the new U2, The Fray want to be America's answer to Coldplay. What that means is that they want to make stomping anthems with falsetto-reaching, sensitive undertones. But it's the pounding element that this Denver band really wants to drive home on their fourth album, "Helios."

This is a record full of condensed production that wants to hit you square across the face with its boldness. Fans of early hits like "Cable Car (Over My Head)" and "How To Save A Life" may find this album to be brighter and "more edgy."

A track like "Closer To Me" has some effective post-nineties alt-rock elements, but the whole thing just sounds so compressed that it is almost as if all the edges have been trimmed a little too cleanly. You want to hear a little feedback coming from the guitar, but if there ever was feedback, it was processed out. This is a rock record you are expected to stomp along to, and yet it feels sonically vacuumed and sterile. It's the kind of record that frustrates because it is so obviously engineered with one goal in mind. THE RADIO! You can't fault The Fray for wanting airplay and doing what it takes to get there, but you can fault pop radio itself for setting such narrow parameters. There are some decent songs on here that might be better with all the gloss stripped away. I'd love to hear how this record sounded in its "rough mix" form before it was finally mixed and mastered. I suspect some exciting moments would've existed in its raw stage.

"Give It Away" is obviously targeting the faux-disco funk sound heard on Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger," whereas, "Our Last Days" is meant to trigger some nostalgic Americana memories while tugging at your heart-stings with its big chorus.

Most of the rest of the album seems to playing catch-up with Imagine Dragons. Singer, Isaac Slade is singing at the top of his lungs. He's reaching the edge of his rasp. This album has its moments, but as in-your-face as it is with both its volume and its urgency, it can't help but be plain vanilla. It wants these songs to be hook-laden masterpieces, but ultimately winds up being rather forgettable. It's aiming too much toward a formula to make a unique impression.

Focus Tracks:

"Keep On Wanting" This is probably the best song on the record. It's got a amiable drive and it isn't suffocated by effects. It does sound like it should be licensed on a teen soap opera, but it is of the better side of that variety, since it has an effective build.

"Shadow And A Dancer" This weightless ballad begs for an EDM-style remix. At the same time, under the synth effects, there is a nice, subtle guitar line reminiscent of the "Synchronicity"-era Police, that you wish had been given more room to breathe.

PHOTO: Neneh Cherrys "Blank Project"
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Neneh Cherry's "Blank Project" ****

If you are looking for Neneh Cherry to repeat the pop successes of her hits "Buffalo Stance" or "Buddy X," here, you probably won't find it here. This is an arty, highly experimental record produced by electro and remix wiz, Kieran Hebden (Four Tet )and it is as challenging a listen as it is rewarding. Paired with sparse beats, Cherry often finds herself singing slightly dissonant melodies with a jazzy twist. Hebden throws Cherry many sonic curveballs throughout and she handles them with ease. Ultimately, this record offers club music that has too much jazz-infused beatnik sophistication to ever actually be spun at the clubs. Like late-period Gil Scott-Heron, Cherry has merged an old-school wise persona with modern electro-sounds. Unlike Gil Scott-Heron, Cherry began her career as a dance-music artist.

In retrospect, though, perhaps the hip-hop-flavored grooves heard on her 1989 debut, "Raw Like Sushi" were more informed by Cherry's step-father, Don Cherry's free-jazz legacy than was initially apparent. That jazz element seems to be surfacing more in her recent work. With "Blank Project," Neneh Cherry shows that she is still pushing herself forward to deliver challenging records. It's a well-planned piece of art and it should be considered one of her key signature records.

Oh, and if you get a chance, after you listen to this record, go listen to "Buffalo Stance" again. It has aged extremely well. Late '80's pop didn't get much better and the chorus still packs as much power as it did in 1988.

Focus Tracks:

"Naked" This groove builds off builds from a tinkering beat into a straight ahead banger. Distorted rhythmic elements are all around. One dance symbol is warped to the point where it sounds like the beeping noise cars used to make if you opened your car door with your keys left in the ignition.

"Spit Three Times" Over a "Dirty Diana" style bass-line, Cherry sings an ominous tale about a love addiction that just won't go away and she grabs your attention with every single word.

"Weightless" This is a track packed with synth-fuzz and healthy dose of cowbell. Half-way through, the track deconstructs as Cherry sings, " Watch your step / Hold your breath, / Cuz it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings." With that, the songs charges back stronger than before.

"Out Of The Black" (featuring Robyn) Robyn and Cherry trade verses surprisingly well over this organ-fueled, slightly gothy slice of synth-rock. As on the rest of the album, the drums remain at the center of the mix, grounding the track.

PHOTO: Schoolboy Qs "Oxymoron" (Deluxe Edition)
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Schoolboy Q's "Oxymoron" (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2

Schoolboy Q has a style that is difficult to readily identify because he tends to trade up vocal-tones and lyrical flow techniques from track to track. Like his friend and cohort, Kendrick Lamar, his music is a mixture between post-nineties gangsta-isms , consciousness tales and substance-fueled abandon. He also shows flecks of the more inward-looking perspective of artists like Kanye and Drake. (Although, he is a far better lyricist than both.)

Q's second proper album, "Oxymoron" will be a thrilling album for some and a challenging one for others. It depicts an explicit world of violence, graphic sex, pimping and drug-abuse all in a style that pays tribute to the past while paving the way for the future.

At his best, Q can drop rhymes seamlessly beside Wu-Tang alums. At his worst he plays off a shock-driven motif similar to that of a less extreme version of Tyler the Creator. (It should be noted that this album has guest appearances from Lamar, Raekwon and Tyler among others.)

Ultimately, due to strong beat-work and production throughout, the album offers an exciting listen, even during its harsher bits. There are some keepers here even if there are the occasional valleys. Q. shows himself to be a shapeshifter, flexibly morphing to the demands of each song. He proves to be a commanding presence.

The deluxe edition has three extra tracks. The album's highlights are within the main body of the album, so the extras aren't mandatory listening. But they do add to the mood of the record.

Focus Tracks:

"Blind Threats" (featuring Raekwon) This gritty track is all about street survival. Its dusty harpsichord and vibraphone driven backdrop gives it a cinematic feel as Q declares, "If God won't help me, this gun will." Raekwon's presence on the track is a very welcome surprise, lending it an "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx" type of energy, even if it is on the quieter and more introspective side.

"Break The Bank" Over an ominous piano loop with an old-school bass-line and a forceful mid-tempo beat, Q dreams of success in a world of "doo-rags and flat-lines" and "drive-bys at bedtime." Hip-hop is the escape from a life of drugs and crime. It provides a better way to get rich. Q delivers his words here with a passionate rasp. "Someday, my story gonna pay!"

"Collard Greens" (featuring Kendrick Lamar) This is mostly an ode to sex in cars and Q and Lamar use as many semi-veiled euphemisms as they can over a bass-heavy syncopated beat. The track recalls the best moments of Lamar's revered album, "Good Kid M.A.A.D. City."

"Prescription/Oxymoron" This is a two part song. "Prescription," the first half is about overdosing on pills. Over a somber backdrop, Q raps about addiction, mentioning just about every painkiller and upper available, adding, "I'm falling off. / I can't hold a thought. / What's wrong with me?" As this portion of the track continues, in creeps in the voice of a small child, asking, "Daddy, what's wrong? Wake up!" It shows a difficult, painful reality. The second part of the track finds Q gleefully playing the role of a drug-dealer who has decided to trade crack for "oxy." Q's point is most likely that prescription drugs have become the new drug of choice, leading to the same kind of epidemic crack caused in the eighties.

"Hoover St." Another expansive, multipart track, "Hoover St." finds Q at first sporting a low-key flow similar to Curren$y before the main beat comes in. He tells stories of his thieving uncle who regularly is willing to steal from his flesh and blood just to get money for possibly a fix. "I've got roaches in my cereal. / My uncle stole my stereo. / My grandma can't control him. / Every last one of us had a pistol in the room." This is a rough hood tale, but it's the kind of frank track that leads to building a lasting legacy. Q. obviously has the classics on his mind.

PHOTO: Kid Cudis "Satellite Flight: The Journey To Mother Moon (Kid Cudi Presents)"
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Kid Cudi's "Satellite Flight: The Journey To Mother Moon (Kid Cudi Presents)" **

This record was a surprise release, announced only hours before it dropped earlier this week. Kid Cudi has often been considered a hip-hop artist, but he often flirts with both alt-rock and electronica . This record has more in common with Radiohead's "Kid A" or Devo's more experimental releases than it does with classic hip-hop. Cudi delivers this experimental excursion like a spaced-out film score. There are expansive instrumental portions of this record and sonically speaking, this is an amazing piece of production. The problem is that it would be an infinitely better record as a complete instrumental work. Cudi knows how to craft an enthralling backdrop, but his vocal turns here feel like a distraction. His lyrics lack the depth of his music.

On "Ceremony" he sings over an alt-rock groove, "Drinking again, drinking again/ Bottle's up. /I'm in it to win with none of my friends, / Just me and this bottle." Lyrically it seems like just about every track of this type that he's recorded since his hit, "Pursuit Of Happiness." Without these lyrics, this track would be an epic score piece. Cudi is now reportedly newly sober, so maybe this is the final cut of this style that we will hear.

On "Balmain Jeans," an airy synth groove is marred by his ridiculously pedestrian sexual lyrics about wanting to "taste it." Never mind the fact that he wastes the talents of Raphael Saadiq who is wailing in the background of the mix for most of the track, only momentarily coming up to the forefront.

"Internal Bleeding" finds Cudi moaning about how he "tried it all" and how his "heart is leaking." This is like Kanye's "808's and Heartbreak" with a better sound palate and worse lyrics.

The thing is, as an instrumental album, this would've been a solid 3 and a half star release. Cudi obviously needs to score some movies and learn how to write more compelling lyrics.

Focus Tracks:

"Destination: Mother Moon" There is something very Stanley Kubrick-esque about this opening piece of music. It is chilling, even when the beat comes in. It beckons you to listen the rest of the album and hands you a promise that is never quite delivered.

"Return Of The Moon Man (Original Score)" This starts off as pretty standard ominous instrumental fare until three minutes in when the string section surprisingly comes in and gives the track some tuneful depth. There's a very effective, sweet guitar line that plays during this section as well.

Next week we'll listen to new albums from Pharrell Williams, Lea Michele, Real Estate and more.

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