It's a really mixed bag this week, with new releases from Foster The People, Enrique Iglesias and Skrillex, along with a new live album from George Michael, the latest from actress Taylor Momsen's band The Pretty Reckless, retro indie rockers The War On Drugs and the Black Lips and finally we will wrap things up by reviewing the soundtrack to "Muppets Most Wanted." It's a truly eclectic mix.
|Foster The People's "Supermodel" ***|
Mark Foster of Foster The People knows the score. He knows that if he doesn't play his cards right this time around, his band will be remembered for "Pumped Up Kicks" alone. He knows he runs the risk of being tagged as a "one hit wonder." "Supermodel," Foster The People's second album is a brighter, more intriguing listen than their debut, "Torches," perhaps due to the presence of producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Bloc Party, Florence + The Machine) who gives these songs some real power. In addition, the album was mixed by Rich Costey (New Order, Foo Fighters, Haim) so it is safe to say this record is meant to sound like a major statement.
This isn't a great record, but it is a flawed good record with some engaging moments. It's harder-hitting than expected with some interesting detours. It does however tend to run out of steam in spots towards the end of the disc.
"A Beginner's Guide To Destroying The Moon" doesn't offer up a melody that matches the promise set up by the EDM-meets-sludge-rock backdrop.
"Goats In The Trees" is really strange, with Foster rapidly exploring his vocal range. Towards the middle, he momentarily slips in and out of a Peter Murphy-esque, low goth-y rasp, as if he's about to cover Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Moments later, he's back in his upper register and it all seems oddly incongruous.
On "The Truth" the same thing happens. On the verses, he sounds not unlike Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend. When the chorus kicks in, he bursts into a strange operatic falsetto that brings to mind a less extreme Klaus Nomi.
But in spite of these fleeting moments of oddness, Foster the People wind up rather victorious. There's enough here to satisfy fans of their first album, 'Torches" and enough to give them some new fans as well.
"Fire Escape" This acoustic guitar-driven closer is extremely different from the rest of the record, which may be why it sticks out so much. Foster's lyrics are also more inspired here than they are on the rest of the set, talking about his spine that is "made of iron" and his heart that "pumps out old red paint." In other places throughout the disc, he is singing larger odes, questioning his place in life and the universe. Song after song, this approach becomes rather generic. In contrast, this stands as a stark example of really personal poetry. And as he declares himself to be "a fire escape" one moment and declares "save yourself," the next, the song is given an unexpected bit of emotional heft. This track is a surprising gem.
"Best Friend" This is the closest this album has to an update of "Pumped Up Kicks," a funky disco jam complete with a horn section and a sing-along chorus. Surely this would excite the people on the dance floor.
"Coming Of Age" This is the single, and it too feels like it is trying to repeat the success of "Pumped Up Kicks," albeit with an eighties pop sheen. It is more subtle in its tone, though and doesn't demand attention in quite the same way as that signature single or other "Torches" standout, "Don't Stop." The sense of restraint is actually an admirable asset to the track.
"Nevermind" This song has a chilled Latin vibe which serves it well as it blossoms. It also sports one of the album's best melodies. Again, anchored by a sing-along chorus, this would also serve as an excellent single.
|Enrique Iglesias' "Sex And Love" *1/2|
On his 11th full-length (counting his work in both Spanish and English) Enrique Iglesias tries his best to stay current on pop trends. "Sex And Love" mixes romantic ballads with shallow dance-floor jams about sex. (Pitbull appears on two tracks and Flo Rida appears on one.)
Electro elements are all around on the upbeat numbers since he's aiming for the charts and more importantly the clubs. He has never possessed a great voice, but on the adrenaline-filled tracks, he's often reduced to a higher than expected nasally, digitally-aided scream. He's more suited for ballads. The duet, "El Perdador" with Marco Antonio Solis serves him better, but it is all rather by-the-numbers when it comes to the Spanish balladry formula. Much of the softer ballad portion suffers from an overall generic feel.
In spite of the occasional bits of raunchiness, "Sex And Love" seems alarmingly safe, exploring aspects that are not only crafted explicitly with the charts in mind, but also mining areas Iglesias has already spent the majority of his career covering. These are repackaged reruns. This album feels factory-made and recycled. That will probably please Iglesias' fans who know what they want and know what they are getting, but there are times to take some unexpected stretches once and a while.
The Pitbull-assisted "I'm A Freak" just comes off as a haphazard response to the success the two had with "I Like It" a number of years back. Iglesias is merely following trends in the hopes that something will hit. "Heart Attack," for instance sounds a bit too much like a shameless EDM-coated re-write of Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball."
Perhaps this album's biggest surprise is finding Rome Ramirez in the song-writing credits. Ramirez, if you will remember is the "Rome" in Sublime With Rome, essentially attempting to fill the void left behind by the loss of Sublime's Bradley Nowell. His pairing with Iglesias seems odd, but the guy has got to make a living. Iglesias is all about formula. He's found his niche and intends to maintain it. These songs will find their audience even if they truly, severely lack depth, but there's really nothing original here and Iglesias obviously doesn't have his eye on artistic growth. It's just more of the same. This is how the easy route sounds. Yawn.
"Bailando" (Featuring Decemer Bueno and Gente De Zona) If I have to isolate a track to recommend, I pick "Bailando," a nicely orchestrated piece of Spanish pop which will no doubt do well on the Spanish language charts, with its affecting swagger, accordion bounce and well-played Spanish guitar. It should be pointed out, however that Iglesias' guests, Decemer Bueno and Gente De Zona add more to the song's core catchiness than Iglesias does. They after all, recorded it without him first. He's seemingly tacked on here to someone else's train. (Again adding to the record's recycled feel.) It's a still a typical brand of Spanish-language pop, but its careful arrangement puts it above the rest.
|Skrillex's "Recess" ***1/2|
Skrillex gets a lot of flak he doesn't deserve. Yes, he helped popularize "dub-step" but it isn't his fault necessarily that even Taylor Swift songs now contain "bass-drops." There are a lot of really awful dub-step compilations out there and I am sure if you were to listen to some of them you will discover that in a genre ripe with hacks, he's not one of them. Yes, to some dub-step can sound like two machines having a heated, ugly argument, clanging away, but in Skrillex's case, he tries his best to balance the chaos with the beauty. Listen to "Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites" or the Ellie Goulding-assisted "Summit," and you get the point. Really, he's updating the kinds of sounds that the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, the Prodigy and Daft Punk were making nearly 20 years ago. He's experimenting with electronics and the boundaries of sonic cohesion.
"Recess" is actually his first proper full-length album, following a series of EPs. I wish I could say that this record had the earth-shaking resonance of "Dig Your Own Hole" or "You've Come A Long Way Baby." It doesn't. It doesn't even match the immensity of Skrillex's peer, Bassnectar, whose 2012 album "Vava Voom" stands out as a genre high-point. "Recess" does however deliver a thoroughly satisfying, challenging song-set which should silence some of his harshest critics. If you think about it, this is probably the most experimental record likely to hit the upper reaches of the Billboard 200 in a long time. Don't discount Skrillex's popularity as a fad just yet. I have a feeling he'll eventually have something really amazing up his sleeve. To date, this is his most essential release. With time, he'll get even better.
"Recess" (Featuring Kill The Noise, Fatman Scoop and Michael Angelakos) This upbeat club jam finds Skrillex playing to the crowd as Fatman Scoop toasts and shouts along. This is euphoric party music as sped-up voices sing, "Don't let it stop. Don't let it stop." This fits as much in the older electronica mold as it does in the newer dub-step-labeled one.
"Ragga Bomb" (Featuring Ragga Twins) Putting the true "dub" in dub-step, Skrillex fuses his sound with some dancehall reggae delivered in a fierce, digitally-manipulated, low growl.
"Doompy Poomp" This track is unlike anything I've ever heard, playing out like a sonic game of ping-pong infused with pitch-shifted vocal snippets. Halfway-through, its melody really comes through on what comes off like a keyboard hooked up to a wah-wah pedal. This sounds like something Fatboy Slim could have made during a chilled out sonic bender.
"Ease My Mind" (Featuring Niki and the Dove) This is a solemn ballad which bursts into a Middle-Eastern-flavored big-beat takedown. Skrillex bounces back and forth from minimal backing to full-throttle beat chaos with thrilling results. At points it sounds like a well-choreographed sonic laser fight.
|George Michael's "Symphonica" ****|
As someone who remembers when "Faith" was the biggest album in the world, listening to "Symphonica," George Michael's new live album, brings back a ton of really distant memories. The premise is simple. He sings some of his hits, some classics and some covers backed by a jazz orchestra. His voice is as crystal clear as ever, having not changed a bit in recent years. Considering, he's spent well over the last decade being known virtually exclusively as tabloid fodder, this disc is a reminder of his pure talent as a graceful vocalist. The question is, if he can still sing this well, why is he not still one of the biggest pop-vocalists in the world? His sparse discography needed this shot in the arm.
Recently Queen announced they are going on tour with Adam Lambert filling in for Freddie Mercury. Frankly, I think George Michael would have been a more satisfying choice.
Focus Tracks:"Let Her Down Easy" This is a masterful cover of Terence Trent D'Arby's nearly forgotten classic. Michael makes it his own and leaves his mark while maintaining the same tone as D'Arby's original. "Feeling Good" – Yes, Michael tackles this Nina Simone-popularized classic with an arrangement very similar to Simone's version. And he nails it! He knows he nails it, too, singing at the end, "I know it's too much to expect a man / a white man / To do it like Nina!" He did and he did with great success. "One More Try" If you were channel surfing on your cable box around 1987, this song's video seemed to be on a perpetual loop on MTV. Hearing it again, it still carries some soulful weight. This arrangement does it some justice, too. Although, I could do without the person in the crowd who appears to be tooting a gym whistle. "Praying For Time" This, if you will remember was the first single off of the 1990 follow-up to "Faith," "Listen Without Prejudice Volume One." This arrangement is jazzier and a touch looser than the studio version. Michael plays around with the tune a little, but it still stands as one of his strongest songs. Interestingly, he chose to do versions of this and "One More Try" but not "Kissing A Fool," which would have been perfect in this set-up.
|The Pretty Reckless' "Going To Hell" (Deluxe Edition) ***|
Give Taylor Momsen some credit for not becoming another forgettable pop star. The former "Gossip Girl" star (who was also Cindy Lou Who in "How The Grinch Stole Christmas") remolded herself as a hard-edged, goth-y, sexed-up rock goddess. The Pretty Reckless' second album, "Going To Hell" continues on the promise of the band's debut, offering up a hard-rock assault that is more metal than grunge. Sure, there's a ham-fisted riff here and there, and Momsen's pose as a damned, possessed school girl gone bad can wear itself thin, but this is a better record than most actors-turned-singers usually can muster. I don't know if she is, but It would make sense if Momsen was listening to Juliette Lewis' records with her band Juliette and the Licks for inspiration. The best parts of The Pretty Reckless' records match up well next to be best parts of Lewis' records, even if both women occasionally get lost in occasional sidesteps into hard rock cliché. Momsen can sing. Momsen can yell. She commands attention, throughout, even on the weaker tracks.
This album is much rawer in comparison to their first one. There is far less pop sheen in the production and the mix. Perhaps that is the result of their move from Interscope over to Razor & Tie. In any case, this more straight ahead approach proves to be an asset. Overall, this album provides a somewhat satisfying, motorized romp over to the dark side.
NOTE: The deluxe edition features two bonus acoustic tracks which showcase the songs well next to their plugged in counter-parts.
"Absolution" This churning rocker has a blues center as Momsen goes from an authoritative rock yell to sweet croon. She sings, "Jump into the sun. / Dear boy, what are you running from? / Everyone has got to be saved." This album plays with the notions of Heaven and Hell continually throughout the song cycle, but it plays out in a very theatrical kind of way, as if she is just toying around with the concepts and using them as tongue-in-cheek stepping stones.
"Going To Hell" The blistering title-track is probably what you would expect. It is a raucous guitar-heavy assault where Momsen somewhat vaguely lists her sins, claiming, "For the lives that I take. / I'm going to Hell. / For the vows that I break. / I'm going to Hell." The bridge in the middle makes room for an angelic-sounding prayer. My question is, what inspired this record? Did someone give her a lecture on religion and did she just run with it as an album concept?
"Heaven Knows" This stomper is the single, playing like a hymn-fueled answer to both Queen's "We Will Rock You" and Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." Momsen leads a children's chorus singing, "Oh Lord, Heaven knows, we belong way down below.
"F___ed Up World" This song has a similar bad-girl posing that one used to find on the Donnas' records. What sets it apart is its sudden, appealing chorus which frames the song in a bright light as it lists the ills of the world. Momsen isn't out to convert anyone. She wants to gleefully wallow in debauchery. Seriously, this album on the whole has to be a somewhat snarky statement about those who judge others based on religious texts. Count this as Momsen's rebellion.
|The War On Drugs' "Lost In The Dream" ***1/2|
Building off of the critical praise earned by their last record, 2011'a "Slave Ambient," Philadelphia's The War On Drugs return with their fourth record, "Lost In The Dream." It offers ten songs in just over an hour's time, with more of the same spacey, classic-rock fueled singer-songwriter fare found on "Slave Ambient." Like the solo work of former member, Kurt Vile, much of the material here is heavy on atmosphere and low on melody. Leader, Adam Granduciel, favors a more talk-y brand of singing, fronting the band with an almost hushed mutter.
Production-wise, too, this record stands like a tribute to eighties albums by the likes of Dire Straits and Tom Petty. These are not common influences for current indie rock bands, so this sound makes the group really stand out among their peers.
To those looking for something catchy, this isn't your album. Some listeners may actually find this record to be boring or monotonous, given its elongated track lengths. Even during the upbeat songs, this sounds very relaxed. But I urge those listeners to pay attention to the album more closely. Putting the word "ambient" in the title of their last effort was a wise choice. On the surface these tracks seem almost lethargic and singular, but if you let them envelop you, they will. This is the kind of record that was meant to be blasted on a high quality set of speakers as you sit home alone and ponder the future. These atmospheric backdrops were crafted for pensive thoughts in moments of isolation. It may take a few listens to sink in, but this is a record worth the time and the effort.
"Under The Pressure" At nearly nine minutes, the album's opener is awash in an old-school kind of glow. In addition to the above references, there's a classic vinyl resonance to this track that brings to mind bands like Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, as well. Sure, it devolves into a jam on the same repeated riff, but it still sounds like something someone would've recorded at "Sound City" and talked about on film to Dave Grohl thirty years later. Will it have that kind of resonance? Probably not, but it definitely plays with those kinds of sounds. The last three minutes of the track are just a wash of floating notes. It's the kind of studio play most bands would use as a point to fade out, but I'm glad they didn't make that decision here. It really leaves the listener with more of an understanding of the track's sonic texture.
"Suffering" Sounding like something being played in an empty nightclub as they are about to declare "last call," this downbeat track carries all its weariness proudly. It is both bluesy and ethereal.
"The Haunting Idle" This instrumental track is just an atmospheric mix of synths and guitar sounds fading in and out, but somehow it captures the mood of the entire record. It also sounds like something that would have backed one of Michael J. Fox's more downtrodden scenes in "Bright Lights, Big City."
"Lost In The Dream" This harmonica-accented campfire tune sounds like their stab at Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown," and it has enough poetic soul to warrant the positive side of that comparison.
|Black Lips' "Underneath The Rainbow" **|
Atlanta's Black Lips have always walked a fine line between garage-rock purity and juvenile ridiculousness. They are now eight albums into their career. Coming off of 2011's noticeably high water-mark, "Arabia Mountain," "Underneath The Rainbow" can't help but disappoint. It sounds as slapdash as ever. Actually, more so than usual.
Of course, "Arabia Mountain" was helmed by Mark Ronson, who no doubt weeded away the band's worst tendencies. Most of this record was produced alternately by Patrick Carney of the Black Keys and Tom Brenneck of the Dap-Kings. This approach should have worked. After all, both men do a great job in their own respective bands, but partially due to a lack of interesting material on the Lips' part, it all just does not mix. The kind of old-school production that sounds good on the Dap-Kings' albums makes this band come off like forgotten also-rans from the "Nuggets"-era this time around simply because the song quality just isn't there. Of course, compared to the band's earliest records, this is a relatively clean-sounding record, but Ronson gave them a slightly better variety of dinginess and there's nothing here as likable as "Spidey's Curse" or earlier career landmarks, "O Katrina" and "Veni Vidi Vici" to balance it all out. Add the kind of Dead Milkmen-esque smarminess that includes a winking reference in the song "Smiling" to a nurse taking the protagonist's bodily fluids for "HIV analysis" as he's being carted away by the cops and you don't have a pretty picture overall.
The chorus of "Boys In The Wood" has a high harmony which gives the track an unpleasant shrillness, while "Do The Vibrate" has a vaguely tuneless drone to it before it erupts into an admittedly satisfying yell-fest. This isn't a horrible record. There are worse, but it is nowhere near to the band's best work, either. It feels tossed off. Considering the Black Lips' work usually feels pretty casual, this feels uncomfortably loose. But this band is known for the peaks and valleys in their discography. Their sloppiness can often be part of their appeal. Not this time. "Underneath The Rainbow" is undercooked.
"Make You Mine"This is probably the best example on the record. A charging go-go beat adds fuel to a simple, surf-y riff and for 2 minutes and 20 seconds you have the kind of effortless pop rock progression that has been the cornerstone of straight-ahead pop rock for the last 50 years or so. "Funny" This Jesus & Mary Chain-esque growler, admittedly would sound better with fuller production, but it still possesses an appropriate charge.
|"Muppets Most Wanted" (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) ***1/2|
The Muppets are back with a new movie out this weekend. Of course, this soundtrack isn't as classic as the original soundtracks to "The Muppet Movie" and "The Great Muppet Caper," but it still does the job quite well. Flight of The Conchords' Bret McKenzie returns to score this movie like he did with "The Muppets" more than 2 years ago. He doesn't come up with anything quite as indelible as "The Rainbow Connection," but he is able to find the right balance of heart and humor. Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais and Ty Burrell each drop by to sing a song each as their movie characters. But, as always, the focus is on the Muppets themselves. It is always nice to hear Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo sing together. Although since Jim Henson's death and Frank Oz's retirement, Gonzo is the only one of the core bunch to still be sporting his original voice, Dave Goelz.
A nice treat, offering more of an insight for adult listeners, is that the album also has McKenzie's original demos tacked onto the end of the song cycle. This gives some interesting backstory into how these songs came to be and how they were catered to fit into the Muppet universe.
There is a little fat that probably works better in the movie than it does on record. I could do without Scooter's rendition of Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" or Miss Piggy's take on "The Macarena," but such silliness comes with the territory and is to be expected.
Like the previous Muppet soundtracks before it, "Muppet's Most Wanted" provides a fitting musical counterpart to its movie.
(NOTE: "Muppets Most Wanted" was released by Walt Disney Pictures, owned by The Walt Disney Co., which is also ABC's parent company.)
"The Big House" Tina Fey takes the lead, as a Russian prison guard, singing extremely well with a really thick accent. She does get a little help from Josh Groban, but mostly this is Fey's chance to shine. It's a humorously winning slice of doo-wop.
"We're Doing A Sequel" The opening number with the usual parade of Muppets has the franchise's signature ragtime bounce. It's full of jokes and offers just what you would expect. (Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett each sing one line and somehow get equal credit to the Muppets on the album listing. It should be noted, too, that on the demo version that is also included, McKenzie kind of does a half-decent Kermit impression. He tries to approximate the voices as best he can with rather impressive results.
"Working In A Cole Mine" McKenzie's Flight of the Conchords counterpart, Jemaine Clement joins the Muppets for a fun version of the Allen Toussaint classic.
"Together Again" Recalling the main theme from the last film is a smart idea, since it ties the two films firmly together. The joke here is that in this version, Kermit sings, "Together Again (Again.)"
Next week: Shakira, Karmin, The Tokyo Police Club and more! Last week: 311, Elbow, Ledisi, Aloe Blacc and more.