This is yet another slow release week in a period that should normally be booming. A week away from Black Friday and we have reviews for the soundtrack to "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," plus the second album of the year from young British singer/songwriter, Jake Bugg. Also, the latest from trumpeting legend, Herb Alpert, who is joined by his wife, Lani Hall. Plus, a new album from Daughtry and a remix EP from recently resurrected trip-hop act, Ruby.
|"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Deluxe Edition) ***|
Like the "Twilight" movie soundtracks, the soundtrack "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," is lovingly yet meticulously targeted. (And no, I didn't mean that to be an archery pun.) The record consists of top tier artists handing in tracks to fill a collection that will hopefully capitalize on the brand that the books and the movies themselves established. But, inevitably, these collections are only as good as what these big names supply.
In the case of Coldplay, we are left with the extremely sleepy and dreadfully uninteresting "Atlas," which should have remained on their B-side pile and shouldn't be the anchoring establishing beginning of a blockbuster soundtrack. Chris Martin and company are sorely in need of a reinvention if they plan to regain the classic status they earned from their first two albums. Considering, their last album, "Mylo Xyloto" was a colossal disappointment, the drab nature of "Atlas" doesn't provide them the return to greatness they need.
Of Monsters and Men's "Silhouettes" goes for the same tone as the Coldplay track, but with better execution. When their track builds, it leads somewhere.
The collection's first inspired moment comes with the collaboration between Sia, The Weeknd and Diplo, on the bouncy "Elastic Heart." This should've been the soundtrack's main target track. It has the feel of an anthemic movie theme and yet it sounds like a hit, as well. And given the fact that Sia is gaining steam from her work behind the scenes, co-writing Rihanna's hit "Diamonds" among others, it makes her even more poised for a big pop explosion whenever she releases her next album.
The National's "Lean" continues their growth and stands up well alongside their excellent record, "Trouble Will Find Me" from earlier this year. As time goes on, they are getting to be a more tuneful band with intriguing layers of nuance.
Christina Aguilera delivers the appealing pop track, "We Remain." Compared with the artists on the rest of the tracklist, Aguilera might seem out of place and not "alternative" enough, but this track fits in surprisingly well in the set. Again, this could also be a hit.
The Weeknd returns with the softly building, R&B stirrer, "Devil May Cry." Abel Tesfaye's voice remains a high, silky flexible instrument and he continues to expertly place it against wonderfully ominous backdrops.
Imagine Dragons' "Who We Are" is a marching band lament. It has its interesting elements, but it doesn't demand a second listen.
Lorde tackles Tears For Fears' classic, "Everybody Wants To Rule The World," turning the sunny original into something dark and threatening. It's a minor key turn, trading the optimism of the original for something more foreboding. This provides yet another reason why Lorde is really someone to watch.
As the set continues, the Lumineers offer the folky "Gale Song," which plays like a slower, less inviting answer to "Ho Hey" from a different angle.
Ellie Goulding in ballad-mode on "Mirror" isn't as interesting as Ellie Goulding in club mode, but like her songs, "Anything Could Happen" and "Only You" from her latest album, "Halcyon," this track seems to be built around a looped sample of her voice. It's a trick that has become predictable. And this song also provides the umpteenth lyrical mention of "fire" on the record. (Get it? The movie has "Catching Fire" in its title.)
Patti Smith serves as the soundtrack's only classic veteran, delivering the bluesy "Capitol Letter." The song plays off the earnest tone on many of tracks. It isn't a standout track, but Smith fits in well with these relative youngsters.
Santigold closes out the standard edition of the soundtrack with "Shooting Arrows At The Sky." It's a fantastic track, and another possible focus cut, but the references to the movie plot and its characters throughout the set and on this track hit it a little too hard on the nose. On the flipside, it means that most of these songs were written with this movie in mind and that they weren't just leftovers.
The deluxe edition features three bonus tracks from Antony & The Johnsons, Mikky Ekko and Phantogram. All of these songs should've been included on the standard release and are better than some of the weaker tracks that did make the cut. Phantogram's "Lights," in particular is one of the best songs on the entire set, proving that they are indeed a worthy band on the rise.
This collection has its strong points, it also (like most other soundtracks) is woefully uneven. While only a small handful of tracks are true highlights, this collection will indeed provide fans of the book and the movie something further to enjoy.
|Jake Bugg's "Sharngri La" ****|
For a guy who was born in 1994, Jake Bugg really seems to have an old soul. In the U.S., "Shangri La" is the British alt-rocker's second release of 2013, following the release of his debut back in April. It seems remarkable that his label would allow him to release two records in one calendar year, given the climate of the music industry, but the fact that they did seems to say that they really believe in him. And they rightfully should, even if his music doesn't follow the trends.
Bugg still seems like he was plucked from the early sixties British Invasion. His look even recalls the vintage Beatles and Stones. His music is built around a back-to-basics, almost bluesy skiffle. (Think about the Beatles in their Hamburg club days.)
His first album's single "Lightning Bolt," received a decent amount of play here and earned him some buzz because it sounded authentic and like an instantly well-worn classic. Bugg's songs often address a surly underbelly of society. It's a gritty world where people get stabbed in knife-fights and as he sings in his first album's other key standout, "Two Fingers," people "drink to remember" and "smoke to forget." That first album and this album go oddly hand-in-hand, even if "Shangri La" has a decidedly different tone.
This record has much more pep. It possesses a real growl. This is, after all, Bugg's quick ascension to the big leagues. The title, "Shangri La" is also the name of Rick Rubin's studio where the album was cut, with the respected veteran producer at the helm. Lately, Rubin has been at his best returning to his hip-hop roots, and his rock records have been on the basic side. In the case of this record, he does justice to Bugg's growing voice. Throughout the majority of this mostly upbeat set, Rubin brings out a punkier, retro snarl in Bugg, making him sound like a long-lost son of The La's' Lee Mavers. In fact, perhaps Mavers and the La's are influences on Bugg. After all, their only proper studio album, with its now classic single, "There She Goes," was surfing a similar retro wave in the early nineties that Bugg is now cultivating. "There's a Beast And We All Feed It," and "Slumville Sunrise" both seem straight from the rougher side of Mavers' playbook.
Bugg rocks harder here than he did on his debut. Single, "What Doesn't Kill You" packs some skewering punkish bile and yet it has a sense of world-weary maturity, sounding not unlike Ryan Adams in hardcore mode or like an upbeat cut from one of Tommy Stinson's solo records.
And then of course, Bugg has his folkier side, with cuts like "Me And You" and "Pine Trees," and no doubt tracks like these will have countless critics comparing him to early Dylan due to their stripped down nature and his vocal tone, but really that could be seen as a lazy comparison since Bugg and Dylan really have very little in common other than these random elements on the surface.
"All Your Reasons" packs a surprising level of sophistication. It may be the strongest, most nuanced and fully-formed song on the set. It is a contemplative bit of blues-rock that morphs and changes over its five minutes.
"Kingpin" sounds like roadhouse rock with a stinging mean-streak while closer, "Storm Passes Away" is a stripped down slice of acoustic country, recalling Rubin's work with Johnny Cash on his "American" series of albums.
The set mellows down as it progresses, but it keeps the quality level high. Bugg is someone to watch. While, "Shangri La" shows some growth, it stands well with his excellent debut. It proves that album's highlights weren't flukes. He's the real deal. If he continues with a steady stream of records of this caliber, his legend will build. His old-school knowhow is truly refreshing.
|Herb Alpert Featuring Lani Hall's "Steppin' Out" **1/2|
Herb Alpert is a legend. There's no doubting that. As an ace trumpet player and a record executive, Alpert has rightfully earned respect from people around the industry. He's also a performer of classics. His 1965 album with the Tijuana Brass, "Whipped Cream & Other Delights" is still an unstoppable time-piece. So much so that there is even a blow-in card packaged with his new album, "Steppin' Out," advertising its reissue and its excellent 2006 "Rewhipped" (Remixed) companion piece. Alpert has yet to make another record that stands so greatly within the cultural zeitgeist, but you can't blame him for that. "Whipped Cream" was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of record. So now, some 48 years later, Alpert is struggling in ways familiar to many of his jazz peers.
"Steppin' Out" isn't as effective a record as it should be and it has nothing to do with the level of musicianship present. In fact, the band's members are all quite skilled. As with his last album, the superior, "I Feel You," Alpert shares credit with his wife, Lani Hall who should be a very recognizable voice to those fans of Sergio Mendes' classic Brasil '66 work. She does an excellent job as well. But the record itself is marred by some of the choices made on its behalf.
Heading off your album with a cover of "Puttin' On The Ritz" is a questionable move. Yes, it is an Irving Berlin classic and yes, part of Alpert's goal here is to pay tribute to the classics, but it has been done so many times and has become so hacky and ubiquitous that there's nothing new that Alpert's version can bring to the table. The song is played out. The 1980s electro-drums and synth-bass effects used here deter more than they attract. He'd be better off doing a straight-ahead cover instead of one with this many bells and whistles.
But, like many of his peers, Alpert has been sucked into the "smooth jazz" world and that's a world that has seen very little innovation within the last 30 years or so. So, the fact that "Jacky's Place" ends up sounding a bit like background music you might hear at the dentist's office in 1983, or behind "your local forecast" on the Weather Channel isn't surprising. But, at this point, this isn't what Alpert deserves. And yet, he's lost in a world of glossy echo making him sound like Chris Botti. At this point, Alpert should have no worries and not be playing it so safe. His legendary status is cemented. So, he should be doing more experimental jazz quartet work with fewer effects. If he did that kind of "back to basics" record, it would catch more attention. Otherwise, much of this collection tends to seep into the background.
On slower numbers that aren't filled with the "smooth jazz" kitsch, Alpert fares better. A track like "Our Song" plays a lot better than the already dated sound of "Migration."
At least the other standards on the record aren't as overdone as "Puttin' On The Ritz." Yes, "I Only Have Eyes For You" and the Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer's "Skylark" have both been done hundreds of times by a myriad of performers from various genres, but at least their presence doesn't cause a quick chuckle followed by an out loud exclamation of "Really???!!!" Even "It's All In The Game," with its own overwhelming presence as an oversaturated standard plays decently here with a stripped-down arrangement.
But most of the record seems as if it was intended to be a score for a movie from 1982 about a down-and-out, hard-drinking cop who spends all of his nights as a barfly trying to hold himself together. The version here of Astor Piazzola's "Oblivion" would make for tremendous background music under such a film, as would his take on Santana's "Europa." But while these are interesting on one level, they don't really grab the listener when placed in the foreground.
The only true bit of old-school Alpert fun to be heard here is on his version of the Mercer/Ziggy Elman tune, "And The Angels Sing." He does best when the arrangements aren't as grandiose and when the production doesn't get the better of him. If more of this album sounded like this track, he'd be in much better shape.
The modern remake of "The Lonely Bull" also does his legacy proud, sounding like a remix, a-la "Rewhipped." Considering it is a song he originally recorded 50 years ago, it's nice to hear this new version. Alpert is at his best when he acknowledges his own contributions and isn't just following trends.
"Steppin' Out" might please some of Alpert's fans, but in the scheme of things, it ultimately is surprisingly uneven. It shows an artist with considerable skill playing it way too safe and sometimes losing his distinction in the process. Considering that he is an industry titan, he would have nothing to lose by testing some choppier waters. His trumpet playing is still as clear and bold as ever. He's still got the potential for another game-changing classic. Unfortunately, this isn't it.
|Daughtry's "Baptized" (Deluxe Edition) **|
Chris Daughtry may be one of the more successful people to come out of the "American Idol" mill and there is a lot to be said for him and the band that shares his name. He's got talent. But his records tend to be in the middle of the road. The weird thing is, Daughtry has seemingly cornered the market on inoffensive, somewhat innocuous rock. He hits that middle-ground between rock and country enough to get a sizable amount of fans from each camp. The problem is, he isn't distinctive. I have a theory that it may not be his fault.
Listening to his fourth album, "Baptized," the problem becomes immediately evident from the start of the opening title-track. The album is produced to ridiculous levels. This is the pop world's answer to a rock band where big hooks are made even bigger and the quality of the song suffers when it is buried in gloss.
Daughtry's bland-yet-capable approach is perfect for this process. He seems like he was engineered by committee, especially when you listen to the densely produced end product, But by tacking an acoustic take of "Battleships" onto the end of the deluxe edition of the album, the problem has been shown to be evident. In comparison, the acoustic take outshines the more produced one. In fact, the question is, in more of a live, stripped-down context maybe these songs wouldn't seem so "constructed."
"I'll Fight" has some spark, in spite of the pseudo-hackneyed lyrics of "Never let the darkness hold you back. / No fear of getting lost. / I want to see you fly / Way beyond the sun." It's like a pseudo-religious motivational speech tied together with some run-of-the-mill small-town angst. But maybe that's part of Daughtry's appeal as well. When the chorus comes in, it is so big, and yet, it is buried in so many layers of sound. The mighty melody is sucked of most of its venom. In a live or acoustic context, this would pop more than it does here. But that is the case with most of the tracks on "Baptized." Daughtry would probably be best served by issuing a live, acoustic version of this record on the whole.
But in spite of its overcooked nature, this album will have hits, from the before-mentioned title-track to the down-home feel of "Wild Heart." Each track seems crafted for populist stardom.
Single "Waiting For Superman" is a world-weary tale of isolation where the female protagonist is waiting to be saved by "Superman." And yes, it strings countless clichés together, from the use of the title character, to mentioning "talking to angels," or "dancing with strangers," to "making a wish." But it is all wrapped in the kind of targeted, anthemic package that should get it some airplay even if it offers nothing new.
The fact that Daughtry recently chose to cover Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" for Sirius-XM speaks volumes. He's going for the same audience. He's going for that same stomping sound that could cross over from rock stations to (potentially) the dance floor. "Traitor," for instance is built with the dance crowd in mind with its slight EDM touches covering its rock charge.
Daughtry is bland enough not to raise any flags, with his foot in multiple corners, singing songs with big choruses built off of tired themes. It adds up to a lot of record-selling potential and few lingering questions. The bottom line is happy while the audience sings along and parrots back the chorus. It's too bad that once "Baptized" ends, it is instantly forgotten.
|Ruby's "Type 2.0"(EP) ****|
If you followed trip-hop and alt-rock in the mid-nineties, it was hard to miss Ruby's hit, "Tiny Meat." For a small bit of time, that song received a nice dose of pop radio airplay in the States. Ruby originally began as a collaboration between Lesley Rankine and Skinny Puppy's Mark Walk, before later morphing into more of a solo outfit for Rankine. Nowadays, her biggest collaborator seems to be her brother, Scott Firth.
The 1996 album "Salt Peter," which featured "Tiny Meat" is a trip-hop classic which stands well alongside such other period works like Portishead's "Dummy," Bjork's "Post," Sneaker Pimps' "Becoming X," and even Garbarge's self-titled debut. After making a splash, Rankine and Walk disappeared for a bit, with Rankine returning in 2001 with the album "Short Staffed At The Gene Pool."
Earlier this year, I had a strange serendipitous moment. "Tiny Meat" popped back into my head after I hadn't heard it for some time. I don't know what triggered it to return to my consciousness, but it got me interested in Ruby again and I went to Amazon and bought both these albums.
Thinking Ruby was a done project, it was an amazing discovery, when just a few weeks later, Rankine broke a 12 year silence by dropping "Waiting For Light." The song is a stark, mesmerizing track consisting of just bass, some extremely subtle synths and Rankine's voice. Honestly, it is one of the most hauntingly beautiful tracks to be released this year. It brings chills. It is minimalist gold.
In July, Rankine dropped a new Ruby EP, "Revert To Type," which consisted of three new songs and three choice remixes of those songs. Six tracks in total.
This week, Rankine dropped "Type 2.0," another further collection of those songs and "Waiting For Light" in remixed form.
If you are familiar with Rankine's pattern with Ruby, this continues the flow. After "Salt Peter" came the remix collection, "Stroking The Full Length," and the tracks from "Short Staff At The Gene Pool" received the remix treatment on the collection, "Altered And Proud."
The only song on "Revert To Type" not to be remixed on "Type 2.0" is the aptly titled, "Lush," which in its original form is a jazzy, string-fueled waltz of sorts. It would've been great to remix, but then again, it got the remix treatment once on its original source.
Interestingly enough, 3 out of the 5 tracks on "Type 2.0" are remixes of "Waiting For Light," which should have been, but wasn't technically on "Revert To Type." But, the sparse, haunting nature of the original source makes it ideal for remixing. Rankine's voice floats over a sea of synths on the Akira Sunshin Mix. Whereas, "John Davis' 4 AM Lullaby Mix" backs it with a track that sounds not unlike the Icelandic group, Múm. The third mix, "Michael Travis' 'This Different Engine' Mix" is a bit more playfully deconstructionist in its nature.
The other two songs to get remixed are, "Fireweed," and "Last Life." The former should be a single in its original form and should earn Rankine some airplay on both sides of the pond. The "Greek Boy Mix" here adds some spacey backdrops and a dub-steppy break of electro-squawks. (It sounds like a ray gun attack!)
"Last Life" is a rocker that received a video earlier this year. On the "Rozio 'Therapy Dog' Mix," Rankine's voice gets the digitized treatment and again it is awash with fuzzed-out electro elements, turning it into more of a rave-centric workout.
Of course, these tracks are better if you know the original sources first, so I would recommend checking out the original mix of "Waiting For Light" and the original "Revert To Type" EP before picking this up. But, Rankine has returned in top form.
Ruby should be a top tier act, celebrated within the best of the genre. Let's hope there is more music to come!
Next week: Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones join forces to pay tribute to the Everly Brothers and Glen Hansard issues a new EP, among other new releases.