This week Jack White delivers his second post-white Stripes solo album, Chrissie Hynde goes to Sweden and makes what actually amounts to her first proper solo record, Fatboy Slim gives us a rousing World Cup soundtrack, Andrew Bird covers the Handsome Family, Jose James combines R&B, jazz, funk and rock and we listen to the latest from British folk outfit Passenger.
|Jack White’s “Lazaretto” ***|
“Lazaretto,” Jack White’s second solo record is full of the classic rock, country and blues touches you’d expect. The album has an immaculate, natural sound that brings to mind artists of the past. Indeed, White has fully embraced his own old-time-y “classic kitsch. He continues to deliver Zeppelin-esque time-shifting jams mixed with folksy, backwoods country detours. This is all impressive, but it sounds like everything he has done before. Every move he makes here, he has virtually made on previous White Stripes’ records. So this record is short on surprises, and thus short on sincere excitement. It does, however, contain some excellent musicianship, even during White’s momentary steps into “Spaghetti Western” territory, bringing to mind his previous work with Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi on their 2011 “Rome” album.
White knows how to put a recording together, which means that in spite of this record’s complete predictability, it provides a decently satisfying listen. But it isn’t the mind-blowing game changer it should be. White is going through the motions. That means, if you enjoy his previous work, you’ll probably enjoy this. But at the same time, it also isn’t among his best work, even if it is delivered with a sense of gusto. It’s heavy on jams and short on hooks. It rocks in places but it doesn’t quite resonate at the expected level. In other words, “Blunderbuss” was a superior record.
“Lazaretto” The funk-driven title track is the most exciting moment on the record where White delivers some groovy heft. This track has a unique lift to it and White delivers his verses as if he is spitting lava.
“Just One Drink” This old-school, rockabilly exercise finds White reuniting with his “Love Interruption” duet partner, Ruby Amanfu. Sure it has a “You say potato..” brand of back-and-forth interplay, but it works.
“High-Ball Stepper” This feels like White is marrying Ennio Morricone’s “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” with Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” which is sort of intriguing, even if White has been experimenting with these kinds of sounds since the White Stripes’ cover of Patti Page’s “Conquest.”
|Chrissie Hynde’s “Stockholm” ***1/2|
On Chrissie Hynde’s first true solo album, the Pretenders’ leader goes to Sweden and co-writes some songs with Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John. Yttling has long been an ace producer and a key songsmith, known especially for his recent work with Lykke Li and others. He and Hynde craft some really hook-y material together. Also in the fold as a co-writer and producer on several tracks is Joakim Ahlund of Caesars and Teddybears fame. Hynde sounds remarkably fresh here, even if she rarely goes above the deadpan mutter that has become her signature. Considering so much great indie rock comes out of Sweden these days, it seems like a surprising yet fitting place for her to go. But like the Pretenders’ 2008 album, “Break Up The Concrete” this delivers an unexpected bit of freshness, albeit with a softer, more dream-pop flavored tone. Like Yttling and Ahlund’s work with their respective bands, these tracks are packed with melodies, even if sometimes they are understated.
This record serves as a reminder to listeners of Hynde’s versatile talent. She should continue working with Yttling and Ahlund.
“In A Miracle” A warm, soft horn section gives way to a melodic, mid-tempo rocker with a catchy melody. As the song progresses, it swells, giving the piece a single-ready churn.
“Tourniquet (Cynthia Anne)” This is one of the eeriest and most haunted-sounding tracks that Hynde has ever recorded. The PB&J-style whistling in the background is especially unsettling and yet it is truly a beautiful piece. It’s a ghostly lullaby telling a nightmarish tale. Hynde sings, “Tourniquet, stop the bleeding.”
“Dark Sunglasses” Is that a cowbell that I hear? This single is a burst of power from beginning to end. It’s a tightly-woven bit of bombast that culminates with a powerful chorus anchored by shouted background vocals. This is vintage Hynde in top form.
|Fatboy Slim’s “Fatboy Slim Presents Bem Brasil” ****|
This double-disc set was curated and created by Norman Cook, AKA Fatboy Slim in honor of the World Cup. It’s not quite a proper album. He hasn’t really released one of those since “Palookaville,” a decade ago. (In between, he has released various DJ mixes and has helped David Byrne craft, “Here Lies Love,” a current off-Broadway musical about Imelda Marcos, the music for which was originally released on a star-studded collaborative album back in 2010.) This album is somewhat of a weird hybrid between a DJ Mix, a proper record and a remix album, all suited to set the Brazilian dance mood while getting soccer fans psyched. What’s most impressive here is Cook’s sonic range. This is one of his most populist, crowd-pleasing albums to date, heading more into the current EDM and pop-dance realm that the more alternative-leaning scene that he and the Chemical Brothers anchored in the late-1990s. Listen to this and you’ll hear a veteran churning out some very dub-step-esque sounds, proving that the new EDM craze isn’t really all that new after all. The truth is, these cuts are by others, placed into the mix, but the fact that they are there means that Cook approves of the modern changes. A look at his live set at last year’s Ultra Music Festival and you’ll see that he seems lately to be favoring more of a techno-esque sound over his big-beat classics.
Within the two-disc, 20-track set, he also inserts remixes of two classics, “Weapon of Choice” (minus the Christopher Walken dance moves, sadly) and “Everybody Loves a Carnival,” which, interestingly, is a remix in itself of his classic “Everybody Needs A 303.” Whether you are following the World Cup or not, this is a tremendous, party-starting collection, worthy to live in “club-banging” infamy. Cook still can easily rock the crowd.
“Maracatu Atômico “/“Todo Menina Baiana” These two Gilberto Gil tracks are placed next to each other and given a stronger beat. Cook obviously wants to put some local authenticity into this set and you can’t go wrong with Gil. He is a Brazilian national treasure, having helped lead the Tropicalia movement and having served as the country’s Minister Of Culture.
“Taj Mahal” Jorge Ben’s song in this form bounces between an old-school Latin bend and a thick electro-wash that penetrates your eardrums quite sharply. The vocal melody is in places a little similar to Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.”
“Put Your Hands Up For Brasil” It’s pretty obvious why this track is here. Fedde Le Grand’s number is four-and-a-half-minute cheer filled with Brazilian pride. Again, this is more techno-sounding and house-y than people might expect from Cook.
|Andrew Bird’s “Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of” ****|
This disc finds Andrew Bird delivering a collection of covers of songs originally done by the Handsome Family. It’s a remarkably stripped down set, even by Bird’s standards, and this one-time Squirrel Nut Zipper shows off an old-school country side while exhibiting his signature knack for gentle orchestration. The production here is wide open, as if every was recorded live with open mics spread across the room. This approach gives the album a very open kind of airiness. Even though these tracks aren’t Bird’s originally, he makes them his own, adding his own mystical sense of whimsy. This feels strangely like an intimate performance in a big room. Playing this on a big stereo, makes you feel like you are in the room with him as he sings to you. It’s the latest, interesting collection from one of indie-rock’s most unpredictable figures. Many of these songs are lyrically pretty quirky, making this album a warm, welcoming experience. This is an exciting and satisfying way to follow-up his duo of albums from 2012, “Break It Yourself” and “Hands Of Glory.”
“Giant Of Illinois” This is a beautiful song about a giant who dies after walking for a long time and getting an infected blister. It sounds ridiculous, but it works because of its melody and Bird’s gentle musical touches.
“My Sister’s Tiny Hands” This is plaintive old-school folk song with dramatic details. Unlike a lot of the banjo plucking groups that have become popular in recent times, Bird has the right gravitas to pull off this sense of old-world drama.
“Drunk By Noon” This is a truly strange song about a poodle with delusions of grandeur. (Did I mention this album was quirky?) Combine that with the heavy-drinking indications of the title and the chorus and you get a song that is more about wordplay than true lyrical cohesion. But it works! Bird’s signature whistling style in the middle adds a nice touch as well.
|Jose James’ “While You Were Sleeping” ****|
On his fifth album, singer Jose James delivers more reliable R&B with jazz and acid-rock tinges. He’s an alluring vocalist who deserves more mainstream attention. Stylistically, he’s obviously working with truly eclectic influences, mixing distorted guitars into the stew one second and playing with purposely mangled beats the next. There’s a wooziness here that sets him apart from his R&B peers. His grooves aren’t crafted for pop radio. That’s not to say that they don’t have pop potential, but rather that the production is wonderfully organic and not over-processed, even when his jams are at their most adventurous. James also seems to be from the Prince school of song-titles, substituting the words “you,” “for” and “are” with “U”, “4” and” R.” It speaks perhaps to the purple one’s influence on him. James is definitely a game shape-shifter willing to sing against a variety of grooves. This is music for well-versed fans willing to explore varied terrain. He is obviously a student of a variety of genres and he wants to pepper them into his mainly R&B landscape. This approach makes this album a thrilling listen. We need more albums that are this forward-thinking.
“While You Were Sleeping” This six-minute title-track begins sounding like something from 1970s AM radio. It’s like singer-songwriter gold, but as it progresses, its darker edges show it to be something more substantial. This is moody and introspective songwriting at its best. The backwards guitar solo adds another surprising wrinkle.
“Angel” This smooth-rocking opener is a piece of electric blues that should please fans of Gary Clark Jr. It is blues with a rock edge and a modern-sense cool.
“Simply Beautiful” This is a tender album closer that is punctuated by a very effective, jazzy trumpet solo. Again, as modern as this sounds, it speaks to something timeless.
|Passenger’s “Whispers” (Deluxe Edition) **|
British singer-songwriter Mike Rosenberg’s Passenger project gained some ground with his last album, “All The Little Lights,” so the stakes are higher for that album’s follow-up, “Whispers.” Rosenberg is a singer-songwriter in the folk tradition. He sings songs that at their best, are strong narrative tales of woe from a long-forgotten time and at their worst, high school poetry love songs. “Oh darling my heart’s on fire..” he sings on “Heart’s On Fire,” following that generic sentiment with the line, “You know those love songs break your heart.”
There is potential in his music and arrangements, but the album remains for the most part in a kind of bland acoustic singer-songwriter realm with surprisingly little variation. Rosenberg’s voice is also perhaps an acquired taste, as if merging the timbre of both Brett Dennen and The Tallest Man On Earth. More sonic variation would do him some good and he should stick closer to the narrative numbers, even if they do head remarkably close to the terrain explored by the other old-timey pluckers like Mumford & Sons. Rosenberg would produce more interesting records if he embraced the edgier side fighting to come out. It would mean the difference in becoming the next Damien Rice or becoming the next James Blunt.
The deluxe edition comes with a bonus disc of “acoustic” versions of most of the tracks on the album. That would probably matter more if the standard album was more “electric.” These added versions are just sparser versions of tracks that were pretty stripped down in the first place.
“Riding to New York” An old man who has lost track of his family that he did wrong years before vows to ride on a bike from Minnesota, where he lives, to his estranged children in New York in order to make peace with them before he dies. This is the album’s best moment by far. If the rest of the album had been this grounded, this would be a very different record.
“Coins in a Fountain” Beginning the album with a nice riff, this track shows some real promise. The syncopation of the lyrics is a nice touch, too.
“27” This is the most upbeat this album gets. It is a clever and goofy numbers game of sorts to denote Rosenberg’s 27 years on the planet.
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