This week, Kelis gives an artsy, old-school spin on her soulful style, The Eels return with a downbeat new album, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea shows her love for Southern hip-hop, G. Love & Special Sauce bring forth some raggedy blues, Neon Trees represent some new-wave love, Augustana perfect mainstream pop rock, Bastille reissue their hit album with bonus material and Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s usher in a sweetly delivered sense of menace. It’s another busy week.
|Kelis’ “Food” ****1/2|
Since she emerged in the late ‘90’s as an initial Neptunes protégé, Kelis has always stood out from the pack. Her landmark debut, “Kaleidoscope” fused typical R&B of the time with shades of alt-rock and Devo-esque electro elements. On singles like “Caught Out There” and the later highlight, “Milkshake” she shouted or spoke through key parts. Her last album, (the excellent “Flesh Tone”) found her exploring dance and house music. This time around, Kelis really switched things up. “Food” is a really organic-sounding old-school soul record with interesting jazz, Afrobeat and folk nods. Helmed by TV on The Radio’s Dave Sitek it seems like the polar opposite of what the mainstream R&B landscape is currently favoring. It is a groovy, old-school record. It never takes the simple route, thus providing a rewarding listen.
Kelis is out to make a classic and she basically has succeeded. Her voice is a unique, husky, textured, breathy instrument and it is perfectly suited for these arrangements. This is a daring record and a stunning display of musicianship all the way around. It is a complex sonic stew with eclectic influences. Sitek and Kelis may at first not seem like a fit on paper, but really it is a perfect pairing.
This seems like the record Kelis has been building up to her entire career. It is an artful, glorious statement. It’s a timeless, funk-driven exercise which bends and morphs throughout the song-cycle. Of course, Sitek’s sharp production stands as a main focus and the many musicians backing Kelis up are tremendously tight in their slick execution. There is no doubt in my mind that this is Kelis’ strongest and most varied record to date. This is one of the coolest records you will hear all year.
“Floyd” This is an airy soul ballad and a top-notch slow-jam, complete with a jazz-orchestra and some acid-rock style guitar textures. When Kelis sings, “I want to be blown away,” she does so in a way that makes you feel and understand the meaning behind every word. This is her best ballad since “Get Along With You” and the psychedelic touches really give the track real depth.
“Jerk Ribs” I feel like this song has been bouncing around the internet for at least a year. It makes for the perfect introduction to this record with its intense rhythms and its stylistic nods to Fela Kuti. It’s also got a nice serving of cowbell!
“Hooch” This is a jam! Like a funky, sly jab at disco rock. This sounds like it belongs in a Quentin Tarantino movie, which is an unusual thing to say about a modern cut. Kelis essentially sighs through the chorus and strangely, that’s all the song needs.
“Bless The Telephone” This folky, acoustic-guitar-led duet stands out drastically on the record, but it is very well executed and proves that Kelis is really up for just about anything. The presence of this track just emphasizes the earthy atmosphere.
“Change” Sounding like a spaghetti-western soul ballad, this track really is epic. This is especially true at its powerful chorus. Again, there are some interesting psychedelic touches along the way. On this track, slowed down voices add an eerie element.
“Rumble” Playing like a distant cousin of the kinds of grooves Jack White was reveling in during the “Get Behind Me, Satan” era of the White Stripes, this song finds Kelis lamenting a broken relationship while breathing a sigh of relief. She sings, “I’m so glad you brought back my keys.”
|Eels’ “The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett” (Deluxe Edition) ****|
As time has gone on, Eels’ principal Mark Oliver Everett (or “E” as he is commonly known) has become mellower and more focused on delivering scholarly reflections in sadness. He’s become a master of capturing a morose sense of beauty. Like Beck did on both “Sea Change” and this year’s “Morning Phase,” Everett stands as another former jokester from the Alternative boom who has blossomed into a powerful songwriter. That being said, unlike Beck, Everett’s work has always had a serious undertone behind the humor. After all, he’s been singing songs about tragedy all along, especially considering the real-life pain packed behind 1998’s “Electro-shock Blues,” an album written in the aftermath of his sister’s suicide and his mother’s death from Cancer.
But perhaps because he no longer works with hip-hop beats or fancy production the way he once did, the seriousness of his music now shines through in a way it didn’t before. Hiding behind the production, one could easily overlook the darkness hiding behind his lyrics, especially when it is hidden in biting jokes like the line, “Jesus and his lawyer are coming back” from the 1996 hit “Novocaine For The Soul.” There aren’t really any truly upbeat songs on “Cautionary Tales.” The main disc finds him wallowing in despair and reflection like an early career, late-night son of Tom Waits. Waits is a fan, too. After Waits picked the Eels album “Shottenanny!” as a finalist for the “Short List” prize in 2002, the two men met on the next Eels record.
This album will leave you feeling down, but it will do so in a beautiful way. Everett is now 11 proper albums into his career as leader of the Eels’ and he has yet to deliver a dud. This is sparse, frank songwriting at its best.
Like last year’s “Wonderful, Glorious,” this record’s deluxe edition comes packed with a full bonus disc containing other studio cuts and live sessions, proving that Everett is hitting a creative peak. After all, since 2009, he has released 5 records. The bonus disc keeps the sad tone going although there are some fleeting bits of lightness, particularly in “Good Morning Bright Eyes,” the live version of the 2001 single, “Fresh Feeling” and a raucous live cover of Peter Green’s “Oh Well.” Really this album should only be heard in its full, deluxe form.
In all, more so than any other Eels album, this feels like a lonely record. Even by Everett’s standards, the sparseness stands out. In the end, though, this is yet another rewarding collection from an excellent songwriter who deserves more credit.
“Agatha Chang” Perhaps the most sparse cut on the whole set, “Agatha Chang” is a sad recollection of a lost love, where E sadly declares, “I should have stayed with Agatha Chang.” This kind of character study suits E well.
“Mistakes Of My Youth” E constantly writes songs about the past from a wiser, older perspective. He’s one of the most reflective songwriters working today. This song was one of the first cuts to emerge from this album is one of his best of this kind. He sings, “I can’t keep defeating myself. / I can’t keep repeating the mistakes of my youth.” It is as if he is talking himself down from a personal crisis.
“Lockdown Hurricane” Two versions of this song appear on the record. The second one is called “Lonely Lockdown Hurricane” and is less echo-y than the standard version. It’s another soft number about a wounded relationship. This time around, a hurricane is used to symbolize the trouble ahead.
“Good Morning Bright Eyes” (Bonus Disc) Lyrically, this song isn’t brighter than the rest of the collection, but the go-go beat carries the song a long way. The brighter energy momentarily tempers the otherwise morose tone. Almost all of E’s songs seem to bring forth a survivalist attitude in the face of impending doom.
|Iggy Azalea’s “The New Classic” (Deluxe Edition) **|
Australian rapper, Iggy Azalea has a flow that is thick with a put-on American Southern urban drawl and her beats are crafted with pop radio in mind. This is radio gloss with a flow over it. “The New Classic” is the kind of record that would probably cause the original hip-hop purists to sneer. Azalea has been in the U.S. since 2006, reportedly immersing herself in Southern hip-hop, so perhaps she’s not quite the poseur she initially seems. It still seems like a very unlikely culture clash.
While she proves she has a basic flow that is neither great nor embarrassing, one can’t help but think that this is the major-labels’ response to the success of other “outside the box” hip-hop acts like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. This album plays like a poppier answer to “The Heist” without the essence of what made that album stand out. Yes, Macklemore has a similar pop side, but at his core he’s a consciousness rapper with some strong Atmosphere influence. Azalea in contrast comes off like a run-of-the-mill boaster.
Her voice is deep and she takes command, but it almost sounds like she’s parroting back “Dirty South” flows of the past. This feels like something I’ve heard before from more genuine sources and without the pop engineering. Azalea is putting on an affectation and over the course of the album it wears itself thin.
The weird thing is, this wouldn’t be a bad electro record in its instrumental version. But as is, it just feels like it lacks authenticity. Of course, on “Work,” Azalea raps how she had “No money/ No family/ 16 in the middle of Miami.” It is evident that this then is a dream come true for her. And she seems to want to hit us over the head with her Miami roots, with her art-deco-meets-“Miami Vice” cover art.
The bottom line is, this is a pretty baffling, conflicting record. It is a hard one to read. It isn’t that great a listen for those who appreciate pure hip-hop, and it feels a little too manipulated, but at the same time it brings to light possible notions of international Global societal cultural influence.
This album has its moments, but is ultimately flawed. I wish I liked it more. I wish Azalea had rhymes as memorable as her attitude. It just feels like something key in the formula is missing.
“Goddess” Over a charging, off-kilter track with a regal chant loop playing in the background, Azalea raps with authority, as she declares “Ain’t no one man can stop us. / Bow down to a Goddess.” This powerful track emphasizes some of Azalea’s best qualities. When she gets going, she can get a rage going and this track’s empowering chorus is a nice switch in the often sexist world of hip-hop. The overpowering guitar solo is an interesting surprise.
“Fancy” (Featuring Charli XCX) This is a strange one, but its dated 80’s synths stick with you. Charli XCX provides the hook in a gloriously nonchalant sort of way as Iggy spits gruff rhymes about “sippin’ champagne” and how she’s “the realest.” It’s a little by-the-book, but it kind of works.
“Impossible Is Nothing” This is another uplifting song about sticking to your dreams and avoiding “the haters.” Again, with these messages of empowerment, Iggy shines. This has a really positive shine to it.
“Rolex” (Deluxe Edition) Over a sunny sounding but chilled electro-beat, Iggy raps about lost love and lost time. The real reason this track shines in the cool beat, which is a stellar piece of production.
|G. Love & Special Sauce – “Sugar” **1/2|
Twenty years after their debut, the original lineup of G. Love & Special Sauce has reunited to record “Sugar.” The album is exactly what you would expect, too, mixing loud, ramshackle bar-band blues with loose allusions to hip-hop. G, Love (AKA Garrett Dutton) continues to sing in a strange, put-on drawl and the band charges through this effectively messy set, giving it a live charge. The problem with the set is the material. The tracks sound OK during initial playback but they don’t stick with you. They are blues jams that lack solid hooks for the most part. This is especially true during the majority of the first half of the album.
The musicianship, though is decent. In the live setting, this would probably light the crowd on fire. G. Love’s guitar work has some impressive moments, but as thrilling as this album can be at points, it lacks the distinction of previous career highlights like their debut, “Coast To Coast Motel” or G. Love’s excellent solo effort “The Hustle.” There are 4 good songs on here that make the set worthwhile but the rest seems like standard blues riffage. There’s nothing overtly wrong with that, but there’s a personality element that was present on their earlier records that is a tad M.I.A. here. This is also due to the mixing of the record. G. Love’s vocals are often deep in the mix. He rarely sounds like he is out in front. His guitar is, but his vocals are frequently further back than they should be.
So, in the end, this is a disappointingly uneven album with some very promising moments.
“One Night Romance” (Featuring Merry Clayton) This track REALLY stands out on the set, because it is a duet with famed background singer, Merry Clayton, who is probably most famous as the female voice heard on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” How she ended up on this record, I am not sure, but she really brings some authentic soul to the mix.
“Weekend Dance #2” (Featuring Shamarr Allen) This also stands out with its clear production and its amazing horn section. The lyrics are nothing special – pretty basic celebratory Friday fare, but they suit the song. This is a loud, proud weekend anthem about working hard and letting loose. “Saturday Night” The follow-up to “Weekend Dance #2” this is a raver that details the weekend’s partying nicely. I wish every song on this album had this kind of clarity.
“Too Much Month” This is probably the only track that recaptures the energy of the band’s debut. Like a cross between “Garbage Man” and “Rhyme For The Summertime,” this is a song about living paycheck to paycheck in these rough economic times.
|Augustana’s “Life Imitating Life” ****|
Probably still most famous for their 2005 lovelorn hit “Boston,” San Diego (via Greenville, Illinois) band Augustana continue to offer up a satisfying spin on middle-of-the-road, inoffensive rock on their fourth album. I really honestly don’t mean this as an insult in any way. What they achieve here is a delicate balance. Usually this kind of sound is attempted and botched. Listen to the Fray’s recent records and you can see where over-production and formulaic songwriting can steer a band in the wrong direction. Augustana somehow achieve a mild-mannered adult-alternative sound that radio stations might crave while delivering strong pieces of songwriting.
The bad thing is, they are extremely capable but a little faceless in their delivery. In a weird way that makes them perfectly angled for another chart success. That may seem like a backhanded compliment, and it is, a little bit, but with each passing record, this band has become stronger in their craft. They know exactly what kind of band they are.
“Ash And Ember,” for instance really deserves to be a hit. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it is an infectious, well-written song. Throughout the set, the members of Augustana offer up a stream of this kind of innocuous rock, meticulously crafted but not over-cooked. Again, it provides a nice, steady level of craftsmanship.
This kind of record is rare these days. It’s just an enjoyable set that knows what it wants to be. There’s something to be said about excellently made mid-tempo rock done well. Augustana deliver a very satisfying set while smartly avoiding the usual pop-crossover traps. This album deserves a big audience.
“Ash And Ember” There is an interview you can look up on YouTube where leader Daniel Layus discusses writing this song and says that before it appeared, he didn’t think this album had a “flagship song.” He talks about how proud he is of this song’s “effortless” nature and I have to agree. This song perfectly anchors the record on the whole and perfectly captures its mood.
“According To Plan” The album’s title comes from a lyric in this song. Again, it is another well-written song that doesn’t try too hard to win you over. It just succeeds on its own merits without any flash.
“Youth Is Wasted On The Young” What could be a cliché song becomes something bigger and better than expected. The band has a grasp on melody and this song has a nice pop-driven flow. Layus has a nice lyrical grasp as well, expanding on the theme set up by the title.
“Say You Want Me” Again, this is another reliable anthemic pop song with just the right amount of chugging energy in the chorus to keep the momentum. This is another possible hit.
|Neon Trees’ “Pop Psychology” ***|
Provo, Utah-bred power-pop/new-wave band Neon Trees deliver a sweet pop concoction on their third release, “Pop Psychology.” It is an upbeat collection full of vigor and bounce. Musically, for the most part it succeeds as a strong party record full of the kind of eighties gloss you’d expect from the band’s name alone. Its only real issue that sometimes brings it down a little is front-man, Tyler Glenn’s occasionally clunky lyrics. On the single, “Sleeping With A Friend,” for instance, he opens the song with the line, “All my friends, they’re different people.” “Text Me In The Morning” also has issues because it aches a little too hard to be the snappy, jumpy tech-savvy statement of now. It just hits the nail a little, too hard on the head.
Throughout the set, like on their other sets I found myself wishing that Glenn’s vocal style had the edge to match the band’s music. He has a fine voice and he’s suited for the synthier numbers, but on the more rock-toned tracks he sometimes doesn’t quite deliver the same level of power that the band’s music promises. Sometimes, on the harder-edged, faster tracks, it would be nice if he adopted a slightly more aggressive tone. That being said, on this release, he does however sound more comfortable and confident than ever. This might have to do with his recent coming out of the closet and accepting himself as a gay Mormon. He seems more at ease. That breath of relief is subtly felt on this set. This album has some bounce and it is a worthy collection, but it remains enjoyable yet somewhat standard, never quite taking off in quite the way that it should.
“Unavoidable” The set’s best pop moment comes with this duet between Glenn and drummer, Elaine Bradley. Here they achieve their goal of rekindling some eighties pop magic.
“Voices In The Hall” This synth-driven number is a nice, airy ballad that achieves the right balance. This is the kind of track well-suited for slow-dances at the prom. The retro-tone just brings to mind the ending of a John Hughes movie.
“First Thing’s First” Tone-wise, this is a mixture between gospel, pop and electro-dance music. Glenn tells a personal story with a go-getter’s level of authority, declaring, “I swear the music was my only friend.” In a weird way, this seems like the album’s most honest moment. Lyrically, it reads like the story of Glenn getting comfortable with himself. The fact that this track is how the album ends makes it an ideal closing statement. Bonus points are earned for the laser-beam sounds and the over-the-top guitar solo.
|Bastille’s “All This Bad Blood” ***1/2|
This is merely the double-disc repackaged reissue of Bastille’s “Bad Blood” which last year scored them a hit with the ubiquitous single, “Pompeii.” The standard album still plays well. In fact the original album on its own is a 4 star effort, even with its stylized lyrics steeped in scattered folklore with references to everyone from “Icarus” to “Laura Palmer.” Their nifty-sounding electro-effects perfectly meet with the bellowing background vocals felt throughout, that play as if they’ve been listening to the Police’s “Regatta de Blanc” on a repeated loop. This reissue is a mixed blessing, though. In a way, it weakens the set on the whole. There are a few bonus tracks and demos that add to the feeling of the album as a whole, but the set’s impact is lessened by a few truly awkward covers. Is it really necessary for them to fuse together the Snap! Hit, “Rhythm Is A Dancer” and the Carona hit “Rhythm Of The Night?” No. Does leader Dan Smith’s smooth-toned voice sound ill-suited to cover City High’s “What Would You Do?” which is a tale about a stripper just trying to make ends meet to feed her son? Yes. Do we really need to hear him sing “O Holy Night,” here retitled, “Tuning Out?” No. In truth, the majority of the excess added to this version plays for fans of the initial release searching for more. Very little of this bonus material is as vital as what is on the main disc. Nevertheless, it does expand on their post-Coldplay, post-Imogen Heap, post Florence + the Machine brand of pop.
Note: For this release, the Focus tracks I will highlight are from the bonus disc.
“The Draw” The bit of fuzzy guitar on this track adds a nice sense of texture not felt on the rest of the set. It has a bit of shoegaze-style murkiness that adds a pleasant edge.
“The Silence” Similarly, this track has a charge not heard on the rest of the set, with its fast, harder edges and drive. These rougher textures nicely complement Smith’s grand sense of melody.
“Sleepsong” If Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” was infused with a danceable bit of reggae rhythm it might sound a little like this track.
|Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s’ “Slingshot To Heaven” ***1/2|
On their sixth release, Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s retreat from the heavy rock textures that made their last record, “Rot Gut, Domestic” their most compelling release to date. There are exceptions, of course, but this is a gentler effort. Leader, Richard Edwards does however still possess a dark, twisted sense of wit that sets his band apart from other current indie-rock bands. Some of his lyrics are incredibly inspired and strange.
There isn’t a track that stands out here quite like the “Rot Gut, Domestic” opener, “Disease and Tobacco Free” or the “Buzzard” highlight, “Will You Love Me Forever?” but this set once again proves that this group is one of the best bands you probably don’t know as well as you should.
“Long Legged Blonde Memphis” On a song where Edwards’ protagonist is pursuing a woman in a bar, declaring, “You’re the only girl for me. / Let’s get along,” he also sings, “You took First Communion at the same church my wife did.” Is he divorced? Is he looking for an affair? It’s hard to tell, but this strange juxtaposition makes this a more compelling tale. It is intriguing and lurid.
“Los Angeles” This is a winning, quick, beautiful song about leisurely days sitting poolside, picking up women and living a peaceful life.
“Go To Sleep, You Little Creep” If I am interpreting these lyrics correctly, this song is about a child telling his father he wants to grow up to be a dog or a cow and his father responding by saying, “Go to sleep, you little creep.” It would sound extremely harsh if it weren’t delivered so tenderly.
“I Can’t Sleep, My Eyes Are Flat” An unsettled ode to insomnia and a troubled mind. Thick guitars come and go adding a palpable sense of tension.
Next week, get new music from the Pixies, Damon Albarn, Sean Lennon’s project The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger and more.
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