Record Release Rundown: The Latest From Lea Michele, Pharrell Williams, Rick Ross and More

PHOTO: Lea Michele attends the "Louder" CD signing event at Sony Store, March 4, 2014 in New York.
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This week, "Glee" star Lea Michele makes her solo debut with her album, "Louder," while Pharrell Williams, fresh off the successes of his hit collaborations with Daft Punk and Robin Thicke returns with a new solo record. Hard-hitting, hardcore hip-hop artist, Rick Ro$$ offers his sixth album, while indie rock bands The Men and Real Estate also have new releases. We'll also listen to the score of Wes Anderson's new movie, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and discuss the latest album from British band Maximo Park, which has yet to be released in the States. It's a highly varied week.

PHOTO: Lea Micheles albulm "Louder"
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Lea Michele's "Louder" **

The biggest problem with "Glee," I would imagine most of that show's detractors would agree, is its insistence to cover established pop songs with an over-accentuated modern Broadway-esque flare. It can be too much (and cross a line) sometimes, especially in cases where the original is a favorite in the first place. But, "Glee" has spun some chart success, so it would make sense for its cast members to stop the parade of covers and set forth on their own paths. Behold, Lea Michele's debut album, "Louder." Michele can sing. She's an appealing presence, but for the most part she's given bright pop numbers that are either too calculated and formulaic to establish themselves or they are half-baked hooks without real songs attached. First single, "Cannonball" takes an excellent cheerleader-ready beat and pairs it with a boring hook where Michele repeats the words "I'll fly. I'll fly. I'll fly like a cannonball" a few too many times. The song is desperately in need of a bridge or at least something that changes its tone for a few seconds. Too many of these tracks still seem still like half-written ideas. "Cue The Rain," for instance has the same problem with her repetition of the line, "I find myself looking for you." There needs to be more, especially since there is a halfway decent song there otherwise. It is just under-developed.

Michele shines in the quieter moments where the production is turned down, like during the verse portions of "Burn With You" and "Battlefield" and especially on the Cory Monteith eulogy, "If You Say So." Michele is better with ballads, even if the majority of them are lyrically drowned in clichés. Throughout the record she's surrounded by industry-favorite hired hands to help with the song-writing, like John Shanks, Sia, Chantal Kreviazuk and Christina Perri. As a result, Michele ends up sounding a little faceless. The fact that Sia, Kreviazuk and Perri are singer-songwriters themselves might point to the fact that they are saving their best material for themselves. (Although Sia's success with Rhianna's "Diamonds" and Britney Spears' still shockingly infectious "Perfume" would suggest that is usually not so in her case.) Too often on "Louder," these songs all bleed together as if crafted from the same pop-by-numbers template. "If You Say So," gives Michele her best moment, perhaps because it is the one of the songs she had a hand in writing. Elsewhere, too often, she sounds like she's still recording covers…that we don't yet know. She deserves more than the formula.

Focus Tracks:

"If You Say So" Losing her boyfriend, Cory Monteith in such a tragic way at such a young age is unimaginable. Michele's pain is felt in every word she sings and the song provides the album's most grounded, authentic moment. Presumably written a week after his passing, with its "seven whole days" refrain, she sounds like she's spent the week in tears. Her personal connection to the song itself is felt and is evidence enough that on her next album she deserves a stronger role in the overall writing process. This isn't the album's only highlight, but it is by far the best.

"Thousand Needles" Production-wise, this track seems more akin the balladry of Imogen Heap or even Bjork. This provides Michele with her greatest belting moment, where she sings, "Why you wanna break away? / I'm bleeding. / I can see you now in shades of grey. / A memory faded. " This deserves to be a hit, even if Michele seems to have some un-needed autotune on her voice during the verse portion.

PHOTO: Pharrell Williams album "GIRL"
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Pharrell Williams' "GIRL" ****

Ever since he emerged with Chad Hugo in the late nineties when the two began producing tracks together as the Neptunes, Pharrell Williams has been an innovator and changed and molded the modern sound of R&B. His and Hugo's records as N.E.R.D. have run the sonic gamete between hardcore rap boasting ("Lapdance") to softer Steely Dan-influenced fare ("Maybe.") It has always been obvious that Williams has painted with a really broad brush, from his spacey and edgy production on Kelis' "Keleidoscope" to the minimalist approach he and Hugo paired with the Clipse on their single, "Grindin'." At the same time, Pharrell has been constantly evolving. Lately he's been playing with retro sounds of disco and funk, probably in part due to his recent successes on Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." "GIRL" finds Williams further exploring that retro-territory, recalling Prince, Raphael Saadiq, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and his "Get Lucky" co-hort, Nile Rodgers. Williams morphs these influences into his own imaginative concoction. He's aiming for the charts, obviously, but he also clearly wants to experiment. The beat for instance on the Justin Timberlake-assisted "Brand New" has an inventively bright bounce to it and it easily bests anything on the two sub-par "20/20 Experience" records. In fact, this album serves as an interesting, companion piece to those records. "GIRL" shares the same influences that led to Timberlake's albums, only Williams' execution and material are infinitely superior.

If you are looking for Pharrell to rap like he did on his last solo album, the hip-hop-based, "In My Mind," you won't find it here. He has (at least momentarily) left that element of his sound behind. (It means you won't hear a track quite like that album's excellent standout, "Raspy S____.") The rap element is missed, but it wasn't part of his goal this time around. His goal was to make a forward-thinking, retro-leaning pop record, and "GIRL" strongly fits that definition.

Focus Tracks:

"Gust Of Wind" This smooth number is anchored by a string section which may or may not be looped. This is a dense production which bounces from retro-funk to a momentary electro-flavored section. This is vintage Pharrell at the peak of his game.

"Come Get It Bae" (Featuring Miley Cyrus) Like a stronger successor to "Blurred Lines," this jam is bound to get people up and dancing. It also easily bests the majority of Cyrus' album, "Bangerz." It is a testament to Williams' production abilities that he can allow his guests to shine brighter on his album than they do on their own.

"Happy" I'll be honest. This Oscar-nominated cut from "Despicable Me 2" narrowly dodges being too saccharine. But Pharrell makes it one of the biggest and best recent R&B crossover tracks not recorded by Cee-Lo.

"It Girl" The album's closer showcases Pharrell's falsetto over an infectious beat. This kind of track has become his bread-and-butter as of late, even if the ocean metaphors in the lyrics incite slight chuckles. The second half of the song is an instrumental jam and yet during that portion, the track doesn't overstay its welcome. It just gives the groove room to breathe.

PHOTO: Rick Ross album "Mastermind"
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Rick Ro$$' "Mastermind" ***1/2

Rick Ro$$' world is a place where gangsters never die. He lives for thuggish boasting about money, women and drugs. He's filled to the brim with audacious bravado. His world is one where manhood is defined by how much money you have, how much product you can shift and whether you have the finest woman on your arm. He shows little remorse or compassion. It's all about the hustling. If his in-your-face style is too much for you, this record wasn't made with you in mind.

Last year, Ro$$ got rightfully in trouble for a guest verse he did on a track for a rapper named Rocko, where he mentioned putting "molly" in a woman's champagne, taking her home and taking advantage of her without her even knowing what was happening. After an understandable outcry, the verse was removed. This instance shows that even gangsta rap has its limits. As distasteful as some of Ro$$' lines can be, there's nothing on here that will probably cause that kind of uproar. On the song, "Blk & Wht," though, he does say, "Trayvon Martin, I'm never missing my target," which could be seen as a problematic reference. But Ro$$ pulls no punches. He's not out to make friends. It's probably too much to expect someone who took his stage name from a drug kingpin to be enlightened and socially responsible.

In reality, Ro$$' name is William Roberts. He went to college on a football scholarship and for a bit he spent time working as a corrections officer. So it can be a thought that most likely a lot of this puffery is posing from someone who loved to watch "Scarface" in a repeated loop. The image he conveys is about extreme excess and the shock. So, in this case, it is much better if it isn't authentic and if he is acting.

In spite of its harshness and occasional lyrical ugliness, as an album, "Mastermind" often works because Ro$$' authoritative flow pulls you in. He's got passion in his voice as he raps about the violence that he's seen in "Drug Dealers Dream." The beats are also quite strong. It is evident that he knows his hip-hop history. (This isn't surprising considering the album counts Sean "Diddy" Combs as one of its executive producers, who has spent his career building off of the past.) "Nobody" makes a subtle reference to Biggie's "Who Shot Ya," while the Jay-Z assisted "The Devil Is A Lie" has a beat that sounds like a slower answer to Public Enemy's "Cant Truss It." The album's closer, "Thug Cry" has a backing track recalling Souls of Mischief's classic, "'93 To Infinity." It's clear that Ro$$ wants to make a "gangsta" classic. But this album doesn't cover vastly different ground than his previous records. He's built his image and he's staying put. In the end, this is an extremely gritty record with strong production.

Focus Tracks:

"Thug Cry" (Featuring Lil Wayne) The most sensitive and laid back track here ends the album on a humble note as Ro$$ thanks everyone for making this album. The beat is smooth and provides a nice environment for Ro$$ and Wayne to get on a decent sense of flow.

"The Devil Is A Lie" (Featuring Jay-Z) The beat is authoritative enough to make this a standout track as Ro$$ and Jay-Z trade verses about economic excess. It should be noted, though that many may find Jay-Z bragging about his Barneys line after a reference to New York's controversial "Stop and Fisk" practice problematic, considering a few weeks before his line launched, the store was famously embroiled in a scandal involving accusations of racial profiling.

"Sanctified" (Featuring Kanye West and Big Sean) This track is really interesting. It starts off with a bit of old-school gospel and then a spaced-out synth riff comes in for Ro$$, Kanye and Big Sean to rap over. Ro$$ lets Kanye and Sean take the lead. He doesn't make his appearance until nearly three minutes into the track.

"What A Shame" (Featuring French Montana) This is one of the shortest tracks on the collection and yet it still leaves its mark as Ro$$ builds the song up by quoting a famous refrain from the late Ol' Dirty Bastard. Again, it is another track about stacks of money and taking down those who stand in his way of getting stacks of money, but what track here isn't about that, really?

"In Vein" (Featuring The Weeknd) Again, Ro$$ lets his guest take the lead with the Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye leading things off with his crystal-clear voice. He's got the kind of voice that can make even the most lurid material sound sweet. But that juxtaposition has been his secret recipe for success, so when he croons, "I don't got a sober vein in my body," his excellent pitch distracts you from what he's actually saying.

PHOTO: The Mens album "Tomorrows Hits"
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The Men's "Tomorrow's Hits" ****

Brooklyn band, The Men have been releasing one album a year since 2010, meaning that they are quickly building quite a discography. Having started out more in the noise-rock and punk arena, "Tomorrow's Hits" continues the trend of last year's "New Moon" in further refining and developing the band's sound. There are a few hints of country and blues here, even when the guitars still remained turned up. The album only has 8 songs, but those songs are spread across an enthralling 37 minutes. With each successive release, the Men continue to grow and further distinguish themselves. Considering two mere albums ago on "Open Your Heart," they were bowing down to the shrine of acts like the Buzzcocks, the Stooges and Mission Of Burma, the amount of growth they have achieved is noteworthy. These influences are still present, but they are augmented by some additional unexpected references as well.

Focus Tracks:

"Sleepless" This sounds like a fuzzier indie-rock answer to the Band, as if these guys wrote it after re-watching "The Last Waltz" for the twentieth time. The harmonica solo, the piano riffing and the touches of ghostly slide-guitar add to this a sense of a loving homage.

"Settle Me Down" This is a smooth, slightly psychedelic, retro-sixties pop tune which would serve as a perfect soundtrack for summer walks on a boardwalk. The echo effect on the guitar line can't help but recall the Seeds' "I Can't Seem To Make You Mine."

"Pearly Gates" If Chuck Berry, Dick Dale and Bob Dylan ever got together and jammed, it might sound like "Pearly Gates," a raucous bar-band-ready eulogy that threatens to set fire to the amps with the amount of guitar power present. There's an awful lot going on here but it somehow still sounds cohesive even when it devolves into a dense garage-rock cacophony.

"Another Night"In contrast, "Another Night" sounds simultaneously like a raggedly upbeat slice of mid-tempo mid-seventies pop and like a nod to Stax Records. The excellent saxophone solo and insistent beat go a long way.

PHOTO: Real Estates album "Atlas"
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Real Estate's "Atlas" ***1/2

The members of Ridgewood, New Jersey's Real Estate have built a following making amiable low-key indie rock and that formula doesn't change on their lush third album, "Atlas." Their music is well-made but impossibly mild-mannered. So mild-mannered in fact that it demands extremely close listening. It also has a bit of a "twee-pop" edge, sometimes serving as a quieter, American equivalent to Belle & Sebastian. This is mellow understatement taken to new levels. It's the kind of record you listen in order to mellow out after a stressful day of lounging around on a beach. The guitar-lines have a vague surfy quality as subtle echo drenched vocals wash over you. It all adds up to an appealing formula that demands strict attention. Because this record wallows in its own subtlety, it may take a few listens for it to truly click, but it is definitely worth your time.

Focus Tracks:

"Crime"This is a likable song about a criminal who feels guilty about what he's done. He almost innocently asks his partner, "Will you go straight with me?" It sounds more like a casual love song than a lament, and such a shift works in its favor.

"Had To Hear" This building opening track brings to mind suburban California more than New Jersey, but as the hushed guitar-line hits the pronounced bass-line, the tone of the album is set.

"Talking Backwards" This shiny, shimmering bit of sweet pop is the album's single and it will surely not only bring a smile to your face, but it will also provide a soundtrack for laid back teens as they sit in their bedrooms scrawling words and drawings into notebooks. The song has a video full of innocent shots of the band smiling and goofing around, interspersed with studio recording footage.

"April's Song"A rare instrumental track, "April's Song" maintains a soft, cinematic glow without saying a word.

PHOTO: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" Original Soundtrack
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"The Grand Budapest Hotel" – Original Soundtrack ****

Wes Anderson movies always have interesting soundtracks. His early films were scored by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, with Alexandre Desplat effectively taking the reins starting with "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" and going forward. Desplat and Mothersbaugh share an affection for a whimsical feel and so both of their musical palates have suited the sweet, imaginative tone of Anderson's films. This soundtrack for "The Grand Budapest Hotel" differs from Anderson's other soundtracks in the way that it has no nods to cult classic tunes from the sixties. (Even "Moonrise Kingdom" had an expert placement of Francoise Hardy's "Le Temps de l'amour.") This movie takes place roughly a hundred years ago in a fictional part of Europe, so more modern, rock-era music isn't necessarily appropriate. What this means is that this is mostly Desplat's show. The 32 tracks on this disc clock in at roughly an hour, with 28 of those tracks being Desplat compositions. If you've done your math right, you know that many of these have to be rather short and they are, but Desplat is able to capture a mood keeping in the now long-standing Wes Anderson tradition. This is a disc of music that can be peppy one moment and somber the next, but even at its lowest key moments, Desplat adds a winking sweetness that has long been Anderson's sonic hallmark. It's a built-in orchestral kind of kitsch. It means that like the previous scores for Anderson's films, this disc also provides an engaging listen on its own.

Focus Tracks:

"The War (Zero's Theme)"The movie centers partially around Zero, a "lobby boy" working at the Grand Budapest Hotel. This gently played soft instrumental piece lasts just over a minute, but easily could go in the historic canon of memorable cinematic score elements. It has a simple melodic refrain, but that is vital in high quality movie scores, so you have a recognizable sonic thematic element you can throw into different scenes. This theme is used in a larger and more extended way as the basis for the track, "Mr. Moustafa," where it is extended into a bolder 3-minute romp. This signature is also played as part of "The Class Carriage," "Cleared Of All Charges," "The Society of Crossed Keys." and other tracks throughout.

"The New Lobby Boy" This minor-toned, lumbering piece sounds vaguely Italian. It is the kind of score piece that would make Henry Mancini proud. No doubt, Mancini was an influence on Desplat. He was after all one of the titans of the film-scoring craft.

"Night Train To Nabelsbad" This has the tone of a caper, going between enigmatic darker tones and momentary glimpses of melodic brightness. All along, some jazzy brushes keep a brisk rhythm. This theme is continued on the next track, "The Lutz Police Militia," where louder timpani drums come in to add an extra sense of menace.

PHOTO: Maximo Parks album "Too Much Information"
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Maximo Park's "Too Much Information" ****

(NOTE: This album actually came out internationally in February. A U.S. release doesn't seem to be set yet, but I am presuming it will get one just like their previous records. It took a while to track down an import copy, thus explaining the delay. ) As one of England's brightest and spikiest bands, Maximo Park deserve a great deal of attention. "Too Much Information" is their fifth album, merging angular rock with some electronic edges. Paul Smith's lyrics are always literately spellbinding. He always comes off as a well-read, scholarly source. They've had an incredible stack of U.K. singles as well, from the fast-moving new-wave punk of "Apply Some Pressure," to the more electro-sounding "Our Velocity." But their expertise may lie in their melancholy love songs like career highlights, "Books From Boxes" and "The Undercurrents." "Too Much Information" is every bit as reliable as their other four albums, offering up an eclectic mix of soon-to-be Brit-rock classics. Interestingly, on this self-produced effort, the electronic elements take a bit more of center stage than before. Smith is singing more often in a hushed, detached way, drawing you in closer to what he has to say. In contrast, this makes the cues where the guitars are more prominent seem more revelatory. If anything, this record shows that this band can go in plenty of directions without missing a step. This is an album worth seeking out, providing a memorable and adventurous song cycle.

Focus Tracks:

"Where We're Going" This track closes the record. It's a three-chord, straight-ahead builder in the vein of just about anything on Peter Bjorn and John's now classic album, "Writer's Block." Its simplicity is an asset. It's not the least bit over-thought, and before the end of the track, I bet you'll find yourself singing along with Smith's celebratory repeated chorus refrain of "You know where we're going!"

"Leave This Island"This is the main single and it showcases the band's hushed, electronic-leaning sound. Smith's voice doesn't rise above a speaking tone and the result is surprisingly effective. Melodically, this is one of their best, and is no doubt due for a club remix or two. Also worth checking out is the video, which centers around an old man, going through a hapless day in a run-down, over-crowded house.

"Brain Cells"Interestingly, this echo-drenched, haunted tune is the only track from this album that appears to be on iTunes. Smith is buried in a sea of moaning synths as a beat skitters away, mixing live drums and electronic effects.

"Lydia, The Ink Will Never Dry" Perhaps this is the most typical Maximo Park song on this set, showcasing a nice, mid-tempo jangle-pop sound that culminates into a bigger chorus. This should definitely be a single.

"My Bloody Mind" An unexpected bit of muscular rock, "My Bloody Mind" takes many fast-paced melodic turns in its nearly four minutes, and with each new direction it takes, it gets even more compelling. It may be the band's most musically complex track to date.

Next Week New releases from 311, Elbow and more!

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