This week Sia compiles a collection of songs she originally wrote with other performers in mind, British rock-act Bloc Party debut a new lineup on their fifth album, trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack return with a new EP, Mike Patton from Faith No More, Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio and Anticon rapper Doseone join forces as Nevermen, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s Conrad Keely releases his solo debut and Brooklyn chill-pop trio Wet also drop their first full-length. We welcome February with a wide variety of releases and sounds.
|Sia’s “This Is Acting” ***|
Sia crossed over into pop-titan territory 18 months ago when she released the stunning, “1000 Forms Of Fear,” a raw and brutally honest record that set the bar extremely high for all of her future output. That record not only topped my list of the Top 50 Best Albums of 2014, but to this day, it is still in my regular rotation.
The fact that “This Is Acting,” Sia’s rather quick follow-up doesn’t quite hit the high mark of its predecessor isn’t a surprise. It also might not be completely fair to compare the two. “1000 Forms Of Fear” was an unflinchingly frank look at issues like alcoholism, depression and death. These topics usually get shoved under the rug, especially within the comfy confines of pop radio.
“This Is Acting,” is an entirely different beast. Sia has been known for the last few years as one of the strongest among the current crop of hired songwriters. This collection is of songs that she co-wrote for the likes of Adele, Rihanna and Beyoncé. These songs were intended for these artists’ respective albums but for one reason or another weren’t picked up, so Sia claimed them back, thus creating an unlikely and unusual take on a B-sides record of sorts. The title of the record refers to her adapting to other singers’ personas. After the deep self-exploration from “1000 Forms Of Fear,” dealing in less personal territory probably felt like a great idea.
By its nature, this is a bit of a spotty record. Opening two cuts, “Bird Set Free” and “Alive” were both at one point intended for Adele. (She’s even a co-writer on the latter.) Both would have been nice additions on either “1000 Forms Of Fear” or “25.” Further down the line, however things get a little dicey. “Move Your Body” is frightfully generic, even if it does have a momentum that recalls Poe’s 2000 single, “Walk The Walk.” (If Poe ever comes back, like she has promised over the last few years, Sia might be a good choice as a collaborator.) Similarly, “Cheap Thrills” is a rather empty club jam about partying to hard which lacks the detail of the work found on her last album.
“Reaper” counts Kanye West among its co-writers and finds Sia exploring some warm gospel-y territory, while “House On Fire” is a really strong electro-tinged ballad which sounds like a hit. “Footrprints” is also similarly memorable even if its verse melody sounds for a moment like a rewrite of her song “Burn The Pages.”
Then there is “Sweet Design,” which although slightly cool in its fist-pumping drive sounds like a 2016 reply to the hit singles from C + C Music Factory’s 1990 album, “Gonna Make You Sweat.”
This isn’t a bad album. There aren’t any true duds here. Sia still proves herself to be one of the smartest and most gifted writers working in pop today, but this collection when contrasted with her last proves that she still crafts her best material for herself. Maybe that’s because she’s at her most open when writing for herself. Still, on other people’s records, whenever you see Sia Furler’s name in the credits of a song, it usually results in an album highlight.
Everything is relative. Had “1000 Forms Of Fear” not happened, this would probably come off as a much better record. My advice to perspective fans who are just discovering Sia is to listen to “1000 Forms Of Fear,” 2008’s “Some People Have Real Problems,” 2004’s “Colour The Small One” or her early work with Zero 7 before listening to this record. But again, this record is still a decent offering.
“Alive” Maybe Adele opted out of putting this song on “25” because it would’ve brought back too many associations with “Rolling In The Deep.” It has a similar stomp. Adele’s choice not to use this track is Sia’s win. Perhaps, after all it is better suited for her. Still, it is quite cool to see both women’s names side-by-side in the album’s liner notes.
“Brid Set Free” Consider this a more upbeat, louder cousin to Sia’s previous hit, “Breathe Me.” It has that sense of vitality and urgency.
“House On Fire” This is a really strong ballad with a stomping beat and warm, bouncy synths. It begs to be a hit single.
|Bloc Party’s “Hymns” (Deluxe Edition) ***|
Bloc Party’s fifth album, “Hymns” is very different from their previous work. The reason for this is pretty obvious. After the recording of their last album, “Four,” Bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong each left the band leaving singer and guitarist Kele Okereke and lead-guitarist Russell Lissack to re-form the band. Moakes was replaced by Justin Harris from the band Menomena and Tong was replaced by drummer Louise Bartle. (Bartle, however isn’t the band’s drummer on this record, as she hadn’t yet joined the band at the time of its recording.)
From the very beginning, “Hymns” seems like the work of an altered band. The angular punk-infused rock of 2005’s classic “Silent Alarm” and heavy riffing found on “Kettling,” the standout single from “Four” are nowhere to be found. This is a much quieter and more electronic record than its predecessors, more akin to Okereke’s solo work. So, immediately some fans may take issue with this being called a Bloc Party record, since in many cases it surfs an ethereal R&B/pop line closer to the work of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean than any indie rock band.
The falsetto-laden ballad “Fortress” has great pop potential, but again will disappoint fans looking for something harder-edged. At the same time, “The Good News” sounds like the scuzzy electro-coated blues found on latter-day Depeche Mode records. This track and “Only He Can Heal Me” are both tinged with a gospel-like lyrical sensibility, in effect fusing religion with notions of sensuality. The album is called “Hymns” after all, for good reason.
Throughout the 15-track deluxe edition of this album, you keep hoping to hear the guitars pick up. You want to hear Kele’s signature vocal yelp that served as such an asset on early tracks like “Helicopter” and “Banquet,” but throughout he remains in ballad-mode. If you liked songs like “Blue Light,” “This Modern Love” and “Signs,” this won’t be an issue, but one of the band’s greatest strengths used to be their ability to seesaw between the softer and harder material with ease. While this missing lack of contrast makes this inherently the band’s most disappointing offering to date, it still can’t be denied that there is strength in these songs. The ethereal stomp of “Eden” provides some ominous drive while “My True Name” has a catchy guitar-line with a vague hint of South African influence.(That influence is also evident in the intricate guitar-work on bonus-track “Paraiso.”)
“Hymns” will no doubt leave some fans scratching their heads. But give it a few listens. This is a warm record with considerable charm. It may be the sound of Bloc Party in the midst of a seismic transition, but it still has enough strong moments to warrant a recommendation. Here’s hoping that if there is a sixth offering, the louder guitars will return to some degree. Perhaps by the time their next album comes along the band members will be more secure with their new lineup.
If this album leaves you disappointed, perhaps you should revisit “Silent Alarm” or “Four.” Perhaps it is time to play “Kettling” on repeat again and remember when this band possessed a strong rock core. That being said, as quiet as “Hymns” is, it still shows growth even if the results are muted when compared to the band’s past work.
“My True Name” This is among the band’s best softer ballads. Again, it is the guitar line that makes it really stick out from the pack and Okereke’s vocal melody over the ethereal synth-line pops in just the right way.
“The Good News” Blues, religion and a broken heart make a thrilling concoction here. I found myself wishing the guitars would be turned up louder, but this still does the trick.
“Into The Earth” This is a (still somewhat subdued) guitar strut with some appealing edges and some strong crossover potential.
|Massive Attack’s “Ritual Spirit” EP ****|
Massive Attack surprised everyone last Thursday with “Ritual Spirit,” a four-song EP featuring guest shots from Scottish hip-hop act Young Fathers, rapper Roots Manuva and R&B singer, Azekel. Most importantly, the EP marks a return of former frequent-collaborator Tricky, who helped put the massively successful trip-hop outfit on the map in the early days with members Robert “3D” Del Naja and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall.
On the track, “Take It There,” Tricky and 3D rap side-by-side with the same sort of ominous fervor they did on the now classic “Karmacoma.” Considering this EP was dropped roughly a week after Tricky’s own “Skilled Mechanics” record, this seems to be a good time for trip-hop purists who want more work from the genre’s classic innovators.
The group has hinted that there is more work in the pipeline, including a proper follow-up to 2010’s impressive “Heligoland.” Judging from the daunting, haunted edge felt on this EP, Massive Attack have definitely not lost their core sound and their reliance on collaborations has continued to keep things interesting.
This is a brief offering, at roughly 16 minutes, but it serves as a powerful slap awake. There’s still a feeling of eclecticism from track-to-track, which keeps the presentation wonderfully unpredictable. “Ritual Spirit” is in many ways a classic-minded new beginning for one of trip-hop’s biggest acts.
“Take It There” (Featuring Tricky & 3D) This is a much needed return to one of Massive Attack’s most classic sounds. Tricky and 3D rap over an ominous, echoing piano line as if time has not passed. Many people have been waiting for Tricky to make another guest return on a Massive Attack release. This is nothing short of an incredible gift.
“Ritual Spirit” (Featuring Azekel) This is another haunted track, as guest Azekel’s sweet falsetto croons over hand-claps, a whirring bass-line and a minor-chord-driven guitar-line. This kind of dark mood music has often been one of the act’s strongest fortes.
|Nevermen’s “Nevermen” ***1/2|
Nevermen is the new project from Faith No More’s Mike Patton, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Anticon rapper Doseone. If you are familiar with the music of any one of these three men, you can probably guess that this will be a dizzying but enthralling sonic mess. There’s indeed something madcap about this record, which means it rocks with a left-field hip-hop swagger. Both Patton and Adebimpe are known for oddball vocal-turns and chaotic sonic landscapes, so be warned that this is not an album for casual listening. But at the same time, “Wrong Animal Right Trap” is as interesting as it is sonically confusing.
Listening to this record, these three seem destined to work together even if they frequently take maddening left-turns throughout the set. That being said, the volatility is what makes this set compelling. At times this feels like a free-jazz aesthetic being adapted for a hip-hop and rock realm. For anyone familiar with Patton’s Mr. Bungle work, this gleefully unhinged feeling won’t come as a surprise. (It actually will come off as subdued in comparison.)
This record is just under 39 minutes and its sense of unrelenting sonic chaos can be both awe-striking and exhausting. This is a dense set and while every moment may seem off the cuff, it is all very carefully orchestrated. The vocal-harmony that sets off “Hate On” sounds like a haunted out-take from the Beach Boys as it gives way to a ghostly Eastern-tinged build. I will admit that most listeners who have been spoon-fed mainstream pop over the last decade probably won’t know what to do with this record, but for those in the know it will be a rewardingly strange listen, more akin to a piece of sonic art than a traditional record.
This record isn’t particularly accessible, but accessibility isn’t its goal, even if “Mr. Mistake” has an infectious new-wave glow. Even during its fleeting moments of clarity it seems to thrive on its own sense of chaos, but this is still a really well put-together selection of songs. It will only result in frequent repeated listens for a small portion of its audience, but a sizable portion of the rest of us will still no doubt be left in awe. What a bafflingly strange record. Doseone, Patton and Adebimpe know how to test boundaries. I really hope we get more from these three.
“Mr. Mistake” Adebimpe takes an appealing lead turn on this track which is the closest thing this set has to a traditional single.
“Fame II The Wreckoning” This is the album’s quiet closer, pondering fame and the end of the world. This track has a magnetically ethereal quality, sounding like the music you might hear upon your entrance to heaven. The first two minutes or so would be a fitting meditation soundtrack. It proves these three can even deliver something interesting when exploring more lush territory.
“Wrong Animal Right Trap” This song will have you spinning in circles but it will also keep your attention, showing the trio at their most hyper.
|Conrad Keely’s “Original Machines” ****1/2|
On his solo debut, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead co-leader, Conrad Keely seems to go for broke making a compelling and eclectic record. As if taking the lead from Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, Keely densely packs the album with many compact songs, creating a constantly shifting and compelling environment. “Original Machines” has twenty-four tracks in under an hour, which means everything continuously moves at a stunning rapid pace.
Fans of Keely’s Trail Of Dead work will find much to enjoy here, even if this album is less-prog-driven and much more reductionist than his work within the band. It is obviously the output of the same creative spring working without any sonic constraints. From the hard-rocking, almost Smashing Pumpkins’-esque “Hills Of K-Town” to the low, bass-heavy stomp of “Forbidden Stones,” this set offers quite a variety of sounds in a very short amount of time.
There’s great beauty in a song like “In Words Of A Not So Famous Man,” while there is utter chaos in the downright bizarre (and brief) “Marcel Was Here,” a track that sounds like a game-show-theme reflected through a nightmarish funhouse mirror.
Essentially, what Conrad Keely has delivered with “Original Machines” is a stunning mix-tape packed with everything he can muster. This is an incredibly ambitious record that keeps itself fresh and demands repeat listens. On each listen, I have found myself discovering something new. This is an impressively diverse set. At times these songs feel like mere sketches, but you can’t deny this is a work of inspired musical genius.
“Original Machines” is a number of ways an antidote to predictable rock records and Keely proves he is a player and a writer with an actively engaged imagination. This album (like his strong work with Trail Of Dead) won’t get the attention it deserves partly due to its song-structure and partly due to the fact that for the most part the mainstream now dodges rock, but this is a record worth seeking out and deserves to be heard.
In addition, if you get this album, get it in hard-copy. Like the Trail Of Dead work, it comes packaged with a jaw-droppingly beautiful booklet designed by Keely himself.
“Hills Of K-Town” This song is just 2:21, but it feels like a lost alt-rock gem from the nineties, with an anthemic stomp, a moody middle and a return. In some ways it feels like a condensed answer to Trail Of Dead’s best work.
“In Words Of A Not So Famous Man” Warm and reflective, this ballad is as thoughtful as it is full of seething drive. It is punctuated by an effective, bellowing chorus and a guitar freak-out. Could it use another minute? Certainly, but it also does what it needs to do within an economical time-frame.
“Rays Of The Absolute” Keely plants himself in a reverb-heavy synth-pop soundscape and fully succeeds. This track also has some nicely-placed piano-work as well as some bells thrown into the mix.
|Wet’s “Don’t You” ***|
Brooklyn electro-pop trio Wet’s debut “Don’t You” covers some well-worn chilled territory, combining quiet electronics with vocalist Kelly Zutrau’s hushed vocals. This is a set which is very singular in its mood. This is “lite” pop with a lush, semi-ambient anchor. It’s gentle and sweet sounding, akin to the work of groups like Chairlift, Braids and countless others. There’s definitely a quiet hipness underlying each element of this record as it flirts with some subtle R&B-flavored edges.
“Don’t You” is a very promising record with a smooth sense of sensual elegance, but listening to these eleven tracks, I found myself craving more variety. While highlights like, “Deadwater,” “These Days” and “Body,” thrive while often working with a sonically minimalist approach, it’d be nice if the pace were picked up a little.
Even more distracting is the electronic bubbling effect that can be subtly heard on Zutrau’s voice at various points throughout the set. (What is that?) Is it ever-so-slight Autotune? It can be heard clearly on “You’re The Best” when listening on headphones. Her voice seems pretty clear to begin with, so this bit of decoration is probably not needed.
That being said, “Don’t You” shows crossover and licensing potential even if its songs aren’t quite as bombastic as the usual material found on Top-40 radio. As “Island” hits its crescendo, for instance, it is extremely enveloping, like a warm embrace.
Wet establish themselves here among the most intriguing emerging chill/pop acts. “Don’t You” will definitely cast a spell on you and yet it gives the band room to grow.
“Island” This is the trio working at their best. Sometimes they come off as a more hushed answer to Chvrches and that energy is definitely felt here. But it is this track’s warm chorus that sends it firmly skyward.
“These Days” Making the most of a filtered piano, this closing track has one of Zutrau’s strongest vocal turns on the record, punctuated by some palpable sadness. If this track gets the attention it deserves, it could be a star-making turn for her and yet this song thrives on its simplicity. Here Wet wisely know that “less is more.”
“Deadwater” This feels like a bright single from the eighties. Again “lite” radio comes to mind, but not in a negative way.
Next Week: New music from Elton John, The London Suede and more.
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