Reviews: Latest from Katy Perry, Best Coast and Van Morrison

PHOTO: Katy Perry attends the AMP 97.1 celebration of her new album Prism in Hollywood, Calif., Oct. 23, 2013.
Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

This week there is a bit of a lull in the high-profile releases with a number of big titles coming closer to the holiday rush, but this week we'll review the latest from Katy Perry, a new EP from Best Coast, a new super-deluxe edition reissue of Van Morrison's classic "Moondance," AFI's first album in 4 years, veteran metal act Motorhead's latest and a chilled new album from electronic artist CFCF.

Whether you are in a pop mood, want to give a classic a new spin, are ready to rock out or just want to relax, there are still a lot of new choices this week.

PHOTO: Katy Perry's Prism album cover
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Katy Perry's "Prism" (Deluxe Edition)

"Prism" is Katy Perry's fourth studio record if you count her initial debut as a Christian artist under the name Katy Hudson. It continues essentially where "Teenage Dream" left off, attempting to make her one of the biggest pop stars in the world. It is clear from the get-go that the main goal of each song is create a pop anthem. "Roar" is built to be a hit. It's got the sing-song-y tune and the plinky piano riff building into a giant chorus. The problem is, it sounds just like Sara Bareilles' "Brave" which came out a month before "Roar" suddenly and inexplicably took over the world. And the thing is, "Brave" is an infinitely better and more anthemic song. It shows more vocal range and is more rousing. The fact that more of a fuss hasn't been made in the mainstream press that these two songs are so intertwined is shocking. The piano sounds the same with the same rhythm and while Perry zooms to number one, Bareilles' song stands as a pop also-ran in comparison. It's a safe assumption probably the Bareilles had the song completed first and while "Roar" may have sold more downloads and gotten more air-play, "Brave" is the superior cut. It is clear that someone has to answer for the similarities between these songs. John Mayer can transparently gush all he wants about how "Roar" is one of the best pop songs he has ever heard, but between the two, quality-wise, "Brave" wins, hands-down. It is obvious the promotional machine was more heavily behind "Roar" for reasons I cannot fully explain.

It is evident as "Prism" continues that Perry's vocal quality has improved from the sitar-pop of "Legendary Lovers" to the too-cutesy disco-pop of "Birthday." The latter is designed for the Top 40 much like most of Perry's work, it is factory-made cheese designed to feed the masses. Wait. Did I say cheese? It's more like Velveeta, since "Birthday" is such a vacuous exercise in sexual innuendo disguised as a pop song. It's the kind of bubbly tune that will no doubt soundtrack junior high dances even if it does have lyrics like, "But when you're with me, / I'll give you a taste. / Make it like your birthday every day." There is such a thing as artful innuendo. This isn't it. But it will be a hit nonetheless.

The house-groove and the soulful sample on "Walking On Air" recall Moby's spiritual sampling on his landmark album "Play." While this is one of Perry's strongest and seemingly less engineered tracks, she doesn't have the soul to pull off the full-fledged disco diva pose she's attempting to strike. That being said, the cut does have an appealing airy quality.

"Unconditionally" is a slow-building power-ballad with a quiet verse and a loud chorus. Again, its paint-by-numbers style of pop should make it quick Top-40 fodder.

Then there Is "Dark Horse" which recalls Perry's "Teenage Dream" hit "E.T." with its spacey, synthy quality. Juicy J seems out of place here as he shouts, "Yeah! Y'all know what it is! Katy Perry! Juicy J! Let's rage!" First of all, this isn't the kind of track anyone will "rage" to. It's a soft-pop electro-love ballad with a rap verse cluelessly placed in its center. (To Juicy J's level of excitement, I say, ease up, man! You are on a Katy Perry song. While it may get you more listeners, it's not boosting your cred!) While the backdrop to Perry's verse section is the same as what Juicy J raps over, he still seems poorly matched here, especially when he raps, "She'll eat your heart out like Jeffrey Dahmer," because every Katy Perry song needs an awkward joke comparing love and cannibalism.

"This Is How We Do" is another empty hit waiting to happen. It is evident Perry and her team have been listening to Miley Cyrus and Danny Brown from the amount of pitch-shifted vocal splices in the mix. That's the thing about Perry. She's not an innovator, she's a trend jumper. The casual pop listener doesn't care about this, but those of us who care about artistic integrity do. As Perry repeats the phrase, "This is no big deal" in an all too manipulative, cloyingly cutesy voice, it's a little too on the nose. Then the ridiculous chorus of "This is how we do / Yeah /Chillin, laid back straight stuntin' /Yeah we do it like that," comes in. When a few seconds later she sings about "Grabbing tacos / Checkin' out hotties," it becomes apparent that Perry is attempting to make the worst kind of soundtrack for tween mallrats.

"International Smile" sounds like an answer to Daft Punk's 2001 hit "Digital Love," and it too has a ridiculous chorus comparing globe-trotting to a beautiful woman. "That girl's a trip. / One way ticket. / Takes you miles high. / Cuz she's got that International Smile." At one point Perry is shouting locations as if to incite cheers from a crowd. On the surface it doesn't sound bad, but once again, the concept of engineered pop manipulation just leaves a nasty taste.

"Ghost" like "Unconditionally" is another building ballad. Again, it'll be a possible hit, but its sugary but bland nature makes it instantly forgettable.

Any one of these songs could be singles. All 13 of the songs on the standard album sound like hits of the moment. Perry and her writers aren't about filler, but they aren't about creating any sense of Perry as an artist with any sort of edge, either. They always go the easy route. While this makes for a pleasurable listen on the most basic level, it's the soda of music. A lot of calories with zero nutrition. "Love Me" and "This Moment" are pure pop radio fluff.

Perry tries to end on a high note with the earthier more contemplative ballads, "Double Rainbow" and "By The Grace Of God," both of which have admittedly more substance than the rest of the record, but again, one can't help but feel everything is calculated.

"By The Grace Of God" in its title alone seems to want to remind her listeners of her Christian music past, even if most of her fans from that period probably left her long ago when she started making party anthems. That being said, this might be one of the best songs here, because it actually shows something semi-real. It's a decent ballad.

The bonus tracks bring in some star-power. "Spiritual" would be a hit if it wasn't a bonus tack-on, and after all it was co-written with her boyfriend John Mayer, while "Choose Your Battles" was co-written with singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke who makes better records on her own and deserves better. Brooke's participation here is a bit of a letdown considering she is leaps and bounds better than Perry and she shouldn't be left in the background. "Prism" won't disappoint Perry's flock of fans. It has enough bubbles to ensure that her pop streak won't end soon, but at the same time, it has very little artistic ground. Perry comes off as more of a confection than an artist. She's selling an image, not her songs. While this plays well and isn't an objectionable collection on the surface, it ultimately lacks soul. Pop listeners deserve better than this factory-spawn exercise in Top 40-hit trajectory. Nevertheless, Katy Perry will win in the end.

PHOTO: Best Coast's Fade Away album cover
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Best Coast's "Fade Away"

Hot on the heels of last year's excellent full-length, "The Only Place," the power-pop/noise rock duo Best Coast severed ties with their label, Mexican Summer and recorded this EP entitled "Fade Away." It is the first release on their new label, Jewel City.

With seven songs in 27 minutes, it is quickly apparent that these tracks are in a different weight class than their previous work. Songs have been expanded to four minutes and Bethany Cosentino's lyrics are drifting further away from the teenage-diary approach she relied on before. Her songs have always worked quite well in spite of this basic approach. She has become a wizard of the simple, sad power-pop refrain.

Production-wise, the band brought Wally Gagel aboard. Gagel is a nineties veteran, who has engineered albums by everyone from Juliana Hatfield, to Tanya Donelly, to Imperial Teen. He's also played on many Eels albums over the years. He gives the band's sound more power than ever before. From the opening of "This Lonely Morning," it is apparent that this record will pack a bristling, fuzzy wallop. Perhaps this shift is a conscious decision given Jon Brion's somewhat reductionist approach the last time around. Of all their records, this one sounds the best and packs the most concentrated sonic power.

Not much has changed with Cosentino and Bobb Bruno's approach to making music. They still focus mainly on straight ahead rockers that deal with the sadness of heartbreak. They still use a sonic palate mixing old-school influences like Patsy Cline and the Everly Brothers with more modern garage-y fare like the Jesus and Mary Chain. But with each successive release, the two have gained more focus. They are getting better as they hone their craft.

A haze covers this collection. It's a moody, dark set for such a sun-soaked California band, but I suppose Cosentino has always had a knack for combining sunny melodies with darker lyrics. Titles like "Who Have I Become?" and "Fear Of My Identity" hint at a woman not happy with her situation. "This Lonely Morning" brings to mind a sullen sense of hopelessness, even if it is draped in a sunny glow. At nearly five minutes, "Who Have I Become?" is the best and most complex song Cosentino has ever written. It shows an amazing amount of growth.

"I Don't Know How" takes a fifties-esque lullaby riff and turns it into a heartbreaking display of sadness. Midway through, the tempo shifts and it braces into gear, sending the track into the stratosphere. The EP's title track sounds like an equal marriage between The Jesus and Mary Chain and the Cure at their most dour and reflective. Cosentino is packing a more commanding presence than ever before. She is powerful and confident sounding, even if her lyrics are about being ultimately broken down. "Fade Away" is a memorable and intriguing set of songs. They are bold as they are catchy. As Best Coast grow and mature, new layers of surprising depth are emerging. For an EP, this record is remarkably satisfying and fulfilling. It feels like an album.

PHOTO: Van Morrison's Moondance album cover
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Van Morrison's "Moondance" (Deluxe Edition)

Released in 1970, Van Morrison's "Moondance" is one of his career-defining masterpieces, containing a wide variety of hits. From the jazzy title-track, to the softly sung "Crazy Love," to the still majestic, "Into The Mystic," there isn't a bad song on the original release. It's a timeless record that deserves to be revered and celebrated. The fine people at Warner Brothers have decided to release the album as a five disc deluxe boxed set. This is remarkable and it is impeccably packaged in a book with extensive liner notes.

What is on the other discs, you may ask? Well, mainly it is an endless stream of alternate takes. Apparently Morrison recorded these songs many times in various different ways. What that means is that this collection is an archival goldmine, but it may not be for the casual listener. The passing fan of Morrison may not want to sit through seven takes of "Caravan" in a row. But those who want to examine every nook and cranny of this record will love listening to each version, monitoring tempo changes and variations in vocal inflection. There's plenty to offer here. Amazingly, there are no alternate takes here of "And It Stoned Me." I would've liked to have heard alternate versions. Maybe he did it in one take.

One thing that still is quite striking is the amount of hushed smoothness Morrison packs into "Crazy Love." His voice was and is still a remarkable instrument but there he has a sweetness not heard elsewhere. The fifth disc of the set is a new Blu-ray mix of the record, delivering the album in 5.1 Surround Sound. If you have the capability and the speaker system to do this version true justice, it definitely gives the set a boost. It all adds up to a great tribute to a classic set. Is it over the top? Certainly. But the record deserves this level of fanfare.

PHOTO: AFI's Burials album cover
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AFI's "Burials"

AFI began as a hardcore band, later becoming a more nuanced punk band. They had a respectable following, but everything changed for them with their 2003 album "Sing For Sorrow" got them some MTV play and made them a big band of the moment. Sporting a gothier sound than their earlier work, the band's major label work may have lost them a few of their fans. This gothy/semi industrial transition continued on their follow-up, "Decemberunderground" which found an alt-rock radio hit in the still mammoth "Miss Murder."

Two studio albums later and the band members are still getting further and further away from their initial hardcore roots. "Burials" finds them as darkly sullen as ever. But then again, Davey Havok with his dramatic delivery and his semi-androgynous image was meant to front this kind of band. The fact that they have a legitimate punk back-story fuels them with a sense of authenticity, even if their sound has noticeably changed over the 21 years since they formed.

The brief opener, "The Sinking Night" recalls both late period Depeche Mode and the Cure at Robert Smith's moodiest. But then again, it rocks much harder than both groups.

"Burials" is a tightly focused set of well-crafted, occasionally synth-infused-rock. Producer Gil Norton is behind many classics by groups like Foo Fighters, Pixies, Counting Crows, Gomez and more, and he reins in AFI's more extreme tendencies. Here, songwriters Havok and Jade Puget have crafted a challenging, riveting collection of tight melodies. It winds up being both catchy and appealing and might ultimately change the minds of people who dismissed them during their brief MTV boom. They aren't an older My Chemical Romance. They are more interesting and not the passing fad some might have wrongly dismissed them as.

Yes, single "I Hope You Suffer" wears its pain a little too far out on its sleeve, but it succeeds nonetheless because it is a strong song. And "No Resurrection" and "A Deep Slow Panic" both have a pop-driven appeal. Say what you will of some of AFI's emoting tendencies, but they are excellent at crafting catchy choruses that will no doubt inspire crowds to chant along.

Norton's production is very clean which might upset some of the band's older fans. But the sheen ultimately serves the record well. If Top 40 radio still paid attention to rock music, "The Conductor" or "Heart Stops Beating" might make for good crossover hits. The latter again recalls the Cure and late-period, restrained Blink 182 at their best.

"The Embrace" shows massive amounts of Trent Reznor's influence during the verse portion as does the rave-up "Wild." They play like cleaned up responses to "The Downward Spiral." While this isn't anywhere close to Reznor's classic level, it still plays well, even though they come off as next generation imitators. "Greater Than 84" surfs the emo line, mostly on the good side, but again Havok's sense of up-front vocal passion may turn off some listeners. But the level of musicianship is once again quite tight. They will always be polarizing on this front.

By the end of the record, the sound begins to wear a little thin due to the similar nature of the songs, but ultimately "Burials" is a very strong effort. It is an obvious attempt to try to remind audiences what they can do best. One thing is certain. Davey Havok can still command the room. AFI are not to be underestimated.

PHOTO: Motorhead's Aftershock album cover
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Motorhead's "Aftershock"

To a certain extent, if you've heard one of Motorhead's albums, you've pretty much heard them all. They have a set formula with the driving, break-neck pounding beats, the furious riffs and Lemmy Kilmister's raspy, monotone bark. Time and time again it seems like they are just re-recording their tune "Ace Of Spades" a thousand different ways, but to view them this way is to deny them the validity they probably deserve. It's been 36 years since their debut and the fact that "Aftershock" is such a powerful display of their signature sound is admirable. In fact, like Black Sabbath's surprisingly powerful reunion album, "13" from earlier this year, it proves it is a good time for longstanding British titans of blues-derived metal.

There's no denying you are listening to Motorhead from the initial moments of "Heartbreaker" to the end of "Paralyzed." There are a few forays into slower blues-based numbers like the arresting "Lost Woman Blues" and "Dust and Glass." It is in fact on the few moments when they do slow the pace that you really do realize that they are at their core a blues band that just happens to like to pump it up to max. Even their faster songs often stick to a "12-bar-blues" model of sorts.

Lemmy has never had a great voice, but that has never been his aim. His growl has grounded them for years. His visceral tone goes hand-in-hand with their blistering metal. If you've ever seen the band live, his high-mic placement and his menacing lean-in are as unique as his monstrous vocal tone. He is a classic king of the genre. He's got a way with words, too. As one would expect, this isn't an upbeat record. His lyrics are mostly doom-based and full of contradictions.

On the standout, "End Of Time," he sings, "Standing at the ocean / Wishing I could swim. / Wishing that the future / Didn't look so grim. / All the greedy people / Know what's good to get. / Never liked a liar / That's all we ever get." For a man who is snarling his way through using roughly the same vocal tone throughout,, he really is showing some political passion. Lemmy's lyrics are filled with anger and societal frustrations about a world gone wrong. If people expected him to mellow after all these years, they've picked the wrong guy. He's not about to change.

If you are a fan of Motorhead, this album shows them at their best. There are highlights all around, from the warning track "Queen Of The Damned" to the blistering "Silence When You Speak To Me." No new ground is broken, but that's not what their fans expect. Motorhead have worked a formula since their inception and this showcases one of their best examples of that formula in practice. The straight-ahead, no-frills production gets them down to their timeless essence.

PHOTO: CFCF's Continent album cover
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CFCF's "Outside"

Mike Silver is an electronic music producer and performer from Montreal. He has recorded under the name CFCF since late in the last decade, issuing a number of EPs and remixes. "Outside" is his second full-length release. This is electronic music, but it isn't dance music. Often times, the tracks on "Outside" verge on a New-Age-y sense of calm. That being said, "Jump Out Of The Train" and "Strange Form Of Life" are cut from a similar cloth as eighties-era Kate Bush. This is a record full of hushed tranquility.

Silver's synth work can be enveloping. This album is available at digital retailers this week but doesn't get a physical release until November 19th. While it plays excellently in mp3 form, something tells me that it will play even better on CD or vinyl, blasting through a good set of speakers at a lossless level of sound-reproduction. The bird and cricket sounds heard on "Find" should prove to be especially captivating.

This isn't really a pop record by current standards, either. It has some pop moments but it is more subtle on the whole. It plays almost like a movie score from 1987 and tracks with vocals are mixed so that the vocals never steal focus from their surroundings. The low-key guitar noodling on "This Breath" and "Finding, Holding" seem to bring to mind a film about a down –and-out cop or a barfly drifting from one neon-hued locale to another. Roughly half of the ten tracks here hover around the six minute mark, which means there is plenty of time for focused meditation on a groove.

The repeated scale in "The Forest At Night" becomes more hypnotic than monotonous. When the beat kicks in, it gives the track momentum similar to a slow-moving train. This is ambient gold. "Transcend" is a constantly moving drone, while "The Crossing" sounds like a Lite-radio R&B ballad from a passed era.

It all adds up to a surprising and rewarding collection. Fans of Air, early M83 and maybe even Washed Out might find something to enjoy here. With this unassuming and warm collection, CFCF should continue to build a reputation and an even stronger indie-electronic fan-base.

Next Week: We'll listen to Arcade Fire's long-anticipated "Reflektor," and see how well it follows up their Grammy-winning album, "The Suburbs," plus we'll check out new holiday collections from Kelly Clarkson and Susan Boyle as well as the debut album by Minor Alps, the new duo featuring Juliana Hatfield and Nada Surf's Matthew Caws.

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