Reviews: Record Release Rundown -- the Latest from Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam and More

PHOTO: British rock legend Paul McCartney performs at halftime of Super Bowl
Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

In the mid-October rush, a ton of new releases appeared on the shelves this week. Paul McCartney dropped his "New" album showcasing his most experimental side. Elsewhere, Pearl Jam returned with its latest, "Lightning Bolt." Toad the Wet Sprocket came back after a 15 year break, with its latest, "New Constellation." New York duo Cults gave us some "Static." Alt-country/folk band The Avett Brothers followed up last year's album "The Carpenter," with a new collection, "Magpie and the Dandelion." Glitch-tronica and remix mainstay Four Tet introduced us to "Beautiful Rewind." Finally, under-rated Canadian rapper Shad showed us some "Flying Colours." It was a busy week and there is a lot to discuss!

PHOTO: Paul McCartney's "New"
Hear Music
Paul McCartney's "New"

Roughly 45 years ago, Paul McCartney sang "When I'm Sixty-Four," in which he imagined himself to be a doddering, old grandpa, sitting back and enjoying family life surrounded by his wife and grandchildren. If only someone in 1967 could've handed him a copy of his album, "New" and told him, "This is the music you'll be making at 71, and not only will you not be old, but you'll still possess the same qualities you do now." If that could've happened, McCartney's mind would've been blown. Combined with his track "Cut Me Some Slack" that he cut with the surviving members of Nirvana, it is evidence that not only is McCartney not slowing down, but he really shouldn't. He's reaching a new apex.

Not surprisingly, "New" is an extremely Beatles-y record. It is daring and inventive and experimental like his old band's late-period records. This might rile some fans who prefer everything to remain static, but this is a record that makes the most out of modern technology.

McCartney employs a quartet of producers -- Mark Ronson, Paul Epworth, Giles Martin and Ethan Johns. Each producer switches off from track to track. Ronson is known most for his work with Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, as well as for his classic covers record, "Version." Epworth is probably most famous for his work with Adele, but has also made quality records with Bloc Party, Florence + The Machine and Kate Nash. Martin is the son of the Beatles' producer, George Martin, and he famously helped piece together the soundtrack for the Beatles' Cirque de Soleil show, "Love." Johns is the son of veteran producer Glyn Johns, who has worked with McCartney before, notably engineering "Let It Be."

Each one of these producers is an innovator in his own way and McCartney is up for the game. In fact, it is evident that he is the one calling the shots.

From the liner notes, it is evident that McCartney found an ideal collaborator in Epworth, who not only produced, but played on and co-wrote the songs he produced. He came into the process with ideas, ready to bounce them off of an eager McCartney. In fact, the liner notes give an interesting insight into what it was like for McCartney to work with each of these men.

Using modern tools, he gives us a sense of what the Beatles records might have sounded like had the group had stayed together through the electronic era. One listen to the trippy, Martin-produced "Appreciate" and it is clear exactly why McCartney has recently said that he wants to collaborate with Thom Yorke of Radiohead. This cut also probably wouldn't sound out of place had it been played at Tony Wilson's famed Manchester club, "The Hacienda."

For those worried that the above description makes "New" seem like it is a little too out there, don't worry. Rest assured, other Beatles-y sounds are explored as well. The title-track, for instance sounds, musically speaking, like a modern answer to "Getting Better," whereas the Ronson-produced "Alligator" plants a very Beatle-esque guitar-line within a sea of synths and harpsichords. As progressive and "New" as this album is, it also firmly plays off McCartney's past, finding a perfect balance. "Queenie Eye" can probably trace its ancestry back to songs like "Lady Madonna" and "Hey, Bulldog," even if it sounds like it was dropped from outer space.

There is wisdom in "Everybody Out There" when McCartney sings, "There but for the grace of God go I. / Do what good you can before your say goodbye." If he weren't so bouncy and alive, one could read these lines as some sort of closure on a career, but one gets the feeling that McCartney isn't going anywhere. And I repeat, he shouldn't. But even 40 years ago, his songs had wisdom beyond his years.

The Johns-produced "Hosanna" is a moody dirge punctuated by fascinating backwards drones. Johns is most famous for his work with often-acoustic singer-songwriters like Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne. This track merges that sensibility with McCartney's desire to sonically experiment.

There's a haunted vibe throughout the majority of the record. Even on the somewhat sentimental "Looking at Her," there is a space-age sense of menace that wouldn't sound out of place on a late-period David Bowie record.

This sense of electric-blue-hued gloom continues on the stirringly dark standard-album closer, "Road." This song is the soundtrack for some sort of space apocalypse.

The deluxe edition has two bonus tracks.

Firstly, the Johns-produced "Turned Out" sounds oddly like an answer to George Harrison's "Cloud Nine" album. It shares that record's vibe. Considering how much time the four Beatles spent together, it isn't a shock that their music as solo artists possesses a shared sensibility. McCartney and Harrison definitely had a shared kinship. Nevertheless, it still feels a bit like Harrison's ghost must've been in the studio on the day this track was recorded.

Then the record closes with the technology-free washboard blues of "Get Me Out of Here," which strips McCartney down to a playful essence. It's actually a shame that these two tracks are bonus tack-ons and not on the standard edition when you consider how well they close off the album along with the piano-driven hidden track, "Scared," which actually ends both editions of the album.

A few weeks ago, in an interview for "Rolling Stone," Yoko Ono said that if John Lennon were still alive, he would've embraced electronic music. I would have loved to have heard his and Harrison's reaction to "New." I would imagine it would please both of them.

Even if you forget that this is the work of a former Beatle with legendary status, "New" stands as a triumphant display of an artist at the top of his game. This is classic McCartney with an up-to-date rule-book. In many ways, it speaks to McCartney's openness. His reawakened sense of experimentation is amazingly refreshing to hear.

Without sounding hyperbolic, it is abundantly clear that "New" is among the strongest and most satisfying records McCartney has put out during his tenure as a solo artist. This is state-of-the-art Paul McCartney.

PHOTO: Pearl Jam's "Lightning Bolt"
Pearl Jam's "Lightning Bolt"

"Lightning Bolt" is Pearl Jam's 10th studio record. Twenty-two years after the band's thunderous debut, "Ten," Eddie Vedder and company have proven to be one of the most reliable bands to emerge from the '90s, even if they have had the occasional missteps.

The band's last classic album was their 2006 self-titled record, which, in many ways, felt like a true follow-up to their initial trilogy of "Ten," "Vs." and "Vitology." That album was followed in 2009 by the over-cooked "Backspacer." While that record has its share of rousing tracks like "The Fixer" and "Amongst the Waves," overall it was too shiny for its own good.

For the most part, this record brings back the energy that was sucked out by over-production the last time around. The opening three tracks, "Getaway," the Motorhead-esque "Mind Your Manners" and "My Father's Son" announce a revitalized band, even if "Mind Your Manners" at times seems like a rewrite of their hit "Spin the Black Circle." I'd call it a return to form, but the issues with "Backspacer" were more about the sound and presentation than the songs themselves.

After the rollicking beginning comes "Sirens," a track I wasn't so sure about on my first listen. Initially, I heard it as a rather limp ballad. Considering the fact that the song is the album's second single after the considerably more furious "Mind Your Manners," its down-tempo approach was a shock. I also felt like the tune was rather aimless, going in five different places but never fully delivering. Rest assured, this song is more of a grower, which blooms with each successive listen. My initially harsh opinion of the song is slowly softening.

A better second single would've been the title track, with its spiky, building verse section and its pogo-ready chorus riff. "Sirens" may have some fans worrying that the band is mellowing, but this song shows them balancing a pop sensibility with Vedder's signature growl. The song is given a stately quality when a piano comes in to mirror the guitar line.

Similarly single-minded is the strutting "Infallible," which brings to mind a classic Pearl Jam vibe, coming off like a more pop-driven, major-key answer to the "Vitalogy" cut, "Tremor Christ." If it isn't released as a single, someone is making a mistake.

As the album continues on, It quickly becomes evident that "Lightning Bolt" as a record is the nearly unceasing collection of singles that "Backspacer" tried so desperately to be, moving from the interestingly stirring "Pendulum" to the constantly shifting and bending "Swallowed Whole."

"Let the Records Play" is one of the album's only weaker spots, besides "Sirens," and that's only because it gets drowned by roadhouse blues cliches.

Next is "Sleeping by Myself," a song that originally was the key standout on Vedder's mostly awkward ukulele record. This full-band version is much sunnier than the solo rendition, but it does the track justice.

"Yellow Moon" sounds like Pearl Jam's answer to Nick Drake's classic "Pink Moon." Sure, this song has some wonderfully psychedelic edges, but one can imagine Drake working out his own quietly sullen, solo rendition had he lived to hear this. The song is a surprising standout.

The acoustic guitar and violin assisted "Future Days" closes the set effectively on a warm, bright, campfire-ready note. Yes, the second half of the record doesn't pack the same level of ferocity of the first half, but there's enough to love here to say that this record joins the first three, "Yield" and the self-titled record as being among their best records. Not every track will please every fan, but there is enough meaty middle-ground to call this album a success.

Twenty-two years after "Ten," with "Lightning Bolt," the members of Pearl Jam show themselves as a multi-faceted musical force.

PHOTO: Toad The Wet Sprocket's "New Constellation"
Abes Records
Toad the Wet Sprocket's "New Constellation"

Earlier this year, the members of the reunited Toad the Wet Sprocket got a huge surprise. Prepping the release of their first studio album since 1997's "Coil," the band, like so many other seasoned veterans, went to Kickstarter to fund the costs, since they were no longer on a major label. Setting a goal of $50,000, the band members expected the fund-raising process to take two-months. In 20 hours, they had the money. Not only is such a story reaffirming for a band that hasn't had any new singles on the radio in more than 15 years, but it also proves how beloved and lasting their legacy has remained. It also means that "New Constellation" should be seen as a new beginning of a possible stream of new releases and not just a one-off reunion record. The band was missed.

Looking back, Toad the Wet Sprocket has always been an underrated band. From the above story, it is apparent that the band members even underrated themselves. The casual listener might be tempted to lump them with bland '90s rock bands like Hootie and the Blowfish, but that would be a mistake. Closer listening to their classic albums like "Fear" and "Dulcinea" may put them closer to a middle ground between Crowded House and R.E.M. Hits like "All I Want," "Walk on the Ocean," "Something's Always Wrong," "Fall Down," "Good Intentions" and "Come Down" all were alt-rock staples during a significant chunk of the '90s. Not to mention that, in the years since, leader Glen Phillips has built a quietly successful solo career as a revered singer-songwriter.

So has much changed with the band's sound in 15 years? The short answer is no. "New Constellation" is a much brighter offering than the band's last album, "Coil," and while that album's surprisingly dark edges provided many of its overall thrills, this sunnier set still sounds very much like it is cut from the same cloth.

Essentially, what the members of Toad have crafted here is a collection of possible cross-over pop hits that could do well on a variety of radio formats. From the album's reveling opener to the more contemplative track, "The Moment," it is clear that the band has fully returned. The latter track is closer to the dense, well-crafted material most Toad fans expect. At its best, the band's work is layered and not as straight-ahead as it may at first seem.

The only change that might be noticeable to old fans is the syrupy nature of some of the lyrics. The flood/cleansing imagery on the otherwise appealing "I'll Bet On You" can get a little saccharine, especially with the smiley chorus, "We've all been hurt/ It's nothing new /Just bet on me, cuz I'll bet on you." The thing is, though, the band can get away with such "After School Special"-meets-Hallmark sentiments because the tune is really winning.

In contrast, the lyrics to "Golden Age" are simultaneously cryptic and compelling. Phillips sings, "All we are is vanity. / Comics playing tragedy. / I traded in my sanity. / A Dream that soon abandoned me," in a song that seems to be about someone driven crazy by some sort of religious fervor. Backed by music that should appeal to fans of the classic album cut, "Windmills," this should become an intriguing fan favorite.

This collection plays like a concept album about space and wonder, weather and everything in the natural and supernatural world. These concepts are explored throughout the title track, "Is There Anyone Out There," "Life Is Beautiful" and "The Eye." The songs are asking questions while exploring the universe and everything it has to offer. It is almost as if these songs were written as reaffirmation after some sort of existential crisis.

"New Constellation" continues to build this Santa Barbara, Calif., band's legacy. It doesn't sound like 15 years passed between records, and here's hoping there will be more albums to come. From the fan response, it is evident Toad the Wet Sprocket never should have stopped making records together in the first place. Welcome back.

PHOTO: Cults' "Static"
Cults' "Static"

As Cults' second album hits shelves, its first record's standout single, "Go Outside," is being used in a ubiquitous Nokia Lumina Windows phone ad. What an inspired combination of timing and music placement. The good news is that if you like that song and are just hearing it for the first time thanks to that commercial, you'll enjoy the new album, "Static" as well.

At 34 minutes, it's a surprisingly brief collection, but the duo of Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin continues essentially where their self-titled album left off, even if this album is a little fuzzier and unsettled. It is called "Static," after all. One doesn't hear that title without expecting some sort of disruption.

"I Can Hardly Make You Mine" merges a Motown girl-group sound with occasional layers of guitar, and "Always Forever" has a similarly older vibe. These tracks are winking at the past while simultaneously sounding very current. Liberal coats of reverb coat these tunes with a shiny patina.

The set, on the whole, has a bit of damaged, heartbroken tinge. The love songs possess a mournful sense of longing even when the beats suggest otherwise, but there is plenty to enjoy here.

"Shine a Light" is a definite pop high point, as is the shuffling duet "Were Before," which indicates a relationship gone wrong.

"High Road" has a bass line that speaks to the listener in a classic soul sort of way. It's the kind of walking bass that you don't often hear on a modern indie-rock record.

"Static" shows that the success and buzz around the duo's debut was no fluke. In fact, the second time around Cults effectively improve on its formula and carves a path forward.

PHOTO: The Avett Brothers' "Magpie And The Dandelion"
The Avett Brothers' "Magpie and the Dandelion"

the Avett Brothers have spent the last few years releasing a string of enjoyable albums, each with at least two or three real keepers. The North Carolina-bred, alt-country group led by Seth and Scott Avett has always been good for a few surprises. Even today, the band's career-defining hit to me stands as 2007's "Die Die Die."

A year after The Avett Brothers' last release, "The Carpenter," comes "Magpie and the Dandelion," which was said to be made at the same time. Like any one of the group's releases, any fan could find something to enjoy.

At its worst, the record plays off of the same banjo-strumming, old-folky sound being milked to death by Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers . But the Avett Brothers have been making records for more than a decade now and have more credibility and sense of nuance.

"Another Is Waiting" is a banjo-pluckfest which, in lesser hands, could come off as a gimmick showcase, but the song (at its mere two minutes) showcases the band's best qualities. In other words, the banjo could very easily be an electric guitar and it would still be a winning slice of power pop. The song also stands as a good barometer of the band's sound. Like the before-mentioned "Die Die Die," this is a defining song. If you like it on the first listen, odds are you are an Avett Brothers fan.

The softer moments define the majority of "Magpie and the Dandelion." The Avetts' strongest asset is their knack for melody. Strip away all twang and this is, for the most part, a collection of tender love songs, including "Bring Your Love to Me," "Good to You" and the early pace-setter, "Morning Song." If the songs weren't so well-written, this collection's softer direction might bring it down, but instead it is a defining plus.

The campfire-lament of "Apart From Me" is the kind of old-school country ballad that will appeal to fans old and new, alike. In fact, the Avetts have their feet firmly both in traditional country and folkier areas. It is interesting, then, that they are also big among indie-rock fans.

Considering that this is essentially the second part of "The Carpenter" and, therefore, was compiled after promoting that record, it shouldn't be as much of a surprise that the chosen take of "Souls Like the Wheels" is a live one. But it is a surprise when you consider how rare it is that you hear a live track planted in the middle of a studio record. And it seems oddly disconcerting when you are trying to hear a gently plucked guitar solo while dodging stray shouts of "Wooo!" from the overzealous audience. A good reason why they probably picked a live cut of this track is that the song already previously appeared on a 2008 EP.

On "Vanity," the Avetts let the gentleness give way and they rock out in an unexpectedly grungy dirge. It's a liberating, momentary, minor-key turn on the record and gives the band a new sense of color.

In all, even though it should seem like a spare B-sides collection, "Magpie and the Dandelion" is a warm, appealing set. It is actually a more consistent set than "The Carpenter." It's one of the most consistent albums of the band's career.

PHOTO: Four Tet's "Beautiful Rewind"
Text Records
Four Tet's "Beautiful Rewind"

Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. Four Tet, has been making cutting-edge electronic records for the last 17 years or so, both under the Four Tet moniker and as a member of the experimental electronic collective, Fridge. As Four Tet, Hebden has rightfully built a reputation as an ace remixer, expertly rearranging tracks by everyone from Radiohead to Beth Orton to Madvillain. Just this week, it was announced that he produced Neneh Cherry's forthcoming album, which will hit stores in 2014.

Listening to a Four Tet record is usually the electronic equivalent of listening to a jazz or a classical record. You know a lot of focus went into the process and Hebden has a knack for choosing a lot of left-field elements and unusual instrumental tones. There is a meditative quality, often, to his work. He's not about the party flash that EDM stars like Skrillex or Bassnectar specialize in. And he's not as likely to bring the party to a crescendo like older veterans such as the Chemical Brothers or Fatboy Slim, even though, at only 33, he is still a product of that initial late-'90s electronic boom. His sound is more suited to a chilled environment.

"Beautiful Rewind" is his second release of the year, if you count the impressive archival radio-performance release, "0181." On the heels of last year's stray singles compilation, "Pink," this album picks up, in some ways, where that one left off. Ever since the 2008 "Ringer" EP, Hebden's approach has gotten more clinical and more rigidly techno-based. Previous albums like "Pause," "Rounds" and "Everything Ecstatic" were looser, jazzier and touch more organic. The quality hasn't changed, just the sonic approach. "Beautiful Rewind" lets loose again.

The most notable change is Hebden's use of audible vocal samples. "Gong," "Kool FM," "Aeral" and "Buchla" all have voices speaking words in their midst. Sometimes, these words are obstructed by filters or buried deeply within the mix, but they are human voices, nonetheless. On "Kool FM," the voice even shouts a "HEY HEY HEY!" Such punctuation on a Four Tet cut is a rarity.

Hebden also uses bits and vocal snippets of female singers to enhance the woozy chilled vibe of hypnotic standouts like "Parallel Jalebi" and "Our Navigation."

Throughout the set, fascinating sounds are all around, from the crystalline-reflective-pool twinkle of "Unicorn" to the electro-woodwinds-gone-clubbing sound of "Your Body Feels. " It is evident that Hebden's avant-garde approach has few limits, while he brings with him a built-in sense of accessibility. He has the power to turn the most outlandish sounds into a state-of-the-art single.

Throughout the set, more-so than on Hebden's previous collections, there are nods to old-school hip-hop, jungle and early '80s dance-club records. There are some strikingly minimalist moments where you'll find yourself asking, "Wait. ... What year was this made?"

Hebden is a remarkable artist. He is a master of sonic collage. "Beautiful Rewind" adds to his consistent flow of genre-defining releases. It provides a stunning and rewarding listen that demands repeating.

PHOTO: Shad's "Flying Colours"
Black Box Recordings Inc.
Shad's "Flying Colours"

Shad is one of Canada's biggest secrets. Who knows why, but while this skilled lyricist is respected up north, he is barely known down here in the states, but that deserves to change. If you have never heard his work, check out his mind-blowing but brief mixtape from last year, "Melancholy and the Infinite Shadness," on which he raps in circles over the Breeders' "Cannonball," Prince's "7" and Lenny Kravitz's "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over." Then go back and check out his lyrical masterpiece, "I Get Down," from his 2006 album, "When This Is Over."

This Kenyan-born rapper puts his emphasis on skill over image. He's not about the flash. He's strictly about the vocab. With a vocal dexterity that would put most pop rappers to shame, he's got a level of skill rarely heard these days. And will he get the credit? Probably not. He's not a thug. He's not about commercialism. He doesn't curse, but he's also not a goody-goody. He just has a sizable number of rapid-fire words in his arsenal. Not to use them would be a waste.

It isn't like he doesn't have any grit, either. He's able to communicate feelings more artfully than a lot of his peers. On a standout, "Dreams," he raps, "We think 'til we're emotional / We drink until we're social again. / This whole century is sensory overload. / Stay the night. / Roll the globe. / We go from low to overdose back to comatose. / The Brightest lights, / The coldest roads, / My generation's of roses grown from concrete rubble into a broken home. / In a busy city, / Where you've never felt so alone." Those lines say so much and have infinitely more authentic soul than most rappers have on their whole albums. Kanye and Drake may have reps for being rap's expressive emo poster-kids, but they can't write verses like this.

On "Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)" he discusses immigration from his perspective as an African-born, Canadian kid with Rwandan roots. Over a slightly African-infused backdrop, he drops rhymes about the border wars and what it was like to see television news reports of the Rwandan genocide as a kid. This is some heavy material. But the beat bounces and the DJ scratches, making sure it is as fun an experience as it is educational.

"Remember to Remember" is a possible cross-over jam, featuring Canadian singer Lights, about not losing one's roots. Shad puts his mantra on full display here when he says, "Now I ain't ever really been one for image. / Trying to fool the public with some stunts and gimmicks."

On the two-part "Progress Progress," Shad morphs Don McLean's "American Pie" into a downtrodden, skillful diatribe about everything from the damage caused by alcohol and drugs, violence on the street, and the economic collapse at the hands of the big financial institutions. It isn't all serious, though. Shad at least has the sense of humor to begin a verse on a song by quoting "American Pie" with the words, "One time at band-camp ..."

"Flying Colours" is a thrilling display of artistry. It shows rap as poetry. Without all the gimmicks and without all the glitz, it takes hip-hop to its pure essence. If you don't know Shad, this should probably be the album to put him on your radar.

Next week we will see if Katy Perry's "PRISM" actually does "Roar" and we'll examine Best Coast's new EP, among other new releases.

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