This week soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples returns with a new album produced by M. Ward, Rick Springfield tries his hand at country-flavored rock, art-rockers Animal Collective break a four-year silence, Ra Ra Riot continue to aim for a mainstream cross-over, electro quartet TEEN issues a truly interesting record as does Wild Nothing. There are some hits and a couple misses, but it is still worth the ride.
|Mavis Staples’ “Livin’ On A High Note” ****|
Mavis Staples’ last record, “One True Vine” was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. After having great success with that album she turned to another unlikely indie-rock figure to helm her follow-up. Not only does M. Ward produce “Livin’ On A High Note,” but the album is filled with songs written by other younger performers.
The songwriting credit list on this record is pretty incredible, featuring the likes of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus, Laura Veirs, Neko Case, Benjamin Booker, Nick Cave, Ben Harper, and more. It seems like having all these indie rockers writing for Staples would be a wrong fit considering she is a soul and gospel legend. But no. Staples puts her stamp on these songs and makes them her own.
Her voice is raspy but still as authoritative as ever as she continues to add to her legacy. Cave’s “Jesus Lay Beside Me” is the most overtly religious track here, harkening back to her gospel roots. The rest of the set is mostly in the secular vein with some semi-uplifting undertones.
This is Staples doing what she does best and Ward’s production is backed with a timeless earthy feeling that suits her well. “Don’t Cry” and “Tomorrow,” for instance, could have easily been recorded at earlier points in her career.
“Livin’ On A High Note” is a prime example of a legacy record. Staples is rightfully revered for her powerful and expressive voice and these performers’ songs sound immediately suited to her voice. This is a record made with much love and respect by all involved. It also sounds like everyone making this set was having a great time laying this record down.
“Tomorrow” Aloe Blacc penned this song and it hits Staples’ classic sweet spot in the best way possible.
“High Note” Written by Americana artist Valerie June, this track again maintains an energy that should please fans of both Staples’ gospel and R&B work. Plus, it has a nice guitar chug at the beginning and some excellent background singing interplay from vocalist Vicki Randle.
“MLK Song” For this song, Ward adapted the words from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Drum Major Instinct” to create a touching blues track that Staples sings at a throaty near-whisper.
|Rick Springfield’s “Rocket Science” **1/2|
There’s a moment in Dave Grohl’s 2011 documentary, “Sound City” that proves to be a turning point in Rick Springfield’s career. Backed mostly by The Foo Fighters, Springfield delivers “The Man That Never Was.” Not only is this the best song on the movie’s star-studded soundtrack, but it also proves that Rick Springfield can be criminally underrated. He’s best within a blistering, hard-rock context.
His latest effort, “Rocket Science” sadly does not go in that direction. It positions him with middle-of-the-road, cleanly produced pop-rock spiked with some twangy touches. This is an album that doesn’t do Springfield justice. “Best Damn Thing” and “Down” are a bit faceless, while the former finds him trying a bit too hard with his earnest vocal delivery. There is a thread of country and folky indie rock in songs like “Crowded Solitude” and “Let Me In,” as if Springfield is trying to join the ranks of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. “Miss Mayhem” works similar ground but it works a bluesy banjo-line with ease and ends up on the winning side.
“(I Wish I Had A) Concrete Heart” explores quirky, acoustic-guitar rhythms in a style not dissimilar form some of Jason Mraz’s work while “Crowded Solitude” and “Pay It Forward” both reek of standard pop formula. Really this is an album where Springfield tries his best to be as current as possible, blending bland rock with country flourishes. He’s trying to expand his audience and you can’t blame him for that, but most of this album is little more than just satisfying. The people whose jaws dropped during “Sound City” will not find much to enjoy here. While Springfield’s faithful fans will view this as yet another side of his eclectic music career, this album does not do him justice. It feels a bit too factory-made. While this may earn him some more exposure to the crowds in Nashville, this is not the gutsy record Springfield should have released. It seems like a step down after the hard rock triumph of 2012’s “Songs For The End Of The World,” which, while still not as strong as “The Man That Never Was,” better showcased Springfield’s gifts.
With a career as long and eclectic as Springfield’s, there are bound to be peaks and valleys. There are also bound to be fans who disagree on which records stand in which category. This record may not succeed completely, but one thing is for certain. Rick Springfield has always been much more than a former soap opera actor. The people who only know him for singing “Jessie’s Girl” are doing themselves a disservice and should definitely check out the two-disc collection, “The Essential Rick Springfield.” While this record is not among his best, overall, this guy deserves much more credit than he has ever received. Maybe if his straight-ahead hard rock work got the audience it deserved, he wouldn’t be diving head first into stereotypical country-flavored pop.
This album has to walk a delicate balance and too often Springfield finds himself relying on anthemic choruses that feel forced. He’s built his career on a brand of stadium rock but this feels more often like a record to please the industry than a record to please his own creative pursuits. There are a few strong moments here, but he has a better, less-predictable record in him. Watch, though, By adding such formulas, this will probably be his most successful album in years.
On a separate note, you have to love that on the inside of the liner notes there’s a picture that says, “This album contains a free photo of my dog sporting a nice hat.” What a great callback to his most famous album, “Working-Class Dog.”
“The One” When Springfield succeeds it is when the song-craft is strong enough to battle the formula. This song is quite appealing even if its genesis and intentions seem obvious.
“Found” This is a tender folk ballad that also works. It’s nicely executed and doesn’t sound drowned in production and formula. Even though it plays to modern country-pop conventions, its sweeping melody has a more organic feel.
“We Connect” This song shows Springfield’s earnest hard-rock side well and is one of the best possible singles on the set.
|Animal Collective’s “Painting With” **1/2|
Animal Collective’s discography is a little like the musical equivalent of your hipster friend who does weird things for attention, just for the sake of being different. This means that their albums are extremely polarizing with some thinking they are works of genius while others hearing over-hyped and glorified oddness. That being said, “Painting With,” their first collection in four years is on the semi-accessible side of the coin. If you enjoyed 2009’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion” or 2007’s “Strawberry Jam,” this album will probably be up your alley as well. For newcomers or people who have always been skeptical of the band’s output, this album is still a hard sell.
Noah Lennox, David Portner and Brian Weitz come off sounding like “Smiley Smile”-era Beach Boys on a warped electro bender. Opener “FloriDada” sets the tone appropriately, with some downright insane harmonies. Over much of the album the group deserves credit for the intricate vocal work which often sounds like it is delivered piecemeal with two or three words at a time, perhaps while being warped through some sort of sampler. From a technological construction standpoint, this can be stunning. At the same time, it creates more of an overwhelming, nauseating feeling and it thus does not encourage repeat listening. As in awe of their possible methods of craft one may be, the results are likely to cause headaches for some. These songs are busy simply for the sake of being busy.
While the album itself is over-saturated and at times structurally difficult, it isn’t without its point of levity. Hearing Bea Arthur’s voice sampled at the beginning of the appropriately-titled “Golden Gal” is pretty hilarious. The bounciness of “The Burglars” also provides a bit of a high point. But ultimately this album, while it has its fascinating moments is an acquired taste by far. Listening to it, I felt like it was giving me a soundtrack for someone going mad. (This isn’t an uncommon feeling when listening to Animal Collective.) The chaos of this record would be so much more rewarding if it took breaks and delivered some bits of clarity.
Undoubtedly the indie rock fans who think Animal Collective can do no wrong will think that I have missed the point. I haven’t. On some level I appreciate what is being attempted here. This band revels in being overwhelming simply for the sake of being overwhelming. There is artistic intention here and I do think that Animal Collective are at the forefront of modern indie rock’s experimental end, but the results while different often fail to be rewarding.
“FloriDada” If you can get through this opener, you have a good chance of making it through the whole record. Again, it is bizarre and busy, but if you’ve ever listened to this band before, you know that comes with the territory.
“The Burglars” If the mix and the effects were cleaned up a bit, this would be a great track that wouldn’t sound out of place on Beck’s “Modern Guilt.” But it is really buried in a lot of digital fuzz.
“Summing The Wretch” Again, there’s a semi-decent song buried underneath the mess of this track and a rather strong melody as well. Animal Collective’s main goal seems to be obscuring their songs’ words and melodies. Again, the goal is apparently optimum weirdness.
|Ra Ra Riot’s “Need Your Light” ***|
“Need Your Light,” Ra Ra Riot’s fourth album is a vast improvement over their last record, 2013’s “Beta Love,” which was an overly sugar-coated mess of a record that screamed like a huge attempt to sell out. After the chamber-pop flavor of 2010’s “The Orchard,” that record was an unpleasant shock. “Need Your Light” is more focused and less transparent in its pop approach, even if in some respects it sounds like a more refined answer to its immediate predecessor.
Here they seem more comfortable in their new surrounding even if it sounds like they are rewriting cheesy power ballads from the eighties through a peppy modern lens. “Bad Times” really sounds like a theme to a 1985 teen film as does the awfully titled, “Every Time I’m Ready To Hug.” Singer, Wes Miles can be a little too syrupy for his own good sometimes, but this album still provides an enjoyable listen.
If there seems to be a slight ghost of Vampire Weekend in this set’s tone it might be due to the fact that form VW member Rostam Batmanglij appears on “Water” and “I Need Your Light,” providing the album with two of its better moments.
This album may sound dated to some degree, but it is still a big happy pop record with a great deal of appeal. The band members are still growing into this sound and sometimes need to rein in some of their instincts but this record is still worth a narrow recommendation.
“Water” This opener sets the album off well with a commanding stomp and yet with its minimalist bassline, it allows the song’s chorus to really burst effectively.
“Bad Times” This song’s chorus is extremely strong and it is the kind of song you will want to go back to again once the album ends.
“Bouncy Castle” The beginning of this track sounds like a bit like it should soundtrack a corporate instructional video from the late seventies but it ends up being an effective falsetto exercise about remembering birthday parties from one’s youth. It’s unapologetically and unflinchingly cheesy. The fact that it leans into this sound so fearlessly might be the reason it works.
|TEEN’s “Love Yes” ***1/2|
Each album by Brooklyn indie-rock quartet TEEN is slightly different in tone from the last. The band features sisters Teeny, Lizzy and Katherine Lieberson and their friend Boshra AlSaddi and their fourth album, “Love Yes,” delivers an intriguingly woozy electro concoction that blends trippy psychedelic elements with warped and echo-drenched “girl-group” harmonies. This record feels like a modern answer to the more experimental dance music of the eighties. Adding interesting elements to the mix, some of these songs have trumpet or saxophone work. Sometimes these instruments create bridges or interludes between tracks.
This record isn’t necessarily for everyone but it covers the same cool, artsy electro-territory as Tamaryn’s excellent album from last year, “Cranekiss.” Throughout “Love Yes,” TEEN keep things interesting from the Japanese-flavored, synth-heavy “Tokyo” to the wonderfully twisted-sounding “Animal,” which provides the set with its most hypnotic and appealing groove.
This is the kind of album meant to soundtrack late-night parties in strange locales. This is not for casual mid-day listening. As an album, “Love Yes” has a low-key club aesthetic. The twisting synth-line on “Please” is packed with the kind of sultry energy usually associated with “smooth-lovin’ R&B,” while the title-track pairs a diva-like vibe with near dissonance before settling into some tight vocal harmonies.
To listeners accustomed to “Top 40” radio, this record may be a difficult sell. The women of TEEN take a lot of sonic chances here and to the right listeners these risks pay off quite well. This (like the rest of the group’s discography) is not an easy album to sonically pin down. Moments of true invention sit beside moments of beauty and moments of near chaos. “Love Yes” is an intriguing record worth exploring.
“Animal” This Lizzie Lieberson-penned track is the album’s obvious high point. It sounds freaky and intriguing at the same time as the warping groove surrounds you. It almost sounds like a modern, weirder and more mangled response to Siouxsie & The Banshee’s “Kiss Them For Me.” It has a tipsy Eastern vibe.
“Push” This piano ballad may be the most traditional track on the record. It also has extremely strong single potential even if it also sounds like Kate Bush heading towards Broadway.
“Another Man’s Woman” This is a slinky building track with soulful undertones, again showing the group’s strong modern R&B influence.
|Wild Nothing’s “Life Of Pause” ****|
Musician Jack Tatum’s third album under the Wild Nothing moniker is an appealing set that combines wistful dream-pop with some vintage eighties synth-work. Recorded mostly in Los Angeles and Stockholm, the set is a sharp set that grabs your ear from beginning to end.
The opening track, “Reichpop” begins with some wonderful ambiance before launching into a quickly-played keyboard part that sounds like a movie score from 1985. This bursts into some excellent instrumentation that at its peak recalls the intensity of The Police classic “Voices Inside My Head.” All throughout the set Tatum knows an appealing hook when he comes across one. This is an album that hardly ever takes the easiest or most obvious route. Sure, “Japanese Alice” is on some level a standard pounding shoegaze exercise, but it is delivered quite well, while “Adore” manages to turn a two-note piano riff into the backdrop for a tremendous song.
Tatum makes these songs look easy, but often times along with the other musicians on this set, he’s able to add some interesting twists and turns to keep things compelling. Melodically and musically-speaking this is the kind of record that gets more attractive with each spin. He knows how to make these songs blossom in unique ways.
There are a lot of elements embedded in Wild Nothing’s sound here. Some of these tracks sound like guitar-heavy lounge-pop while others are more abrasive. This is an expansive piece of work that both goes down easy but draws you in to its details.
With “Life Of Pause,” Wild Nothing bridges the gap between dream-pop and synth-pop while delivering a whirling, enchanting set.
“To Know You” There is no question that this nearly six-minute offering is the best track on the record, delivering a timeless mood with a commanding sense of layering. Tatum also delivers a commanding melody that matches the song’s charging backdrop. This track is essential.
“Adore” I discussed this above but again, this paints quite a sonic picture perfect for wistful bedroom listening.
“Japanese Alice” Considering how lush most of the album is, when this song makes its entrance, it is nice to hear that bit of crashing dissonance in the guitar work even if the chorus ends up as tender and gentle sounding as the rest of the record. But yes, this song delivers an appealing shoegaze/dreampop hybrid with strong pop potential.
Next Week: New music from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Santigold, School Of Seven Bells and more.
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