This week Shania Twain returns with her first new studio album in 15 years, British rockers Wolf Alice release a jaw-dropping sophomore album and Crowded House’s Neil Finn releases his latest solo album. Plus, Singer Torii Wolf teams up with the DJ Premier, jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington releases a new collection, indie-rocker Torres releases her third album and Primus drop an album about rainbow goblins.
Shania Twain’s “Now” (Deluxe)
Fifteen years have passed since Shania Twain has released an album. In those fifteen years, Twain went through a divorce from her first husband and producer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, got remarried and went on what was billed as a “Farewell Tour.” The first thing fans may notice is that her voice has a new raspiness. Considering she has postponed shows due to vocal issues in recent years, this isn’t a surprise, but her voice now has more character. The harmonies on “Light of My Life” show that she still knows how to use it to maximum benefit.
Fans can imagine this album doing well. “Poor Me” sounds like its guitar-riff was written with the Chainsmokers’ Daya-assisted “Don’t Let Me Down” in mind, while the deluxe track “Let’s Kiss and Make Up” is a bit of bouncy pop.
When Twain explores a darker side, she hits something interesting. There’s a menacing drive to “Roll Me on the River,” while her heartbreak is definitely felt on “I’m Alright.”
The deluxe edition of the record comes with four bonus tracks. They aren’t tacked onto the end of the set like the industry standard practice. Rather, the additional tracks are spread across the record.
“Now” shows Twain to still be a dynamic force after the extended break. She’s more of a pop-rock singer than country, but with these compositions she and her various producers are able to recapture the magic in some way. It’s hard to tell if this record will mirror the monster successes of the past, but if you know anything about her history, Shania Twain is the kind of singer you root for to succeed.
“Now” proves that Twain can move on musically without the assistance of Lange. As she says on one of this album’s main singles, “Life’s About to Get Good.” This is the sound of Twain picking herself up after heartbreak and rebuilding her life and her career. Welcome back.
“Light of My Life” This starts out as a romantic bossanova of sorts and blossoms into a harmonic workout that would make the vocal groups of the sixties proud. It turns on a dime and that makes it all the more thrilling.
“Poor Me” Twain does better with ballads and this sounds like a pop hit waiting to happen as Twain sings about discovering a cheating partner.
“Life’s About to Get Good” Perhaps this is the album’s thesis-statement. At the same time, it’s the kind of upbeat fare that Twain’s fans have come to expect.
Wolf Alice’s “Visions of a Life”
On their sophomore record, “Visions of a Life,” British band Wolf Alice up the ante from their amazing debut, “My Love is Cool” and they continue to get more sonically-diverse. Throughout this record, Wolf Alice manage to sound like several different bands. They can deliver a bouncy pop hook on “Beautifully Unconventional,” they can emphasize their shoe-gaze and dream-pop sides on the glowing “Heavenward” and they can get wistful on the echo-drenched “Don’t Delete the Kisses.”
On “Planet Hunter,” it seems immediately evident that this record will find a wide variety of fans. Teens who are in touch with their angst or adults who remember the alternative peaks of the eighties and nineties will find much to enjoy in this set. The ominous, half-spoken Western, beat-poetry stomp on “Formidable Cool” is the kind of unique track that makes this band stand out.
Rowsell proves herself to be one of the more commanding and fascinating current singers working today. As a band, Wolf Alice are delightfully fearless, unwilling to squeeze themselves into a convenient box.
On the whole, this is an astounding record that should stand the test of time along with classics from twenty and 30 years ago. This is easily one of the best (and most interesting) albums of 2017.
“Beautifully Unconventional” This and “Yuk Foo” sit side-by-side on the record. Both songs are only two-minutes and thirteen seconds. This track in particular is a go-go-ready stab at pop. Bassist, Theo Ellis does an especially nice job here.
“Space & Time” An undeniable stab at thunderous power-pop, this rockets into the subconscious with unmistakable force.
“Visions of a Life” When the band pulls off this constantly changing, eight-minute closer, it puts them in a class way above most of their peers. One can bet in live shows that this is a real monster.
Neil Finn’s “Out of Silence”
Crowded House-leader Neil Finn is one of the finest songwriters of his generation. For proof, listen to Crowded House classics like “Don’t Dream it’s Over,” “Better Be Home Soon,” or “Locked Out.” His fourth proper solo studio album, “Out of Silence,” is a quiet, mannered, somewhat orchestral affair, recalling the softer side of his Crowded House work. Finn and his band actually recorded this album over a series of live webcasts a few weeks back. It’s definitely a daring way to put together an album, but Finn is a seasoned pro who knows the ins and outs of compositional construction. The piano-led “More Than One of You” with its subtle, sweeping quality sounds like a grounding piece for a Broadway musical without hitting you too hard over the head.
“Chameleon Days” has a darker, serious undertone and yet it is also single-worthy, as is the brighter, “Love is Emotional,” which while still a hushed ballad recalls some of Finn’s sonic experimentation on his 1998 masterpiece, “Try Whistling This.”
There’s almost a Radiohead-esque vibe going through the ominously winding “Independence Day,” while “Widow’s Peak” sounds like it should be performed in a supper club when the band is trying to “bring it down for a moment.” Finn has always been a master of writing songs with existential themes, deceptively pairing ominous lyrics with beautiful melodies. This aspect of his work is emphasized here. Even the somewhat upbeat “Second Nature” has this sense of contrast.
"Out of Silence" is an album not to be missed. At ten songs and 35-minutes and change, it’s a little on the brief side but Finn doesn’t need an elongated record to make a strong impression.
“Independence Day” The airy sense of drama here blooms into something quite enveloping. The spacey background chorus of singers adds to the sense of tension until the piano comes in, leading to the song’s center refrain.
“More Than One of You” This does make you wonder if Finn has Broadway-style aspirations. He can definitely handle writing for an orchestra.
“Widow’s Peak” The way the bass-line bounces around the track is marvelous. This is a dark, wintery prayer of some kind, fueled by some sense of war-fueled desperation.
Torii Wolf’s “Flow Riiot”
Torii Wolf’s debut “Flow Riiot” will stand out from the pack immediately. The singer’s Bjork-meets-Ellie-Goulding delivery-style will no doubt make your ears perk, but the fact that this album is obviously mostly produced by the legendary DJ Premier is immediately apparent from the dusty samples and turntable work heard throughout the collection.
The scratch-break that begins “Big Big Trouble” sets the mood off right and Wolf comes in punching with her high rasp. This is an unlikely but surprisingly effective union of performers. Wolf and Premier complement each other quite well from lush, sultry vibes to “I’d Wait Forever and a Day for You” to the subtle-bass led “Nobody Around.” When Macklemore joins the two of them on “Free,” Premier tosses out what is perhaps the most challenging beat on the set, which the rapper is able to tackle without any issues.
On the acoustic, (self-produced) “Moscow,” Wolf’s sweet, unique croon is allowed to take center-stage, proving that on her own she’s a truly significant talent who can write songs packed with emotion.
Not only is this an excellent way to introduce Torii Wolf, but also, this album on the whole is a strong argument for more hip-hop producers to think outside of the box. “Flow Riot” is a commanding, genre-bending trip of a record.
“Big Big Trouble” Classic Premier beat-work meets Wolf’s unique style as a singer-songwriter to create something utterly magical.
“Free” (Featuring Macklemore and DJ Premier) Interestingly this is the only track that credits Premier as a guest. Considering his prints are all over this record, that’s surprising. Maybe that extra push is because this is an obvious single and his beat-work is particularly challenging here.
“1st” In the nineties hip-hop circles you could imagine this beat being used with one of hip-hop’s greats but Wolf is able to hold her own, as she asks, “Why are you running away?” over the smooth beat. The emotion is her voice is quite powerful. This is especially true when she goes into a scream.
Kamasi Washington’s “Harmony of Difference”
Jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington follows up his three-disc 2015 collection, “The Epic,” with the much more succinct, six-song collection, “Harmony of Difference.”
At just over a half-hour, "Harmony of Difference" sports a clean, lounge-like feel. Right from the beginning of “Desire,” this sounds like some vintage score music of the highest caliber. When you get to “Humility,” this sounds classic jazz romp with some slight “Afro-Beat” influences. The way this collection flows from one track to the next makes it exceedingly smooth.
This is the kind of record lovers of jazz in its classic and most traditional forms will enjoy. Syncopated beats with a slight Latin flare and echo-filled atmospheres help give the collection a bright texture. At over 13 minutes, the closer “Truth,” with its strong string and vibraphone work, is as enveloping a track you can find. Sure Washington does favor choruses of people vocalizing along, but this in some ways brings audiences back to a more orchestrated, Henry Mancini-esque sonic landscape.
As an arranger and a leader, Washington is out to make a large statement. “Harmony of Difference” shows he and his band can say something musically profound in a somewhat brief amount of time. Even though this is marketed as an EP and is just over thirty-one minutes, it feels like a complete offering.
“Truth” Spanning solos that would make the jazz-greats proud and working up to a symphonic, string-section-led peak. The singers somehow make it all the more elegant as they sing along.
“Humility” This is brisk but it is the kind of fast-paced energy that you allows for quickly impressive horn and piano solos.
Torres’ “Three Futures"
Singer-songwriter Mackenzie Scott’s third album under her Torres moniker is a colder, less outwardly volatile album when compared to 2015’s amazing “Sprinter.” This is an album where the drum-machines get larger focus, but bits of alt-rock guitar still chime in from time to time.
As the album’s cover and the video for main single, “Skim” would suggest, this is album has an impersonally sexual core. In both “Helen in the Woods” and “Bad Baby Pie,” there are mentions of being “naked in your bed” and how “that sent you hurling home / Without your clothes on.” This is a sexual-awakening of a record in some way but at the same time on opener, “Tongue Slap Your Brains Out,” she sings the chorus seemingly to her Southern, religious family and friends, “I bet you never thought that I’d become a damn Yankee.”
Sonically, this record continues where “Sprinter” left off but it has less of a rocking core. Scott is still finding key allies in Rob Ellis (who famously has worked with PJ Harvey) and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, who both contributed to “Sprinter” and are both her as well.
While “Three Futures” isn’t necessarily as directly immediate as its predecessor, it is a record that gives just as much, if not more, to contemplate. There’s warmth in “Marble Focus,” an ominous, almost threatening drive to “Concrete Ganesha” and a modal, droning quality to “To be Given a Body.”
As she did on her first two records, here Scott further establishes herself as a sonic heir to people like Harvey. She’s an intriguing presence who can artfully weave a compelling narrative.
“Skim” A haunting, stomping single as Scott asks, “Do you just hate him more than you love me?” It’s a very loaded question. Scott has a knack for setting a tone that intrigues and entertains, but also raises more questions than it actually answers. She sets up a narrative that gives details but remains enigmatic.
“Bad Baby Pie” One of the album’s more melodic moments and a song that has an excellent chance having pop-crossover possibilities, as Scott croons, “I’ll make it worth every sleepless night. / I’ll make it worth every last bite.”
“Three Futures” The (perhaps backwards) guitar riff here really stands out and provides this song with a very strong backbone. Otherwise this is a very airy piece that perfectly suits Scott’s lyrical details.
Primus’ “The Desaturating Seven”
Anyone not expecting a new Primus album to be weird is listening to the wrong band. The band, most famous for the “South Park” theme and their nineties “buzz-bin” hit “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” follows up their 2014 covers collection of songs from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” with essentially a seven-track collection about rainbow goblins. This is inspired by a children’s book by Italian author Ul De Rico.
There’s always been a madcap, child-like quality to Les Claypool and company’s work, but that’s partly what initially made Primus stick out from the pack. So, when Claypool starts repeated muttering the name in a very staccato manner, very close to the mic, it is undoubtedly meant to inspired chuckles.
While tone-wise, this album is extremely goofy, it also possesses a firm musical sophistication. The build on “The Trek,” which begins with an intricate acoustic workout from guitarist Larry LaLonde and ends up in a groovy sing-along and given a strong backbone of Tim Alexander’s drum pound.
This album is playfully bizarre, but like 2011’s “Green Naugahyde,” once listeners get used to its flow, it really catches attention.
Primus isn't about to set the world aflame with this record, but “The Desaturating Seven” is a playful experiment. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, still, no other band in the world sounds quite like Primus.
“The Seven” Given that this is the song that really sets up the main characters, this elastic track should be the first place you should go if you are skimming through this record.
“The Dream” This is one of the more creative and exciting tracks on the record, but is intended for casual listening.
Coming up: New Releases from Liam Gallagher and more.