Sheryl Crow, Incubus, Ray Davies and more music reviews

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This week Sheryl Crow delivers a peak-quality new album, alt-rockers Incubus release their first full-length in six years, newly knighted Kinks-leader Ray Davies explores his love of "Americana," new bubblegum-grunge band Charly Bliss drops an impressive debut album, Irish singer Imelda May switches up her style and British buzz-band Maximo Park continue their impressive career on their sixth album.

PHOTO: Sheryl Crow - "Be Myself"
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Sheryl Crow’s "Be Myself" ****1/2

After searching for a new sound on the country-tinged 2013 album “Feels Like Home” and the soul-fueled 2010 effort, “100 Miles From Memphis,” Sheryl Crow finally reclaims her core sound on “Be Myself.” This record sounds very much like an update on the sounds explored on her first three records, It’s not like she didn’t have some key moments on all of her albums, and it’s not like “Wildflower” and “Detours” weren’t enjoyable records, but this is her strongest offering since “The Globe Sessions” in 1998, finding her mixing classic rock, folk, country, R&B and alt-rock into the signature sound that made her famous in the first place. Crow sounds more comfortable here than she has in a long time.

Single “Halfway There” finds her working a soulful groove to its fullest potential, while “Roller Skate” sounds like a funky, more effective update on the sunny, pop sounds heard on “C’mon C’mon.” The break-up ballad “Strangers Again” has significant bite while “Long Way Back” sounds like a world-weary take on a classic Sheryl Crow single.

Crow seems to date this album in various places by mentioning selfies, social media and other such technological advances. These time-stamped lyrical nods separate these songs from Crow’s peak nineties work, but they don’t come off as awkward attempts to stay modern. They just stand as reminders of Crow’s remarkable time-tested endurance as a performer.

Crow has definitely grown in the 24 years since “Tuesday Night Music Club,” but at the same time this album showcases all of her best qualities as a songwriter and a singer, informing that early sound with what she has learned in the years since. Joining forces once again with longtime-collaborator Jeff Trott, she has made a record packed with vitality and future singles.

“Rest of Me” is bright and confidently bouncy while “Grow Up” is just a very fun slice of guitar-driven pop. It is safe to say that “Be Myself” is one of Crow’s most consistent and yet sonically eclectic works to date.

The quality in her work never really went down, but it is exciting to hear Crow back where she belongs. After years of searching, reclaiming a new version of this sound is definitely a smart move. Sheryl Crow should be allowed to be herself.

Focus Tracks:

“Halfway There” -- This easily could have been on her self-titled album or “The Globe Sessions,” and it shows Crow working directly in her wheelhouse.

“Strangers Again” -- This mid-tempo, slightly melancholy rocker should be a definite single and it ranks among her best pieces of work.

“Long Way Back” -- Again, this already sounds like you could instantly place it on a Crow “best-of” without anyone questioning its inclusion.

PHOTO: Incubus - 8
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Incubus’ "8" **1/2

With their too obviously-titled eighth album “8,” the members of Incubus hand in the first real disappointment of their discography. Their last album, the very misunderstood “If Not Now, When?” found them exploring more melodic, ethereal territory. On “8” the band almost pretends like that album never happened.

The opening charger “No Fun” isn’t bad but it feels like Brandon Boyd has lost something in his lyrics. This still sounds like Incubus, in a way recalling “Megalomaniac,” but while that song was packed with politically-fueled bile, the chorus here of “You’re no fun,” seems a bit empty. It almost feels like the band is operating at half-mast.

You get the feeling they are trying to recapture the magic of records like “Make Yourself” and “Morning View” and there are glimpses of that sound. Hard-charging single, “Nimble Bastard” hints at the band’s glory days, while the airy “Loneliest” has an appealing, almost sultry groove.

“State of the Art” sounds like it was purposely written to be a single, even if it is a bit of an aimless mess. Although it has its doses of hard guitar, it seems to rob the band of their signature edge. Again, this still sounds like the work of Incubus, but there’s a lack of confidence now that shows. The rockier tracks sound like they are aiming for specific fans disappointed by “If Not Now, When?” and asking them, “Hey, do you like this?”

The unfortunate truth is that “If Not Now, When?” wasn’t a stumble. It was a rich progression forward. By contrast, “8” is an uneven mess of record that combines forced numbers like the awkward “Glitterbomb” with a few hidden gems like “Familiar Faces.” Then of course there are the 57 seconds that make “When I Became a Man,” a dreadful dose of lounge-calypso that simply shouldn’t exist. It’s an inside-joke that falls flat.

Sure, Skrillex was involved in the production of this record and it might be tempting for rock snobs to blame him for this album’s failures. The thing is, this album doesn’t sound particularly electronic. It sounds like the rest of their discography without the usual punch.

While this album isn’t a complete wash and it still has their signature musicianship intact, it lacks a certain sense of purpose. “8” shows that even great bands sometimes hit speed-bumps. Here’s hoping they find their footing again. Their mistake was questioning a record where they rightly followed their muse.

Focus Tracks:

“Loneliest” -- Perhaps in part due to Skrillex’s inclusion, this low-key track recalls the airy feeling of career standouts like “Stellar.” The textures here definitely bring to mind the earlier experiments Chris Kilmore’s DJ work added to parts of “Make Yourself.”

“Familiar Faces” -- This is another vintage-sounding possible single that stands out on this set like an oasis. It has the right kind of lift, recalling some of their peak work.

“Nimble Bastard” -- This authoritative stomper is one of the only rockers that favorably brings to mind their harder sounding highlights. The production is a little stiff and claustrophobic, but as a song, it works pretty well, nonetheless.

PHOTO: Ray Davies - Americana
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Ray Davies’ “Americana” ****

Kinks legend Ray Davies returns in top form with “Americana.” Davies has spent long stretches of his life in the U.S. and so this doesn’t come as a surprise. This album also shares its name with his 2013 book, so this is a collection of American fascinations from one of England’s most celebrated song-writers.

Davies puts these songs together in a neatly-constructed narrative of sorts. Curiously he uses members of the Jayhawks as his back-up band and they seem more than up to the task. As with his Kinks work, it is sometimes hard to tell where observation ends and sarcasm begins. “The Deal” is a winking look at the American dream for fame, while “Change for Change” has some strong implications about political power and money.

On the spoken-word “Silent Movie,” Davies recounts an encounter and a discussion with Big Star/Box Tops leader Alex Chilton in New Orleans. On “The Man Upstairs” he makes reference to the Kinks hit, “All Day and All of the Night.” You get the feeling that he likes nudging and hinting at his tremendous legacy and building on it at the same time.

Granted this album is very different from the Kinks’ early work, but more than fifty years later, Davies is still very much the same guy with an irrepressible wit. You could imagine “Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys” as a weird western cousin of Kinks hits like “Celluloid Heroes.”

True to its title, this album does have an Americana tone. There’s an organic sparseness. The scattered bits of narrative add a special intimacy. Like his 2006 effort, “Other People’s Lives,” “Americana” shows that Ray Davies has not lost his touch. If you loved some of the later-period Kinks records, you should meet their new American cousin.

Focus Tracks:

“The Deal” -- This is definitely a joke but it also has an effortless, airy quality. This is definitely Davies at his most snarky.

“Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys” -- There’s a sort of wistful quality to this track, as if Davies is looking back, saying lines like, “Your time’s passed now everyone asks for your version of history. / Do you live in a dream or do you live in reality?” It’s one of the album’s most sobering moments.

“The Great Highway” -- Here Davies confronts his dreams about America in contrast with the reality he has experienced. Of course it is a different place than he originally thought, but this upbeat rocker is still an anthem of pride for his adopted country. This is delivered with love and it deserves to give Davies a hit.

PHOTO: Charly Bliss - Guppy
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Charly Bliss’ “Guppy” ****1/2

Charly Bliss is a band from New York. “Guppy” is their first full-length after a couple EPs. I first became aware of them in the summer of 2015 when I saw them open for Veruca Salt and was left quite impressed. Like a number of notable new bands they recall the pop-driven side of grunge’s heyday. Had they released this record 21 years ago as opposed to in 2017, it would have been in the top of the pack.

“Guppy” consists of ten insistent songs which are anchored as much Eva Hendricks’ unusual and ear-catching vocals as they are by the sludgy riffs that swell and recede throughout the set. Yeah, this album is under a half-hour and it makes you wonder why they didn’t include more tracks, but when you hear songs like the sprawling, melodic “Westermarck” or the momentous two-minute “Ruby,” you know that you are still getting your money’s worth.

If Weezer’s “Maladroit” and Letters to Cleo’s “Wholesale Meats and Fish” had a kid, it would be Charly Bliss’ “Guppy.” You hear happy, grungy influence in the unapologetic pop of “Glitter” and the dirtier textures of “Gatorade.” “DQ” describes an unfortunate experience on a trampoline, while “Julia,” an expansive ballad at 4:25 hints that the band can easily switch up their tempos and in the process expand the sludgy and dreamy possibilities for their sound all at once.

In addition to singing, Eva Hendricks also plays guitar. Her brother Sam plays drums, Dan Shure plays bass and Spencer Fox sings backup and plays guitar as well. Interestingly, Fox is on a second career. He is an actor who served as the voice of “Dash,” the kid in “The Incredibles,” 13 years ago. Go figure.

“Guppy” is one of the sharpest indie-rock records of 2017. A mighty reminder that there is a growing up-swell of rock bands emerging. The members of Charly Bliss offer up a collection of tunes here that get better and more indelible with each listen. This is bubblegum-grunge done correctly.

Focus Tracks:

“Westermarck” Compositionally speaking, this is by far the most complex song on the record. It is also quite possibly the most memorable, even in a stack of consistent winners. The tune is full of surprising twists and turns and some excellent vocal interplay between the band-members.

“Ruby” Another version of this song was released as a stand-alone single last year. This take is a tad more polished. It’s a song about battling fainting spells. The lyric that catches me every time is “Guardrail. / Taking the stairs. / Passed out on the subway with blood in my hair.” Ouch.

“Black Hole” This is already one of the singles and for good reason. It begins like a softer ballad until a harder-charged chorus gives it a strong rise. Again, twenty-some years ago, this would have been a major rock –radio mainstay.

PHOTO: Imelda May - "Life Love Fresh Blood"
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Imelda May’s “Life Love Fresh Blood” ***1/2

Irish singer Imelda May drops her signature rockabilly-with-punk-edges sound on her fifth studio album, “Life Love Fresh Blood.” The sound change is most likely the result of her divorce from her guitarist Darrel Higham and his subsequent departure from her band. With T-Bone Burnett handling production, May is able to express herself in new ways. Fear not, she is still just as compelling a performer as she was before and even gets some big league help from Jools Holland on “When It’s My Time” and Jeff Beck on “Black Tears.”

The majority of this record finds her exploring soft, classic country-toned ballads but it has the potential to reach a bigger audience. It’s as if May was aiming for somewhere smack in the middle between Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” and Adele’s “25” and adding her own spin. The best moments come when she stretches out her voice on the previously-mentioned “Black Tears” and on “Should’ve Been You,” while the soft single, “Call Me” maintains a sweet subtlety.

It is refreshing when May rocks out on “Leave Me Lonely.” Perhaps more songs like this would have boosted this record a little more, considering May is a dynamite rock vocalist when she blasts off into the stratosphere. Throughout the record on tracks like “Bad Habit” and “Sixth Sense,” it feels like she is hinting at a softer answer to her rockabilly past. Perhaps that slight musical bridge will be enough to please the fans of her previous work.

“Life Love Fresh Blood” is at its core, a refreshing palate-cleanser of a record, reinventing Imelda May as an effective, more intimate singer-songwriter. Hopefully the fans of her previous work will come along for the ride, since this is a rather abrupt 180 in some places. But one listen to “The Girl I Used to Be” will tell you that she might have changed her sound, but her sense of unique artistry still remains firmly intact.

Focus Tracks:

“Black Tears” (Featuring Jeff Beck) Here Imelda May sounds like an even cross between Patsy Cline and KT Tunstall and Beck adds a nice, wonderfully weepy guitar solo that suits the song.

“Leave Me Lonely” This track has real attitude and guts. Compared to much of the rest of the record, tone-wise it seems like a real wake-up call.

“Should’ve Been You” This has an immediate charm and with its bell sounds and stomping Motown-lite rhythm. It is mellow but it also has the right kind of momentum. During the last minute or so, May’s vocals really belt.

PHOTO: Maximo Park - "Risk to Exist" (Deluxe Album)
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Maximo Park’s “Risk to Exist” (Deluxe Edition) ****

Maximo Park’s sixth album, “Risk to Exist” works their funkier side, trading their rockier, punkier sounds of the past with a groovy sheen. Of course, they were sort of heading this way on 2014’s “Too Much Information,” but it does seem like they are aiming more firmly for the pop charts than ever before, especially when you consider the insistence of standouts, “What Did We Do to Deserve This?” or “What Equals Love.” The bass-heavy “Get High (No I Don’t)” seems to find an equal balance between the band’s older and newer sounds.

Lyrically, this is also a more politically biting piece of work than their previous records. It’s hard to listen to Paul Smith’s lyrics on “Work and Then Wait,” “Make What You Can” and “The Reason I Am Here” and not see them as direct responses to both Brexit in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. Issues of finance and privilege are mentioned on several cuts here. The title-track, for instance also seems to hint at concepts of economic survival and empathy.

They make excellent use of a horn-section on “The Hero” and work over a tight bass-line on “Alchemy,” a song which seems to tackle issues of privacy in our constantly connected world. This is an extremely pointed, engaging record that finds the band crafting compact tracks that play like scholarly essays. At the same time, there’s a blunt, straight-forward quality to Smith’s words. He’s always been a direct songwriter, but here he definitely has an edge that particularly suits this material.

The deluxe edition comes with seven additional tracks. Three are bonus new songs and four are alternate acoustic or piano versions of tracks on the record. This band has always had songs that are quite versatile and work well with stripped-down arrangement.

“Risk to Exist” continues to show the members of Maximo Park playing to their strengths. If you want to hear one of England’s most consistent acts that somehow has yet to make a big splash in the states, this album is a decent place to start.

Focus Tracks:

“What Equals Love” -- In many ways this sounds like a typical Maximo Park song given a dance-party shimmer. You can imagine this being a great big summer hit if given the right attention.

“Work and Then Wait” -- There’s a touch of Pixies “Where Is My Mind?” influence in this even if it is an authoritative stomper about political and economic unrest. Smith says, “The hand that giveth is set to taketh away. / They strip you of your dignity. / They make you work and then wait. / But I won’t be put in my place.” Biting stuff.

“The Reason I Am Here” -- Perhaps the most political track on the set. Smith declares. “The people who never doubt are the ones I’m worried about. / The people who never doubt are the ones who carry the clout. / Not exactly high society. / Neither tact nor sobriety.”

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