Talib Kweli, Nada Surf, Melanie Martinez and More Music Reviews

PHOTO:Rapper Talib Kweli performs in concert at Cedar Park Center, Nov. 29, 2013, in Cedar Park, Texas.
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This week Talib Kweli drops a surprise free album, seasoned indie-rock band Nada Surf releases an epic live album, electro-pop singer Melanie Martinez releases a record you won’t soon forget, country-turned-pop singer Emily West releases a new record and metal band Soulfly release their tenth album. It’s a very diverse week with a lot of great music to explore.

PHOTO: Talib Kwelis "F__k The Money" album
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Talib Kweli’s “F*** The Money” ****

Talib Kweli dropped a surprise free album on his website and it is a dense, daring experimental offering called “F*** The Money.” From the title, you can guess that this continues the thread in Kweli’s career championing knowledge over material gain. He’s always been of the “consciousness” school, extoling the virtues of being richer in spirit over having a large bank account. The fact that this is a free record for which no money is exchanged makes this clear as well.

Production-wise, this is a dizzying, forward-thinking, very electro-fueled affair. If you liked the jazzy beats of DJ Hi-Tek on the Black Star and Reflection Eternal records, this record will take some getting used to with its pitch-shifting, whirling vocals, but this is done for a reason. One can’t help but think that Kweli is trying to make these tracks sound like bona fide club-bangers to hit his more materialistic peers where they live. One also can’t help but wonder if the chorus from “The Venetian” of “Started from the bodega, now we’re at the Venetian” is a playfully pointed swipe at Drake.

Guest-wise, there are some expected cameos from the likes of Styles P and Ab-Soul, but then there is “Echoes,” which features the unlikely duo of Miguel and Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. The title-track features a nice turn from South African rapper Cassper Nyovest.

Some 17 years later after he an Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) released their Black Star album, Kweli is still making considerable waves. An album like this is daring. Commercialism has clouded the original ideals of hip-hop culture and this is Kweli’s statement to reclaim the more intellectually-driven side of the genre. Ironically, this sounds like commercial hip-hop, but a close listen proves that Kweli isn’t even close to selling out. It’s that sense of purposeful contrasting complexity that makes “F*** The Money” a success. This is a scathing indictment of those pursuing fame for the wrong reasons. This is a criticism of those in the culture who celebrate hollow "fame” over substantive content.

Focus Tracks:

“Leslie Nope” With a name that checks Amy Poehler’s character on “Parks And Recreation,” Leslie Knope, Kweli raps over a skeletal electro beat. On what is probably the best line on the album Kweli raps about how he doesn’t trust people “with no books in the living room.”

“Nice Things” This is a sonically bizarre, yet effective pitch-shifted reflection on violence in the streets and how the police target African-Americans. It’s a plea against violence and yet Kweli is not afraid to fight the system. In the wake of Ferguson and the countless other similar events, this resonates. Kweli covers a lot of territory here, repeating how “the police state try to kill us” while going through history and citing a rigged system and how greed and power have become a scourge.

“He Said She Said” Over a beat that verges at times on light drum’n’bass, Kweli tells the cautionary tale of a rapper chasing fame over content. This targets musical celebrities who put the emphasis on the gossip columns and not on their actual records.

PHOTO:Nada Surfs "Live At The Neptune Theatre" album
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Nada Surf’s “Live At The Neptune Theatre ****

Nada Surf are going through an archival phase at the moment. Last year they released an excellent B-sides record, fittingly called “B-Sides,” and now the New York alt-rockers have released “Live At The Neptune Theatre.” This is an hour-and-40-minute concert in Seattle recorded in 2012 from right around the time of the release of their stellar last studio effort, “The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy.” The album is available either digitally, or as a massive (and pricey) three-record vinyl set.

First impression is that this is a much better and more confident-sounding set than the group’s last live album, “Live In Brussels.” But then again, that show was recorded around the time of the band’s 2003 album, “Let Go,” so they have had nine years of obvious growth. Not only that, but their catalog has grown substantially over that time.

If you are a fan of their first two records, “High/Low” and “The Proximity Effect,” you are in for a disappointment. “High/Low” is ignored (as is its preceding “Karmic” EP) and only “80 Windows” from “The Proximity Effect” made the cut. No doubt, the omission of the “High/Low” material shows their natural progression. They’ve grown a lot since then, and from the performance of their one bona fide radio hit, “Popular,” on the “Live In Brussels” album, you could tell they were tired of the song.

This set shows the band at top form. “The Proximity Effect" and “Let Go” showed them blossoming into a beautifully enveloping band, showcasing strong, thought-provoking lyrical narratives placing them on the positive side of the emo spectrum. As a result, the band members were firmly embraced by fans of intelligent indie-rock.

Matthew Caws’ lyrics always serve as a center-point. At the end of “Killian’s Red,” he marvels at a booming bellow from the crowd, saying, “I would give anything to have that voice.” But his voice is a high, sweetly melodic instrument that suits his songwriting well.

The 21 tracks here show Nada Surf to be a rather incredible and versatile act. Also, nicely, the whole concert is caught on tape, including the crowd cheers for an encore until the band comes back out. Not only do these songs sound as good live as they do on their studio albums, but it feels like these songs are breathing. Often times, live albums are mixed to the point of sterility. This is not the case with “Live At The Neptune Theatre.” The band members jam and provide enough in-between song banter to make you feel almost like you are hearing the show in person.

If you’ve never heard this band before, this would probably be a decent place for an overview. Nada Surf remain one of the best and too often over-looked bands of the last two decades. This collection serves as a stunning seat-filler in between studio albums.

Focus Tracks:

“When I Was Young” This multi-textured number was a standout on “The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy,” morphing from a nearly-classical, folk meditation to an all-out rocker over its six minutes.

“Always Love” One of the encores, this is still a beautiful pop song full of sad hopefulness. The lines “’I’ve been held back by something,’/You said to me quietly on the stairs,” somehow really resonates. It should be noted that after this song was released on their album “The Weight Is A Gift,” it was covered by the band America (of “The Horse With No Name” fame) back in 2007.

“Teenage Dreams” Another standout from “The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy.” This version is actually ever-so-slightly superior to the one on the album.

PHOTO:Melanie Martinezs "Cry Baby" album
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Melanie Martinez’s “Cry Baby” ****1/2

Nothing could prepare me for the gloriously dark electro-pop shimmer of Melanie Martinez’s tremendous debut, “Cry Baby.” This is remarkable record with commercially slick production. At first glance, I thought I was going to be dealing with another factory-spun pop record. Boy, was I thrilled to be wrong.

The “Cry Baby” name serves as the basis for a whole album of titles that either bring to mind babies or early childhood. At first glance, this infantilizing approach can be both disturbing and strange, but in practice on the actual album, in practice, this is quite artfully done even down to the album’s clever story-book-style liner notes.

“Alphabet Boy” is about being underestimated by a guy with more education while “Dollhouse” is about a damaged, troubled family trying to keep up appearances and play perfect. “Carousel” compares life and poor decisions to a trip through an ominous carnival. There’s something really affecting about the deadpan way Martinez sings, “It’s all fun and games ‘til somebody falls in love.”

“Mrs. Potato Head” is one of the most biting critiques of plastic surgery since Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” while “Mad Hatter” hints at issues of mental instability with Martinez singing, “You think I’m crazy. / So what. / All the best people are.

This is a jarring, affecting record that will stick with you days after listening. It’s not for passive listening. It is a rare pop record that is both catchy beyond belief and an artistic triumph. In other words, this album belongs in the same company with both Sia’s “1000 Forms Of Fear” and Tove Lo’s “Queen Of The Clouds” from last year.

Martinez paints a picture of a society full of people plagued by our own insecurities. Advertisements play to those weaknesses. We can be made to feel ugly, or crazy, or otherwise lacking and yet the quick fix won’t work because it is simply a bandage for a bigger problem. This is a 47-minute, visceral and venomous cultural critique cloaked in a backdrop of ethereal calliope-influenced electronics. We can try all we want to play and pretend to be perfect but deep down we all walk around with some degree of lasting damage. This is a brilliant and gripping record which is equally beautiful and twisted. It will haunt you in the best way possible. It is a pop record that will make you think about your life and maybe even your mistakes.

Focus Tracks:

“Mrs. Potato Head” This is a masterpiece about our relentless search for youth and beauty. “Will a pretty face make it better?” The short answer is definitely no. Disturbing, yes, but 100% on point.

“Sippy Cup” Like “Dollhouse,” this is another tale of a family trying to maintain perceived normalcy. Depressed kids, diet-pill addiction, media and drug-fueled mania are all used as tools to paint a profoundly stark picture. As Martinez sings about a dead baby propped up by dryly saying, “Of course, it’s a corpse that you keep in the cradle,” it rocks you to your core and stops you cold. It may be extreme but this is definitely a metaphor about how people will go on endlessly about how everything is OK, just to keep from airing their dirty laundry.

“Pity Party” This is another stellar electro jam. This one features an excellent sample of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party.” The song eludes to burning a sad birthday party down with the cake candles. It takes Gore’s tale of heartbreak an extra (extreme) step.

PHOTO:Emily Wests "All For You" album
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Emily West’s “All For You” **1/2

Emily West began her singing career as a country singer releasing a string of Eps. She then got the public’s attention in a big way as a contestant on “America’s Got Talent” which resulted in a new record deal. “All For You” is the result and it isn’t really a country record at all. It is closer to “Lite” pop.

West is an excellent singer with great presence, but this album’s heavy-handed use of covers speaks volumes about the karaoke-fueled mania that too many of the current crop of singing show contest shows employ. Considering for instance that Sia’s fantastic “Chandelier” is still in heavy rotation in some places just over a year since its release, is it really wise that West opens her album with her own version? She hits the notes well does the song justice to some degree, but her version doesn’t come close to the lived-in pain Sia brings to the table in her version.

And following it up with a version of The Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin” doesn’t help things. Again, it is a competent cover as are West’s versions of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” and Phil Phillips’ 1959 classic “Sea Of Love,” but at the same time this seems like a pointless exercise of putting a talented singer in front of some well-worn classics. It’s nice when Cyndi Lauper shows up to duet with West on Lauper’s “True Colors,” (Lauper and West obviously made friends when they crossed paths on an episode of “The Celebrity Apprentice” a couple years back.)

Here’s the crux of the problem with this record. Six of its 10 tracks are covers, mostly already done more effectively by other people. The other four songs are originals co-written by West. Showcasing West in this way does her no favors unless she has another album’s worth of originals on the way within the next six to eight months. This might have been a big way to break a new artist in the sixties, when covers were commonplace on emerging artists’ early records, but it 2015 in an age when people are frequently posting skilled covers on YouTube, this seems like an out-of-step move for a major label.

West should have waited until she had at least six more originals and then tacked the covers on the end of a deluxe edition of the album. Sadly, the way the album is arranged highlights the fact that the covers for the most part are stronger songs than the originals. The key exceptions are the single, “Bitter,” which in an ideal world should have been the album’s opener and the album’s quiet closer “Fallen.”

“All For You” isn’t really a bad record. It is just a colossally mismanaged one. It needed to be more about casting West in her own light and less about West singing other people’s hits.

Focus Tracks:

“Bitter” Yes, this is a generic pop song of sorts, but it hits a nice peak during its chorus and shows West to be a powerful vocalist. Its tempo shifts also highlight the song’s infectious sweeping quality.

“Fallen” This quiet closer shows a glimpse of how this album could have turn out, somehow evoking both Fiona Apple and Rodgers and Hammerstein. West should release a whole album of songs of this variety.

“Without You” West equals or bests the David Guetta and Usher song by turning it into a building ballad.

PHOTO:Soulflys "Archangel" album
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Soulfly’s “Archangel” (Deluxe Edition) ***

If you aren’t familiar with Soulfly, it is the metal band formed by ex-Sepultura member Max Cavalera. “Archangel” is the band’s 10th record and it is metal of heaviest and densest kind, anchored by Cavalera’s signature yell.

Simultaneously, this album showcases some of the best and worst elements of the genre. On the negative side, this is a relentless record that won’t please people looking for any sense of melody, since songs like the title-track and “Bethlehem’s Blood” are pounding assaults with lyrics, thick with Biblical imagery being bellowed out with the force of a heavy cough. Religious imagery and this brand of screamed metal go hand and hand quite well when you consider the most unrelenting elements of The Old Testament. So, if you are looking for something friendly to sing along to, this is definitely not your record.

However, if you are a rock and death-metal nerd who loves intense performance, with thickly assaulting drums and impressive guitar-breaks that sometimes slightly verge on a “math-rock” brand of complexity this is for you. In other words, this is metal of heaviest and least commercial form, steeped in deep sludge.

The high-pitched screaming of guest Matt Young from the band King Parrot on “Live Life Hard!” along with Young’s vocal contrast with Cavalera might evoke vaguely comical recollections of your friend trying to convince you that you should be listening to bands like Cradle Of Filth, Elsewhere Cavalera’s constant sore-throat yelling should be seen as an unstoppable feat of strength. It is hard to imagine how he has maintained such vocal stamina over the years. Singing like that is truly difficult and requires quite a bit of vocal skill. (If you doubt me, try it. It’s not as easy as you might assume.)

This is an often brutal offering. Soulfly have made better, more appealing records, but this record gets by on its sheer strength of its force. If you are looking for something more commercial from Soulfly, I suggest going back to the 2000 album “Primitive” and checking out Cavalera’s excellent (and unlikely) duet with Sean Lennon on “Son Song.” Of course it should be noted many hardcore metal fans view that album as being too commercial.

But the lasting impression of “Archangel” is actually more about the legacy Cavalera has built. Many members of his family are on the record. Soulfly is his group and he keeps the ones he loves close, even while screaming vague, cryptic lyrics about fire and death. To paraphrase the opening track, Cavalera “Sold His Soul To Metal” and he never turned back.

The deluxe edition comes packed with three bonus tracks and a DVD chronicling a live performance at Hellfest 2014.

Focus Tracks:

“Ishtar Rising” The sonic pound of this song along with the whirr of the guitar-line keep this song churning quite appealingly. And yet it is a song about resurrecting the dead.

"Titans” This song combines a Motorhead-like sense of ferociousness with some crushing guitar and drum-work. Again, this isn’t for everyone with its cartoonish lyrics about “The war of the titans” and “Kronos,” but this is some epic, semi-Gothic fun. About three minutes in, the song hits its stride by going into a slow-churning sludge-fest.

“Deceiver” This is some demonic-sounding speed-metal during its vocal portion, devolving into a rhythmic solo during its final minute.

Next Week: New albums from Method Man, Tracy Bonham and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Dr. Dre, Mac DeMarco, CHelsea Wolfe and the Mynabirds.

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