Veruca Salt, Ghostface Killah, Four Tet and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Veruca Salt posted this undated file photo on their Facebook page.
Veruca Salt/Facebook

As the album-release schedule shifted over to a global model, a lot of new and exciting releases were dropped during this inaugural week. The original line-up of nineties grunge act Veruca Salt made peace and released their first album together since 1997, Ghostface Killah reteamed with producer Adrian Younge for another volume of their “12 Reasons To Die” series, electronic artist Four Tet dropped an album consisting of two twenty-minute tracks, R&B artists of today paid tribute to Nina Simone and British electro singer Little Boots went clubbing.

The music industry hopes to spike sales by changing the release dates of new albums from Monday/Tuesday to Friday. The hope is that this new shift will cause a boost in music sales considering that Friday is also generally the day people get their paychecks. This move also will standardize and unify release dates on a global scale. Whether this change will work as planned remains to be seen.

PHOTO: Veruca Salt - "Ghost Notes"
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Veruca Salt’s “Ghost Notes” ****1/2

Veruca Salt’s 1994 debut, “American Thighs” is a grunge-era classic. It didn’t get the credit at the time, but I have to admit I’ve listened to it from front-to-back probably every bit as much as I listened to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” or Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream.” Take a listen to that record in 2015 and it stands with the very best of the era.

With producer Brad Wood who had helmed Liz Phair’s classic “Exile In Guyvile” a year earlier, “American Thighs” showed this Chicago band to be influenced by punk, metal and seventies arena rock in equal measure. Key single, “Seether” got to be a bona fide alt-rock radio hit.

Two years later, the band hit the studio with Steve Albini, who recorded Nirvana’s “In Utero” and Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa” and came up with a very raw EP. Then a year later, they teamed with Bob Rock for 1997’s “Eight Arms To Hold You.” Drummer Jim Shapiro left after the record was done and was replaced by Letters To Cleo’s Stacy Jones. After the promotion of that record, leaders Nina Gordon and Louise Post had a huge falling out. Gordon left the band, as did bassist Steve Lack. Post kept the name and released the decent “Resolver” in 2000 and the excellent “IV” in 2006.

In 2012, after not seeing each other in 14 years, Post and Gordon met up and became friends again. The band’s original lineup re-formed, including Shapiro (who is Gordon’s brother) and Lack, so “Ghost Notes” is Veruca Salt’s first album with the original line-up in 17 years and it picks up right where “Eight Arms To Hold You” ended.

Wisely, they chose to work with Wood again, making this album sound like the spiritual sibling to “American Thighs.” Also, it should be noted that before this record, most of the songs on their albums were either written by Post or Gordon. “Ghost Notes” credits all the songs to the band, marking a noticeable change in the songwriting structure. This means Gordon and Post don’t just harmonize with each other, they trade off verses and sections, giving the album a sense of cohesion at a higher level than before.

“Ghost Notes” sounds like a dynamic rebirth. And interestingly, the Pixies influence that was felt throughout “American Thighs” is now remarkably absent. In its place, there is a noticeable Big Star and Cheap Trick-like energy.

This album is a giant rock statement which sounds like a joyous reunion even when the songs are melancholy in tone. And yet, there are ties to the past. “The Sound Of Leaving” sounds like it is from the same pool as classic “Spiderman ’79,” while “I’m Telling You Now” sounds like the work of the same group that gave us “Forsythia.”

This is the record that many people thought would never be made. It is really great to hear Gordon and Post harmonizing together and it is great to hear Gordon embracing her rock side again, most notably on the sludgy, “Triage.” While her solo albums had some great moments, they lacked this kind of edge.

“Ghost Notes” is a remarkable feat. I’m actually tempted to say it is their best work. With so many nineties bands re-forming with some vital, missing parts, it is nice to hear a band fully intact. Of all the reunion records of late, this album and Failure’s “The Heart Is A Monster” from last week prove that rock reunions can be done the right way. If I’m being honest, “Ghost Notes” is a more satisfying record than both the Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins have put out in the last decade. (And I say that with great, respective love for both “Wasting Light” and “Oceania.” )

Let’s hope this is a new beginning for the band. We need Veruca Salt to keep releasing albums every couple years. Gordon and Post need each other. They do well by themselves, but as a team, they complement each other excellently. If this album makes anything clear, it is that Veruca Salt deserve to be mentioned among the greats of modern rock.

Focus Tracks:

“Empty Bottle” This six-minute rocking ballad is the best track this band has recorded to date. It combines the side of Post she showed on the “Resolver” track, “Disconnected” and the “IV” track “The Sun” with Gordon’s softer, more introspective side while still keeping the band’s grungy core. The way Post can shift from a honey-soaked whisper to a walloping yelp on a dime is still incredible.

“The Museum Of Broken Relationships” This was the single that announced they were back together in April of last year. More than a year later, it still stands among their best. Interestingly, “It’s Holy,” its original B-side upon release is not on the album’s track list.

“Eyes On You” This is a charging rocker with a dynamic, catchy chorus. It is instantly classic and instantly appealing.

PHOTO: "Ghostface Killah - "Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons To Die II"
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Ghostface Killah’s “Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons To Die II” ****

Ghostface Killah is having quite a busy, prolific career right now. Not only is “Twelve Reasons To Die II” his second album of 2015 so far, following “Sour Soul,” his collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD, but he released “36 Seasons” last December. This means that this is his third offering in eight months. If only more artists maintained that level of output.

Re-teaming with Adrian Younge who helmed 2013’s “Twelve Reasons To Die,” the two continue to explore gritty, Wu-Tang style rap and infuse it with old-school horror movie kitsch. The Wu have always been influenced by old flicks and Younge’s gritty, raw instrumentation seems like a perfect fit for this exploration once again. Both RZA and Raekwon show up often on the set, giving it the appeal of a classic Wu offering. In fact, if you are a Wu fan, this is mandatory listening. In addition to his Wu brothers, Vince Staples, Bilal, Lyrics Born, Chino XL and Scarub also make notable appearances.

There’s a story being told throughout this set, concerning a bunch of murders, Ghostface’s long-standing alter-ego “Tony Starks” and a kingpin named Lucas but mostly this is more of the playfully cartoonish cryptic wordplay that has become a hallmark of most of the Wu-associated projects. (It should be noted that like most Wu records, this record is quite explicit and not for the easily offended.)

Really, the star of this record is Younge. His beats slam with a real, dramatic urgency. Last year Younge did similarly amazing work on Souls Of Mischief’s “There Is Only Now.” Like that album, this one is also packaged with a bonus disc of instrumental versions of each track. Younge’s beats are just as compelling without words, possessing a vintage scratchiness. In fact the instrumental disc may be ultimately get more spins in some circles.

At just over a half-hour, the main body of this record is surprisingly brief and yet because of the interplay between Ghostface and Younge, it leaves a lasting impression. Here’s hoping these two reunite for a third volume of “Twelve Reasons To Die.”

Focus Tracks:

“King Of New York” (Featuring Raekwon) This plays like an update on the “Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx” sound, although Younge’s beats are more orchestrated and ornate than RZA’s nineties-era lo-fi grooves.

“Get The Money” (Featuring Vince Staples) Young Vince Staples continues to show he can flow with the best of them, keeping a classic brand of hip-hop alive. He drops a tight verse next to Ghostface without hesitation.

“Rise Up” (Featuring Scarub) Younge’s beat on here plays with the tension of a tight rubber band being quickly released. The beat crashes over a fast, walking bass-line. This is two-minutes of tongue-twisting verses about blood being shed and battles between good and evil. Again, this doesn’t feel realistic. It feels like something out of a graphic novel.

PHOTO: Four Tet - "Morning/Evening"
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Four Tet’s “Morning/Evening” **1/2

Kieran Hebden, AKA Four Tet is one of the most forward-thinking artists working in electronic music today. He is an ace remixer when teamed with other people, but his latest, “Morning/Evening” is one of the rare non-high points of his career.

It should be noted that this isn’t really an album. It is more of an elongated single and b-side. There are only two songs here. “Morning” and “Evening” each clock in at around twenty minutes, giving you an album forty minutes in length.

While, the long form is usually Hebden’s friend (see his excellent nearly twelve-minute remix of Beth Orton’s “Carmella”) these two tracks sound like they would be better served in edited form with eight other tracks, even if they do still showcase Hebden’s signature level of skill.

I can appreciate what Hebden is doing here. Here, he has mixed the electro sound that has been the centerpiece of his records particularly since the “Ringer” EP from 2008 and peppered it with some classic Indian vocal samples. While this does at times bring to the forefront a euphoric and occasionally meditative sensibility, it wears out its welcome. I say this as someone who usually really loves Four Tet’s work. (In 2013 his “Beautiful Rewind” and “0181” shared a spot on my year-end list. In 2012, his album “Pink” made my list as well.)

While this serves as a passably interesting musical exercise, it would be better served as some sort of bonus material on a second disc with another release. Hebden may be closer to being a genre equivalent to the great jazz masters than his other electronic peers, but this kind of exhibition may even stretch the patience of his fans expecting a fuller album.

Still, that isn’t to say this album is in any way, bad. The lush, expansive, chilled nature of “Evening” in particular has a great deal to offer. But these two tracks should be a side-offering and not the main course. This is a twelve-inch single masquerading as an album. Its lack of variety makes it a bit of a surprising let down.

Focus Tracks: There are only two tracks here and they are rather singular in their sound. Picking one would not do the record justice.

PHOTO: "Nina Revisited... A Tribute To Nina Simone"
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“Nina Revisited: A Tribute To Nina Simone” ***

Nina Simone had an unmistakable voice, with a profound level of soulfulness. Her influence runs deep throughout the R&B and jazz landscapes. It would probably be hard to find An R&B singer today who doesn’t look up to her for both her gravitas and the unflinchingly fearless level of her work. She was a titan and someone who really laid the groundwork for future generations. The new compilation, “Nina Revisited” shows modern stars covering her work in tribute.

It’s a good collection in the way that it will probably cause a younger audience to open up and go back to the source material after they have finished listening to this, but this album makes it abundantly clear that there will only ever be one Nina Simone. So, as good as this can be in places, it frequently doesn’t hold a candle to Simone’s originals.

What makes this album important however is that it features six new Lauryn Hill songs. The reason why that is striking is that Hill has still not released a proper studio-album follow-up to her 1998 breakthrough, “The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill.” She remains an elusive figure, so it is nice to hear her reemerge, especially when she nails her version of “Feeling Good.”

Purists may have a problem with Hill rapping her way through “I’ve Got Life,” which updates Simone’s version of “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life” from the musical “Hair,” but this brand of modernizing actually works in this case. Similarly, Common raps his way through the Lalah Hathaway-assisted “We Are Young, Gifted & Black” which updates Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” and gives it some modern social commentary.

However, too often this album tries too hard to update these songs when the straight-ahead route would have been better. Usher, for instance has no business singing “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and he makes the song sound like factory-spun R&B pop. Similarly, Mary J. Blige’s reading of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” surprisingly misses the mark by turning the earnest original into laid-back “smooth jazz.” Still, if there is a cover of this song that holds up as well as Simone’s, it is the one by the Animals.

On the other side of experimentation, singer Alice Smith’s version of “I Put A Spell On You” may not capture the greatness of the original, but with its backwards guitar line, it ends up being a trippy treat.

Not surprisingly, Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone pays tribute to her mother the best with a spot-on reading of “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” proving that Simone’s incredible talent is definitely in the genes.

When the album ends with Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free” you realize the kind of spark missing from the most of the record.

But while this album has some major issues and listeners would be better advised to just go back to the original material, this album is still worth a narrow recommendation for its few high points. It doesn’t quite consistently capture the spirit of Simone in the way that it should, but it was still obviously crafted with love.

Focus Tracks:

“Feeling Good” (Lauryn Hill) Hill has the right kind of vocal dexterity to pull this off. Interestingly on these new tracks, it is should be noted that Hill seems to have developed a new level of vibrato in her voice over the years.

“I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl” (Lisa Simone) She’s got a higher voice than her mother, but Lisa Simone brings some authentic bluesy texture to this track.

“We Are Young, Gifted & Black” (Common and Lalah Hathaway) Common keeps the core of this as a civil rights anthem, lamenting recent violence in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore and Mississippi. The struggle continues in 2015.

PHOTO: Little Boots - "Working Girl"
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Little Boots’ “Working Girl” ***1/2

Victoria Hesketh’s third album under her Little Boots moniker finds the British electro singer going into club land, veering away from the electro-clash pop on her debut, “Hands,” and going further into the sleek pseudo modern disco sound of her last album, “Nocturnes.”

While modern, he majority of “Working Girl” maintains a very retro brand of appeal. This feels like club and house music from the late eighties and the very early nineties as heard through a 2015 filter. “No Pressure” for instance brings to mind acts like Black Box, Soul II Soul, Cathy Dennis and Tara Kemp. This is a collection of sleek, unapologetic dance pop with house-music edges.

“Business Pleasure” goes even further into the past, since its drum machines and synths sound like a frantic lost cut from 1983, while “Desire” is full of similarly chunky beats with dusty, glimmering synths. Even the freaky (and pretty amazing) “Real Girl” has a strangely retro charm while sounding simultaneously futuristic.

Really, with “Working Girl,” Little Boots” is out to make a casually bizarre yet appealing club record. “Heroine” is a sultry slice of tweaked house music while “Better In The Morning” has a “New Jack Swing” aura.

This is an album for people who miss the dance music of the past and yet at the same time it still has modern touches. With “Working Girl,” Hesketh continues to set herself apart from the pop pack. So far, she seems to be getting better and more focused with each successive album.

Focus Tracks:

“Taste It” This is an erotically-charged, rhythmic trip full off spacey sounds and a glimmering synths, anchored by a near-tribal beat and a rumbling bass-line. It is downright hypnotic.

“Help Too” This is another shimmering electro piece finding a middle ground somewhere between Grimes and Goldfrapp. It has one of the most ear-catching choruses on the set.

“Get Things Done” Something about this bass-line and this song’s overall tone makes it come off like a remixed, reworked answer to The Cure’s “Let’s Go To Bed” during the verse sections. But then during the chorus, it makes a really bright, pop-y turn. Is this cheesy? A little. But that might be the goal.

Next Week: The latest from The Chemical Brothers, Jason Isbell and more.

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