The Weeknd's 'Starboy' Is Good but Misses the Mysterious Intrigue of His Earlier Work

VIDEO: The Weeknd, the high-pitched singer known for his signature dreadlocks, has cut his hair.
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You would think Black Friday would have been a monster of a release day for music. No. It wasn’t. That says a lot about the changing model of the music industry as the physical has been more frequently replaced by the download and the download has been effectively hijacked by the streaming services. There was a time when music was a big gift source. The new industry model has lost something in that regard. As music gets devoured in bulk, the idea of giving someone an album as a gift may be losing steam. As someone who always prefers hard copies, I think that's a needless loss of a revenue stream.

This week the Weeknd drops a new album, thus continuing his pop ascension, country king Garth Brooks releases a new album, Martha Wainwright releases the physical edition of her latest album, arriving two weeks after the digital release and singer Rumer covers the songs of Bacharach and David. As we near December, there probably should be more highlights, but I suppose the music industry has nearly given up on promoting to shoppers in a post-turkey haze.

PHOTO: The Weeknd - "Starboy"
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The Weeknd’s “Starboy” ***

Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, is still chasing the greatness of the trilogy of albums he released in quick succession back in 2011. But he has remained a consistently busy music staple. “Starboy” is his sixth album if you count those initial three, and it comes quick on the heels of last year’s “Beauty Behind the Madness.” Tesfaye has built himself a niche, singing slick songs with an electro-tinge that alternate between the sultry and the sleazy. His high voice is magnetic and it is a tool he uses well to make sure every that every word he sings hits its fullest potential.

The Weeknd remains a guiding force, crafting the kind of pop songs that the radio loves. “Party Monster” is a dark, synth-heavy track that finds Tesfaye almost rapping his lyrics while “Secrets” is a sleek, house-flavored number that samples Tears For Fears and gives a strong lyrical nod to the Romantics. The title track and “I Feel It Coming” feature Daft Punk, which I suppose is a significant statement about Tesfaye’s current, well-earned position as a tastemaker, while “Sidewalks” is a vocoder-assisted slice of slow-burning blues-funk that features Kendrick Lamar. Lana Del Rey makes an awesomely weird guest turn on “Stargirl Interlude,” while “All I Know” features Future.

As an album, this could have been a great offering. I wish I liked it better because I hear nearly all of the elements that resonated in his previous work. A couple of these songs have Tesfaye’s vocals obscured with digital layers over his voice. It’s excessive. I’m sure he’s doing this because it is a popular move in the pop world today, but if there is anyone who doesn’t need to resort to such tactics, it is this guy. He’s got a clear voice that has become his trademark and to not make the most of one of his natural strengths for the sake of following trends seems like a bit of a waste.

Still, this record continues to find Tesfaye showing some interesting sides. “False Alarm” sounds like a typical club number that is suddenly, slightly influenced by Nine Inch Nails’ “March of Pigs” during the chorus.

“A Lonely Night” recalls Michael Jackson. This is unsurprising considering the similarities the two artists’ vocal tones and “Rockin’” sounds like a sleek, martini-soaked, sleek jam, even if its lyrics are a bit pedestrian.

If you enjoyed any of the Weeknd’s past records, “Starboy” has elements you’ll continue appreciate, but considering the fact that he made his name originally as a fresh voice going against the grain, there’s something vaguely off-putting about some of the concessions made here to cater to pop airplay. There’s a feeling that his highly influential sound has been altered. This is a decent party record on the surface, but it misses the mysterious intrigue of his earlier work. You can’t help but feel like he’s been a bit streamlined and dulled down. His lyrical themes of sad reflection after the party and drug-fueled sexual exploits might be getting tiresome, as well.

This album does, however, have its key moments. The highs may not be as high here as they once were, but the Weeknd’s momentum will no doubt continue to build.

Focus Tracks:

“Starboy” (Featuring Daft Punk) This is an impossibly catchy song and it has probably already served him pretty well. There’s almost a '90s R&B sound to this track even if it has an '80s-synth sheen. Again, Tesfaye is almost rapping his verses.

“False Alarm” The unhinged chorus brings forth a surprise punk-influenced side that I hope gets more exposure on his next record. The chorus would have more impact with a thick layer of guitar fuzz; nevertheless, this song makes a powerful statement.

“Secrets” Kudos once again on the sample of Tears for Fears, “Pale Shelter,” which is arguably the best reuse of the duo’s work since Kanye West used “Memories Fade” as the basis for “Coldest Winter,” which was one of the only highlights of the otherwise desolate “808s & Heartbreak.” With the double dose of '80s influences at work here, the Weeknd makes his mission extremely clear.

PHOTO: Garth Brooks - "Gunslinger"
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Garth Brooks’ “Gunslinger” ***

Twenty-five years ago, Garth Brooks was the new face of country, bringing the genre to a wider, more pop-minded audience. You could plausibly argue that he is the father of modern pop-country as the genre has gotten further away from its roots. But listening to “Gunslinger,” his second proper album since his 2014 comeback album, “Man Against Machine,” it is striking that, compared with what passes for country today, how old school he seems.

Opener, “Honky-Tonk Somewhere” is an unapologetically cheesy track, but it is the kind of kitsch that country radio used to devour. The synths on “Weekend” sound a bit out of place, but when you listen to something as grounded as “Ask Me How I Know,” it becomes abundantly clear that the songcraft is still key and that he’s not going to make songs based on lyrical checklists or plant unwanted bass drops in the middle of his songs just to get airplay. Then again, he doesn’t have to resort to such measures. Saleswise, he’s one of the most successful artists in U.S. history. Careerwise, he’s basically at the top, so he doesn’t necessarily need more hits; he’s merely attempting for more on his own terms.

Granted “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance” sounds like a bit of an effort to rewrite Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride” or at least a stab at trying to capture a similar mood, while “Pure Adrenaline” mixes country, with hard-edged classic rock and funk influences.

There isn’t much about “Gunslinger” that will probably alter history, but it is a decent reminder of Brooks’ power and his inherent charisma. The duet with his wife, Trisha Yearwood, “Whisky to Wine” is vintage country gold, while on the other side of the coin, “BANG! BANG!” tries a little too hard to nail the album’s “Gunslinger” imagery.

While this isn’t a career changer, it still shows Garth as a dynamic force. It’s nice to see that his comeback has continued.

The sticker on the CD packaging calls this “the most Garth album yet.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. (That might actually be more Garth than some people can handle.) It’s a tad on the predictable side, but yeah, it kind of does the job.

Focus Tracks:

“Whisky To Wine” (Featuring Trisha Yearwood) The chorus of “Whisky to wine / Is not the same high” inspires a chuckle. In classic country fashion, Brooks and Yearwood use hard-drinking as a metaphor for love.

“Pure Adrenaline” The lines “Time to release the beast inside” and “God has chosen you” lay it on a little thick, but it sounds like Brooks might have been listening to some late-'80s Aerosmith when this song was made.

“Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance” Is this derivative? Yes. But it sort of works.

PHOTO: Martha Wainwright - "Goodnight City"
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Martha Wainwright’s “Goodnight City” ***1/2

Martha Wainwright follows up last year’s “Songs in the Dark,” her haunting collaboration with her half-sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche, with “Goodnight City,” a rather sparse, often strange offering packed with lingering ghosts.

Right from the opening of “Round the Bend,” it is evident that she is clearly the daughter of Loudon Wainwright III, and she sounds like a chip off the block, even if some of her lyrical phrasing seems to indicate some possible Tom Petty influence. Wainwright not only inherited her skills from her father’s side but from her late mother, Kate McGarrigle, who comes to mind hearing the song “Traveler” and its lyrical reference a cancer fight. Roots are important to Wainwright. This song is about family and the songs “Franci” and “Francis” both name-check her son, Francis Valentine.

There’s gentle romance in her voice on “Before the Children Came Along,” whereas the rocking “So Down” has Wainwright sounding like an equal cross between Lucinda Williams and Patti Smith. Tonally speaking, though, that latter track is an outlier. Mostly this is an expressive but downbeat set with some fascinating and unexpected melodic turns. A quiet number like the Michael Ondaatje and Thomas Bartlett–penned “Piano Music,” for instance, sounds like an intimate, almost classical exercise.

Wainwright is also playing with her voice. Vocally on the Beth Orton-written “Alexandria,” she seems to be purposely experimenting with dissonance.

“Goodnight City” is a strong record that shows Wainwright’s gifts as a writer and an interpreter. The covers are given just as much care as the originals, but it is also among most experimental work. She’s balancing beauty and chaos and alternating between the two. This record requires repeated listens for its best moments to really stick.

Focus Tracks:

“Around the Bend” This will most definitely become one of Wainwright’s signature songs. It’s an obvious highlight and an obvious single.

“Traveler” An exploration of family and history when you are a touring musician of impossibly musical lineage, this song really resonates. It is quite personal and it is made clearly with love.

“Francis” This soft piano ballad and closer was actually penned by Rufus Wainwright and it fittingly sounds like a classic cabaret number, ending the album on a very tender note.

PHOTO: Rumer - "This Girls In Love With You"
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Rumer’s “This Girl’s in Love (A Bacharach & David Songbook)” ***1/2

Sarah Joyce, better known as Rumer, is a British singer who has spent much of her career playing other people’s songs and giving them the kind of attention and care that seems lifted from a lost era. Her latest effort, “This Girl’s in Love” is a tribute to the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Sure, this material has been covered countless times before, but Rumer gives it a supper-club-chanteuse approach and she has a gentle quality that brings to mind everyone from Karen Carpenter to the softer side of Dusty Springfield.

Rumer also has an advantage. Her husband, Rob Shirakbari used to be Bacharach’s musical director, so together they know this material very well. So, yes, you do need another version of “Walk On By,” and you need another take of “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Bacharach himself even sings here a bit of an intro on the title track.

The Carpenter comparison is emphasized on her downbeat and sorrowful-sounding reading of “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Her reading of “One Less Bell to Answer” captures the song’s overall sadness.

This album is notable because in some way Rumer is able to in some way breathe new life into these timeless classics. In 2016, “This Girl’s in Love With You” is a welcome and comforting lite-radio throwback.

Focus Tracks:

“(They Long to Be) Close to You” We associate this song with sadness because of Carpenter’s tragic death. Somehow Rumer’s reading here seems both welcoming and appropriate.

“What the World Needs Now Is Love” This is an evergreen anthem, given a slow and sweeping rendition.

“(You’ll Never Get to Heaven) if You Break My Heart” With its soft bossa nova vibe and those signature Bacharach-style horns, this succeeds quite well.

Next Week: New music from the Rolling Stones, Childish Gambino and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Miranda Lambert, Bruno Mars and Metallica.

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