ZAYN, 2 Chainz, Bob Mould and More Music Reviews

VIDEO: Zayn Malik Releases First Solo Single
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This week we have really fascinating collection of releases. Zayn Malik gives us his first solo offering after leaving One Direction, 2 Chainz joins forces with Lil Wayne, Bob Mould continues his journey back into hardcore and punk territory, soul singer Anthony Hamilton shows his sonic flexibility, The Thermals deliver a really tight set of punk-flavored indie-rock, Welsh rockers The Joy Formidable show some noticeable maturity and Swedish band the Sun Days evoke memories of a similar band from the past.

We are in the midst of the spring release schedule with a lot of great new music to explore. Buckle up!

PHOTO: Zayn Malik - "Mind Of Mine"
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ZAYN’s “Mind Of Mine” ***1/2

Leaving One Direction was a very smart movie on Zayn Malik’s part. Now he has made his solo debut as ZAYN and while he seems to be borrowing production techniques from The Weeknd (and ... er ... Justin Bieber’s “Purpose”) he’s still created a record much more compelling than anything his former band ever issued.

There’s a feeling of liberation here as he surrounds himself with neon-soaked sultry electro grooves that show a strong eighties influence and the album’s parental warning sticker is no doubt a direct attempt to escape for his former group’s saccharine, squeaky-clean image. But this is a sleek, surprisingly enjoyable set of songs.

Sure, there are plenty of aspects of this album to pick apart, like for instance ZAYN’s strange use of capitalization in his song-titles. Yes, this is still pop music of a bubblegum variety, but on a base level this is an enjoyable pop album, packed with the kind of smooth production you’d expect, with sped-up and manipulated vocal snippets added for decoration, lush synths and groove-driven beats. When The Weeknd dropped “House Of Balloons” five years ago, he set a whole new production template that would shape a new sound for pop and R&B. Miguel also seems to be a large influence here. There are more than a couple echoes of “Wildheart.”

On “tRuTH,” ZAYN tries his best to summon up his best Bill Withers energy, even if his hushed delivery lacks Withers’ sense of gravitas. On “iT’s YoU,” he goes into a falsetto turn that would have made a young Brian Wilson proud. “dRuNk” has “smooth-lovin’” vibe, while “fOol fOr YoU” is a strikingly mature stab at piano balladry. This album isn’t a complete show-stopper. It isn’t astounding, but it is good enough to surpass most of ZAYN’s doubters’ expectations.

“Mind Of Mine” places ZAYN firmly ahead of the One Direction pack and he has enough charisma to lead the show. This is the sound of a singer breaking free from the rigid mold of “boy-band” life. It shows that his future should be increasingly bright. For an unabashed, shiny pop record, this album has enough interesting moments to win ZAYN some new fans.

Focus Tracks:

“PILLOWTALK” Rightfully, this is the album’s lead single and this song has an incredible sense of warmth. It has a chilled electro-vibe and it gets better and catchier with every spin.

“sHe” This is another club-ready track full of the same kind of energy. Again, the hit pop singles of the mid-eighties play as a big influence. But the best moment comes with the beat-breakdown at the end of the song. This part should have been extended further.

“fOol fOr YoU” This shows a remarkably different side and it comes from a much more stripped down place than what we have heard from ZAYN in the past. This feels more like a mature singer-songwriter ballad, but at the same time, it has supreme hit potential.

PHOTO: 2 Chainz - "Collegrove"
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2 Chainz’ “ColleGrove” **

“ColleGrove” is credited as a 2 Chainz album when really it should be credited as a 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne record, since Wayne drops verses on eight of the album’s twelve tracks. It is an uneven set that too often plays like modern Southern Gangsta rap by numbers. You have the slow beats with the mannered delivery with pauses between lines over synth-heavy beats, employing the use of Auto-Tune and occasionally pitch-shifted voices. Topics range from smoking, to sipping, to strippers, to drugs and occasionally brief mentions of violence.

This isn’t groundbreaking stuff and if you’ve ever heard a 2 Chainz record before or a Lil Wayne record before and liked it, you probably know what you are getting.

There is however one track on “ColleGrove” that really stands out because it differs from this formula. On “Bounce,” the two MCs actually gain some momentum with jaw-dropping results making it the one jam on here that you’ll want to blast on repeat.

Elsewhere, you have Wayne having fun with Auto-Tune settings on “Gotta Lotta,” or both of them bragging about their worth on “Smell Like Money.” There’s something oddly interesting about the way 2 Chainz yells the title of “Blue C-Note” while Wayne’s computerized voice hums and sings along in the background or 2 Chainz’ peculiar muttering flow on “Bentley Truck.” These are moments that momentarily grab your attention, but they don’t demand return visits.

This album isn’t without its clever lines, and some of the beats have a bit of leverage. The crazy string-section sample on “Rolls Royce Weather Every Day” comes to mind. There are some good moments here, but on the whole this album feels extremely basic and unbalanced, with little to no sense of innovation.

What “ColleGrove” ends up being is a grimy club record for people who like jams about material gain. That’s probably fine for Chainz’s and Wayne’s established fan bases, but if you are looking for thought-provoking hip-hop that will take you some place interesting, for the most part, this really isn’t it. It’s a notch or three above, say, Rae Sremmerd, but as “Bounce” proves, this could have been a much different and more exciting collection.

Focus Tracks:

“Bounce” (Featuring Lil Wayne) The only true keeper on the set thanks to the lightening-fast flow and the pure unadulterated momentum. This is a single and it stands out really strongly on the album because it is really the only place where 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne prove they can flow and command the room. It also has one of the best beats on the set, with its siren-infused synth-line. I really wish the rest of the record showcased this sense of power.

“Rolls Royce Weather Every Day”(Featuring Lil Wayne) Again, this interesting beat goes a long way and it works a nice strut. Like the rest of this record, this really earns its parental warning sticker. If you are someone who gets offended, I’d suggest you stay away from this album on the whole.

PHOTO: Bob Mould - "Patch The Sky"
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Bob Mould’s “Patch The Sky” ****1/2

Former Husker Du frontman Bob Mould continues his high-streak of “Silver Age” and “Beauty & Ruin” with his latest, “Patch The Sky.” Last week, in an NPR interview, he told Ryan Adams that this album was written after a period of loss. At its core, “Patch The Sky” finds the singer merging the deep, thoughtful song-craft he showed on 2009’s “District Line,” with the more straight-ahead return to his hardcore roots that his last two records explored. It means that the end result is a dense and tense mixture of pounding beats and riffs mixed with powerful and mature song structure.

Mould may be one of the best craftsmen of power-pop working today. So while a song like “The End Of Things” comes off as pleasurably assaultive at first thanks to its instrumentation and its pure volume. If you were to strip away all the distortion and chaos there, you’d still be left with a very strong song.

Mould covers the words to most of these tracks by burying his vocals deeply in the mix. This is in order to make the listener have to absorb the album more deeply. It means you’ll probably get more out of this record listening to it on an excellent pair of headphones rather than a dinky set of computer speakers. Plus you won’t want to miss the words and melodies on songs like “Hold On,” “You Say You” and “Losing Time.”

It really does seem like “Patch The Sky” is Mould’s third entry in a trilogy, especially considering this album’s “Hands Are Tied” comes off like a different keyed, brighter response to the “Beauty & Ruin” track “Man With Crooked Face.” Like “Beauty & Ruin” this record will play well for any fan of the Foo Fighters’ album, “The Colour And The Shape” who has been disappointed with their latter-day output. It once again is evident that Mould is exploring a louder, more raucous take on the sounds Dave Grohl was experimenting with twenty years ago. Of course, Grohl was heavily influenced by Mould’s Husker Du work, so as Mould himself makes a trip full-circle this makes utterly perfect sense.

Mould is not only continuing to rediscover his harder, louder side associated with the music of his youth, he has continued to grow as a songwriter in the process. Thus, he is one of the chief punk and hardcore influencers of the eighties who is still finding himself working at peak level in 2016.

“Patch The Sky” is a record that demands your attention and yet with every listen, a new detail makes itself known. From pain and isolation comes beauty and this stands among Mould’s strongest records in his long discography.

Focus Tracks:

“The End Of Things” This is no doubt an anthem of loss and at the same time, it is delivered with an almost joyous punch. As an acoustic track in contrast, it would probably have a more melancholy tone.

“Pray For Rain” Like “The End Of Things,” this is an upbeat, pounding, raging song full of hard, anthemic power, but if you strip it down, it has a darker, sadder core. This juxtaposition of underlying sadness finds Mould playing with a “Pagliacci” sad-clown dynamic of trying to sound upbeat when something more dramatic is happening.

“Black Confetti” This is a bold, hard-edged rocker that packs an amazing amount of power. Again, it is single-worthy and that same thematic juxtaposition is apparent.... Even in this song’s title.

PHOTO: Anthony Hamilton - "What Im Feelin"
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Anthony Hamilton’s “What I’m Feelin’” ****

Anthony Hamilton is one of those vocalists in modern R&B who in spite of his 20 years in the business hasn’t really gotten his due. He should really be a much bigger star with his vintage soul appeal and his knack for working organic grooves. Really what his seventh album offers is the kind of sparkling R&B fit for anyone who found D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” to be a little too oddly offbeat.

On standout tracks like “Save Me,” “Grateful” and “Amen,” Hamilton inserts a gospel vibe into his music, while “Ain’t No Shame,” wonderfully plays off of a bouncy bass-riff. This is classic blues put into a modern R&B context.

The title-track has a cool doo-wop vibe while “Never Letting Go” explores the similar territory to Leon Bridges’ “River.” “Walk In My Shoes” on the other hand works an authoritative piano-led groove into a horn and sitar-assisted chorus. (The truth is, odds are these instruments are probably from a keyboard, but the effect works anyway.)

This is a rich collection filled with a variety of influences. The organ-drenched “Take You Home” merges a righteous congregation energy with the act of picking up a date and imagining a bright future ahead, while “Ever Seen Heaven” verges on synth-pop.

With “What I’m Feelin’” Hamilton has essentially crafted a collection that walks us through the history of modern soul music. The fact that this album doesn’t sit with one mood and work it to its core may frustrate some listeners, but really this album’s pure eclecticism should be seen as a testament to Anthony Hamilton’s versatility.

Other people may find the wonky, kind of flat sounding note in the riff of “Save Me” to be distracting. I view this as Hamilton’s willingness to uncompromisingly experiment. Touches like that note give this album a raw, fresh human feeling not found on the many over-produced albums that make the pop rounds.

“What I’m Feelin’” is an adventurous, dynamic set of songs from a singer who has paid his dues. The fact that music like this no longer gets a chance at top forty radio is a crime. This is a fearlessly rich album full of the kind of energy that in a different era would have made Hamilton a legend.

Focus Tracks:

“Love Is An Angry Thing” This closing piano ballad is the best track on the set and it showcases the best of what Hamilton has to offer. There’s a modern Stax-like vibe to this track. It’s the kind of song you wish you heard more often within a contemporary context.

“Ain’t No Shame” The bass and guitar noodling add a great deal of moodiness to this track, but it is Hamilton’s vocal turn that really sends this one home.

“Never Letting Go” This is an acoustic guitar number with a gentle and tender feel. Again, it feels like with this album Hamilton is trying to show everything he can do within the context of this set.

PHOTO: The Thermals - "We Disappear"
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The Thermals’ “We Disappear” ****

On their seventh album overall and their second album for Saddle Creek, The Thermals have delivered their best and most solid record since 2009’s “Now We Can See.” “We Disappear” is a slight record, clocking in at under a half-hour but it hits right in the sweet spot that Hutch Harris, Kathy Foster and Westin Glass have been cultivating their sound. Former Death Cab For Cutie member Chris Walla adds some really sharp production, making standouts like “My Heart Went Cold” and “Hey You” bristle with an electric, radio-ready appeal.

Harris’ lyrical approach is still stunningly simple but at the same time, it suits these often fast bits of punk. On “Thinking Of You,” he has a particularly nasally vocal approach which brings to mind the pop-punk punch of say, Green Day or Blink 182, but at the same time, The Thermals have always been a band with a more raw and mature approach than either of those bands. Still these are fun, heavy, three-chord workouts which should please indie-rock fans across a few generations.

Come to think of it, Superchunk may be a more apt comparison. Hutch Harris and Mac McCaughan share a sensibility as frontmen that relies equally on punk assault and pop appeal. “If We Don’t Die Today” has the kind of charm typical of the Thermals’ peak material, as does the wonderfully sludgy, “In Every Way.”

It’s really nice to see this band slow down on the closer, “Years In A Day.” Like “At The Bottom Of The Sea” from “Now We Can See,” and “Alone, A Fool,” from 2010’s “Personal Life,” this song stands out in the best way. So often their albums are full of quick rave-ups. It’s nice to hear this band play with different textures. This is also the case on this album’s “The Great Dying,” which is also considerably more measured in its approach.

This is an often abrasive record that crashes around quite a bit, but these songs offer some biting bits of power-pop. Upon repeated listens, “We Disappear” proves to be a pretty indelible and forceful record of the greatest sort. Harris, Foster and Glass are definitely working with a distinct formula, but it is one that pays off when it hits the right apex. This brief explosion of a record stands among the band’s sharpest and most appealing efforts to date.

Do I wish it was a song or two longer? Yes. But this is a compact and economic use of time that impresses nonetheless.

And as a side note: You should check out the Thermals’ Facebook page, if you haven’t already. They have one of the funniest feeds on the Internet.

Focus Tracks:

“Hey You” What a great, timeless gut-punch of a song. By the end of the first spin, if you aren’t pogo-ing around the room, you may be dead inside.

“My Heart Went Cold” This song may be the band’s brightest hope for a radio-crossover hit single. In any case, it should be licensed for television shows or movies. It definitely shows them at their most commercial to date without harming any of their indie cred.

“Years In A Day” This ethereal builder closes the album in the best and dreamiest way possible. Again, this is another possible single with tremendous potential.

PHOTO: The Joy Formidable - "Hitch"
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The Joy Formidable’s “Hitch” ****1/2

With their first album in three years, Welsh rock trio, The Joy Formidable continue to explore the pop, grunge and shoegaze hybrid sound that made 2011’s “The Big Roar” and 2013’s “Wolf’s Law” great successes. Anchored by leader Ritzy Bryan’s charismatic sense of melody and amazing tendency towards skillful guitar freak-outs, this band really stands out among the pack.

“Hitch” feels a tad more organic and stripped down than its predecessors. There are more bits of acoustic work and orchestration. From the delicately ethereal “Underneath The Petal” to the Rhydian Davies-led “The Gift,” this album comes from a slightly less volatile place than their previous work. There’s a feeling like they are morphing into a grunge-infused answer to Fleetwood Mac, which isn’t a bad thing, especially because they are still prone for sudden explosive turns.

“The Last Thing On My Mind” has bits of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers in its, tight, earnest groove while “Radio Of Lips” sounds like a heavier, more prog-influenced answer to Garbage. The latter should also be a favorite to those who took a liking to the band’s most famous song to date, “Whirring.”

There is definitely a dense quality to this album like the band members know they are trying to create something classic and important. The amp squeals and hums are much less of a presence than they were on the group’s previous work. It’s almost as if there is a shift happening within both the songwriting and the performances. There’s a noted sense of maturity in “Hitch,” as if they are playing to the harder, louder side of the “Triple-A”-radio audience since alt-rock radio is pretty much a thing of the past.

With “Hitch,” The Joy Formidable continue to be one of the most stunning power trios working today and yet, in the States, they remain too much like a kept secret. That needs to change.

Focus Tracks:

“Radio Of Lips” If you have never heard this band, this is a great place to start. It demands to be blasted through radio speakers, but in this age of closed pop radio, that might not happen. Still, it is a killer song.

“It’s Started” If you ever want to question their sheer prowess as musicians, this track should leave you stunned. Matt Thomas’ drumming here is quite stunning and the song works itself through a variety of moods in a short period of time.

“Don’t Let Me Know” This begins like a gentle acoustic number, but before the end, it explodes and fully bursts in glorious layers of sound. Ritzy Bryan is a magician when it comes to getting beautifully nuanced layers and sounds out of her amp.

PHOTO: The Sun Days - "Album"
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The Sun Days’ “Album” ****

Let’s make one thing clear. The Sun Days are not the Sundays. They are a new Swedish band led by the wonderfully clear voice of Elsa Fredriksson Holmgren. Their sound is upbeat and fun, but one can’t help but compare them to the band from which they almost share a name. Fredriksson Holmgren has a voice not dissimilar from Harriet Wheeler, even if her voice may be a tad higher than Wheeler’s. It makes you wonder, first of all if they actually were ever a Sundays cover band and secondly if they would do decent versions of “Here’s Where The Story Ends,” “Goodbye” or “Summertime.”

It’d be easy to stop it there and just accuse the band of loosely borrowing a name and sharing a slight sonic resemblance, but it would be wrong. “Album,” is only eight songs in a mere half-hour, making “EP,” probably a more fitting name, but it is brimming with quality songs. The oddly-titled, “OOO,” has the making of a jangle-pop classic, whereas, “You Can’t Make Up Your Mind,” merges jumpy power-pop with some slight, bright dream-pop guitar textures.

Really this record is a timeless dose of indie-rock, hitting well-worn territory but hitting it really well. “Come On Over” is tremendously upbeat and pleasant, as is the appealing, “Get Him Off Your Mind.”

From start to finish, this set offers sugar-coated riffs delivered with an elastic sensibility. The tempo-shifts in “Busy People” arrive both feverishly and effortlessly. This is a playfully fun enjoyable record that no doubt certain fans will be playing on repeat through the Spring and Summer.

The band’s choice of name is unfortunate because they shine in their own right. They are a promising and skilled group working from a long tradition. While fans of the Sundays will most likely also dig the Sun Days and vice versa, the comparison is perhaps unfair to both bands. Part of me really wishes the Sun Days had picked a more original name. (I’m definitely not the only one to make this observation.) In some ways that decision leaves “Album,” unjustly a little in the shade.

Focus Tracks:

“OOO” This song is the kind of song that will definitely brighten your day and yet it has pop appeal as well. There may be some sadness embedded in its bouncy jangle-pop textures, but it is a hit waiting to happen.

“Don’t Need To Be Them” This opener is another fun and peppy number with s really strong chorus. Once you hear it, you’ll want to hear what the rest of the record has to offer and if you like it, you won’t be disappointed with what’s to come.

“Get Him Of Your Mind” This band is really good at establishing melodic elements with their guitar riffs. This is one of the many songs here where you will find yourself listening to the guitars with the same kind of focus as the vocals.

Next Week: New music from Weezer, Pet Shop Boys and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Gwen Stefani, Iggy Pop, Soul Asylum and more.

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