Record Release Rundown: The Latest From Broken Bells, Toni Braxton & Babyface, Marissa Nadler and Mary Lambert

PHOTO: Singers Toni Braxton and Kenneth Brian "Babyface" Edmonds attend the 81st annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, Dec. 3, 2013 in New York City.
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This week, it's a rather low key release week but a strong one, nonetheless with James Mercer and Danger Mouse re-pairing and returning as Broken Bells. Two nineties R&B heavyweight reunite as Babyface and Toni Braxton take us through the course of a doomed relationship. In addition we'll examine the latest album from indie-rock singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler and listen to a new EP from Macklemore associate Mary Lambert.

PHOTO: Broken Bells album "After The Disco"
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Broken Bells' "After The Disco" ****1/2

Broken Bells is the duo consisting of James Mercer from the Shins and producer-extraordinaire Danger Mouse. Their first album topped my year-end list in 2010. It's amazing to say this, but their new, second album, "After The Disco," makes their debut seem like a practice run. This is a richly nuanced, dense collection of well-crafted space-pop.

Mercer has really blossomed as performer, too. Remember how mumbly and whispery he was on the Shins' classic debut, "Oh, Inverted World?" Here, he sings loudly and really gives the tracks the energy they need. His emergence as a key pop-songsmith was established long ago and perhaps cemented with the beautiful "Pet Sounds"-esque Shins hit, "Phantom Limb."

Danger Mouse has never failed to impress. He's recorded ace records with Norah Jones, MF DOOM, Beck and The Black Keys. Later this year we'll hear his work with U2. Here, he surrounds these tracks with a whimsical sheen. This album reminds me of some of the best pop albums of the '80's. (Remember the ones that would score 7 or 8 big hits and stay on the charts for more than a year?) Danger Mouse shows here that Broken Bells are worthy of the same kind of epic critical love bestowed upon his other high-profile duo, Gnarls Barkley. This is the work of two men coming together to make beautiful sonic dynamite.

"After The Disco" shows not only that these two musicians have gotten extremely comfortable with each other, but that this once side project deserves a long string of future releases. This is a beautifully made record all the way through.

Focus Tracks:

"Perfect World" It took me forever to get through the rest of the record, because this opening track grabbed me to such an extent that I needed to listen to it on repeat. At 6:24, it actually doesn't seem long enough! That is how good it is! It also possesses some of the most beautiful synth work heard on this side of 1985. Mercer's typically thought-provokingly cryptic lyrics dance over a dreamy backdrop that should please both classic new-wave fans and EDM-loving club kids. There's no doubt about it, this is a perfect song. (No pun intended!)

"Lazy Wonderland"This track is electro dream pop taken to its brink. Mercer sings a lulling melody over a digital metronome beat. The echo and reverb on his voice give the track a woozy, psychedelic punch. During the chorus, the song gets a strong dose of orchestration.

"Medicine" "Medicine" is another winner. Built around a keyboard line that brings up associations with Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation," this track also probably plays to same instinct in Danger Mouse that made him cover the Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone" with Gnarls Barkley. The song ends with a beautiful instrumental part that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Yann Tiersen's score to the movie "Amelie."

"Holding On For Life" This falsetto-laden groove sounds like Mercer and Danger Mouse spent the year listening to Jessie Ware's "Devotion" on repeat. That is, until the very Beatle-y bridge comes in and sends the track on a wonderful, momentary detour.

"Control" A watery guitar-line reminiscent of both the Cure and New Order sets "Control" into motion and Mercer gives the track a worthy, sneaky swagger. When the Motown-eque backbeat comes in and is augmented with a horn-section, the deal is sealed.

PHOTO: Toni Braxton and Babyfaces album "Love Marriage & Divorce"
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Toni Braxton and Babyface's "Love, Marriage & Divorce" ****

In the late 80's and early nineties, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds was the man you wanted to go to when you wanted a strong R&B pop hit. Here, he has reteamed with one of his biggest success stories, Toni Braxton to tell a story about love gone wrong. The pairing brings back positive associations. This record seems gloriously stuck in a time warp. Honestly, Babyface and Braxton give us a glimpsing reminder of what high-quality R&B radio used to offer its listeners. Even when the two are hitting the "divorce" part of the record, it never sounds like a downer. It's two pros rekindling the pop magic. Considering this is Babyface's first album in 7 years and Braxton's first album in 4 years, this album delivers a much needed shot in the arm. This record was an extremely smart move.

Focus Tracks:

"I Hope That You're Okay" This is vintage Babyface. Over a snappy beat with some warm synths he sings to a former paramour that he hopes she is doing well post-breakup. Even the way Babyface quietly repeats the title over the beat at the beginning of the track is catchy.

"Hurt You" This song strongly recalls the golden eras of both artists. Considering Braxton built her name singing sad love songs like "Unbreak My Heart" and the appropriately titled "Another Sad Love Song," this kind of regretful lament is firmly in her wheelhouse. And yet, one can imagine this getting the electronic remix treatment and becoming a dance smash.

"Where Did We Go Wrong?" Perhaps this is the album's thesis statement. This is the crux of it all as they ask each other, "Where did we go wrong? Is it all my fault?" It is the moment in the relationship where it all falls apart. Babyface has a nice falsetto turn here.

"Sweat" From the slightly happier, more lust-driven portion of the relationship, this is when the couple just begins to fight. But they have a novel idea. Instead of fighting with each other, they decide to "take it to the bed" and "sweat it out." This is radio-ready smooth-lovin' R&B gold with a really strong hook.

"Take It Back" This is a moment of reconsideration. Over a strong tune, the two debate whether to reconcile. It is a nostalgic slow-jam about trying to rekindle lost love. Like the rest of this album, this emphasizes both performers' level of skill. This is one of the smartest pop R&B albums I have heard in a long time, capturing human emotion and painting a picture of troubled and tumultuous time.

PHOTO: Marissa Nadlers album "July"
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Marissa Nadler's "July" ****

Having released 7 proper albums in the last 10 years, Marissa Nadler has become one of the more reliable singer-songwriters working today, building up a strong catalog of haunting, gothic ethereal folk music. Releasing an album called "July" in February is an interesting move. This is especially true when you consider the fact that Nadler's music often has a very Wintery sound. But "July" really delivers, adding another complex volume to her discography. Nadler continues to construct uniquely alluring material.

Focus Tracks: "Firecrackers" This is a lullaby-like ode to July 4th. Of course, it is the kind of lullaby with lines like, "July 4th of last year, we spilled all the blood." Nadler can be cryptic and it is hard to tell what this song is about. My best guess is that it's about a wine-soaked summer fling that went sour at the first sign of Autumn.

"I've Got Your Name" This track fuses an intimate and personal lyrical style with a desolate backdrop. "Changed in a rest-stop into my dress. / But sure not to touch the floor," Nadler sings. Over a minor keyed group of piano chords, she paints a vivid picture, ending the song by repeating the words, "I saw fire then." Is this the story of a soon-to-be ex-wife making her escape? Possibly.

"Holiday In" The title seems to be a pun on the hotel chain, which is mentioned in the lyrics. Here, Nadler puts herself up in a hotel, makes drunken calls to a womanizing ex and watches marathons of bad television. Put over an appealing tune, this winds up being a compelling character study.

"Dead City Emily" The lyric that gives us the title to this song, sings, "It's a dead city, Emily." Perhaps the lack of a comma is a joke on Nadler's part. Her sparse tracks do lend themselves to telling stories about backwoods death and yet her voice sweetly harmonizes with itself, making the end product both unsettling and appealing.

"Anyone Else" There's a dissonant undertone to the guitar line here. Nadler's music is firmly in the folk realm, but her insistence on heading toward darker sonic terrain is her real hook. It sets her apart and keeps her from being coffee-house fare. In her music, you can hear the ghost of the moody acoustic side of grunge.

PHOTO: Mary Lamberts EP, "Welcome to the Age of My Body"
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Mary Lambert's "Welcome To The Age Of My Body" EP ***1/2

That's Mary Lambert's voice you hear singing the hook on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' anthem for marriage equality, "Same Love." What is interesting is that in the wake of "The Heist" and its subsequent blow-up, Macklemore and Lewis still remain independent. Lambert signed with Capitol and released this brief, 4 song, 12 minute EP. It seems like a rushed release, but an important and daring one nonetheless. If you aren't into heavy political discourse about society and how it can evolve, this record may not be for you. But Lambert is a winning and commanding presence and her singing voice is a clear and rich instrument. She would've been better served by a full-length album, but this small offering shows great promise and potential.

Focus Tracks:

"She Keeps Me Warm" This is an extension of "Same Love." It's a full track built around the hook that she sang. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are credited as co-writers and it is getting some airplay of its own. Lambert's words, "I can't change. / Even if I tried. / Even if I wanted to. / My love, my love, my love, / She keeps me warm," are enough to drive the point home in a genuine way. This is a touching and sincere love ballad.

"Sarasvati" This Sarah McLachlan-meets-Regina Spektor-style piano ballad is a stately bit of poetry. If Lambert can make a whole album worth of songs like this, she's golden.

"Body Love Part 1"/"Body Love Part 2" Here's where some listeners may get squeamish. These two tracks are all about loving and appreciating your body for what it is and not what other people want it to be. During passages, Lambert delivers spoken-word pieces about how women die to be beautiful. References to drug-abuse and cutting are also here. No doubt, this frank approach is what made this EP earn its Parental Warning sticker, but its jarring nature is there with a purpose. In today's world with magazines airbrushing their images to death, it is hard for those who do not fit the glorified (false) social "norm." These pieces may be unsettling, but ultimately, they have a positive message. Lambert is telling women to empower themselves and be proud of their bodies.

Next Week: We'll have another new batch of releases, including the latest solo effort from Crowded House's Neil Finn, the latest from Band Of Horses and more!

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