Music Reviews: The Latest From 311, Elbow, Ledisi, Aloe Blacc and More
PHOTO: Recording artist Aloe Blacc performs onstage at the Interactive Closing Party presented by (mt) Media Temple during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Stubbs, March 11, 2014 in Austin, Texas.

It is kind of an odd mix this week. Rap-rock stalwarts 311 return with their latest while beloved British rock band Elbow release their immensely powerful sixth proper studio album. We will listen to a nice slab of smooth R&B from Ledisi and Aloe Blacc's latest. In addition, we will wrap things up with the second solo offering from Luna's singer, Dean Wareham, and the debut full-length from German dance artist Tensnake. There's probably something for just about everyone in this week's stack of new releases.

311's "Stereolithic" ***

Twenty-four years after they formed and 21 years after their first album, I suppose it is a small miracle that 311 are still churning out their brand of reggae and metal-infused rap-rock. After all, these years their sound has not evolved either, which stands as both a comfort and a bit of a concern. They've pretty much spent the last 11 albums running in place. These Omaha, Neb., natives have always been more of a singles band than an albums one, but they've always been able to offer two or three excellent songs per disc, thus warranting their existence.

"Stereolithic" is their first release on their own independent label and it is actually one of their most melodic albums to date. As always, the sound is anchored by Nick Hexum's deadpan delivery and SA Martinez's high harmonies. Occasionally, their hippie-dippy lyrical tendencies get in their way but, for the most part, this is their most successful record in quite some time. The hip-hop element of their music has always been their weakest link. Often, when they rap, it can sound a little embarrassing to a fan of "real hip-hop," but their melodies backed by their chugging guitar riffs still remain pleasing. Sonically, if you remove the rapping, it's not too dissimilar from the records Incubus were making early in their career. In spite of a few small missteps, "Stereolithic" stands as a reminder of what 311 do at their best. This is probably their best album since their self-titled record 19 years ago. Sadly, considering everything is relative, that isn't as big a statement as it should be.

Focus Tracks:

"Five of Everything" This song has everything that succeeds in the 311 formula. Martinez delivers a nice melody during the bridge, harmonizing effectively with Hexum. This belongs in their stack of hits.

"Tranquility" Sounding like an even cross between the Clash's "Straight to Hell" and Coldplay's "Yellow," this track closes the album on a peaceful note. Hexum gets some distracting auto-tune added to his voice for a bit, but it doesn't kill the song's momentum. On the physical edition of the album, the track is followed by a few minutes of wind-chimes ringing, fitting with this track's peaceful, meditative mode. This part is cut off from the mp3 version.

"Boom Shanka" In spite of its title, which somehow seems awkwardly bro-tastic within this context, sonically this is the closest track on the album to their classic, "Don't Stay Home." Yes, the band seems revitalized in many ways, as if recharged for a second wind.

"Sand Dollars" A wet-sounding, wah-wah riff fuels this underwater lament. The guitars recede for a plush, environmental feel. If "Boom Shanka" is this album's "Don't Stay Home," this is its "Amber."

"Showdown" Metallic-riffing during the chorus trades off with reggae-backed verses. It is definitely 311 by-the-numbers, but it is one of the better examples of their general sound.

Elbow's "The Take Off and Landing of Everything" ****1/2

Elbow emerged in the Brit-rock class of 2000, bringing with them bands like Doves, Turin Brakes and Coldplay. Of course, Coldplay emerged as the most popular, but Elbow and Doves deserved every bit of success that Coldplay received. If you doubt that assertion, go back and listen to Elbow's 2005 masterpiece, "Leaders of the Free World" or their amazing single, "Not a Job" from 2004's "Cast of Thousands."

"The Take Off and Landing of Everything" is the band's sixth studio album and their seventh disc, following the 2012 b-sides compilation, "Dead in the Boot." As time goes on, they are getting increasingly artsy and atmospheric. Five out of the 10 tracks here clock in at six minutes or longer. Guy Garvey still sounds uncannily like Peter Gabriel in some places and he makes the most of his richly-textured voice. There's a reflective, mournful feeling throughout the set, giving it a great deal of emotional heft. This is a warm, enveloping song-set, masterfully made by studio pros. The record was produced by keyboardist, Craig Potter, who obviously approaches the album with care. As a listener, you feel as if you are in the studio with the band. It's one of the richest sounding records of 2014 thus far and, yet, for the most-part, it maintains a hushed sense of intimacy.

Focus Tracks:

"My Sad Captains" To me, this appears to be a gloriously melancholy and eloquent ode to observing others getting blotto while watching the sunrise. Garvey sings, "Another sunrise with my sad captains. / With who I choose to lose my mind. / And if it's so we only pass this way but once. / What a perfect waste of time." There's a feeling of lost love or saying goodbye to a loved one for the last time. It's got some substantial emotional depth. This could quite possibly be the best song of their career. (It should be a future classic.) It really captures a crushing sense of some brand of defeat. It is heartbreaking and beautifully tragic.

"New York Morning" Every thwap of Richard Jupp's drum-kit is felt, as if you are in the room with him. Garvey begins in a solemn mood, becoming revelatory as the song progresses. When Craig Potter's piano line comes in, it drenches the whole soundscape in its stately echo. The song plays like a slightly subdued cousin to their song, "One Day Like This." The synth-work in the background is gloriously William Orbit-esque. Why something like this doesn't get the airplay it deserves stateside is a true mystery.

"This Blue World" The seven-minute opener is awash with subtle touches of organ and Garvey is singing like he's communicating a lost hymn. The gentle beauty throughout the piece maintains a palpable sense of tension. This is atmospheric, contemplative gold. Again, the production brings out the best in the song. You feel every reverberation coming from Mark Potter's guitar amp. It feels like it is sitting right next to you.

"Honey Sun" Beginning with a subtle sea of studio noise, this quickly becomes a drum-machine-assisted samba, with a melody that sounds like a low-key blues during the verses, leading to a left-turn into a warmer chorus about "broken devotion."

"The Take Off and Landing of Everything" This is another seven-minute track, drenched with an ambient sonic-wash. It feels like a loose, sporadic jam that Garvey put lyrics over. Like the Doves track, "The Cedar Room," this track maintains a strong groove-based momentum built around very few altering notes. In other words, it builds on a very modal backdrop.

Ledisi's "The Truth" ***1/2

On her seventh album, New Orleans-born soul singer Ledisi continues to churn out smooth, retro R&B. She specializes in the kind of old-school reinvention that is likely to give her cult status. Her 2007 record, "Lost & Found," had the industry buzzing for a reason. She's delivering sleek grooves that should please any fan of R&B from the '80s and '90s. For some reason, in spite of Grammy nominations, she hasn't broken through the way she should. Her brand of R&B has its moments but it isn't flashy enough for modern pop radio. It's got a jazzy sophistication. In the highly segmented Top 40, if you aren't Beyonce, you can get lost in the shuffle. For some reason, Ledisi is the kind of singer who doesn't tend to break beyond the R&B charts.

"The Truth" is a good argument for her audience to expand, and its slick production lets you know the people at Verve really think this could (and should) be a hit. This is the kind of R&B that has long been absent from the upper reaches of the charts and with very little legitimate reason. Ledisi provides enough bounce and charisma to carry this winning set from start to finish. If you are a fan of smart and smooth R&B records, "The Truth" should be on your list of albums to hear.

Focus Tracks:

"Anything" The beat to this really slams as an '80s synth plays in the background, as if providing the soundtrack to a modern remake of "Flashdance." This kind of synth sound has been co-opted by indie rockers left and right lately, so it is nice to hear this being used in an R&B context. In addition, as the song continues, a thick guitar layer slowly sneaks in and out. That rock element adds a sense of urgency, even if the guitar solo that follows sounds a tad dated.

"The Good Good" This hand-clap-assisted jam is probably meant to evoke notions of a more mature Beyonce alternative. Ledisi adds a nice hint of dancehall reggae flair right before the bright chorus. The song sounds very processed and slick, and yet, these touches add to its intrigue.

"Rock With You" This is probably the most generic title an R&B song can have, but under this title, Ledisi delivers a commanding performance backed by a constantly moving bass line and a sea of warm synths. This sounds like a dance hit.

"The Truth" This slightly gospel-tinged title track, blends an old girl-group harmony formula with a daringly thick, jungle-style beat. Ledisi sings, "Like a hurricane without warning. / I woke up Sunday morning. / Had to face the truth." For a fleeting moment, it sounds like she's about to go to church, but in truth, she's lamenting a doomed relationship that needs to come to an end. It all adds up to a powerful, dynamic soul ballad.

Aloe Blacc's "Lift Your Spirit" **

Aloe Blacc began his career signed to Peanut Butter Wolf's forward-thinking indie hip-hop label, Stones Throw, delivering edgy, experimental hip-hop soul. Two albums later, he's fully sold out those artsy experimental instincts for a cleaner, mainstreamed sound. After his "I Need A Dollar" became popular as the theme to "How To Make It In America," he scored an unlikely collaborative hit with Swedish DJ, Avicii, with "Wake Me Up." Blacc's deep Bill Withers-esque croon gives him an edge over his peers. In some ways, he comes off like an earthier answer to John Legend. Of course, "Wake Me Up," and "Here Today" sound much more like a slice of modern country than they do R&B. From the sounds of things, "Lift Your Spirit" is an eclectic pastiche of sounds that are likely to be embraced by the mainstream. Within the span of three records, Blacc has reinvented himself in some unusual ways. "Lift Your Spirit" is an engaging listen to some degree, but it feels a bit like it lacks focus, as if it is just making blind stabs into the musical wilderness to see what hits. It also lacks edge.

On "Can You Do This," background singers assist him in asking himself the title question, to which Blacc replies, "I can do that." It's like a sixties dance song without the retro appeal. On the single, "The Man," he quotes the "And you can tell everybody" part of Elton John's "Your Song" repeatedly, crafting it into a hook. I'm all for creative sampling and borrowing, but that just lacks inspiration. It's as if someone said, "The people will only like what they know. Here ... quote this small section of this Elton John song. Aloe Blacc has a lot of potential. However, as he further pursues mainstream success, his records have gone downhill. Ironically, as he gets run through the mainstream mill, he'll probably get more exposure and more fans. This album is strangely tired on arrival.

Focus Tracks:

"Wake Me Up (Acoustic)" Yes, he put an acoustic version of his hit with Avicii on the record and, honestly, it sounds better here. The electronic beat and the country flourishes clashed a little on the hit version. This seems like a more natural take.

"Love Is the Answer" One of the more soulful tracks on the record. Here's where the Bill Withers comparison really comes through. The moving bass line and Blacc's passion move the song beyond its cliched title sentiment.

"Ticking Bomb" In the country/blues realm, he's got a bit of a world-weary mood down. While this song gets a little repetitive, the sense of impending doom is enough to warrant a recommendation.

Dean Wareham's "Dean Wareham" ***1/2

Former Luna and Galaxie 500 vocalist Dean Wareham releases his second solo album (in as many years) with this self-titled effort. I'd say this was a break from recording with his wife and former Luna bandmate, Britta Phillips, with whom he had recorded a series of records in the years since Luna's breakup -- but she plays bass and piano all over this record, so she's here, too.

Interestingly, Wareham chose My Morning Jacket's Jim James to produce these nine songs, and James contributes to these songs strongly, as well. His production is bright and open, adding a wistful alt-country vibe to Wareham's tender torch songs. As was the case with his work with Luna, it is evident that the reined-in side of the Velvet Underground is a point of influence, but Wareham is also aiming for a more vulnerable singer-songwriter sort of sound. His voice is nasally in tone, and yet he can effectively convey the emotions that these songs demand. This album won't be for everybody since it definitely fits a specific niche, but if you are open to it, it has its charms.

Focus Tracks:

"Heartless People" There's a forlorn, echoing atmosphere on this track. It's got a lonesome campfire quality. The guitars mirror each other in the left right speakers, adding texture as Wareham quietly delivers the chorus. Like most of this record, this song is delivered in an unassuming tone. Interestingly, this is the one cover on the record. The song was written by Michael Holland.

"Love Is Not a Roof Against the Rain" Again, with a sad tinge in his voice, Wareham goes in a folky direction, asking himself, "What have I done with my life? What have I done with the keys? What have I done to deserve this?" For the second half of the track, the background swells as if backing the climax of some sort of spaghetti western.

"Babes in the Woods" This slow builder finds Wareham testing out the limits of his falsetto, while the track gets slowly enveloped by a sea of thick shoegaze guitar. Phillips' bass line is really thick and at the center of the track.

"Beat the Devil" Fueled by an airy organ and bass combo, this oddly sunny slice of country blues isn't too far out of Dylan's wheelhouse. In fact, Wareham's nearly spoken, storytelling structure shares a bit stylistically with Dylan.

Tensnake's "Glow" **1/2

Hamburg, Germany's Tensnake is a eighties-obsessed DJ and everything about his album, "Glow," is rich with that decade's musical influence. While he's capable of creating a groove that might set some parties off, most of the record offers few surprises. It lingers in lethargic mid-tempo grooves that recall better songs from the era. Guest Jamie Lidell effectively showed his love for "1999"-era Prince on his self-titled album last year, but here, on the track "Feel of Love," he practically crosses over from homage to flat-out impersonation of the Purple One. You half expect him to launch into "Raspberry Beret." The Jeremy Glenn-assisted "Selfish" sounds like a half-hearted answer to Janet Jackson's "The Pleasure Principle." Thabo sings a song about how "office work can be so boring" on "Pressure," a song about wanting to escape the grind to let loose and it all just comes off like one of the formulaic R&B dance songs you used to skip on the "Beverly Hills Cop" soundtrack.

Nile Rodgers adds some authentic funk to two tracks, "Good Enough to Keep" and "Love Sublime," but lyrically these tracks come off as tired cliches. In the instrumental realm, Tensnake fares better. This album isn't without its moments, but it too often blends in without distinguishing itself. There isn't much on here that demands instant repeat listens, even though it effectively captures its intended mood. So, in the end, this isn't a bad record, but it also isn't noteworthy, either.

On the track, "Ten Minutes," a woman bemoans the record's tired eighties-esque sound asking for something harder, "some dub-step, club-step electro." While I don't necessarily agree with her exact sentiments, I can't help but side with her. There's something missing from the formula, even if there are a few successful moments.

Focus Tracks:

"No Colour" This instrumental track is one of the few attention-grabbers on the record because of its use of a nice, recorder-esque synth voice, bits of organ and backwards laser sounds that penetrate your ears. This sounds like mellower Daft Punk of like something that Mylo would've put on his 2004 classic, "Destroy Rock & Roll"

"Things Left to Say" This is another instrumental groove where Tensnake successfully hits the ideal eighties-euphoria sound. The warm synths sparkle and even the saxophone solo adds a bit of ironic kitsch.

"Holla" Using vocal soundbites over an electro beat, Tensnake is able to create another arresting track. As the song proceeds, the beat becomes more intricate, occasionally giving way to highly filtered voices. At points, the synths become razor sharp, adding to the composition's sense of intrigue.

Next Week: Foster the People return with a new album, the latest from indie buzz-band, The War on Drugs and more.

Last Week: Get the latest From Lea Michele, Pharrell Williams, Rick Ro$$ and more.

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