In a busy release week, we have a wide variety of releases, headed up by Justin Timberlake's second volume of "The 20/20 Experience." How does it compare to the first one? Also included are reviews of New Zealand alt-pop sensation Lorde and sister act Haim. Moby returns with his latest album, "Innocents," Joan Jett offers a fresh, new slice of punk, indie-rock buzz band Yuck collect themselves after losing one of their key founding members, Del The Funky Homosapien and Dan The Automator bring along a lot of celebrity guests on their first Deltron 3030 record in 13 years and dance-rock act on the rise, Phantogram offers a brand new EP. In short, there are a lot of exciting new releases out there!
|Justin Timberlake's "The 20/20 Experience: Part 2 of 2"|
Back in March, Justin Timberlake returned to music with the clumsy first part of "The 20/20 Experience," a collection of elongated funk jams where he cooed dedications to women doo-wop-style and tried to pretend he was an old-time crooner while liberally borrowing from both Michael Jackson and Prince. Now he's returned with the second part.
On the plus side, this collection is slightly funkier and groovier, but that doesn't make up for its weaknesses. The songs still over-stay their welcomes and are stretched way too thin. These 12 songs clock in at more than 74 minutes. I understand that he wanted to create an enveloping album, but he just doesn't have the material to create such a listening experience fully. His lyrics are still full of lame come-ons. On the awkwardly-titled "Give Me What I Don't Know (I Want)," he sings, "If you are looking for your animal, jump in my cage. / Crawl in and tear off your hide." This is meant to be enticing, but it merely brings to mind laughable images of people dressed in lion costumes possibly competing in a dance-off.
"True Blood" is a bizarre track that possibly aims to be the Halloween-flavored answer to "Sexy Back," but his voice is way in the background of the mix and the whirling, aimless synths mixed with the warped and mumbled background vocal work make this a truly muddled mess. He calls a woman a "demon" and says she's "got that true blood." I don't know if this was intended to tie in with the HBO show, but Alan Ball and his music licensing team could do way better than this track. This is has the depth-level of "The Monster Mash" with a club beat placed over it. There is even a passage of Vincent Price-esque laughing. He's not even trying to disguise that he's essentially aping "Thriller."
"Cabaret" gives us a classic sounding Timbaland beat -- the kind of beat Aaliyah used to turn into gold. If only it weren't cluttered by a haphazard piano loop and Timbaland himself beatboxing and scratching with his voice as he barks out, "Put on the show. / Get on the floor." Again, Timberlake delivers truly sophomoric lines. Each lyric sounds like a bad pick-up line -- the kind line that if he weren't Justin Timberlake and was instead just some guy in a bar, might earn him an eye-roll or perhaps a slap. He actually says, "I got you sayin' Jesus so much, it's like we're laying in the manger," and that's not even the corniest line thrown out here. Drake drops a semi-decent verse, but it doesn't save this disjointed concoction.
"TKO" is full of less-than-clever boxing metaphors over a synth-soaked beat, while "Take Back the Night" cluelessly pairs a smooth-lovin' disco R&B jam with a title phrase that for decades has been firmly associated with prevention of sexual assaults. Truth be told, the latter is one of the best tracks here, but it is shocking that someone in his camp or at least at the label wouldn't have made Timberlake aware of the title's historical association. Again the track strongly borrows from Jackson. It plays like a half-baked sequel to "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough."
This is more of groove-based album than a melodic one. "Murder" has a strong Timbaland beat, but Timberlake just babbles over it in a monotone, before declaring, "That girl is Murder/ Everybody get down!" Again, Jay-Z drops by and, like "Suit and Tie," drops a verse. Considering his half-hearted, overhyped "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail" record from earlier this year, it is sad to see Jay get increasingly blinded by flash over skill. This sounds like it was built from a formula.
"Drink You Away" tries to give Timberlake a bluesy edge and partially succeeds as he sings about drinking to forget about a woman who has left him behind. If Timberlake possessed an earthier vocal tone instead of a boy-band croon, he might pull this off better. Even though he can't really growl, this stands as one of the record's few highlights.
"You Got It On" is lite-radio elevator music schmaltz wrapped in a pop-and-lock beat. There's even a flute that pops in from time to time. It is an embarrassingly syrupy jam.
"Amnesia" announces itself with a string-section and then bursts into skeletal beat. Timbaland's beat-work is better here than on part one and this might turn into a pop hit with a radio edit.
"Only Way to Walk Away" goes back to the bluesy tone with less success than "Drink You Away." Timberlake's nasally vocal tone just does not possess the authority to give this song the amount of gravitas it demands. However, the beat breakdown in the middle is very well executed.
"Not a Bad Thing" is a bland brand of radio-fluff that might lead to some sort of charting single success, while "Pair of Wings," a secret track that follows, is a surprisingly decent acoustic guitar number, even if it is full of tired "spread your wings and fly" lyrics. These two songs end the album on a mellow, up note, with the latter possibly being the most surprising cut on both discs.
Instead of releasing two overstuffed, bloated, flawed records, Timberlake would have been better served culling these tracks down to a single disc. These records will ensure him chart success, no doubt, but neither disc possesses anything truly remarkable or classic. It is evident that Timberlake's goal was to make something for the ages, but he hasn't quite reached that pinnacle yet where his music transcends pop. He may have that potential someday, and there is artistic growth here. But on the whole, in spite of the hype, these two records are ultimately surprisingly devoid of any real, lasting substance.
|Lorde's "Pure Heroine"|
Lorde is the stage name for 16-year-old New Zealander, Ella Yellich-O'Connor, whose debut full-length, "Pure Heroine," throws conventional notions of modern pop for a loop. This is a thrilling ride fueled by minimalist beats and Lorde's sweetly-toned voice. On standout singles, "Royals," "Team" and "Tennis Court," Lorde demands attention backed by very unassuming soundscapes. This allows the focus to truly be on her voice and her hooks. "Royals," in particular, is a striking track because it finds her singing over a bare beat and crafting one of the most anthemic tracks of the year. She can sing and convey a wise coolness beyond her years.
When she sings, "I'm kind of over being told to throw my hands up in the air" on "Team," it seems like a genuine plea to stop a tired party practice and not a pose. Her songs are, for the most part, down-to-earth tales about growing up in an area not necessarily represented by the media. The overall message is: You may not have much, but you should have fun and enjoy whatever you do have.
Her music shows possible influences from everyone from Florence + The Machine to Bjork, to Kimbra, to Sting's daughter, Coco Sumner's group, I Blame Coco, but she has her own unique style and mood. The album, as a whole, maintains a chilled sense of calm. The fact that this music is considered "alternative" in the U.S. is laughable. This is well-made pop that takes exciting chances. This speaks to how embarrassingly narrow and factory-driven the American definition of "pop" can be. A more progressive approach could do us some good.
Like her "Love Club" EP from earlier in the year (which also contained "Royals") this album showcases one of pop's best new voices. Lorde co-wrote all these well-crafted tracks with her producer, Joel Little. This is the smartest, most fully-realized release by a teenage artist in more than a decade. Given her young age, we will, hopefully, hear a lot more from Lorde in the decades to come. Coolly and calmly, she has created one of the most enthralling and complete albums of 2013. It is not from a set pop formula and yet it is succeeding on the basis of its merits.
|Haim's "Days Are Gone"|
Alana, Danielle and Este Haim are the three California-bred sisters who make up the band that bears their last name. On their debut album, they create a funky, very eighties-influenced concoction. Over the last few months, their singles "Forever" and "Don't Save Me" have rightly been gaining momentum.
Their debut is a strikingly slick and hip-sounding collection of grooves that simultaneously evokes memories of a sun-soaked, mall-rat past while capturing something very modern, as well. "If I Could Change Your Mind," would sound equally at home alongside pop hits from 1986 or next to Phoenix's latest record, "Bankrupt!"
Sony has made one small mistake here by releasing the album at the beginning of the fall. This album should've been released a month or two earlier. Tracks like "Honey & I," or the Jessie Ware co-penned title-track beg to be played at summer pool and beach parties. This is the summer album that missed its calling.
"My Song 5" possesses a menacing wallop and a lo-fi, pseudo-dub-step squawk, while "Go Slow" captures a pensive and engaging tone. There is a beckoning warmth in this collection, making this a truly winning debut worthy of attention.
|Moby's "Innocents" (Deluxe Edition)|
There used to be a time when Moby's albums each had a unique sound. He used to be a great chameleon, from the indie rock of 1997's "Animal Rights," to the eclectic sonic soup that made 1999's "Play" such a resounding success and breakthrough, to the 1980's flashback nostalgia of 2008's "Last Night." But ever since "Wait For Me" in 2009 and its follow-up, "Destroyed," he has seemingly been in a holding pattern. "Innocents" plays better than its two predecessors, but it still seems very much in the same semi-ambient synth-string world. Moby, himself, only sings the full lead on the album's closing-track, "The Dogs," passing off memorable guest shots to Skylar Gray, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and singer/songwriter Damien Jurado.
After more than 20 years in the industry, Moby has become increasingly composition-oriented. Softer numbers like "Going Wrong" seem to indicate that someday he will pull some ornate classical suite out of his back pocket.
While this is a well-crafted record, Moby's best strength has always been his eclecticism. One misses the hip-hop and rock sides that brought us singles like "Bodyrock" and "South Side" 14 years ago. So, this album could be viewed by some as a sleepy downturn, in spite of the reverential, gospel-tinged Moby and Coyne-dueting single, "The Perfect Life." If you were expecting Moby to bring the party here, he doesn't. This is more of a cerebral, meditative record.
The deluxe edition of the record is highly recommended, packaged with the bonus "Everyone Is Gone" EP, which has a hazier, more experimental mood, while not sacrificing the ambient textures. "I Tried," in some ways, recalls the ambient second bonus disc of his album, "Hotel," while "Illott Mollo" pairs a stark guitar line with a walking, slightly pounding beat. Again, it feels like we may have heard this before, but it is still worth the trip.
Elsewhere on the bonus disc, the cut-up vocal sample on "Miss Lantern," backed by some serene piano work, seems fresh in contrast, as does the bass-y "Blindness." One wonders why these tracks were separated. Within the standard album song cycle they might have given the main record a better sense of variety.
While this collection on the whole, might be mellower than some might expect, it still is a worthy addition to Moby's impressive discography.
|Joan Jett and the Blackhearts' "Unvarnished"|
Not much changes when it comes to Joan Jett's music. On her first album since 2006, the former Runaway delivers a fast, punchy collection of pop-fueled punk. If you ever liked her music, you'll like this record, too.
Jett still spits bile on tracks like the visceral "TMI" and the single, "Soulmates to Strangers," a sad kiss-off ballad aimed at a former friend and lover. Dave Grohl co-wrote the album opener, "Any Weather," with Jett, and the track was recorded in his studio on the famed Neve board that used to be the centerpiece of Sound City.
Take away the fuzzed-out guitar and "Hard to Grow Up" would make a nice, hard-drinking, honky-tonk bar-band number. Some might find it weird to hear a 55-year-old woman admitting, "It's so hard to grow up," but, let's face it, life is a learning experience and we are never truly ready for what is placed in our way. We are constantly still "growing up." This song is a highlight.
"Reality Mentality" takes an easy, yet effective swipe at our vapid "reality television" culture, backed by the thunderous riff. The song also has an excellent guitar solo that deserves to be longer.
The record closes with the enjoyably tender ballad, "Everybody Needs a Hero." Complete with orchestra backing, this track could make for an interesting crossover single.
Jett may never have a hit as big as "I Love Rock and Roll" or "I Hate Myself for Loving You," but "Unvarnished" proves that she is, not surprisingly, still ready for action. She is a legend who does not disappoint.
|Deltron 3030's "The Event II"|
It's been 13 long years between records for Deltron 3030, the duo of Del The Funky Homosapien (here known as "Deltron Zero") and producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura. A lot has happened in those 13 years. The two men famously met again on Gorillaz's highly successful debut album in 2001 and, since then, they both have quietly built their reps. Del, who began his career more than 20 years ago as Ice Cube's wise-cracking, fun-loving-yet-cerebral cousin, has released a consistent stream of albums that should earn him more respect. Meanwhile, Automator has continued to make edgy, spaced out cuts and earned himself some fantastic respect in hip-hop's alternative underground.
"The Event II" is exactly what one might expect. It is a genre-bending, spacy, futuristic dose of forward-thinking hip-hop. Like Automator's Handsome Boy Modeling School project with Prince Paul, the disc is packed with guests from across the entertainment horizon. Actors like Joseph Gordon Levitt, David Cross, Amber Tamblyn and Mary Elizabeth Winstead mingle alongside musical celebs like Blur/Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn, Casual, Black Rob, Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha, Jamie Cullum and Faith No More's Mike Patton. Even the Lonely Island drop by and don't embarrass themselves. Some of the guests are buried deeper in the mix than others, but everyone adds something to the stew. All along, Del's thick flow and Automator's awesome soundscapes hold this eclectic collection together.
There's a cartoonish sense of adventure on cuts like "The Return" and "Nobody Can." The album is set in a futuristic backdrop. Such a whimsical science-fiction framework gives the album a fun sound and allows Del to spit cryptic flows occasionally reminiscent of the ones found in the Wu-Tang's best work. Why he isn't on more hip-hop "best of all time" lists, I do not know. Perhaps it is because he takes chances like this, focuses on his craft and tends to avoid ultra-commercial flash. In any case, "The Event II" is mandatory listening for every forward-thinking hip-hop fan. Long live Deltron Z and Automator. This is one mighty record. We better not have to wait another 13 years for them to come back together for a third time.
|Yuck's "Glow & Behold"|
On their second album, if internationally-bred but British-formed indie rock band Yuck sound strikingly different, it is because they lost their co-leader, Daniel Blumberg, who left the band between records. This leaves Max Bloom as the front-man. Bloom doesn't quite possess the same bombast as Blumberg, but he carries the torch quite well, nonetheless. This album is a softer affair than the band's first effort, focusing more on a slow-burning, building brand of "shoegaze" rock. The emphasis here is less on fuzz this time and more on melody. Bloom has a gentler touch, but this is unmistakably still the same band, even if they now have slightly more of a twee-pop Belle and Sebastian-like tinge.
"Middle Sea" is a charging, horn-section-assisted fuzz rock track with a sense of insistence similar to their debut's key standout, "Georgia." It is the nineties lo-fi rock sound with a pop-driven edge. Bassist Mariko Doi sings back-up on the track and her vocals add warmth, recalling countless indie-rock bands of the past.
The churn of "Rebirth," favorably sounds a bit like a blended combination of My Bloody Valentine and New Radicals' over-hyped 1998 hit, "You Get What You Give," while "Somewhere" sounds like a mournful rock soundtrack to a teen-angst-driven breakdown. This is the kind of album and the kind of band older siblings will tell younger siblings about for years to come.
The horns return on "Nothing New," and even more effectively on the standout, "How Does It Feel," giving the group a newfound stateliness not heard on previous recordings.
"Twilight and Maple Shade" is a moving instrumental, making it an unlikely highlight, while the closing title track is another softly effective singer-songwriter exercise.
Nothing here has the build of their last album's epic closer, "Rubber" and, I won't lie, that element of their sound is missed, but with "Glow & Behold," the remaining Yuck members prove that they can easily make an effective, enjoyable record that equals the joys of their debut even without one of their original sonic architects.
|Phantogram's "Phantogram" EP|
It was just announced that Phantogram will have a track featured on the second "Hunger Games" movie soundtrack. Coming shortly after high profile guest turns on albums by The Flaming Lips and Big Boi, this means the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., dance-rock duo's stock is quickly rising. So, this week, with little warning, they released a quick, self-titled, four-song EP.
Members Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter trade off vocals from track to track as they did on their 2010 debut, "Eyelid Movies" and its 2011 follow-up, "Nightlife." Barthel usually handles the poppier material and here she handles three out of the four songs, offering up slick, highly danceable numbers "Black Out Days" and "Celebrating Nothing." Combing a retro-eighties sheen with a modern nod to hip-hop beat-making ingenuity, theirs is a formula that is able to strike hotly at any given minute. "Black Out Days," in particular possesses an insistent, dance-floor-ready pound complete with cleverly placed glitch-like vocal samples to punctuate the chorus.
Fans of Haim and Class Actress should pay attention to Barthel's turn on the softly anthemic and haunting, "When You Died," which is this EP's biggest pop crossover hope. With the right placement, this song could be a monumental hit for them.
Carter's one track is a folky, chilled number, "Never Going Home." It is uncharacteristic of the band's typical sound, but it introduces a vaguely eerie element into the mix. He delivers a very strong chorus that will stick with you. It, too, is a track with crossover and possible music licensing potential.
Essentially, what Phantogram has handed us this week is an EP that quickly shows off what the band does best. It should please old fans and get Phantogram some new ones, as well. The group is definitely headed for brighter pastures if it plays its cards right.
Next Week: Miley Cyrus drops her long-awaited album, "Bangerz" and Stone Temple Pilots release its first EP with Chester Bennington of Linkin Park as its new frontman.