Ariana Grande, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Mudcrutch and More Music Reviews

Get the full music review, plus the latest from Blake Shelton and Eric Clapton.

ByABC News
May 25, 2016, 12:29 AM
Singer Ariana Grande performs at 102.7 KIIS FM's Wango Tango 2016 at StubHub Center on May 14, 2016 in Carson, Calif.
Singer Ariana Grande performs at 102.7 KIIS FM's Wango Tango 2016 at StubHub Center on May 14, 2016 in Carson, Calif.
Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images

— -- intro: This week Ariana Grande returns with a more mature image, Bob Dylan drops another collection of standards, Eric Clapton hints at a goodbye, Tom Petty reforms his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch for their second outing, Blake Shelton sings about falling-apart relationships and blossoming new ones, Belly’s Tanya Donelly compiles her recent EPs into a three-disc set and the members of Norwegian band Highasakite offer a collection of dark electro-pop. This week offers up some interesting variety.

quicklist: 1title: Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” ***1/2text: Ariana Grande continues to grow on her third album, “Dangerous Woman,” and from the string-led “Moonlight” to the sultry title-track, it is evident that she is trying to widen her horizons, even if “Be Alright” still brings to mind her past Mariah Carey comparisons. With hired-gun songwriters and producers like Max Martin and others offering up material, it is clear that Grande has a lot banking on this record’s success and it is definitely a multi-hued collection.

This is a slick, yet enjoyable pop record that pulls all the stops. Sure, the Nicki Minaj-assisted “Side To Side” kind of makes her sound like she’s putting on a Rihanna pose, but “Into You” sounds like a modern nod to eighties-style pop and “Greedy” fully embraces a cheesy post-disco vibe. It’s also really nice to hear Macy Gray pop up on “Leave Me Lonely.”

One thing is certain across the board. “Dangerous Woman” is Grande’s most neon-lit album to date and it pushes her further up in the pop world. It’s hard to listen to this bright, danceable record and not think that her successful collaboration with Major Lazer, “All My Love” didn’t inform this record’s tone. Yes, there are ballads here, but this is for the most part, a big, party record meant for the clubs and the radio. A track like “Bad Decisions” is obviously created to hype the crowd. Even the ballads here have an inherent shininess.

“Dangerous Woman” shows Ariana Grande growing up and delivering a sensually charged dance album. While this album isn’t necessarily better than her first two offering, it shows her as formidable pop force.

Focus Tracks:

“Dangerous Woman” This song about sexual adventure sounds like it belongs on the soundtrack to “Fifty Shades Of Grey.” This is definitely an image-changing single for Grande.

“Into You” This is a monster club hit waiting to happen. Like Tove Lo’s “Talking Body,” this song pairs both an appealing pop sensibility with palpable sensuality.

“Touch It” This follows a similar path as the two above tracks with winning results.

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quicklist: 2title: Bob Dylan’s “Fallen Angels” ***text: Like last year’s Sinatra tribute, “Shadows In The Night,” “Fallen Angels” finds Dylan paying tribute to the classics. Do we really need to hear Dylan sing “Young At Heart” or the Johnny Mercer standard, “Skylark?” Not really, but as was the case on “Shadows In The Night,” the results are better than they would initially seem on paper. Dylan’s signature rasp holds up on these songs and he brings a down-home charm to his arrangements, bringing to mind another one of Minnesota’s most celebrated sons, Garrison Keillor and his famous “A Prairie Home Companion” show. This is a sweet and wistful collection, and perhaps these two collections are Dylan’s attempt to make a cooler alternative to all those records where Rod Stewart plunders “The American Songbook.” In that way, this set definitely succeeds.

The solo at the beginning of “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” has enough old-school charm to sell the record. There’s a sad tenderness in the way Dylan sings “All The Way” and he seems oddly and yet at the same time perfectly-suited to sing both “Melancholy Mood” and “That Old Black Magic.”

Would an album of originals be better? Oh, without question. While this album is a decent collection, it, like its predecessor feels like a bizarre side-trip. It isn’t as strange as let’s say 2009’s “Christmas Of The Heart,” on which Dylan did his best to create his version of an old-timey holiday collection, but it is still kind of an odd turn.

While this album will certainly satisfy parts of his fan-base, let’s hope Dylan has more originals on deck for his next set. Nevertheless, this is a somewhat satisfying exercise.

Focus Tracks:

“Polka Dots And Moonbeams” As stated above, the first minute or so of this song shows the set’s main strength on the whole.

“Skylark” This is the one song on the set that doesn’t have a famous Sinatra version, meaning this album is almost a proper second part to “Shadows In The Night.” This is definitely a song that is hard to mess up and Dylan adds his own unique spin to his rendition.

“That Old Black Magic” Dylan’s version maintains a low-key, jazzy core.

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quicklist: 3title: Eric Clapton’s “I Still Do” ***1/2text: Clapton may be hinting at retirement, but that can’t be heard on the reliable blues-minded “I Still Do.” In fact, this is one of his better latter-day records. He is easily trying to summon memories of his classic work and for the most part, he succeeds by going to his signature standbys. He covers JJ Cale on both “Somebody’s Knockin’” and the excellent “Can’t Let You Do It.” He hands in a decent reading of Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway” and finds tenderness in Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”

Really, this album only has two originals. “Spiral” and “Catch The Blues” sit side-by-side and they fit with the standards that fill out the rest of the set. This isn’t unusual for Clapton. He’s always been an ace interpreter and many of his records are packed with covers.

Tone-wise, this is both a reliable record and a somewhat unsurprising one. This is just Clapton continuing the cycle that has served his career quite well. If there weren’t a hint of sadness etched deeply into the core of his rendition of Irving Kahal’s and Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” this album could be from any point in Clapton’s career, even if the blues it offers is for the most part on the quieter side.

But that closing sadness hints at a goodbye. Here’s hoping this isn’t his last record, but if it is, it is a decent offering that should please his generations of fans. Clapton is a legend who carries a lot of power. Still his reading of Skip James’ “Cypress Grove” stands out for one part where he sings, “I’m gonna sing this song / Ain’t gonna sing no more.” If this is goodbye, he has left quite a legacy.

Focus Tracks:

“Can’t Let You Do It” There is essentially an unwritten rule that any time you have Clapton cover JJ Cale, you end up with great results. His rendition of Cale’s “Cocaine” comes to mind.

““Spiral” This blues ballad sounds like a lost Clapton gem from the seventies. Again, there is a bit of a wistful sadness in his tone.

“I’ll Be Seeing You” This differs from the blues tone of the rest of the set, but it still tugs at the heart-strings.

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quicklist: 4title: Mudcrutch’s “2” ****text: If Mudcrutch sound like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, it is because Mudcrutch was the band Petty formed before the Heartbreakers and both bands also share guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. They may be a band that formed in the early seventies, but they didn’t make their recorded debut until their 2008 self-titled record, which was more of a country-rock affair. Aside from standout, “Scare Easy,” that record seemingly tried to distance Petty from his signature sound.

“2” is a stronger album because it recalls some of the best Heartbreakers work. Sure, this is a chance for the load to be lifted off of Petty and for everyone to get a turn on the mic, including guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh, but there is something still immediately familiar about this record. It is also interesting to note that Petty switches to bass in the Mudcrutch line-up.

The Marsh-led “Beautiful World” wouldn’t sound out of place on “Full Moon Fever,” even if someone else is singing. “Hope” also sounds like vintage Petty. Leadon helms “The Other Side Of The Mountain” with its rockabilly stomp, Tench fronts the boogie-woogie workout “Welcome To Hell” and Campbell is able to add a rocking, rebel energy to “Victim Of Circumstance.”

This is a very satisfying second effort that plays much better and looser than its predecessor. Perhaps Petty, Campbell and Tench are re-energized after 2014’s hard-edged “Hypnotic Eye,” but this feels like the work of a band in the zone and happy to be playing together. If you are a Petty fan, this album should be on your listening list.

Focus Tracks:

“Hope” Is that a Farfisa I hear Tench playing on this stomping gem? This shows Petty at his best and most immediate.

“Beautiful World” This has the sound of an instant single and should get the treatment as such. Marsh and Petty’s vocal harmonies really work quite well.

“I Forgive It All” This recalls the quieter parts of “Wildflowers” or the “Traveling Companion” track, “Square One.” In other words, this shows the best side of Petty’s introspectiveness.

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quicklist: 5title: Blake Shelton’s “If I’m Honest” **1/2text: Blake Shelton’s tenth album, “If I’m Honest” begins with “Straight Outta Cold Beer.” Between its semi-blasphemous N.W.A.-referencing title, its electro-beat which feels like it is nearly about to throw in a bass-drop and its stereotypical lyrics, it is hard to figure what to isolate first. This is the kind of country pop that Nashville is currently churning out by the dozens. These songs may get airplay, but aren’t lyrics about driving trucks, and tractors, sipping cold beer “in the middle of nowhere” a little transparent and patronizing to Shelton’s audience? I know the pop game and getting airplay is all about relatability but at a point, it just all reeks of formula. “She’s Got A Way With Words” is a clever linguistics lesson even if the whole idea of “love” having “four letters” is a tired one.

It makes sense that most of these songs are about broken relationships and starting new ones in the wake of his divorce from Miranda Lambert and his blooming romance with Gwen Stefani. Stefani shows up on the power-ballad duet “Go Ahead Break My Heart,” which is still notable for its odd sonic pairing.

We also get Shelton’s oddly bouncy contribution to “The Angry Birds Movie,” “Friends.” By the end of this record, it is evident that this is mostly a collection of polished, targeted pop with a bit of twang. Shelton isn’t without charm but these songs take no real risks. It just seems like he’s pandering to different audience segments. “Doing It To Country Songs,” with the Oak Ridge Boys plays to the old guard in an effort to prove he’s more country and “Savior’s Shadow” ends the set with a bit of religiosity. For all the stabs at authenticity, this set comes off as contrived, even if subject-wise it is “honest.”

Focus Tracks:

“Go Ahead And Break My Heart” (Featuring Gwen Stefani) I suppose the biggest surprise here is that Shelton and Stefani sound pretty good together.

“She’s Got A Way With Words” This is a fun linguistic exercise even if it does make a tired “Love has four letters” joke. But it is still pretty funny and clever.

“Came Here To Forget” This is a song about two heartbroken people buying each other drinks to forget their exes. Again, it is another highlight possibly based in some sort of reality given his an Stefani’s public splits from their famous exes.

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quicklist: 6title: Tanya Donelly’s “Swan Song Series” ****1/2text: As Belly reforms and heads out on tour this summer, the band’s leader drops a three-disc collection collecting her “Swan Songs Series” of EPs that she began quietly digitally dropped in 2013 and 2014. This set was all collaborations with friends, including her husband Dean Fisher, Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz, Belly Band-mates Gail Greenwood and Thomas Gorman and many others. Not only does this album showcase the five complete “Swan Songs” EPs in order but it also adds another seven songs to the mix, including the Robyn Hitchcock collaboration, “Mr. Swan.”

This is an awful lot to process at once and that’s what makes this collection a truly beautiful piece of work. Donelly is free to follow her artistic desires wherever they may go, whether they are on the soft, melodic side, the electronic side or something more hard-edged. The dreamy “Christopher Street,” the Lana Del Rey-esque “Flying At Night” and the rocking assault of “Tu Y Yo” all sound like the work of different groups, but at the same time all in some way or another make sense within the context of Donelly’s canon. I recently spoke to Donelly about this set and her career and it became evident that this set was about pure artistic freedom. This is what happens when an artist doesn’t have to worry about having a record label manipulating the process. This is about testing boundaries and making music with peers. These 31 songs show Donelly working with a full sonic kaleidoscope at her disposal. This is also an excellent primer for anyone excited about Belly’s reunion. More artists should be given this kind of free reign.

Focus Tracks:

“Christopher Street” Co-written with Wesley Stace and Rob Seidenberg, this captures Donelly in one of her best modes. The chorus that repeats “The light, the light, the light” will stick with you. Along with “Mass Ave.” and “Hidalgo Street” it appears that Donelly enjoys writing love letters to streets and their surrounding associations.

“Snow Goose And Me” Written with one-time Belly and Throwing Muses band-mate Fred Abong, this is a moody, expressive bit of songwriting that will demand repeat listens.

“Send Me Your Next Nightmare” This is one of the added tracks. It has a dark, alluring energy. Written with Tom Gorman, perhaps this is the kind of quality we can look forward to hearing in the new Belly material. The track blossoms into something beautiful and orchestral.

Read my extensive interview with Tanya Donelly here.

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quicklist: 7 title: Highasakite’s “Camp Echo” ***text: “Camp Echo” is the third album from Norwegian indie pop band Highasakite. Anchored by lead-singer Ingrid Håvik’s dramatic and attention-grabbing lyrics and vocal style, there is no denying their uniqueness.

Throughout the album, there seems to be an obsession with the concepts of good and evil. This is evident from the start of opener “My Name Is Liar,” which mentions “enemies of freedom.” On “My Mind Is A Bad Neighborhood,” Håvik says “Either you are with us or you’re with the terrorists.” These two lines in combination create a framework for the album. This is a wartime meditation and Håvik’s delivery is full of strength even as she offers up a prayer in the plaintively beautiful and haunting, “God Don’t Leave Me.” On “Golden Ticket,” in a similar vein she sings “God, if you’re still watching / There are no more happy days.”

This is a downer of a pop about trying to find happiness in peace but at the same time, it is geographically aware. The last track is a slow-builder called “Chernobyl,” which indicates a great deal of this group’s mindset. At the same time, “Samurai Swords” could be a huge pop hit in alternate dimension. This album isn’t necessarily an easy listen but at the same time, it offers up some unique tracks from a war-weary perspective.

Focus Tracks:

“Samurai Swords” This is the album’s most immediate track, in spite of its occasionally bizarre lyrics. Any song that would sound good next to Selena Gomez’s latest album with a chorus of “Just call up the guys with the Samurai swords” is notable.

“My Mind Is A Bad Neighborhood” Another unique dance-floor-ready jam, this has a drive that recalls both the hyper dance numbers of the eighties with a slight industrial hint. In a way, this is a much darker answer to the pop of Chvrches.

“Golden Ticket” This is a glistening pop song with melancholy lyrics, which creates an interesting environment. The chorus really booms with an unexpected brightness even if the verses indicate that all is not well.

Next Week: New music from the Monkees, Beth Orton and more.

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