The Beatles, Shakira, Little Yachty and more album reviews

VIDEO: The Beatles: In a minute
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This week the Beatles celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” by reissuing the classic album, Shakira returns with an eclectic and globally-minded, guest-filled record, rapper Lil Yachty drops his proper debut album, alt-country singer Justin Townes Earle releases a new set and indie rockers Pet Symmetry deliver a brief but ever-shifting, attention-grabbing record.

PHOTO: The Beatles new anniversary album, "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band," was released on May 26, 2017.
Capitol
The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” (Deluxe Edition)” *****

It should surprise no one that the “Sgt. Pepper’s” reissue in honor of the iconic album’s fiftieth anniversary keeps the album at its respected, classic level. In fact, the two disc version not only showcases the original, it also has alternate and deconstructed takes.

The album gets a brand new polish up on its mix and sounds as fresh as ever. The rumble of Paul McCartney’s bass seems to have extra punch and all the album’s orchestral elements sound like they are in the room with you as you are listening. The second disc includes “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which were taken from the same sessions. Both cuts are showcased with additional alternate takes, as well.

I suppose those alternate takes on the second disc are what makes this set the most notable. Some of these versions don’t even have lyrics yet or they have half-formed words so you can get an inside look as to how the compositions evolved. It’s funny, but the additional version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” only has Lennon’s verses intact. McCartney’s chorus isn’t in place yet but the backing music is still there. If you are like me, you’ll have to resist the urge to sing the chorus to “Hang on Sloopy” by the McCoys along with the recording. The two songs are very different from each other, melodically-speaking, but it fits perfectly.

The instrumental alternate take of “Getting Better” preserves the original track’s lushness. The keys and buzzy guitars bounce off of each other, while “Fixing a Hole” has an appealing harpsichord practice session before it jumps into familiar territory. The isolated orchestra on “She’s Leaving Home” is a marvel within itself.

This reissue will only be important the kind of Beatle fan who wants to hear everything dissected, although the new, pristine and detailed mix is worth the price of admission alone.

Five decades later, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” still sounds revolutionary and fresh. In many ways this album finds John, Paul, George and Ringo at the peak of their powers. That being said, they have one of the most consistently stellar discographies of the rock era. This is still an eclectic rainbow of a record, even by 2017 standards.

Focus Tracks:

“Strawberry Fields Forever” (Take 26) This is a faster, more experimental reading of the famous single. This version is much less ominous than the classic single we have heard over the years. Ringo’s drumming here is especially thunderous.

“A Day in the Life” (Take 1 with Hums) This is especially interesting as Lennon calls out instructions presumably to George Martin. This version is also stripped of both McCartney’s vocals and of the orchestration, thus emphasizing the hidden elements of the song. The echo-drenched counting during what would be the orchestral portion is especially haunting.

“Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (Take 4) Lennon, playing the role of the twisted carnival barker has some obvious fun on this alternate, stripped-down take. The way he sings the title in a purposely nasally way at the beginning of the track shows that he’s not taking himself too seriously.

PHOTO: Shakiras new album, "El Dorado," was released on May 26, 2017.
SME US LATIN LLC
Shakira’s “El Dorado” ***1/2

Shakira’s first album in three years sort of finds the Colombian superstar mostly aiming to update her Spanish-language pop roots and she does so with an effective electro-fueled energy, joining forces with an international crew of guests. She sounds great beside fellow Colombian, Maluma, on both “Chantaje” and “Trap,” even if he insists on coating his voice with electro effects and on “When a Woman,” (which counts Julia Michaels among its songwriters) it sounds like she is aiming for Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” territory.

There are some interesting choices along the way, too. The initial verse-section of “Amarillo,” seems to evoke memories of the verse melody of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” even if melodically-speaking it heads into a brighter, less earnest direction. On “Pierro Fiel” she is joined by Reggaeton singer Nicky Jam with winning results.

“Comme Moi,” her collaboration with French rapper Black M, gets an “English version” with MAGIC! called “What We Said.” Of course, considering one the English version only really relates to the guests since Shakira’s part on both tracks is in English. The multi-lingual, international tone to the record suits Shakira well and will no doubt lead to global chart domination in some places as she continues to show herself to be a likable presence who can adapt to a number of different sonic backdrops.

It is tempting to call this some sort of return to form, modernizing the sounds that initially made her famous. With the exception of the Prince Royce collaboration, “Déjà vu,” and the Carlos Vives-assisted, “La Bicicleta,” I’d say that classification might be a little hasty. Rather, “El Dorado” finds Shakira continuing to grow as a performer, even if she’s sticking to club tracks and love ballads. She’s developing a fitting, casual subtlety.

Focus Tracks:

“Me Enamoré” This bouncy, electro-tinged opener has enough detail and enough bubblegum punch to win fans across a variety of areas. It’s a slow-burning club monster, even with the digitally-stuttered lyrical breakdown.

“Amarillo” The weird “Papa Don’t Preach” melodic parallel actually provides an accidental hook but the song blossoms into much more as it progresses.

“When a Woman” This is an attempt to conquer the American and British charts and it sounds like a pretty glowing slice of pop. She’s done more insistent tracks in the past, but this is still worthy.

PHOTO: Lil Yachtys new album, "Teenage Emotions," was released on May 26, 2017.
Quality Control Music, LLC
Lil Yachty’s “Teenage Emotions” *

Lil Yachty is only 19, but he’s already caught the ire of hip-hop’s old guard with his “bubblegum trap” and “mumble rap.” Last year the legendary Pete Rock famously called him to task for his lack of skill. From his proper debut, “Teenage Emotions,” it is evident that maintaining a level of lyricism is obviously at most a secondary concern. Mostly he uses his songs to just repeat words over and over in quick repetition. If you guessed that the chorus to the Migos-assisted “Peek a Boo” was the “Peek a Boo” said over and over again, you are right.

“DN Freestyle” is a dreadful example that shows that Yachty has no interest in having any sort of a flow, either. He blathers on over an asymmetrical beat and you are left with your head spinning. The repetition strikes again on both “Say My Name” and “Harley.”

When he’s not attempting to rap, Yachty leans a little too hard on vocoders and Autotune. Sure, with “trap” music this comes with the territory, but it’d be nice if there was more variety and if he’d attempt to sing without any effects from time to time. Perhaps he isn’t doing that because the effects are a crutch.

Of course, the majority of this record is half-baked at best. Listen to the fifty-second sonic atrocity, “Otha S--t” and it might seem amazing that this made it onto a widely-released album. The woozy, electro energy on “FYI (Know How)” and “No More” will prove to be a difficult listen for many. When he tries to rap in a straight-forward way on “Priorities,” it is completely without any sense of charisma, like a kid practicing his lyrics in his bedroom mirror. But he’s way outside of his bedroom and he’s just not ready.

It’s already been pounced on that Yachty uses the phrase “blow like a cello” in “Peek a Boo,” which he has apologized for, because he apparently wasn’t aware of exactly how one plays a cello. I’m all for progressing hip-hop forward and taking it into new, experimental directions, but Lil Yachty showcases no concept of craft here. It often seems like someone turned on a beat, they turned on the vocoders and he walked in cold off of the street and was just told to spit some lyrics and this was the best he gave them. It seems like he isn’t trying.

He can do better. His collaborative re-make of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two,” recorded with Carly Rae Jepsen and Mike WILL Made-It for a Target ad campaign isn’t great by any stretch but it at least captures a hint of faint ghost of the original classic.

“Teenage Emotions” is a bratty mess of a record and not in a compelling way. It’d be one thing if Yachty were ignoring conventions and pushing the genre somewhere fascinating, but he isn’t. When classic hip-hop artists shake their heads at Yachty for his perceived ignorance of the demands of the genre, that scorn is earned. Hip-hop and hip-hop culture along with the time-tested art of free-styling are sacred to many people. If you didn’t have skills and you didn’t have respect, back in the day you would’ve been booed off the stage. Yachty’s idea of hip-hop is a woozy, electro-fueled, fluttering internet meme in comparison to what used to pass the industry test. His lack of care for the music itself and his lyrics will be offensive to many.

There is potentially room for electro and trap elements in hip-hop but here Yachty is dumbing down a great genre. He’s adding more insult than ingenuity.

Focus Track:

“Running with a Ghost” (Featuring Grace) Honestly, picking a track worth recommending here is a challenging task, but Grace does a good job handling a hook that recalls Tegan and Sara’s “Walking with a Ghost.” Yachty essentially gets upstaged with better results.

PHOTO: Justin Townes Earles new album, "Kids In The Street," was released on May 26, 2017.
New West Records
Justin Townes Earle’s “Kids in the Street” ****

The funny thing is about the “alt-country” label is that it often refers to more authentic country in comparison to the polished country-pop that fuels mainstream country radio. On his seventh album in nine years, Justin Townes Earle delivers some straight-forward country ballads combined with occasional shots of boogie-woogie blues. In a different generation, “What’s She Crying For” would have been a landmark hit, as would the opening romp “Champagne Corolla.”

On “15-25,” Earle plays the nefarious rogue quite well while working a formidable blues, while the title-track is a nostalgic trip to his childhood playing with his neighborhood friends. On “Short Hair Woman,” Earle describes his perfect mate, someone who is tall, “sharp as a diamond ring” and not too vain. It’s a winning workout of a track.

“Same Old Stagolee” is an old-time country folk number that no doubt will bring up memories of Lloyd Price’s classic hit “Stagger Lee.” While Price’s “Stagger Lee,” shot a guy named Billy, “Stagolee” here gets into a weapon battle with “Jimmy Brown.” Earle does sound like a throwback to a vintage kind of sound.

It’s no surprise that Earle impresses throughout “Kids in the Street.” He’s had a rather solid career. He also sounds like a smoother and less rugged answer to his famous father, Steve Earle. This is an album with many layers and Earle uses his voice to subtly convey emotion and tell stories very well. This is a rather strong offering that gains momentum with every successive spin.

Focus Tracks:

“Maybe a Moment” With its Ryan Adams-esque energy this will no doubt be a favorite of both alt-country and AAA radio. It’s a slow-burning hit waiting to happen.

“What’s She Crying For” This is a classically-minded, sad country narrative. Earle watches his subject very closely and there is care in his voice as he watches her break down.

“Kids in the Street” This is an ace bit of songwriting. Earle can really tell a detailed story as he laments that “this ain’t the way it was back in 1993.” There’s a palpable sense of lost innocence.

PHOTO: Pet Symmetrys new album, "Vision," was released on May 26, 2017.
Polyvinyl Records
Pet Symmetry’s “Vision” ****

“Vision” is the second album from Chicago band Pet Symmetry. The band is an indie-rock super-group of sorts featuring Erik Czaja and Marcus Nuccio of Dowsers and Even Thomas Weiss of Into It. Over It. This is a brisk half-hour set that finds the trio constantly shape-shifting. Mostly it sticks with a brash, more polished cousin of emo-flavored punk on excellent tracks like “Stare Collection” and “50%.” Elsewhere there are softer moments like the acoustic and beautiful reflection, “Mostly Water” and the deeply resonant “You & Me & Mt. Hood,” which is lifted by its bass-line and its subtle sonic details.

On the flipside, there is the wonderfully destructive bash-fest found on “Eyesores,” a song that will have you pogo-ing across the room and will push your speakers to the limit with some brutal feedback squalls.

This isn’t an album that is easy to pin down. In spite of its brevity, it is a set that tends to reveal new layers and often it recalls the more pensive indie-rock records that emerged between the late nineties and the mid-2000’s. When closing track, “Lint Roller” ends in a complex, multi-part round, it creates a sweeping, enveloping atmosphere.

These 11 tracks pound away, the hit your tender side and they rock with effective force. Pet Symmetry is a tight band that deserves your attention. “Vision” is a commanding, sharp dose of intelligent indie-rock.

Focus Tracks:

“Mostly Water” With the refrain of “this is the me I’ve missed,” this really digs deeply. It is interesting that one of the album’s gentler moments stands out the most, but it makes the most of the quiet atmosphere.

“Stare Collection” This is a hard-hitting rock track with a pop core. It is loudly confident and has a level of brashness that is refreshing, balancing sweetness and instrumental brutality.

“50%” “I’m calling a truce between me and you.” These words begin this track. If most mainstream radio didn’t systematically ignore new rock, this would have some serious crossover potential.

Next Week: New music from Alt-J, Bleachers and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Snoop Dogg, the "Singles" soundtrack, Linkin Park and Magic Giant.

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