Sure, there are moments where the band members play up their harder-edged punk side, but this is an extremely pop-driven album. This should surprise no one. Blink-182 have always been just as pop-driven as punk-driven, so the electro-hand-claps in “Los Angeles” are not a shock. At the same time, these elements (perhaps added to in a quest for airplay) actually fit the songs.
The album is also packed with possible hits. “Bored To Death” is already the band’s biggest chart-performing single in twelve years while “Sober,” “Left Alone” and the aforementioned “Los Angeles” sound like hits waiting to happen. For a band that used to be rather juvenile in nature, this is a pretty mature and serious collection, although the momentary “Built This Pool” and “Brohemian Rhapsody” recall the band’s jokey, immature past.
It is both remarkable and reassuring that at 44, Hoppus is still able to summon anthems of teen angst without sounding out of place. Maybe it is because this band has always maintained a playful, youthful sensibility, but it is a rare gift. Like 2011’s underrated “Neighborhoods,” “California” shows that Blink-182 still have a great deal more to say. Hopefully the addition of Skiba will stick. The new lineup has some decent chemistry and will probably only gel more with time.
“Rabbit Hole” This is one of the fastest tracks on the album and it packs a great punch with its breakneck pace. It also has a very catchy and enjoyable melody and deserves to be mentioned among the group’s best songs. In other words, this is Blink-182 doing what they do best.
“Los Angeles” This is kind of dark material for Blink, but again it has some really decent drive. This is a menacing anthem of sorts.
“Bored To Death” This feels like a response and update on 1999 single, “Adam’s Song” to some degree. It captures a similar sense of angst. The real focal point however is Barker’s tremendous drumming which steals attention from all the other elements of the track. He may not frequently get the credit he deserves, but he is an incredible beast behind the kit.
quicklist: 2title: Maxwell’s “blackSUMMERS’night” ****text: No doubt, if you have Maxwell’s previous offerings, his new album will confuse your iTunes collection quite a bit. His last album in 2009 was called “BLACKsummers’night,” making these albums two parts of a planned trilogy. It’s actually pretty hard to believe it has been seven years since he gave us a new record, but this collection offers more of the singer’s brand of chilled R&B. In other words, if you’ve ever loved a Maxwell album, you’ll probably enjoy this one as well with its jazzy instrumental textures.
Maxwell is one of those singers who seems dropped from another time. He would have fit in well with the soul and funk of the seventies. Twenty years removed from his debut, “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” it is nice that he hasn’t compromised his sonic ideals. In fact, “The Fall” has an impressively dense and a surprisingly challenging backdrop.
Maxwell is also quite a versatile vocalist from the falsetto-driven opener, “All The Ways Love Can Feel” to the more forceful “III.” “Fingers Crossed” and “Lake By The Ocean” sound like confident slices of vintage soul. This is a record that puts enormous displays of musical skill ahead of pop appeal, which makes it also the kind of record that sinks deeper into your subconscious with repeated listens. Nevertheless, this album has its share of immediate moments. “1990x,” for instance, is instantly stunning and “Gods” is a particularly lush exercise.
Maxwell is still at the top of his skill-level. In fact, even by his strict standards this ranks among his best and smoothest records. He tends to put mood ahead of memorability which makes him a hard sell for those looking for immediate rewards, but “blackSUMMERS’night” shows growth in that front, with a higher-than-usually assortment of possible crossover hits. Should this album get airplay outside of R&B circles? Certainly. Will it get the mainstream, “Top 40” attention it deserves?” Sadly, probably not.
“The Fall” This is a rhythmically impressive track of the highest order. Without question one can bet that bass-line dances across the track on vinyl.
“Lake By The Ocean” Maxwell brings to mind eighties-era Smokey Robinson on this cut on one of the most overtly accessible and hummable tracks of his career.
“1990x” With his signature “smooth-lovin’” R&B style and dynamic voice, this is a slow-jam that constantly evolves but never loses momentum.
quicklist: 3title: Bat For Lashes’ “The Bride” ****text: Natasha Khan’s fourth album under the Bat For Lashes moniker is a series of reflections on marriage. From “I Do,” to “Honeymooning Alone,” marriage is a recurring (and isolating) theme throughout the set. The truth is “The Bride” is a concept record built upon a narrative told from the perspective of a woman whose groom-to-be is killed on the way to the ceremony. Heartbreak, loneliness and longing are also obviously heavily present lyrical themes.
Most of this record finds Khan exploring a sound that has worked extremely well for her in the past. The majority of these tracks are slow-building ballads. If you have heard past singles like “Daniel” and “Laura,” you know that this sound hits firmly in Khan’s wheelhouse. The sweeping, slow rise of “Close Encounters” also makes the most of her Kate Bush-esque attraction to musical drama. In fact, this record on the whole is a tender, sweet, moving piece of work.
When the collection’s narrative shifts to death with “Widow’s Peak” and the optimistic, “I Will Love Again,” it finds its real emotional core. The former is an arty, spoken-word display while the latter is a single-ready ballad. On the heels of Khan’s Sexwitch side-project with TOY’s Dan Carey, this is obviously a much more solemn affair.
Like the most legendary balladeers, Khan knows how to tell a story well and how to compliment that story musically. While this album is somber, it never fails to grab the listeners with all its might. While this isn’t the most pop-driven record, it still should be seen as an artistic triumph of sorts. Khan has proved herself to be strikingly consistent, and while the story behind “The Bride” may tug at your heartstrings, it never does so in a pandering way.
“Honeymooning Alone” I’m going to say something that is definitely going to grab the attention of some readers. This in many ways sounds like something Portishead would have put on their self-titled 1997 record. This is a high compliment. The drumming and guitar-work both have a strong Portishead vibe.
“I Will Love Again” If there is a possible radio-crossover single on this album, this slow-burner is it with its enveloping bassline that washes over you like a comforting embrace. It may be slow, but one can imagine in a world where Adele’s “Hello” can become a monster hit, this can as well, even though it is infinitely more subtle in its approach. This is the kind of textural track that makes you want to stop everything and take in all the sonic layers as the caress your ears.
“In God’s House” Woozy and dream-like, this is a song about waiting at the altar for a groom who will not arrive. As warm as this song sounds in places, it is also packed with dread and sadness.
quicklist: 4title: American Authors’ “What We Live For” **text: American Authors are a bunch of Berklee dropouts using their skills to make slick, clean pop. Sure, there is a great deal of skill on display, but their second album, “What We Live For” is sharply made to match the formulas that get played on pop radio. These productions are glossy and highly listenable, but they really lack any sort of discernable edge, making these forced anthems about embracing moments a tiresome exercise. “I’m Born To Run” has the following chorus: “I want to live my life like I’m gonna die young./ Like it’s never enough/ Like I’m born to run.” Even if you take the Springsteen (and Kesha) associations and put them aside, these are some truly cliché lyrics backed with the kinds of hand-claps and whoa-ohs that have become an all-to-present fixture on pop radio. In some ways, these guys make Imagine Dragons and Bastille sound forward-thinking in comparison.
Of course, there is a surprise or two, the banjo-meets-South African-influence on “Pride” sounds good at least on the verses before the chorus launches into the same cheer-ready formulas.
On the other hand, the title-track sounds like The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star,” while “Go Big Or Go Home” ends up sounding sugary in a peppy, cloying way.
Of course, their first album did quite well, so in spite of what I say here, these anthems of living for the now will no doubt find their fans. Part of me thinks that the members of American Authors are trying to counteract their forced-formulaic music with some intricate musical bits hidden deep in the mix of these songs. While “Nothing Better” sounds like an electronic-tinged hoedown, there’s obscured intricacy in the banjo and keyboard work.
These guys are a tight band, but as bright as this album sounds, it still winds up being alarmingly bland.
“Mess With Your Heart” By far, this is the set’s best track, even if it sounds Mumford & Sons-mixed with “American Idol.” Still, even if its formulaic elements can be easily dissected it proves these guys can put together a half-decent song that almost serves them well.
“Superman” This ballad isn’t bad either as it builds to something that verges on sounding Broadway-ready.
quicklist: 5title: Magic!’s “Primary Colours” **1/2text: On “Primary Colours,” Canadian reggae-rock outfit Magic! follow-up the success of their woefully outdated hit, “Rude,” a reflection on asking a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage and coping with his refusal. The reggae side of the band sounds like someone took old Police and Men At Work records and watered them down through a 2016 pop lens. While those bands were tempered by elements of ska and punk, Magic! isn’t always successfully as grounded. Even the presence of Sean Paul doesn’t add a sense of authenticity to their sound, even as singer Nasri sings, “I feel like Robert Marley / Got me waiting here in vain.” It just sounds like they are grasping at straws by mentioning the most renowned reggae artist in history as a misguided quest for credibility.
There are a few fleeting, exciting moments. Opener “Have It All” showcases a nice groove even if it is undercut by planted yeahs and other such gimmicks. “Gloria” sounds like a cheesy hit from the eighties. (Honestly I’m having trouble deciding whether or not this track should be embraced as kitsch.) “Red Dress” mixes reggae and do-wop, while both “No Regrets” and “I Need You” are both passable-to-decent ballads.
Magic! isn't a bad band. In fact, they have promise, but this album is at best a guilty pleasure and a sometimes effective, sometimes awkward fusion of sounds from the past. There are a few tracks on here stronger than “Rude,” so only time will tell if they are able to match that song’s hit status.
“Have It All” The brightest moment on the album comes at its very start, mostly thanks to the song’s elastic guitar-line.
“No Regrets” This is acoustic take on the band’s signature sound, again a song that is saved by a guitar riff that hits some unexpected notes. It’s formulaic but it is still a winner.
“I Need You” This piano ballad also works, even if the dub-y guitar and drum-accents seem like they are placed on the track simply to fuel the band’s light-reggae vibe and not to actually benefit the track itself.
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