This week is really heavy in the release schedule. We have an awful lot to cover.
First, Scottish electro-pop band Chvrches releases its second record, then alterna-club legends New Order releases its first proper album in a decade. Jack White and the Kills’ Alison Mosshart rejoin forces in The Dead Weather after a five year break and Outkast’s Big Boi collaborates with Phantogram under the moniker “Big Grams.” Don Henley kind of goes country on his latest album, “Cass County,” while electro-dance act Disclosure loads its second album with high profile guests. Silversun Pickups continues to turn down the guitars and turn up the electronics while veteran act Los Lobos continues to defy labels with sheer eclecticism. Finally, singer-songwriter David Berkeley releases an intelligent, emotional folk album.
Hopefully this week there really is something for every kind of listener.
|Chvrches’ “Every Open Eye” (Special Edition) ****1/2|
If you loved Chvrches’ 2013 debut, “The Bones Of What You Believe,” the group's second album will not let you down in the least. In fact, the Scottish synth-pop trio obviously knows what works and delivers a slightly more intense sequel.
The secret to the trio's success seems to be the sonically clean, bright pop sound, mixed with Lauren Mayberry’s well-written, expressive lyrics. Mayberry has a background in journalism and it shows. Chvrches’ circle is also decidedly un-pop. The group counts The Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks among their friends. Both are bands that do extremely literate, smart indie rock. At first Chvrches may seem like it doesn't belong in this grouping, but songwriting-wise, it really does. The group just channeled that energy for more of a pop audience.
“Every Open Eye” is a bit more frenetic than its predecessor. Sure, their debut had the rapid-fire, driving “Gun, “and “Lies” but on here on both “Never Ending Circles” and “Clearest Blue,” they take that energy to nearly claustrophobic levels. This album in general is more tightly-wound.
It also has some nice surprises. Mainly, Martin Doherty’s lead-vocal turn on “High Enough To Carry You Over” really resonates. When the group slows down into ballad-mode on both the beautiful “Afterglow” and “Down Side Of Me,” the group really hits high marks.
As expected, this is a stirring collection, thick with synth-driven hooks and neon appeal, but it manages to court these sounds without ever sounding cheesy. It’s yet another really well-crafted pop album in the impressive 2015 crop.
The “Special Edition” version of the album comes with three bonus tracks. The last track, “Bow Down” sounds like an ace hit and should have received better (standard) album placement.
Really, “Every Open Eye” continues the high that began with the group's debut, re-positioning the synth-pop sounds of the eighties into a more modern context. This is surely one of the best pop albums of the fall.
“Leave A Trace” This is a masterful single, showcasing the band members’ level of song-craft at its peak. In fact this is one of the best singles of the year, paired with a colorful and expressive music video which finds Mayberry singing in front of a various rainbow-hued swirls of clouds. Her lyrics are poetic as she sings, “You talk far too much for someone so unkind. / I will wipe the salt off from my skin and I’ll admit that I got it wrong / And there’s grey between the lines.”
“Playing Dead” This song is pretty intense, especially when it hits its explosive apex during the breakdown that occurs around the 2:22 mark. This is a future dance-club hit.
“Down Side Of Me” In spite of the syncopated beat, this track is lushly melodic and gentle in its attack. Mayberry has one of the clearest singing voices in the business and here she rings like a bell, capturing all the emotional tension during the sweeping chorus. This ballad again is another potentially huge single. It also has quite a bit of possible licensing possibilities. It sounds like one of the best songs you would find on the soundtrack for a John Hughes-inspired teen film.
|New Order’s “Music Complete” ****|
On the heels of Duran Duran’s reemergence with their excellent new album, “Paper Gods,” New Order have returned for their first proper studio album since “Waiting For The Siren’s Call” a decade ago. “Music Complete” is admittedly the band’s first album without bassist Peter Hook and Hook’s signature riffing style is missed, but this is also the band’s most club-based album in some time. It really aims to be a dance record. “Waiting For The Siren’s Call” and its 2001 predecessor, “Get Ready” were both more rock-tinged. This album has a touch of the latter, but for the most-part, it aims to recall the early days of Tony Wilson’s epic Manchester club, the Hacienda.
The fact that the Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands was brought on to add additional production shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, the big-beat boom of the late nineties that gave us The Chemical Brothers was the direct result of the work New Order delivered in the eighties. At the same time, if parts of this album bring back memories of Bernard Sumner’s 1999 collaborative single with the Chemical Brothers, “Out Of Control,” it is to be expected.
This album also rightfully sounds like a follow-up to Sumner’s Bad Lieutenant side project from 2009. This makes sense as well when you consider that besides the trio of Sumner, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert, the band is fleshed out by Phil Cunningham and Tom Chapman who were also in Bad Lieutenant. (One sort of wishes Jake Evans, a singer-songwriter in his own right, was also somewhere in the mix here.)
The overall feeling of “Music Complete” is a bit of a rebirth. “Plastic” and “Restless” both recall the band’s best work, with the former sounding like it belongs somewhere in between ”Temptation” and “Blue Monday.”
This album however isn’t without its odd, head-scratching moments. Iggy Pop’s spoken-word cameo on “Stray Dog” is extremely off-putting, delivered as if he’s trying to imitate Sam Elliott’s distinctive narrative drawl in “The Big Lebowski." In contrast, the album’s two other high-profile guests, La Roux’s Elly Jackson (singing on a few tracks) and The Killers’ Brandon Flowers on “Superheated” fit into New Order’s formula effortlessly.
“Music Complete” shows New Order experimenting with every aspect of their signature sound. There are arty nods to their punky Joy Division roots, psychedelic jams and heavily-programmed sounding techno workouts. Thirty-five years into their career, New Order still sounds as fresh and current as ever. Their influence remains omnipresent in the pop music of today.
“Plastic” This is vintage New Order with a modern electro-house spin. Sumner’s smooth croon slyly dances over the beat as it has for decades. This song could have easily been mistaken for a long-lost classic from their back-catalog getting the modern remix treatment. The track was excellently mixed by Richard X and Pete Hoffmann.
“Restless” This is a driving rocker, much like the rest of the band’s other late-period work. Again, there is a signature here that inherently belongs to New Order.
“Singularity” Rowlands’ added production touch is definitely an asset in this song’s breakdowns, giving the song a nice electro-churn. Again, this is another key future club-banger.
|The Dead Weather’s “Dodge And Burn” **|
As a supergroup, the Dead Weather is not worth the sum of its parts. As a member of The Kills, Alison Mosshart usually does great work. The same can be said for Jack Lawrence who is an ace member of both the Greenhornes and the Raconteurs. The Raconteurs are arguably Jack White’s best side band, but that may have to do with the under-rated power-pop genius of Brendan Benson. In the Dead Weather, though, throughout three albums, Jack White really wants to suffocate these songs. His production does these songs no favors. He’s championed as a gifted guitarist and yes, he’s got the energy, but often times the squeaks and skronks that emerge from his amp are messy bits of noise. In the Dead Weather, he’s actually the drummer, with Dean Fertita from Queens Of The Stone Age on guitar, but White still plugs in his amp from time to time and causes a ruckus.
Mosshart tries her best to bring forth a classic blues drive to opener, “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)” but the song ends up being sonically drowned. The same thing goes for “Let Me Through” which consists of a monotonous pound from both the guitars and the drums. Granted, the repeated chorus of “I’m a bad man. / Let me through” doesn’t possess the same kind of vocal gravitas that Mosshart exhibits on the former track, but it is still made worse by the White and company.
“Three Dollar Hat” opens with a promising bassline that gets buried in cacophony. Then, White exhibits some pretty embarrassing rap skills, where he refers to himself in the third person as “Jackie Lee.” (Considering his record company is called “Third Man Records,” is this some sort of ultra-meta pun?) The Dead Weather want to be an arty, Gothic, psychedelic band with classic roots. You can hear a swagger informed by the classic “Nuggets” compilations, engrained “Rough Detective,” but there’s an element missing. One gets the feeling that those who are the biggest champions of White are currently mistaking volume for skill.
This is messy blues rock that too often mistakes pretension for art. And the sad thing is, as far as Jack White-associated side-projects go, it didn’t used to be that way. The Dead Weather have yet to deliver a solid album, but the Raconteurs’ 2008 album, “Consolers Of The Lonely” showed White at his best. And White Stripes classics like “Ball And Biscuit” and “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” actually effectively delivered the level of success expected from the standard level of Jack White hype. As time has gone on, and particularly since the breakup of The White Stripes, White has been sort of adrift. That also goes for his solo albums, “Blunderbuss” and “Lazaretto.” While each album has some decent moments, they both generally lack the kind of spark that used to be present on White’s best work.
On this album, “Be Still” is probably the closest to the band’s desired sound that they actually achieve. This is especially true when the “In A Gadda Da Vida”-style organ-line kicks in, but even if that is the case, this is still sloppy and derivative. While there are a couple of decent moments to pick as a frame of reference for what this album could have been, it ultimately just stands as a frustrating, workman-like exercise in sonic destruction and disappointment. Just because something is loud and heavy, doesn’t mean it rocks.
“Impossible Winner” This album is really back-loaded. Side two is stronger than side one and the only really killer song is the closer, “Impossible Winner,” where Fertita trades his guitar for a piano and Mosshart belts out an amazing tune. She really is this group’s secret weapon, so it is nice that she was given room to shine here. This song is the polar opposite of the rest of the record. While much of the rest of the set is muscular but somewhat toothless, this is quieter, while possessing stately gumption.
“Be Still” As stated above, this song is one of the better tracks on the set. And the vocal interplay between Mosshart and White is decent. It covers well-treaded ground, but White has always had his head in the past.
“Cop And Go” The repeated organ note hammers away, but this track possesses a nice, funky energy thanks to White’s drumming. Again, this is one of the album’s few successes.
|Big Grams’ “Big Grams” ***1/2|
Outkast’s Big Boi joined forces with electro-trip-hoppers Phantogram on a couple of tracks for his 2012 album, “Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors.” They apparently struck up an unlikely musical friendship and so now, three years later, the combination has been dubbed “Big Grams” and delivered a seven-track, 27-minute EP.
Essentially, this is a Phantogram collection with Big Boi coming in and dropping verses. Big Boi was always one of the most-forward-thinking forces in hip-hop so this shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of his fans. And Phantogram have had hip-hop elements embedded into their sound since they made their first appearance. So while this may seem like an unusual pairing on paper, it really works better than one might expect.
Listen to a track like “Goldmine Junkie,” where Big Boi and Sarah Barthel have some cool vocal interplay or a gleeful, pop-flavored jam like “Lights On,” and you can tell that both these acts are having a lot of fun exploring each other’s territory.
Hip-hop purists probably will wonder what Big Boi is doing here, but it is obvious he just wanted to switch up a bit of his formula, but Barthel and her Phantogram-mate Josh Carter come off as apt beat-makers to back his rapid-fire rhymes. "Fell In The Sun,” for instance is a cleverly trippy jam that recalls Phantogram’s excellent single, “Fall In Love” from last year’s, “Voices.”
Run The Jewels show up on “Born To Shine.” (Do you remember when Killer Mike appeared on Outkast’s single, “The Whole World” back in 2001? He and Big Boi go way back.) The combination of Big Boi, Phantogram and Run The Jewels creates an extremely intriguing stew, even if the resulting track ends up being a sometimes graphic sex rap.
Skrillex shows up on “Drum Machine,” which will no doubt be a polarizing track for a lot of listeners. Again, one gets the idea that this is collection is all about exploring unexpected ground.
Some may listen to this and be counting the moments until Phantogram and Big Boi return to their respective corners, but I found this intriguing and full of unexpected joys. Big Grams gives us an interesting combination of artists we never knew we wanted to hear together. They deserve credit for thinking outside of the box.
“Lights On” This is the most Phantogram-driven song on the collection, but it also sounds like a hit. Barthel sings three whole verses before Big Boi comes in and drops a verse, but when he appears, nearly three-minutes in, he takes command of the track while he’s on the mic.
“Fell Into The Sun” When hip-hop and trip-hop combine in the right way, it can be intoxicating and this sounds like a truly unexpected party jam.
“Goldmine Junkie” Perhaps this track is the inspiration for the album’s liner-notes and cover design which consists of artfully done shots of naked models painted gold. Big Boi sings with Barthel and she raps with him over some really effective piano work. The results are surprisingly smooth.
|Don Henley’s “Cass County” ***|
There’s an episode of “Seinfeld” (season 8, episode 7 to be exact) in which Elaine has a boyfriend who is transfixed every time he hears “Desperado” by the Eagles. It’s a schmaltzy, country hit from an unlikely source. Why do I mention this? Well, if you are like Elaine’s boyfriend in that episode (his name was Brett and he was portrayed by James Patrick Stuart) you will probably find Don Henley’s first solo album in 15 years interesting with its country and Americana bend.
He teams with Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, and Martina McBride on this collection. How Mick Jagger also ended up here, I have no idea, but Henley sounds at home with a country backdrop.
This is a long way from “Boys Of Summer” or even “The End Of Innocence,” even if “Take A Picture Of This” does possess an equal dose of “Lite Radio” shininess. But then again, “Lite Radio” was always the Eagles’ bread and butter. After all, for a long period of time, “Hotel California” was a “lite” staple.
If you aren’t a Henley fan to begin with, this album probably won’t change your mind. Even though the guitars have a bit of twang to them, this collection still has all the hallmarks of his previous work. He tells a story about a down-and-out waitress trying to make ends meet on “Waiting Tables,” while on “Words Can Break Your Heart,” he sings the chorus of “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your heart.” It is pretty standard fare.
As much as this minor genre shift leaves an impression, this album doesn’t really break any new ground. It’s nice to hear Henley sing with Haggard and Parton, but really this is yet another veteran artist doing what people would expect. Considering “Desperado” and all the other country-hued songs Henley did with the Eagles, this isn’t all that revolutionary. Also Henley has spent the majority of his career recording ballads, which is essentially exactly what you will find here.
So if you are a Henley fan and you love “Desperado,” “Cass County” is probably for you. If not, but you share another fascination with Elaine’s boyfriend in that same “Seinfeld,” episode, you can just take your copy and put it away in a one of the drawers in a dresser designed by Karl Farbman.
“Take A Picture Of This” This is Henley’s ode to capturing one’s memories before they pass. Again, it is sappy, but it is the kind of song that built Henley’s name. It is an unapologetic, observational anthem about getting older.
“When I Stop Dreaming” This duet with Dolly Parton finds the two singers harmonizing quite effectively over a melancholy slide-guitar line.
“Where I Am Now” This album closer is more blues than country and it shows a bit of fire. Like all the other songs but one on this collection, this song was co-written with the former drummer of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Stan Lynch. The two men also produced this album together.
|Disclosure’s “Caracal” (Deluxe)|
Two years after having a big buzz-worthy album, “Settle,” and helping to establish Sam Smith with their collaborative single, “Latch,” electro-production duo Disclosure release their second full-length album, “Caracal.” As expected, it is another guest-heavy set with high-profile appearances from The Weeknd, Lorde, Miguel and more.
Brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence make slick, smooth, R&B-flavored chill music with a semi-futuristic, bubbling electro-sheen. In other words, their sound is one that the mainstream has firmly embraced, but one that is also forward-thinking enough to push the electronic genre to the next level.
This album sounds like it should soundtrack elite, lush late-night pool parties at expensively decorated mansions. There’s an airy, effortlessly romantic sound to the synths used to back these tracks as if the Lawrence brothers are trying to foster a semi-ambient vibe while still maintaining a party atmosphere.
“Caracal” is a smoother, more subtle record than its predecessor. “Settle” had overt jams like the banging, looped “When A Fire Starts To Burn.” This record is more about setting a certain mood. And even when the beats kick in at full-throttle, it doesn’t come off as aggressive. It's almost like they are experimenting with minimalism.
Summer may be over, but this is the mature party album of the fall, taking an electro-offshoot of “smooth-lovin’ R&B” to new levels. This is just a buttery-soft, collection pairing stellar beat-work with a gifted assortment of guest vocalists.
The deluxe version of the album adds three more tracks to the album, thus maintaining the album’s serene atmospheric glow.
“Magnets” (Featuring Lorde) There really wasn’t any doubt before, but this track cements the idea that Lorde is definitely going to do well beyond her 2013 hit album, “Pure Heroine.” This track shows a more mature side to the now 18-year–old singer who on her own album thrived when paired with a minimalist backdrop. She sings slyly, “Pretty girls don’t know the things that I know,” thus raising a number of questions.
“Good Intentions” (Featuring Miguel) Paired with a pounding beat and subtle, wah-wah-infused synths, Miguel brings the smoothness over a very sultry groove.
“Willing & Able” (Featuring Kwabs) The almost vinyl-like scratchiness on this track almost sounds like trickling water and this song has a jazzy sense of sophistication.
|Silversun Pickups’ “Better Nature” ***|
On their fifth album, Los Angeles’ Silversun Pickups have long abandoned the Smashing Pumpkins fascination that was omnipresent on previous key tracks like “Lazy Eye” and “There’s No Secrets This Year.” The guitars have receded probably in hopes of getting more mainstream pop radio play. This move actually began to occur on their last effort, “Neck Of The Woods,” three years ago, but they seem to be soldiering ahead. This is both good and bad. It’s good because they now sound like their own band and not as much like imitators. It is bad because without the heavy guitars, the band loses a bit of their bite and Brian Aubert’s voice, while full of personality and quite unique, can fade into the mix when coated with too much production gloss. The louder guitars and the bits of shouting added a bit of edge.
They are still a guitar band. You can hear it bubbling up on “Pins And Needles,” but at the same time, the songs would benefit from more guitar-heavy remixes. There’s a cool dream-pop vibe on that song, but the guitars are covered in layers of digital textures, thus muting them and making them slightly less gnarly.
“Nightlight” has the same issue. There is fuzziness here, but it doesn’t make the loud statement it should and it is almost taken to the point where it gives texture, but it is designed as not to offend. To compare them to their obvious, former inspiration, it is almost like they stopped imitating “Siamese Dream” and went straight for the uber-glossy “MACHINA: The Machines Of God.” (It should be noted that this album was mixed by Alan Moulder who was one of the mixers at the helm of “MACHINA” FOR Smashing Pumpkins.)
While I have issue with some of the production and the mixing on this record, I have to say, there are some really great songs hidden on this set. The one that really stands out the most is “Friendly Fires,” which hums and bubbles like some sort of menacing slice of campfire dub-step. This is the one track where the band really makes the most of their new, more electro-driven direction. It’s the kind of song you’ll find yourself listening to on repeat, finding different textural elements to explore.
“Silversun Pickups” may no longer be the grunge-era revivalists they were a decade ago, but they are a band still finding their place in the modern sonic landscape. While sometimes their new, muted sound does them a disservice, when they find a good hook, they can still amaze.
“Friendly Fires” This is easily one of the band’s most gripping songs to date, thanks to Aubert’s surprisingly soaring chorus. Again, this makes the most out of the new electro-flavors that have been added to the mix. Dare I say, this a really excellent pop song.
“Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)” Bassist, Nikki Monninger steps up and delivers most of the lead vocals on this track, providing an effective duet energy between her and Aubert.
“Ragamuffin” This is a churning, building ballad with some clever electro-touches. One gets the feeling it will get the dance-club remix-treatment. This is another case when Aubert is obviously upping his vocal game.
|Los Lobos’ “Gates Of Gold” ****|
Nearly forty years since their debut record, Los Lobos keep going with their latest, “Gates Of Gold,” and it is among their best work, showing the kind of eclecticism we have all come to expect from these genre-shifters out of East Los Angeles.
There’s really something here for every kind of Los Lobos fan. If you like their blues side, you’ll enjoy the opener, “Made To Break Your Heart” or the thunderous, road-house-worthy “Mis-Treater Boogie Blues.” If you appreciate their Spanish-language/Latin side, they do excellent work on both “Poquito Para Aqui” and “La Tumba Sera El Final.” “When We Were Free” is an earthy, experimental track with jazzy guitar chord-ing and a few clever atmospheric touches and “There I Go” brings forward a similar brand of funk.
Los Lobos, as always bring a great deal of musical prowess to the table. They are able to sound like a different band on just about every song, and that wide sonic net has always been their greatest asset. At their core, they deliver a timeless mix of rock and blues, but you get the feeling that David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas could probably sing in just about any style if given the chance. The Hendrix-style workout of “Too Small Heart” is enough to rock the socks off of anyone.
With “Gates Of Gold,” Los Lobos continue to be a reliable, powerful ensemble. Considering they are probably most famous for their work scoring the movie “La Bamba” back in 1987, this album could be a revelation for those who haven’t been paying attention. “Gates Of Gold,” like much of the rest of their discography shows them to be a band that should never be labeled as one particular genre.
“When We Were Free” Sonically, this is probably the most interesting track on the record, finding the band sounding like a mixture between Steve Winwood and the Police. Part of me thinks that this kind of multi-hued experimentation could be the kind of music Incubus could be making in twenty years.
“Too Small Heart” This song rocks quite efficiently. It’s an authentic bit of acid-rock blues with some palpable momentum. This track also features some stellar drumming from Hidalgo’s son, David Hidalgo Jr., who is currently also the drummer in Social Distortion.
“Poquito Para Aqui” This is one of the two Spanish songs on the album, combining an almost samba-like energy, with some excellent acoustic guitar and accordion playing. The traditions of Spanish, Mexican and Tex-Mex music are very important to this band.
|David Berkeley’s “Cardboard Boat” ****|
Singer-songwriter David Berkeley delivers an intimate collection of acoustic songs, bringing to mind everyone from Damien Rice to Alexi Murdoch to Nick Drake. With a voice that sometimes recalls Ben Ottewell from the band Gomez, Berkeley can tonally go from gruff to sweet on a dime, thus giving his often quiet folk songs some real, emotional resonance.
When he sings the title-track, there’s a sense of isolation, as if it is the confession of a man floating in the water accepting some sort of impending doom while pondering his regrets. As he sings, you get the idea that he’s taking some time before going back and making his case in a relationship. As he sings, “Please leave the light on so I can find my way back to you,” he sings with a great deal of hope in his voice.
For the most part this is a collection of slow-burning, building tracks, possessing an organic glow. Besides Berkeley’s guitar, you sometimes hear strings and a horn section. Sometimes the pace picks up a little. “Colored Birds” sounds like a more produced single, even with its quiet banjo-picking. The song has quite a rise as Berkeley sings, “Oh, it’s the strangest parade.”
“Wishing Well” is a quiet walking bit of folk with noticeable momentum, while “Setting Sail” and “To The Sea” maintain the water-bound imagery of the title-track. Really, Berkeley comes from a long line of troubadours that goes back to the likes of Dylan and Donovan. This is a collection that may not immediately grab you. It may need a couple of spins to sink in, but Berkeley is a deeply affecting songwriter with an old soul. If this album takes a while to grab you, it will be worth the wait.
“Cardboard Boat” As explained above, this is the best illustration of Berkeley’s depth as a composer, conveying a real sense of loss and possible repentance.
“Another Round” This is song comes from a broken-hearted, liquor-soaked folk tradition. Again, this doesn’t sound like this is of this time, with hints of bluegrass in the fiddle and banjo work, but it is in a classic mold.
“Wishing Well” This song seems to depict the story of a man who works hard, falls in love and then right at the point where he’s content, his wife says, “George, we’re done.” It’s a song brimming with heartache and regret. It’s a tale of false-hope with little reward and realizing that one has wasted one’s life. If only there could be a wish to do it all again with better results.
Next Week: The latest from Janet Jackson, Editors and more, plus Garbage reissues its debut album with deluxe bonus tracks in honor of its 20th anniversary.
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