Cyndi Lauper, Keith Urban, James Blake and More Music Reviews

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This week Cyndi Lauper releases a country record, Keith Urban goes further into pop territory, James Blake issues a sprawling, experimental set, Mary Chapin Carpenter releases her 14th album and ANOHNI (formally Antony of Antony and The Johnsons) releases a politically-charged electro-hued set. This is a big week for those who like country and experimental electronic music.

PHOTO: Cyndi Lauper - "Detour"
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Cyndi Lauper’s “Detour” ****

It may be a surprise to some, but Cyndi Lauper’s latest record is a country album. If the last decade-and-a-half or so has taught us anything, though, it’s that Lauper can sing just about anything. In 2010 she dropped a blues record. In 2003 she delivered an often jaw-dropping collection of standards that was anchored by a stunning reading of “At Last.” In 2008, she dropped a club record, “Bring Ya To The Brink” which was admittedly was closer to her more-traditional post-'80s wheelhouse, but was still strikingly modern. Having written the music for “Kinky Boots” and being in a production of “Threepenny Opera” with Nellie McKay hasn’t hurt, either. Cyndi Lauper has become an admirable shapeshifter.

“Detour” find her adeptly tackling some country standards as well as some other tracks. She positively nails renditions of both the Patsy Cline-popularized “Walkin’ After Midnight” and the Skeeter Davis hit, “The End Of The World.” She has Jewel come along and show off her championship yodeling skills on “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” She covers the Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty classic, “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” with Vince Gill. After singing “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” with Willie Nelson on his Gershwin record, she invites him to be on her record, singing “Night Life.”

Really, this is the kind of record you never knew you wanted to exist. Going back into the Patsy Cline songbook, she handles “I Fall To Pieces” with a sense of elegance. Even the unseasonable “Hard Candy Christmas” with Alison Krauss is a welcome addition.

I hope her next offering is another pop and dance record but “Detour” is a remarkable and rewarding collection. This is worlds away from hits like “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” “Time After Time,” “True Colors” and “I Drove All Night,” but it really works. Lauper continues to show herself to be a profoundly versatile performer.

Focus Tracks:

“Funnel Of Love” This Wanda Jackson-popularized song serves as the opener and lead single of the album and it is an apt fit for Lauper, highlighting her playfully quirky side.

“I Fall To Pieces” Lauper sings this song with a perfect smoothness.

“The End Of The World” This song has been covered countless times. Lauper’s version, while straight-forward, is quite excellent.

PHOTO: Keith Urban - "Ripcord"
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Keith Urban’s “Ripcord” ***

First off, Keith Urban’s new album, “Ripcord,” is not really a country record. It is more of an electronic-influenced pop record. Having just been a judge on “American Idol,” this isn’t that much of a surprise. Sure, there are bits of twang on “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” and yes, this fits in what passes for country in Nashville these days, but with its hip-hop beat, Urban isn’t fooling anyone. But, you know what? That’s OK.

This album still reeks of formula, but at the same time, there’s something enjoyably adventurous about this record as Urban seems to borrow a bit of a bass-line from the Chemical Brothers’ “Go” on “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)" or try to merge country music with club music on “Wasted Time.” At its peaks this album can be an interesting sonic hybrid. Sure, there are a bit too many simplistic, down-home style narratives (like “Boy Gets A Truck”)and a bit too many names dropped for sake of being relatable to a mass audience, but that kind of factory-style writing is part of the problem with modern country music. The reason why this album kind of wins is because it goes pretty far sonically outside the box. Nile Rodgers and Pitbull strangely don’t sound out of place on “Sun Don’t Let Me Down,” and that in itself is pleasurably bizarre.

Urban wants to be a pop star. He wants to go beyond his country fan base. While “Ripcord” definitely has its flaws, it still has its moments and gets him closer to that goal.

Focus Tracks:

“Sun Don’t Let Me Down” (Featuring Pitbull and Nile Rodgers) There are a million reasons why this song shouldn’t work, including the synthesized whistle that seems to appear on too many pop songs these days. It works, I think because Urban really brings a lot of drive to his performance and you can hear that signature Nile Rodgers brand of funk embedded in the song’s DNA.

“The Fighter” (Featuring Carrie Underwood) Urban and Underwood sing this catchy number that sounds like an upbeat dance duet from the '80s. Again, this is really outside of the country realm.

“Blue Ain’t Your Color” There are still some stray bits of country spread across this set and this lullaby-style ballad is one of the best.

PHOTO: James Blake - "The Colour In Anything"
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James Blake’s “The Colour In Anything” ****

On James Blake’s new album, “The Colour In Anything,” he sounds like he’s taking equal influence from Radiohead’s “Kid A” and Jeff Buckley’s “Grace.” Here we have a 77-minute opus that makes you feel like you’ve been on an exciting journey from start to finish. Fresh off his brief appearance on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” Blake has never had a higher profile and his brand of lo-fi, experimental, electro-R&B is truly unique.

Blake uses modern technology, but he does so in an organic way. During “Put That Away And Talk To Me,” there’s an analog hiss and a refreshing home-made quality, even as he’s using vocoder effects and samplers. There’s something nicely raw about all 17 of these songs.

There’s also a hypnotic quality to this record. Blake likes to repeat phrases, either naturally or with sampled loops. This works to great effect on both “Points” and “Two Men Down.” What could be monotonous in someone else’s hands becomes a swirling invitation.

Blake is also a strong balladeer. Both “Waves Know Shores” and the title track have elements that are both seductive and sad. It’s as if he’s working an emo-bend on “smooth R&B.”

Blake’s “The Colour In Anything” shows an artist endlessly experimenting. The album’s elongated length works to its benefit, since it gives Blake lots of room to try out new ideas. In this current climate of shortened albums, I miss having records of this length and hope other artists follow Blake’s example. He is obviously at the forefront of a sonic revolution. The fact that he’s being embraced by the mainstream can only help the overall musical landscape to expand.

Focus Tracks:

“Put That Away And Talk To Me” This track perfectly captures everything excellent about this album, from the bizarre breakdown to the fact that you can almost feel this song being put together. Even the sampled vocal sounds like it benefits from excellent mic-placement.

“Noise Above Our Heads” This song sounds like it was created by sampling and cutting up a ringtone. Again, there is definitely a resulting hypnotic quality.

“I Need A Forest Fire” (Featuring Bon Iver) Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon isn’t a stranger to electro-pop given his vocoder-heavy song “Woods” and his work with Kanye West, so he and Blake make a natural fit here. Later in this set, “Meet You In Maze” even brings back memories of Vernon’s “Woods.” No doubt the two men have taken huge influence from each other.

PHOTO: Mary Chapin Carpenter - "The Things That We Are Made Of"
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Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Things That We Are Made Of” ****

It’s been almost 30 years since Mary Chapin Carpenter made her debut and throughout the years she has effectively blended folk, country and pop influences into a potent combination. Her last album, “Songs From The Movie” was a dense, highly orchestral affair and it really worked to great ethereal effect. In contrast, “The Things That We Are Made Of,” returns her to more traditional modern troubadour territory with beautiful results. “What Does It Mean To Travel” should be considered among her classics and opener “Something Tamed Something Wild” perfectly sets the tone for the record on the whole.

At the same time, there is something bare and haunted about this set. Mary Chapin Carpenter is a top-notch writer. When she sings about a “cowboy hat and a ’33 Gibson” on “Livingston,” she’s not doing it in the patronizing, formulaic way you’d find on most modern country records. She’s actually drawing her audience into the narrative. That being said, as a writer, in the country scheme of things, she’s closer to the old greats than the new country. Still that contrast is immediately evident. Her lyrics have the level of detail of a short story.

“Map Of My Heart” could be basic in its approach. It isn’t. Chapin Carpenter puts lots of love into her lyrics and thus avoids formula. “Oh Rosetta” is nicely confessional while “Hand On My Back” is quite poetic in its execution.

“The Things That We Are Made Of” is a really strong record, showing that fourteen albums into her career, Chapin Carpenter is still working in peak form. It’s interesting that she’s released an album on the same day as Lauper’s own country record, considering the two co-wrote the under-rated Lauper classic, “Sally’s Pigeons” together.

Focus Tracks:

“What Does It Mean To Travel” Is this song a meditation on movement in general and our need to take our material goods along for the ride? Probably. This inward-looking, thought-provoking song also has a melody that really sticks.

“Hand On My Back” This is really dense and ghostly in its approach but at the same time, it will win you over on the first listen. Chapin Carpenter’s choice of language and phrasing here can be spellbinding. This is a sad hymn to the down-trodden in the face of some sort of tragedy, but at the same time there are some uplifting elements as well.

“The Blue Distance” This ballad makes nice use of train imagery in its lyrics. Again, this is another song thick with detail. She knows exactly how to set a scene.

PHOTO: ANOHNI - "HOPELESSNESS"
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ANOHNI’S “Hopelessness” ***

This year, ANOHNI (formally Antony of Antony and The Johnsons) became only the second openly transgender person to be up for an Oscar for her work on the song “Manta Ray” from the documentary “Racing Extinction.”

“Hopelessness” is her fifth album and her first under her new name. It is a highly electronic set which combines serene tones with some visceral edges. “Drone Bomb Me” wallows in its dark lyrics even if ANOHNI’s highly operatic signature vibrato has the confidence of a seasoned pop singer serenading us with the latest club-banger. Her voice is still the biggest draw. There are few voices that can convey as much emotion so cleanly. Every shake and quiver tells a story.

This is a pretty heavy-handed, highly political album in its content. “Execution” is a great pop song, but at the same time, its lyrics, “Execution / It’s an American dream” definitely have bite, as does the song “Obama,” which takes on the president for not being the champion of hope his campaign promised. In the song, she talks about the NSA spying on phone conversations and the treatment of corporate whistle-blowers.

This set can be an acquired taste. It is purposely confrontational. The pitch-shifted “Violent Men” is interesting but disconcerting.

Still there are some tremendous pop moments like “Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?” which shimmers and sparkles to an anthemic climb. “Crisis” is also quite affecting, again finding contrast between the lyrics and the song’s overall tone.

“Hopelessness” can be a difficult record and yet it still has its rewards. ANOHNI continues her journey and continues to be a one-of-a-kind performer.

Focus Tracks:

“Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?” In many ways, this could be a pop hit, even if it lyrically touches on mass slaughter, deforestation and meat production in its lyrics.

“Execution” There’s something really off-putting way about the way ANOHNI sings this song’s title like it is some sort of sweet nothing. Still, this is another meditation on global warfare wrapped up as a pop confection. It’s a fascinating approach but again it makes for uneasy results.

“Drone Bomb Me” Like the above cuts, this follows the same pattern with thorough lyrical detail.

Next Week: New music from Corinne Bailey Rae, Meghan Trainor and more.

Missed the review for Radiohead's latest album? Get it here.

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