-- intro: This week Nick Jonas releases a new album, the members of Garbage deliver a dark and entrancing new album, Fitz And The Tantrums further court the pop world, Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John return after a five year break, alt-country stars Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle join forces, Band Of Horses return to form and the late Allen Toussaint releases one last collection. It’s a busy week as we get closer to the official beginning of summer. The release schedule has definitely kicked into full-gear.
quicklist: 1 title: Garbage’s “Strange Little Birds” ****1/2 text: It’s been 21 years since Garbage made their debut. Now on their sixth album, the band delivers a tight, impossibly dense set of tracks with “Strange Little Birds.” They have never released a weak album, but even with that in mind, this one stands among their best to date. The collection showcases possible hit-potential akin to earlier releases like their landmark debut and its follow-up, “Version 2.0.” If alt-rock radio was still at an apex, this album would be the commercial monster it begs to be.
Part of this album’s amazingness comes from the fact that it volleys effortlessly from harder, more shoegaze-influenced rock to whispery trip-hop at the drop of a hat. “Empty” is as striking an anthem as this band has ever produced, while “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” possesses a gripping sense of melody. Shirley Manson spends a lot of this album at a hushed volume. Even when she hits a sweet melody, she comes off more like a snake going in for the kill than a lulling presence. Even in 2016, Manson remains one of the most consistently entrancing lead-singers around. She is able to set up a remarkable amount of subtext with each note.
“Strange Little Birds” is Garbage’s darkest and most venomous album to date, but it has their classic charm. It helps that Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson are all still in the fold. Standouts like “Magnetized,” “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” and “Blackout” add fire to their signature sound. This album is astounding, enveloping and reassuring all at once. The members of Garbage are still unquestionably in peak form.
“If I Lost You” This song sneaks in like an airy, more vulnerable sequel to the early hit “#1 Crush.” One can imagine this becoming a chilled club-hit of the highest order. Manson works this track’s beautiful groove with immense expertise. In a perfect world, this would get massive “Top 40” radio-play. It definitely is a worthy hit waiting to happen.
“Empty” The album’s first single is a full-on rocker which should stand well against their other hits.
“Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” Like “If I Lost You,” this is another song that combines soft beauty with a vaguely menacing undercurrent. As Manson asks “why we kill the things we love the most” the song builds into something quite stately and bold.
quicklist: 2 title: Fitz & The Tantrums’ “Fitz And The Tantrums” ** text: When Fitz & The Tantrums burst out of nowhere in 2010, their debut full-length, “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” really stood out with its Motown-ready tightness. There was something fresh and alive about that record, even if it was an obvious response to the work of both Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. It had retro charm. Starting with their last album, 2013’s “More Than Just A Dream,” the band was remade as yet another electro-pop outfit. They scored a hit with “The Walker,” so it is understandable that they have continued the journey down the electronic spiral.
Their third album is a self-titled effort and considering the booming, organic fun of their debut, it seems like a huge step backwards, musically speaking. They’ve made themselves over in order to sell more records and to fit into pop radio’s myopic landscape. This album will no doubt sell well with its jaunty party anthems, but those anthems often seem forced. It’s depressing to hear an impressive vocalist like Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick singing through a coat of Autotune/vocoder effects as he so often does here. His interplay with co-vocalist Noelle Scaggs is also muted by this record’s heavy-handed production.
Not only does the production do this album a disservice, but also the songs are simpler in nature to appeal to a wider audience. Nothing here leaves an impression as strongly as early single, “Winds of Change.” Instead we get mindless stompers like “Handclap” and the overly glitch-y “Do What You Want.” The hook on “Roll Up” sounds like an annoying ringtone version of “The 1812 Overture,” while most of “Complicated” sounds almost untouched by human hands. There are some scattered moments that work, but for the most part this album shows a once great band being eaten by the pop machine.
“Fadeback” Again the production touches are a bit too heavy here, but this track’s main repeated hook still plays to the band’s strengths. Plus the sample and freak-out riff of sped-up vocal samples in the middle of the song is surprisingly effective.
“Run It” It’s a tad generic, but this song hints at Fitz’s previous ballad potential, even if it is a dumbed-down version when compared to an incredible song like “Winds Of Change.”
quicklist: 3 title: Nick Jonas’ “Last Year Was Complicated” **1/2 text: It seems that Nick Jonas listened to Justin Bieber’s “Purpose” and thought, “I can do that." “Last Year Was Complicated," like “Purpose,” is meant to be a stab at maturity from a former teen-pop idol, with a modern electro-sheen. The problem is, this album lacks a track as indelible as “Sorry,” even if it counts one of that song’s main architects, Julia Michaels among its songwriters. “Last Year Was Complicated” is a perfectly listenable album, though and a slight step-forward for Jonas even if it doesn’t excite. Jonas is a perfectly decent singer, but the majority of this record comes off as a bland exercise. Many of these songs wash over you but don’t make much of an impression.
The Tove Lo-assisted “Close” proves to be one of the only high-points on the set, but that is more thanks to her than Jonas. Also, this is Jonas’ second album for Island records. This is his second stab at an “adult” record and the parental warning sticker reminds us of this fact. But when you curse on record, it has to sound natural to the song. Jonas can’t pull off lines like “I’m gonna break the f***ing china cuz it’s just one more reminder that you’re gone” in “Chainsaw” or “Oh s***, throw some bacon on it!” on the Ty Dolla Sign-assisted “Bacon.”
Again, this album isn’t bad, but it feels like it crosses terrain better covered by other singers more effectively. At the same time, some of these songs, like “Good Girls” are just weak in general. Combine that with the fact that Jonas has released a song called “Champagne Problems” just a few weeks after Meghan Trainor, it just leaves a feeling of unoriginality.
This album is definitely a step forward for Nick Jonas, but he still has a few more steps to go before he hits true maturity. Bubblegum pop is still bubblegum pop even when wrapped in night-club sheen. This record shows his growing pains. He probably has better albums ahead of him.
“Close” (Featuring Tove Lo)” That synth steel-drum riff and the falsetto-flavored chorus stick with you. This song is a justifiable hit and stands as the album’s brightest moment.
“The Difference” This is light, eighties-flavored, airy R&B of sorts. It is chilled and slightly catchy with a slight tropical flair.
“Unhinged” Jonas is best suited for the ballads and this is a decent example of him working to that strength.
quicklist: 4 title: Peter Bjorn And John’s “Breakin’ Point” ***1/2 text: Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John topped my year-end list in 2007 with their album “Writer’s Block.” Since then, they have released a string of impossibly strong records, with their last record, 2011’s “Gimme Some” nearly summoning that same kind of power.
“Breakin’ Point” is another strong effort, even though its weakest tracks are all clustered near the beginning of the set. Peter Moren, Bjorn Yttling and John Eriksson are best when they are dealing with a minimalist, power-pop driven aesthetic. Opener “Dominos” is an upbeat dance number but something is missing. While that song, “Love Is What You Want,” “Do-Si-Do” and “What You Talking About” are all OK, the set doesn’t explode into full-throttle mode until the title-track, which is five songs into the album. The first four songs are where the album’s radio-ready gloss is most noticeable. The band used outside producers on this record, which was probably a mistake because it dulls their signature sound.
From the title-track on, the trio still unleashes the expected, stunning power-pop.
The title-track has an introspective spaghetti-western vibe, while “A Long Goodbye” delivers a strong punch. “In This Town” is as perfect a pop song they have ever produced and closer “Pretty Dumb, Pretty Lame” recalls the sing-along power of “Dig A Little Deeper” from their last effort.
Usually PB&J albums find the three members trading off vocals from time to time. It is pretty clear that this is apparently Peter Moren’s record, which is fine considering on average he’s the band’s most common vocalist, anyway. Still this is an observation worth making.
“Breakin’ Point” doesn’t quite hit the high points of its three immediate predecessors, but for the most part it still shows that Peter Bjorn and John are still a pretty powerful force. They are just better when they remain self-reliant.
“Breakin’ Point” It’s understandable why this song was made the title-track. Its whistle recalls breakout hit, “Young Folks,” but it is more like an introspective cousin to that track.
“In This Town” This is a really bright, ballad that somehow maintains a fast beat simultaneously. Guitar-textures dance in the background making this an ideal choice for a pop single.
“Pretty Dumb, Pretty Lame” Don’t let the name of this track fool you. This is a nice bit of songwriting with a booming chorus. Lyrically it is perhaps a pointed critique about surviving in the cookie-cutter music industry. Considering this is the only self-produced track on the set, this is especially interesting, closing out their most “commercial”-sounding album to date.
quicklist: 5 title: Colvin & Earle’s “Colvin & Earle” (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2 text: Colvin & Earle is the musical meeting of alt-country singers Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle and they spend much of their album together covering the classics. There are some originals, but along the way we also get songs like The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” The Beatles’ “Baby’s In Black,” The Nashville Teens’ “Tobacco Road,” Emmylou Harris’ “Raise The Dead” and more.
This album is recorded in a very loose, natural way. It sounds like the musicians just sat down with acoustic guitars and played these songs on a lark and that kind of rawness is refreshing. Producer Buddy Miller doesn’t add a lot of bells and whistles which allows these songs to naturally churn. The charge of the opening original, “Come What May” sets off the mood of the set rather decently as the closely mic-ed guitars roar across the track.
There’s something visceral about this album’s approach. It feels raw, real and unaltered, even on upbeat numbers like the original “Happy And Free.” You can feel the natural echo in the room with Colvin and Earle which is a rare occurrence on a commercial album these days.
With “Colvin & Earle” these two musicians have created a fresh, organic record. They harmonize quite well with one another. This is a long way from “Sunny Came Home” or “Transcendental Blues” but still well worth a listen.
“Ruby Tuesday” This song was meant for this kind of sing-a-long and this reading is packed with ramshackle charm.
“You’re Right (I’m Wrong)” This original is perfectly suited for the moody production-style. Colvin & Earle allow every nuance of this composition to shine as it wallows in its own mannered murkiness.
“You Were On My Mind” This Sylvia Fricker-penned hit for We Five is also well-suited for this set and Colvin & Earle’s harmonies highlight the song’s tender melody. It’s also a rather introspective song, suited to be stripped to its essence.
quicklist: 6 title: Band Of Horses’ “Why Are You OK” **** text: After making a strong impression with both 2006’s “Everything All The Time” and 2007’s“Cease To Begin,” Band Of Horses made a couple overly-polished records, “Infinite Arms” and “Mirage Rock.” The great news about “Why Are You OK” is that it returns Ben Bridwell and company closer to their former sound. This is after all the band’s first record for Interscope, while the last two were on Columbia. Maybe the label-shift allowed them move freedom, since this sounds more like a record from their Sub-Pop tenure.
Something might also be said about the fact that instead of picking a big-shot producer they picked fellow indie-rocker and former Grandaddy leader Jason Lytle to helm this record. Whatever the reason, this set places the band closer to where they should be. When opener “Dull Times/The Moon” starts chugging away, mid-song, it brings to mind the greatness of early classic, “The Funeral.”
Band Of Horses were never meant to conform to mainstream pop conventions. Doing so, dulled their sensibilities. It is refreshing that Bridwell realized this and so this return to form is both unexpected and thoroughly welcome.
A lot has changed. A country-rocker like “Throw My Mess” would have been scraped clean had it been on the last two records. Here it maintains a more appropriate indie-rock rumble and overall, this album has a much more appealing, deeply environmental sound. It has a big sound full of interesting guitar textures. “Why Are You OK” may lack a necessary question-mark in its title, but it possesses the kind of sonic gumption that some listeners may have thought had disappeared from Band Of Horses’ records. In other words, if you stopped paying attention to them after the first two records, now is the time to return to the fold.
“In A Drawer” This mid-tempo, semi-country-tinged rocker is made by its attention to guitar-textures and its bursting chorus. Yes, and it never hurts to have J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.’s distinctive voice singing the hook.
“Country Teen” This is an appealing, low-key, mid-tempo rocker should be the soundtrack to some beach chill-out sessions this summer.
“Throw My Mess” As mentioned above, this track bubbles and fizzes in all the right places, while maintaining a firm country-rock stomp.
quicklist: 7 title: Allen Toussaint’s “American Tunes” **** text: At the time of his sudden death at age 77 of a heart-attack last November, New Orleans jazz and R&B legend Allen Toussaint had finished recording “American Tunes,” a collection of mostly covers. This album was recorded between 2013 and 2015 and was finished a little more than a month before Toussiant’s death. Large portions of this album are instrumental, but this just allows Toussaint’s piano abilities to fully shine. When this album requires vocals, the great Rihannon Giddens provides the perfect fit.
It’s no wonder over his career of over fifty years that he had such a strong influence on players like Harry Connick Jr. and Dr. John. In fact, listening to this record often feels like stepping into a speak-easy from a forgotten time and Toussaint is able to effectively interpret everyone from Duke Ellington and Bill Evans to “Fats” Waller and Billy Strayhorn. The album even gets its title due to his closing cover of Paul Simon’s classic “American Tune.”
This is an often stately, majestic record. Toussaint could paint a picture with those piano keys. His harp-assisted reading of Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Danza Op. 33” is stunningly dreamlike, while Henry Roseland “Roy” Byrd’s, “Hey Little Girl” possesses an authoritative swagger.
Allen Toussaint was a tremendously important figure, helping craft a new genre of music. The man was also a classic writer. After all, he wrote the Lee Dorsey hit “Working In A Coal Mine” and a ton of other classics that have been passed down through the years.
With “American Tunes” we get one last glimpse of Toussaint’s musical genius and dexterity. With producer Joe Henry, Toussaint gives fans of New Orleans jazz and R&B one last parting gift.
“American Tune” On this closing Paul Simon cover, Toussaint carefully delivers this song with a great deal of tenderness. Unlike the other vocal tracks on this album, Toussaint himself handles the vocals, making this a fitting last goodbye.
“Southern Nights” A reading of one of his own classics, this version is especially delicate and ornate in nature. It helps that expert arranger and icon Van Dyke Parks is on the track as well playing a “second piano.”
“Lotus Blossom” Billy Strayhorn’s composition seems to flutter through Toussaint’s fingers here as he glides along the keys of the piano. Charles Lloyd’s tenor saxophone is also a big part of this track’s appeal.
Next Week: New music from Red Hot Chili Peppers, the union of Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs and more.
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