Depeche Mode, Spoon, Drake and Conor Oberst music reviews

PHOTO: Drake performs onstage at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena, Sept. 23, 2016, in Las Vegas.Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Drake performs onstage at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena, Sept. 23, 2016, in Las Vegas.

intro: This week Depeche Mode drops a vibrant and commanding new record, indie-rock veterans Spoon make another bid for the big time with an electronically infused offering, Drake drops another sprawling set and Conor Oberst continues to channel his inner Bob Dylan.

quicklist: 1 title: Depeche Mode’s “Spirit” (Deluxe Edition) ****1/2 text: Thirty-six years since their debut, Depeche Mode have delivered a defining, vital, political set with “Spirit.” Like their last effort, “Delta Machine,” this record finds them hitting another undeniable peak. This is, however, one of their darkest and most mournful sets with lead single, “Where’s the Revolution” and opener “Going Backwards” setting the template to discuss matters of socio-political unrest and dissatisfaction. When Martin Gore sings tenderly “Little one, I will protect you as well as any man can,” on “Tender,” it comes off as both sweet and ominous at the same time as if he is preparing for impending doom.

It isn’t all dark. “You Move” is a classic club track that could have easily been on 1997’s “Ultra,” while “Scum” is a sleek groove that sounds like it is prepped for a Kruder & Dorfmeister remix treatment.

While this album probably won’t be met with the same level of chart success as their best album, “Violator,” it’s one of the most solidly consistent mood pieces the band has ever recorded. They rarely have disappointed but even with their somewhat strong track record, this album ranks among their three or four best albums to date with a new sense of determination and a strikingly modern sound. It is obvious with these occasionally minimalist backdrops that they are having fun playing with new technology.

Depeche Mode remain as determined and compelling as ever and with the exception of a few of the lyrical references that essentially time-stamp this recording as being current, many of these songs could have arrived on any of the post-“Violator” releases. Dave Gahan’s voice is also in top form, often sounding like he is delivering a commanding sermon in the face of menace.

It is safe to say if you’d played this for the group in 1981 when they released “Speak & Spell” and told them this would be the record they’d release in 2017, their jaws would have probably dropped. Maturity has only made Depeche Mode better, stronger and more focused. One thinks that they could go on like this making powerful records of this kind for the next three decades. They have always followed their muses and trusted their guts and not sold out for pop stardom. Considering their pop-minded beginnings, in the long-run that is probably surprising.

“Spirit” is a challenging, compelling call to arms. As an album, it takes no prisoners and pulls no punches and it is jam-packed with possible singles.

The deluxe edition comes with five bonus remixes, which add to the album’s overall cinematic feel.

Focus Tracks:

“Where’s the Revolution” During polarizing political times, anthems always rise. Both Dave Gahan and Martin Gore currently live in the United States. Depeche Mode is a British band but the unrest in the aftermath of both this country’s presidential election and the Brexit situation in England, serve as obvious sources of influence.

“You Move” This is a slick, sultry groove with dark undertones that is likely to become a banner hit and a fan favorite.

“No More (This Is the Last Time)” This is another possible single with strong emotional undertones as it describes a breakup of sorts.

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quicklist: 2 title: Spoon’s “Hot Thoughts” ***** text: Spoon’s ninth full-length album comes 21 years after their debut. Like 2014’s “They Want My Soul,” this record finds them exploring and playing around with electronic elements to boost their signature, often skeletal sound. The results create a record that is both stirring on an artistic level and undeniably funky. The groove on the opening title track will silence any sudden giggles that the title may initially inspire, while “WhisperI'lllistentohearit” at first sounds like a club workout until the whole band comes in and decides to add a rocking dimension, giving a tense backdrop that recalls Devo’s “Gut Feeling.”

Standouts like “Can I Sit Next to You” and “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” recall the band’s classic sound, but there’s a fresh dub-influenced energy here, marking this album as a reinvention.

Quite simply, “Hot Thoughts” is the best album of 2017 so far, making it the band’s strongest pop-crossover possibility to date without selling out their indie-rock ideals. Perhaps they know this and added the strangely cool, saxophone-centric mood-piece “Us” as the album’s closer to maintain some sense of left-field grounding.

This is a strong party record that will also have you paying attention to sonic textures, with Britt Daniel still maintaining his tightly wound signature vocal rasp. Interestingly from “First Caress” and “Pink Up,” with their driving beats, you can tell that this record is aimed for the dance floors in a way that won’t upset the band’s still-growing legion of fans.

It’s also nice to note that this album returns Spoon to the original label that signed them. They are back on Matador, which released their 1996 debut, “Telephono.”

The members of Spoon have never released a bad record. Their weakest album is possibly 2010’s back-loaded “Transference,” which would have played much better had side one and side two been simply reversed. Even that record is really strong in places. That being said, in a catalog full of would-be classics, “Hot Thoughts” stands next to 2001’s “Girls Can Tell” and 2007’s “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” as one of their strongest and most assured releases to date. If you have never heard Spoon before, this is a record you should hear.

Focus Tracks:

“I Ain’t the One” Anchored by a mood-setting keyboard line, this is among Spoon’s darkest and most pensive pieces of work with a consuming, cinematic sensibility.

“Hot Thoughts” This song makes the most of a minimalist lyrical refrain with the majority of the track focusing on a strong instrumental build. The bass, drums and keys serve as the song’s main core. In many ways the instrumentation serves as the song’s main anchoring force.

“Do I Have to Talk You Into it” This is a typical offering from Spoon, with a strong hook anchored by Britt Daniel’s signature, spiky, bile-spitting delivery. At its core, it is slow-burning, punk-influenced slice of blues.

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quicklist: 3 title: Drake’s “More Life” *** text: Drake’s latest “surprise” release, “More Life,” arrived over the weekend. At just over 81 minutes, this is a touch too long to be released on a single disc, but that being said, this is a better and stronger release than both last year’s “Views” and 2015’s “If You Are Reading This It’s Too Late.” This is a somewhat cohesive collection with a mixtape-like sensibility. Drake still doesn’t possess the solid hip-hop cred to warrant the kind of hype he receives. This album still has more pop appeal than lyrical fortitude, but you get the feeling from these flows that he has decided to put more emphasis on maintaining a cohesive lyrical sensibility when he raps, when before his rhymes often came off as stunted and repetitive.

What stands out most about “More Life” is its grooves. The beats often shift the focus from Drake, from the chilled, sleek “Passionfruit” to the funky “Madiba Riddim.” Of course, on both these tracks, Drake is singing, trying to repeat the success of “One Dance.” Throughout “More Life,” you’ll find yourself focusing on the production. The thick, tribal club-stomp of “Get it Together” will immediately grab you by the ears.

This is the sound of Drake slowly finding his true wheelhouse. But then again, his albums’ beats have always served as the reason to listen to his music. As an MC, that isn’t a good thing. The fact that his voice isn’t even heard on the Sampha-assisted “4422” or the self-explanatory “Skepta Interlude” speaks volumes. Drake is essentially becoming more of a brand than an actual presence.

Technically speaking, this isn’t really considered an album. It’s considered a “playlist.” That’s just a modern, minor distinction. Truthfully, though, this provides the most satisfying listen Drake has offered in quite a number of years. When Kanye West shows up on “Glow,” he brings some lush energy that rises above the distracting vocal effects.

In all, this is a collection that is surprisingly smooth. It seems less self-aware and more natural than Drake’s other recent offerings. When he isn’t the center, he knows how to make the most of his guests. That makes “More Life,” narrowly worthy of a recommendation. It’s a merely decent offering of what Drake can do. Does he have room to improve? Certainly. That being said, this vaguely does the trick.

Focus Tracks:

“Passionfruit” There’s a vibrant, natural quality to this groove and it plays up Drake’s R&B/pop side in an extremely effective way. You can hear slight effects on his voice, but this song is still among his smoothest offerings to date.

“Get it Together” (Featuring Jorja Smith and Black Coffee) Working a smooth, jungle-infused beat, this track provides a surprisingly jazzy brand of sophistication, with Jorja Smith, in particular, making a star-making turn.

“Fake Love” Playing up his emotional side has long been one of Drake’s hallmarks. While this song’s vocal effects can sometimes grate a little, its semitropical sounding groove and its distrusting lyrical sentiments take it to another level. It’s a thought-provoking party jam.

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quicklist: 4 title: Conor Oberst’s “Salutations” ***1/2 text: On Conor Oberst’s sixth post-Bright Eyes record under his own name, he has a strong Bob Dylan fixation. Dylan has always been a strong influence, but there is something about his vocal inflections and occasional bits of harmonica that bring to mind Bob’s early work. That being said, this is also one of Oberst’s most substantial records, with “Overdue,” for instance, lending itself to crowd-friendly sing-alongs. “Salutations” is one of his stronger offerings since going “solo.”

There’s a casual troubadour energy to “Afterthought,” with Dylan again serving as an obvious influence. The same could be said about “Next of Kin,” in which Oberst says, “I met Lou Reed and Patti Smith. / Didn’t make me feel different. / I guess I lost all my innocence / Way too long ago.” Oftentimes through his narratives, Oberst has the lyrical approach of a world-weary veteran that defies his mere 37 years on this earth. Of course, he has earned that veteran status considering the fact that he’s been recording and releasing records since his teens.

“Napalm” has some lift as does “Anytime Soon.” It quickly becomes apparent that with this 67-minute set that Oberst is trying to make something with timeless appeal. As derivative is this album can be in places, stylistically-speaking, with its obvious influences, it still has Oberst’s unique lyrical stamp. The insomniac hospital tale of “Counting Sheep” stands out as a particularly inspired moment. Say what you want about whether Oberst can craft a memorable tune, but he has always had a gift for words and phrasing, coming from a cerebral folk tradition.

“Salutations” is a satisfying and occasionally surprising offering. Longtime fans should find plenty to enjoy here.

Focus Tracks:

“A Little Uncanny” This is a song about how persuasive people can sway opinions, mentioning Jane Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Christopher Hitchens and more. This is a pointed, political song and it works from a classic mold.

“Overdue” This is the most hook-heavy track on the record with a catchy chorus as Oberst sings from a rather doomed perspective spewing out lines like “Sometimes this house feels like a death camp” and making passing references to characters heading down an unfortunate path.

“Salutations” The seemingly lifeless body floating in the pool on the album’s cover gets a story on the album’s closing title track as Oberst tells the story of nearly drowning and having to get mouth-to-mouth to be revived. Whether this story is based on real occurrence or just for lyrical purpose, the synergy between the album art and subject matter is admirable.

Next week: New music from the Jesus and Mary Chain, Raekwon and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Bush, the Shins, the Magnetic Fields.

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