Dinosaur Jr., Jem, 'Suicide Squad' Soundtrack and More Music Reviews

Plus, get reviews of albums by Dinosaur Jr., Jem and more.

ByABC News
August 11, 2016, 7:27 AM

— -- intro: This week, alt-rock veterans Dinosaur Jr. make a triumphant return, singer Jem releases her first studio album in eight years, “Suicide Squad” gets a soundtrack designed to get your attention and British singer Nao makes a strong debut. It’s not a very heavy week of reviews but there are still some great albums to be explored.

quicklist: 1title: Dinosaur Jr.’s “Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not” ****1/2text: Out of all the bands from the grunge era, Dinosaur Jr. has had the most unexpected trajectory. In fact it stands out next to its eighties and nineties “college” and “alternative” rock peers because it actually is releasing its best records right now. The original trio of J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph got back together for 2007’s “Beyond.” That album saw the group finding its footing again. Really it was 2009’s “Farm,” (which topped my 2009 Top 50 best albums of the year list) that showed the guys confidently reconnecting and surpassing anything they had done before. That continued to some extent with the excellent “I Bet On Sky” in 2012.

Now “Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not” nearly matches the amazingness of “Farm.” This is churning hard rock anchored by Mascis’ superior guitar-playing skill. In addition, these songs have massive pop appeal. “Tiny,” for instance, is one of the catchiest tunes these three have ever recorded, while “I Told Everyone” sounds like a fuzzy answer to “Life’s Rich Pageant”-era R.E.M.

“Goin’ Down” and “I Walk For Miles” both show that Mascis loves to wallow in deep sludge, while the Barlow-led “Love Is…” kind of sounds like something Tom Petty would have put on “Full Moon Fever” or “Into The Great Wide Open.”

With multiple journalists and musicians repeatedly proclaiming the death of rock, this album is evidence to the contrary. This is a tight, 11-track set without a single dud. As a writer and a guitarist, Mascis is at his peak. Dinosaur Jr. is getting better with age and the fact that this album sounds like it was recorded with a huge stack of amps indicates that the group isn't mellowing in the least. This is dense, smartly-penned and executed sludge-rock.

Dinosaur Jr.’s biggest radio hit was “Feel The Pain” in 1994. Amazingly, that song, while good, doesn’t match the greatness heard here. In addition, it was with a different line-up, with only Mascis remaining of the core original trio. “Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not” deserves some key attention. This is Dinosaur Jr. working at a classic level. Thirty-one years after its first album, that is a true achievement.

Focus Tracks:

“Tiny” Undeniably this is a pop gem buried in a sea of guitar-fuzz. It makes sense that the same band that decided to record a hard-edged version of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” in the eighties would later craft this song. Both songs have a similar sense of magnetism.

“Love Is…” Lou Barlow has a really clear voice. He sings this song and “Left/Right,” and packs a great deal of emotion into every word. As someone who has made his own splash both as a solo artist and with his bands Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, it is nice to hear his voice on these records as well. Twenty years after he scored a surprise hit with Folk Implosion’s “Natural One” (the theme from the movie “Kids,”) it is nice to see that he hasn’t lost his touch.

“Lost All Day” This is a surprisingly sunny-sounding song about love gone wrong. Its true hook is hidden in that indelible guitar-line.

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quicklist: 2title: Jem’s “Beachwood Canyon” ****text: On her first album in eight years, Welsh singer Jem abandons the trip-hop and more pop-minded sheen of her first two albums, “Finally Woken” and “Down To Earth,” for a more organic sound. One listen to the “Intro” and the title-track on “Beachwood Canyon” and you get the idea that she is aiming for a timeless appeal over chart success. Acoustic guitars shine brightly and her soft, mellow voice still gets your attention as much as ever, but while she used to be readily compared with Dido and Beth Orton, this album feels like her answer to Nick Drake’s “Bryter Layter.” This album is a very open love letter to the neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills that shares its name. This, too brings to mind singer-songwriter associations from the seventies.

There’s a lush gentleness to this album’s 35 minutes. While there is a bit of edge to “Tell It To My Heart,” if you are looking for the chilled dance-edge of previous hits like “They” and “Just A Ride,” here, Jem has a different, ballad-heavy approach. That being said, fans of her previous work will find plenty to enjoy. In many ways, this is the kind of mature and confident record you want to release after an eight-year silence.

There’s a sense of whimsy in the ethereal tone of “The Adventures Of Cupid And Puck,” while “Hold On” has a mournful sense of encouraging hope.

“Beachwood Canyon” is an ideal listening choice for those looking for something on a mellow summer afternoon. It’s a beautiful record. Welcome back, Jem.

Focus Tracks:

“Beachwood Canyon” The title-track is really the thesis-statement to the album, setting the tone for the eight songs that follow.

“Don’t Look Back” This organic mid-tempo rocker is a key, hit single waiting to happen. It should get some play in the AAA (“adult alternative”) radio format over here.

“Momma” This is an ode to motherhood and watching a child grow into an adult. But at the same time it is about missing one’s mother and being far from home. It would sound really syrupy if it didn’t sound absolutely authentic. Being from Wales and based in Los Angeles, it is no wonder Jem misses home. This song is packed with love.

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quicklist: 3title: “Suicide Squad” The Album ***text: There are three kinds of tracks on the soundtrack to the summer blockbuster “Suicide Squad.”

First, there are the tracks that match unusually-paired artists like Skrillex and Rick Ross “Purple Lamborghini” or Action Bronson, Mark Ronson and Dan Auerbach on “Standing In The Rain.” The most guest-overloaded track here is “Sucker For The Pain,” which is listed as being performed by Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa and Imagine Dragons with Logic and Ty Dolla Sign (Featuring X-Ambassadors). Can that many artists truly do justice to their fans all at once in a 4-minute span? Sort of. Actually this song is better than its bloated marquis would lead you to believe.

The second kind of track found here is one-off numbers by artists of the moment and yes, Twenty One Pilots and Grimes both offer some shining moments.

Lastly we have bizarrely-placed classic catalog tracks from the likes of War and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I suppose the inclusion of Eminem’s “Without Me” deserves this designation as well, as does Panic! At The Disco’s surprisingly spot-on, but ultimately pointless cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Grace and G-Easy’s bizarre electro-hip-hop update on Lesley Gore’s early Feminist anthem, “You Don’t Own Me.” Even weirder, though, is the ethereal, operatic take on the Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke” by ConfidentialMX and Becky Hanson.

If the soundtrack seems bloated, it is. But at the same time, as much as I want to decry its angled execution, there is no denying that this album’s dark, semi-celebratory tone matches its film in all its ominous, cartoonish glory. This is worth a recommendation because it captures a surprisingly singular mood. Once the movie is out of theaters, will this be an album in your continued rotation? I’m guessing, probably not.

Focus Tracks:

“Standing In The Rain” (Action Bronson, Mark Ronson and Dan Auerbach) Anyone familiar with Action Bronson won’t be surprised that this song is controversial but Ronson and Auerbach help add some earthy gravitas to his still admittedly Ghostface-esque flow.

“Purple Lamborghini” (Rick Ross and Skrillex) Again this is another track where the parental warning sticker is earned. Never in my life would I have thought that Rick Ross’ authoritative flow would be a match to Skrillex’s bass-drops, but here you go. This track weirdly works.

“Gangsta” (Kehlani) This ethereal track has a commanding march, but it merges a beautiful melody with an overt sexuality and an electro stomp.

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quicklist: 4title: Nao’s “For All We Know” ****text: The debut full-length album from British R&B singer Nao is a bright, arty, neon-hued record that pairs funky grooves with the artist’s confident, often girlish vocal delivery. This feels like a strong update to the electro R&B sounds of the eighties, with the gleeful “Happy” and the strong swagger of “Inhale Exhale.”

This is an album for pop and R&B fans who like their music with an experimental edge. If you liked her track “Superego” on Disclosure’s “Caracal” last year, you’ll find much to enjoy here. While this album sounds familiar, there is something overtly futuristic about its approach and Nao’s clever use of interludes to bridge tracks together serves as an asset.

“In The Morning” demands your attention with its lush synths and hard beat, while “Trophy” has a slick guitar or distorted synth-riff that scrapes your eardrums in the right way. “Bad Blood” is coated in a vintage soul sheen, complete with vinyl scratchiness and a built in sonic sensuality.

All throughout this set, Nao shows herself to be a gifted performer, whose voice can take some unexpected turns. This is an album that leaves its listeners on their toes.

“For All We Know” makes a strong statement and Nao should appeal to a very wide audience. Across the pond, they seem to allow pop and R&B singers to showcase their uniqueness better than we do over here in the states, where everything is more likely to sound homogenized. Nao is indeed a great discovery. She should be on your radar.

Focus Tracks:

“Get To Know Ya” This is a brash summer-time funk with an endearing lo-fi edge and yet at the same time it still fits within the tight constraints of modern pop “Top 40” radio. In under three minutes it sells you to keep listening.

“Blue Wine” This is a hypnotic piano ballad with great, echo-drenched vocal harmonies and a nice build.

“Inhale Exhale” Like some classic, vintage slice of electro, this again grabs you immediately with its strong groove. It should be a hit.

Next Week: New music from Young The Giant and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Brian Wilson, Viola beach and Jake Owens.

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