quicklist: 1 title: Ed Sheeran’s “÷ (Deluxe)” **1/2 text: Ed Sheeran continues to be an earnest singer-songwriter with pop appeal. On “÷,” he shows himself to be versatile even if that means that sometimes he takes some awkward steps. This is a marginally better album than his last effort, “x”, even if it seems like he’s just trying out sounds to see what sticks.
Sheeran has a potentially excellent songwriter hidden within him but too often he finds himself grasping for gimmicks. When he raps again on both “New Man” and “Galway Girl,” it becomes apparent that he thinks he has a hip-hop swagger. In truth, I haven’t heard an artist try to rap that made me this uncomfortable since Madonna dropped “American Life” in 2005.
“Perfect” aims for U2 balladry whereas “What Do I Know” is an appealing, innocuous ditty about “love and understanding positivity.” “How Would You Feel (PAEAN)” is a ballad that sounds like it wants to repeat the success of “Thinking Out Loud,” while the far superior “Supermarket Flowers” is a better ballad anchored by lyrical imagery of a death in the family.
The bonus tracks have us going around the world. “Barcelona” takes us to Spain, whereas “Bibia Be Ye Ye” is his experiment with South African sounds. “Nancy Mulligan” is an Irish folk song with a personal journey apparently through Sheeran’s family tree. Only “Save Myself” finds Sheeran exploring his typical brand of balladry.
“÷” is a likable record on a certain level, but Sheeran is at his best in his wheelhouse. Some of the left-field swings here scream of an artist who is trying just a little too hard to throw in relatable bits. There’s a cloying, pandering, transparent quality to this record when it hits its occasional speed-bumps. Sheeran may have attracted the pop audience with his tactics, but he’s still honing his skills.
Focus Tracks: “Shape of You” Yeah, this sounds like an unexpected turn from Sheeran, but it works even if its somewhat standard party and dancing imagery reeks of formula. This is one of the few instances where Sheeran has taken a left-field swing with undeniable success. It is a song that is as catchy as it is currently culturally ubiquitous.
“Supermarket Flowers” This is the most authentic-sounding song I have ever heard from Sheeran. It doesn’t sound like a targeted hit. It sounds like a statement from a very real and honest place. I’d like to hear more from Sheeran like this. The personal, narrative details add something vital to the song.
“Castle on the Hill” In spite of my above criticisms, this folky workout isn’t without its appeal. It rises above its forced-anthemic qualities, because Sheeran knows how to spin a good story.
quicklist: 2 title: Colin Hay’s “Fierce Mercy” (Deluxe Edition) **** text: I’ll be honest. Colin Hay is still severely under-rated as a singer-songwriter. After the success of Men at Work, you would have thought he would have gotten a larger level of fame as a solo artist. If you were around in the early eighties, “Business as Usual” seemed to be an album on everyone’s turntable. Aside from his memorable guest-performance of “Overkill” on a classic episode of “Scrubs,” which may have led to the inclusion of his “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” on the Zach Braff-assembled soundtrack to “Garden State,” Colin Hay’s music tends to not get the love it ideally deserves. This is especially true in the States.
If you haven’t been listening to Hay’s solo work, “Fierce Mercy” will offer some surprises. For the most part, it is a mellow collection, but that is not to say it is sleepy. In fact the intensity of his upbeat work remains, with some sonic intricacy at play throughout the set. It’s also sounds great, with Hay handling production duties himself. The album itself has a sonic glow.
“Come Tumblin’ Down” is an appealing bit of rockabilly, while “Two Friends” is an aching reflection of death. “Frozen Fields of Snow” is a wintery bit of nostalgia. Throughout most of this record, Hay seems to be taking stock, but that is nothing new. If you listen to classics like “Overkill” and “Beautiful World” he has always had a sense of wisdom. He has always been thinking beyond the immediate world. This inward-looking quality pops up in some unexpected places. He keeps the worldly wisdom even on the unlikely, “I’m Gonna Get You Stoned.”
Mostly “Fierce Mercy” is the kind of record that wallows in all the beauty it can summon. “A Thousand Million Reasons” is among the most beautiful songs Hay has ever recorded. It is evident that in his longtime guitarist, Michael Georgiades, he has found an ideal writing partner since the two of them wrote many of these songs together.
The three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition don’t feel tacked on in the least, with the upbeat, “I’m Inside Outside In” actually ending up being a highlight on the set.
“Fierce Mercy” shows that Colin Hay is still in peak form more than 30 years into his career.
“A Thousand Million Reasons” This tender Parisian ballad is thick with whimsy. It possesses an ethereal, orchestral wash that makes it really shine.
“I’m Inside Outside In” (Deluxe Edition) This shouldn’t be a bonus track. It should be on the proper album. It’s reminiscent of the best early Elvis Costello and the Attractions work. Speed up the tempo and it could have been on “Get Happy!”
“Two Friends” This is a heartbreaking look at mortality. Hay puts his ache in every word. As he sings, “Carry on, my brothers,” it comes off like an earnest salute.
quicklist: 3 title: Grandaddy’s “Last Place” **** text: The band Grandaddy broke up around the release of 2006’s humorously-titled “Just Like the Fambly Cat,” only to recently reform. Sonically, “Last Place” eleven years later doesn’t seem at all removed from the rest of the band’s discography. If you ever liked a Grandaddy release before, this one will surely be a highlight as well, combining the indie-rock fuzz and playful electronic work that has long been the band’s calling card.
In the off time, leader Jason Lytle released a pair of solo albums and became an in-demand producer, helming last year’s Band of Horses record, “Why Are You OK.” He obviously kept his methods of song-craft pretty sharp. “Way We Won’t” and “Evermore” sound not only like vintage Grandaddy tracks, but they also have the kind of drive that could ultimately lead to some possible left-field pop crossover action.
The only difference that makes this obviously a 2017 record is on “The Boat is in the Barn” with its lyrical references to “deleting photos on your phone.” Throughout the record there are quite a few lyrics that elude to our consumerist culture and dependence on technology.
Towards the end of the set, the tempos die down and it gets more melancholy with “That’s What You Get for Gettin’ Outta Bed,” “This is the Part,” “Jed the 4th,” “A Lost Machine” and “Songbird Son.” Lytle is an ace at writing winning, oddball pop songs, and when a bit of sadness creeps into the formula it adds a whole other layer.
The fact that the members of Grandaddy have returned with such a strong offering speaks volumes about their lofty intentions. It doesn’t hurt that they are now signed to Danger Mouse’s Columbia imprint, 30th Century Records.
The inside of the liner notes reads, “Thanks everyone. It was good to be gone.” Hopefully Grandaddy won’t disappear again anytime soon. “Last Place” sounds like the beginning of a new, creatively robust chapter.
“Why We Won’t” With lyrics lampooning big-box stores at Christmas and a video featuring actor Jason Ritter wandering through the desert, this hook-driven single is a perfect comeback song for the group. It’s a very bright-sounding track.
“Evermore” The synth-line here has a very elastic quality which carries throughout the song. It makes it a bit of an ear-worm that sticks with you.
“I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore” Songs don’t get more simple than this one, with its “I just moved here and I don’t wanna live here anymore” refrain, but sometimes simplicity works as a benefit. Less is definitely more here.
quicklist: 4 title: Dia Frampton’s “Bruises” ***1/2 text: Dia Frampton is most famous for her time as a contestant on “The Voice.” Her second album comes more than five years removed from her last effort, “Red,” and it’s a much more ethereal singer-songwriter affair. There is conscious rebranding going on here. Her voice remains as clear as ever but it is evident she’s been listening to Lorde, Halsey, Vanessa Carlton and others. Not to mention the fact that while digital retailers have “Bruises” listed under “Dia Frampton,” “Dia” is the only name on the album’s cover. Thus, you could view this record as a new beginning.
“Hope” sets the album off with a wordless rise, playing almost like an overture or an opening theme as Frampton lets her voice soar over an orchestral backdrop. This leads to “Out of the Dark,” which sounds like Frampton’s response to Lorde’s “Buzzcut Season.”
Even as “Gold and Silver” has lyrics about summer nostalgia, its piano chords sound downright Autumnal. This album is a modern pop record, but it has an earthier core. “Dead Man” is striking, not only by the starkness of its title but the fact that it is also a moving piano ballad. That same energy is effectively used in “Die Wild” which plays like a hymn to accepting one’s imperfections and flaws. “Golden Years” (not the Bowie song) is an upbeat single that spins the orchestral tone heard on the rest of the set into a slinky, funky bit of pop.
“Bruises” is an often stirring record that indicates that if Frampton keeps going on this path, she will definitely cave out her own niche. Yes, her influences are clearly evident but at the same time, the vast difference in tonality between this album and “Red” indicates a need to feed an artistic muse and express herself. While “Red” was created to court the pop masses, “Bruises” is a much deeper effort.
“Golden Years” The use of strings here adds a level of detail not frequently heard on pop singles, but this song has a dynamic drive.
“Die Wild” This is a song about being honest with one’s self and enjoying life. It has gospel-esque allusions, but mostly it is about living life to the fullest because “the heart wants what it wants.”
“White Dress” This is a slow, bluesy number that gains more momentum with every successive listen. This is the kind of song you should listen to at a loud volume on a stellar set of speakers in order to catch every sonic detail.
quicklist: 5 title: Why?’s “Moh Lhean” ***1/2 text: On their first album in five years, indie-rockers Why? explore rather mature song-structures while keeping Yoni Wolf’s oddball wit intact. There’s a sense of deep reflection from the beginning on opener “The Ole King,” which branches out into several parts.
“Easy” is probably the most remarkable on this album, since it sounds musically like it is going to be similar in tone to Sia’s “Breathe Me,” but has lines like, “I know, I put a swollen hand on the Bible / and I know / I lost my only hand in Chicago.” While the music sounds delicate and stately, there is a random lyrical bite reminiscent of groups like Fountains of Wayne, Marcy Playground and They Might Be Giants.
There’s also a bit of sonic experimentation on this brief, 33-minute set. “One Mississippi” is prefaced by “January February March” which is merely thirty-some seconds of a slowed down passage from the song that follows.
There are some hip-hop elements embedded into the beat-work on this record, but mostly this album keeps a mournful, occasionally woozy tone. The 70-second instrumental, “The Longing is All” is so affecting that you’ll wish it lasted longer.
Elsewhere, “George Washington” is a tempo-shifting nugget of bright pop and “The Water” is a darker, catchier tune that you’ll want to hit the repeat button. As Wolf sings, “I have tried in my way to make things right,” there is dread in his voice.
“Moh Lhean” is definitely a unique record. If you are unfamiliar with the band’s work, this might be a suitable entry-point, even if to some it will be an acquired taste. Here the members of Why? prove they can balance lyrics filled with random details and a somewhat serious tone.
“Easy” Another key passage: “Was that you? / With a sack of DQ at the cemetery / Lost in a tabloid magazine / On a boy who’s been dead for a century?” This song’s seemly random lyrics play effectively at odds with its built-in emotional heft.
“George Washington” You have to love the fact that this song actually mentions the instrumental track before it by name as Wolf sings, “I wrote a song called “The Longing is All”/ Instead of calling you… / I’d hoped that’d solve me….”
“The Water” This is a vague song about checking out of the hospital and going to the shore. My guess is that this won’t end well.
quicklist: 6 title: Sondre Lerche’s “Pleasure” **** text: On his eighth proper album, “Pleasure,” Norwegian singer Sondre Lerche goes for a somewhat direct electro-pop approach, thick with dance beats and bright synths. This is quite a left turn considering he has previously released alt-rock minded records like 2007’s “Phantom Punch” and mined older, more traditional, jazzier sounds on records like 2006’s “Duper Sessions.” From the beginning it is clear he is up to the task. The New Order-esque “Soft Feelings” begins the record with an experimental bounce while the purposely dated synths “I’m Always Watching You” bring to mind Prince’s eighties output.
Throughout these ten songs, Lerche switches gears without losing his compositional sophistication. Will this record get pop exposure? Probably not in the current climate, but this is a strong, feel-good record full of pep and a vintage sense of experimentation. The beat-work on “Serenading in the Trenches” is remarkable with its breaks and its “boom-bap” soul and at the same time, Lerche is still singing this like it is a classic show-tune.
The majority of this record is bathed in warm synths and slick beats. “Siamese Twin” and “Bleeding out into the Blue” are prime examples of the album’s lush (and occasionally playfully warped) tone. Only the seven-minute, “Violent Game” stands out from the pack, beginning as a jazzy guitar exercise before devolving into feedback and screams. Of course that unhinged quality is heard at various points on the record, indicating the Lerche is willing to take some daring chances.
“Pleasure” is an unusual record for people who like their pop music to have an experimental backbone. If all you know by Sondre Lerche is his score work on the Steve Carrell movie, “Dan In Real Life,” this record’s abrupt turns may take a few spins to sink in, but if you like your records to maintain a clever, unpredictability, this might become a new favorite.
“Soft Feelings” At first listen, this will be a shock to longtime fans, but it is evident that Lerche is ready to embrace his inner club singer.
“Bleeding Out into the Blue” This vaguely shoegaze-y, synth-driven number sounds like it is from a Broadway show from an alternate dimension. The violent lyrical imagery contrasts with the song’s warm sound.
“Violent Game” Sure, it is the one true sonic outlier when compared to the rest of record, but it will be the most familiar-sounding cut for fans of Lerche’s previous work, even if it ends in utter destruction.
quicklist: 7 title: R. Missing’s “Unsummering” **** text: R. Missing is actually just a peculiar rebranding of New York alt-rock duo the Ropes, whose album, “What They Do for Fun” made it onto my year-end list back in 2008. “Unsummering” is a six-song EP of deadpan, dark electro-pop with hints of possible Joy Division and early Interpol influence.
Sharon Shy is now credited as She Missing and Toppy is now credited as He Missing. I’m not sure of the reason for the name-change but it is attention grabbing. If you liked singles like “Be My Gun,” or “Love is a Chain Store,” new songs like “Kelly Was a Philistine,” “Deeper Holes” and “Birthright” won’t be stretch. If you liked older, more outwardly rock-minded songs like “Let On” and “I Don’t Like to Get Dirty,” this EP’s singular, dark icy mood might seem isolating at first.
But with “Unsummering,” the newly minted R. Missing deliver what is essentially a hazy, danceable, synth-driven funeral march. As much as you can hear a pop hook trying to come forth on “Mostly Back,” it is this collection’s gloriously mopey quality that makes it a true keeper. Let’s hope we eventually get a proper R. Missing full-length album.
“Mouser” The brightest song on the set is the closer. When I say “bright” it is relative to the rest of the set. Shy’s vocals still sound disaffected as she sings “You want to kill but you won’t,” but this track is undeniably more neon-hued than the rest of the set.
“Unsummering” This title-track sets the set’s somewhat dour mood quite well. Even if this song is on the dark side, it still has a hint of an appealing sonic shimmer.
“Birthright” This is skeletal track in nature, built with a beat, a synth and a vocal line. The groove also makes good use of static and electronic hiss at various points in the track.
Next Week: New music from Bush, Laura Marling and more.