Elbow, Big Sean, Surfer Blood and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Big Sean performs onstage during the 92.3 Real Show at The Forum on Nov. 5, 2016 in Inglewood, California.
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

This week British band Elbow releases another truly stunning album, rapper Big Sean gets personal and reflective, indie rockers Surfer Blood come back with their fourth proper full-length, electro-R&B singer Sampha gently amazed and bluesy singer-songwriter Beth Hart continues to show herself as a reliable force. In the second month of the year, 2017 continues to firmly establish itself.

PHOTO: Big Sean - "I Decided."
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Big Sean’s “I Decided.” ***

It’s hard to listen to Big Sean’s fourth album, “I Decided.” and not see him as a more skilled answer to Drake. Like Drake, he favors chilled-out electro-flavored beats, inward-looking, personal lyrics with nods to pop and R&B. Unlike Drake, Big Sean has a bigger focus on lyrical flow and can put together more cohesive and compelling verses.

There’s a singsongy, almost melodic method to his rhymes. To the people reading this who still think that rap music is just talking over a beat that doesn’t require any sort of musical skill, I urge you to take a good, deep listen to the way Big Sean approaches “Bounce Back.” His vocal cadence is full of subtlety and he’s essentially subtly singing every word, hitting a different beat and tone with each syllable.

This record comes off as immensely personal. It feels like a bit of a diary and a mission statement right from the beginning of the Jeremih-assisted “The Light,” with details on his life focus and the goals he has set out for himself. Throughout the set, you hear details of how his life was growing up and in the case of “Sunday Morning Jetpack,” some references to the importance that religion holds for him.

The only real time the album deviates from the overall formula is on “No Favors,” which features a blistering (surprisingly deep-voiced) verse from Eminem where Slim Shady graphically takes on both Ann Coulter and Trump over a swirling piano loop. This cameo on this record has understandably already gotten a great deal of attention from the press.

In general, this album is just all right. Big Sean shows himself to be an adept emcee with an engrained, focused style. “Same Time Pt. 1” is essentially a song by his side project with Jhené Aiko, Twenty88, while “Inspire Me” is a smooth, AutoTune-assisted ode to his mother and her influence. The album, on the whole, is likable and rather consistent but it lacks an extra kick to push it to the next level.

“I Decided.” is destined to be a popular album and it has a few excellent moments and no true gaffes, but at the same time, Big Sean still has room to grow and he’s still finding his way.

Focus Tracks:

“Bounce Back” Again, it is his vocal range that really stands out on this track, combined with the hook that really manages to drill itself into your brain.

“No Favors” (Featuring Eminem) This is an unflinchingly controversial track thanks to Marshall Mathers and the beat’s construction sounds like a dark fun-house answer to Citizen Cope’s “Let the Drummer Kick.” If Eminem’s general tone has always been too much for you, this track will be no different. You’ve been warned. Besides Trump and Coulter, he also name-checks both Tom Brady and Sandra Bland. He also steals focus away from Big Sean.

“Jump Out the Window” This R&B-flavored groove has some of the strongest beat-work on the set. I found myself paying attention to all the background scratched details throughout the track.

PHOTO: Elbow - "Little Fictions"
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Elbow’s “Little Fictions” ****1/2

Over seven albums and a B-sides collection, the members of Elbow have proven themselves to be artful and brilliant conveyers of emotion through music. A listen to “Little Fictions” brings to mind an orchestral cousin of late-period Radiohead if Radiohead’s focus were less on setting moods and more on composition. (Note: I still love Radiohead a lot, but you can’t deny that they sometimes get lost in grooves.)

There’s something quite powerful and encompassing about the music here and Guy Garvey, with his vocal inflections that recall Peter Gabriel in the best ways, still remains a captivating lyricist.

Elbow remains one of the best British bands you probably don’t know. They have a sizable following across the pond and deserve one here. As is typical of their work, this album is cinematic and sweeping in its scope. You can hear that immediately in the opening, main single “Magnificent (She Says)” and on the 8-minute, trip-hop flavored title-track.

Between records, the group’s long-time drummer, Richard Jupp left, which means a couple of the tracks here have beats that are programmed. The rest of the album has Alex Reeves behind the kit, fitting in quite well with the rest of the band.

Elbow’s music never goes the easy route. These are songs that are fully living, breathing sonic beings. There are no simple hooks here, even if a soaring ballad like “All Disco” sounds immediately familiar. They are experts at nailing slow-burning melodies, full of subtle details that will come to your attention on the third or fourth listen.

“Little Fictions” is Elbow’s latest in a catalog full of would-be classics. This is a record that requires and encourages close inspection, from the quiet lullaby of “Head for Supplies” to the marvelous slow, “Sweet Jane”-esque ascent of “Kindling.” There isn’t a moment on this record that doesn’t sound painstakingly assembled. This is a deftly composed gem of an album that deserves massive attention.

Focus Tracks:

“Magnificent (She Says)" What a soaring song. Within the first few seconds of this track, you’ll know if this album is for you. The attention to detail here is incredibly rich. This song has a highly orchestral appeal.

“Little Fictions” A stately, foreboding piano line gives way to a trip-hop march. Somehow this track is both slightly ominous and revelatory in its tone. Halfway through, the tempo shifts and the song deconstructs and rebuilds itself to triumphant effect.

“All Disco” This is nowhere near disco. This is a ballad that hits Elbow’s sweet spot. In a way, it sounds like a lower-key cousin to their earlier single “Not a Job.” The whispered background vocals throughout the track provide an interesting touch.

PHOTO: Surfer Blood - "Snowdonia"
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Surfer Blood’s “Snowdonia” ***

Surfer Blood’s fourth album is also their first since the death of guitarist Thomas Fekete, who died last year from a rare form of cancer. Bassist Kevin Williams also left the fold since 2015’s “1000 Palms,” and has been replaced by longtime friend of the band Lindsey Mills. It means that “Snowdonia” is indeed quite a transition record for the band.

At only eight songs, with its 7-minute shape-shifting title track, you’d expect it to be an artier record than their past work and in a sense that is the case. The set seems more laser-focused on a sound. Of course, that sound is still quite power-pop driven. “Matter of Time” and “Dino Jay” are both quite gleeful-sounding, affable cuts, anchored by John Paul Pitts’ atmospheric vocals that are perhaps mixed a little too far into the background. Then there is ”Six Flags in F or G,” that is a two-part rocker that almost sounds Sean Lennon-esque in spots.

Musically speaking, this is an interesting record full of left turns. Mills’ presence in the band is a plus because her background vocals can be heard on a couple tracks, adding a new layer to the band’s sound.

At its worst, this is album is sonically appealing but still a tad faceless, lacking a high point on par with “Weird Shapes” from 2013’s “Pythons.” You still, however, hear quirky Pixies-esque influences on a number like “Taking Care of Eddy.” There are also plenty of Beach Boys-referencing moments.

This album isn’t a slam dunk. It is merely good, but it points Surfer Blood towards a more ambitious, and more interesting future.

Focus Tracks:

“Six Flags in F or G” Definitely the weirdest song on the set, this also shows the band members working on expanding their range. Two minutes into the song, it makes a concentrated shift, thus keeping the listeners on their toes.

“Snowdonia” This title track like “Six Flags in F or G” seems to work in movements. There’s a compositional sophistication and density here that didn’t use to be present in the band’s work, as this song gleefully heads appealingly in multiple directions. It’s a rather intense suite.

“Matter of Time” In contrast to the two other tracks mentioned above, this is more of a straight-ahead bit of bubblegum rock with a tunefully sweet center. It is also more typical when compared with the band’s past work.

PHOTO: Sampha - "Process"
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Sampha’s “Process” ****

Sampha is a British singer-songwriter and producer in the R&B vein. “Process” is his first proper solo album, although he’s been gaining buzz for quite some time, working with the likes of SBTRKT and Jessie Ware. Most famously, he collaborated with Drake on the 2013 cut, “Too Much” and with Solange on her song “Don’t Touch My Hair” last year.

“Process” is a unique record for people who like R&B mixed with chilled electronics. Sampha’s voice is mellow and sweet. There are hypnotic qualities embedded into both “Blood on Me” and the electro-gospel of “Timmy’s Prayer.” This is a very mellow record, but it still has a driving force to its beats even as Sampha sings with a hushed, delicate tone.

He approaches these songs with a careful, compositional touch. “(No One Know Me) Like the Piano,” for instance has a very personal, organic quality that is instantly endearing. “Take Me Inside” is also thick with natural charm, even if it eventually ends up in a swirl of echoes and digital blips.

Sampha is a performer to watch. “Process” is an album that will hook you from end to end, and yet, it doesn’t hit you over the head, indicating that this is definitely a slow-burning collection that will sink deeper into your subconscious with repeated listens.

This is a technically forward-thinking record, showcasing some truly inventive, ear-catching beats, proving once again that pop and R&B stars across the pond are allowed to have more individualized, unique approaches than their States-side counterparts. In other words, this record is unique and that sense of singularity makes it a stronger release overall. Sampha is destined to be a sizable star in his own right.

Focus Tracks:

“Blood on Me” Is this song about being mugged? Probably not. But the lyrics are full of dread that is most likely symbolic as Sampha skillfully sings over a strong, shuffling beat. It has some impressive momentum.

“(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” An ode to the piano “in (his) mother’s home,” which is used as a catalyst to share a bit out youthful nostalgia. It’s a love letter to an instrument.

“Incomplete Kisses” This is a woozy, trippy love ballad full of strange lyrical imagery but at the same time you could imagine this track becoming a hit slow jam in an alternate dimension. It’s a bizarre, but affecting and appealing piece.

PHOTO: Beth Hart - "Fire On The Floor"
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Beth Hart’s “Fire on the Floor” ***1/2

Beth Hart follows up 2015’s “Better Than Home” with her latest, “Fire on the Floor.” Again, her raspy, expressive, vibrato-fueled voice is the star of the show as she makes her way through this eclectic collection.

Hart is really suited for bluesy fare as exhibited by “Jazzman” and “Love Gangster,” while “Coca Cola” combines a winsome, retro-appeal while also sounding like a more grown-up, earthier response to Lana Del Rey. “Let’s Get Together” is a bright dose of upbeat R&B, while “Love Is a Lie” is a show-stopper packed with equal doses of angst and authority. “Fatman” is a “Come Together”-esque blues-rock list-filled jam that ends up playing like the diary of an addict looking for a fix.

Few vocalists possess Hart’s level of emotional grit. She nails the simmering, slow-burn of the title track and is able to approach “Woman You Are Dreaming of” with a more tender tone. “Baby Shot Me Down” has a cutting strut, while “Good Day to Cry” is packed with emotional heft.

There’s a strong dose of piano-ballad soul in both “Picture in a Frame” and “No Place Like Home” and Hart holds her own singing while accompanied by Jeff Beck on the bonus track “Tell Her You Belong to Me,” which is, of course, a re-recording of a song that originally appeared on “Better Than Home.”

As an album, “Fire on the Floor” continues to show Beth Hart to be a powerful force. There’s a great deal of skill on display here. Hart is still best known for her 1999 hit “LA Song,” and she’s long been due more exposure. This album probably won’t give her that, especially in the closed musical climate that exists within the industry today.

While this album isn’t particularly revolutionary, it is still a sturdy piece of work from a highly capable and compelling singer-songwriter. It is worth your time and worth a listen.

Focus Tracks:

“Coca Cola” I mentioned Lana Del Rey above in reference to this track, but it is also a sultry, beach-bound response to Gershwin, with some bluesy detours.

“Love Is a Lie” This is rather intense. You can imagine with a different arrangement this might have been the kind of song Nina Simone might have sung. Hart brings an astounding level of vocal power to this track.

“Let’s Get Together” Hart has built her career mostly on tracks about people who are down and out. She has a great flair for tracks of that nature, but this is more of an upbeat, happy love song which she delivers quite well. It is a nice change of pace. The brass and organ accents also help the song really blossom.

Next Week: New music from Thievery Corporation, Jesca Hoop and more.

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