Elton John, Lucinda Williams, The London Suede and More Album Reviews

Plus, get reviews of the latest albums from Lucinda Williams and more.

ByABC News
February 11, 2016, 6:22 AM
Elton John attends the opening night of the 66th Festival di Sanremo 2016 at Teatro Ariston, Feb. 9, 2016 in Sanremo, Italy.
Elton John attends the opening night of the 66th Festival di Sanremo 2016 at Teatro Ariston, Feb. 9, 2016 in Sanremo, Italy.
Venturelli/Getty Images

— -- intro: This week Elton John picks up the pace on his new record, Lucinda Williams drops her second double album in a row, The London Suede follow up on their 2012 comeback record, the Elliott Smith documentary “Heaven Adores You” gets a soundtrack, The James Hunter Six deliver some retro-soul, indie-rockers Sunflower Bean make their full-length debut, and model and actress Lou Doillon releases her second album as a singer-songwriter. Judging from the diversity found in this week’s releases, we are definitely in the swing of the first quarter of the year. There really are a lot of great releases this week.

quicklist: 1title: Elton John’s “Wonderful Crazy Night” ***text: Give Sir Elton some credit. “One Crazy Night” makes a concerted effort to bring a rock spark back into his work after making his name mostly with ballads in recent years. It’s surprising for instance when the guitars chime in on “In the Name of You” and they have a bit of a fuzz-rock edge. But still, as alive as this record often sounds, 47 years after his debut, Elton can’t help but repeat himself. You hear the ghost of “Philadelphia Freedom” in the title track, while “Tambourine” definitely sounds like it is from the same pool as “Your Song.” That would mean something if these songs were as memorable as these previous hits. While good, they don’t match up to his peak '70s output.

It’s great, though, that after all these years, Elton is still teamed with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. While this album comes off like a watered-down version of their classic output, it still shows its intentions well and at least evokes old ghosts. The Eastern vibe of “Claw Hammer” for instance shows a bit of creative looseness even if Elton’s vocal turn is a tad too dramatically pronounced, while “Blue Wonderful” has a certain brand of schmaltzy sweetness.

“Looking Up” has a sort of classic blues-rock stomp to it that brings to mind a milder answer to George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” while “Guilty Pleasure” has a refreshing stomp that recalls Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever” era. Then there is “Open Chord,” which appears to have nicked its verse-section melody from Men Without Hats’ classic “Safety Dance.”

If you are looking for a classic on par with “Madman Across the Water” or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” this definitely isn’t it. While it evokes a classic feel, it just isn’t all that indelible. Still, this is a very reliable record with a few decent surprises. This is definitely a much more animated version of the artist than we have seen in years and that’s a welcome change. We need to see his upbeat side more often.

Focus Tracks:

“In the Name of You” This song has a surprising build and some really nice guitar work. In a different era of his career, this song would have probably had some pop traction.

“Guilty Pleasure” The hand claps and the constant drive make this sound like something that could have been a lost cut by the Traveling Wiburys. It definitely doesn’t sound like typical output from Elton John. Nevertheless, it works quite well.

“Looking Up” Elton has always been obsessed with the blues and soul from the American South and this song definitely shows that influence is still quite strong in his writing. This is his version of roadhouse blues.

media: 36844713

quicklist: 2title: Lucinda Williams’ “The Ghosts of Highway 20” ****text: There once was a time when Lucinda Williams wasn’t very prolific. In the '80s and '90s, the alt-country icon used to have spans of five years on average between records. Not only has the last decade or so brought a relatively steady release schedule, but it is evident that Williams has been particularly inspired as of late. “The Ghosts of Highway 20” is her second double album in a row, following up 2014’s excellent “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.”

This is definitely a darker, more menacing collection than its predecessor with its expansive 14 tracks creeping along underneath Williams’ signature, twangy warble. These are mostly songs about mortality. The title track appears to be about car accidents while “Death Came” is pretty self-explanatory. When she turns up her bluesy side as she does on “Doors of Heaven,” it adds an otherworldly energy to the mix. Williams definitely possesses a sense of wisdom that makes every word she utters absolutely captivating. The raspier her voice is allowed to get and the more she slurs her words for effect, the more lived-in her darker lyrics become. You believe every word. These songs sound like the work of a great poet or novelist working at her peak. Her vocals are often understated on this record, delivered in a somewhat growly whisper at times, but that just makes these songs more magnetic.

This isn’t a catchy record. It doesn’t have the instant appeal of her 1988 self-titled release or her 1998 bonafide classic “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” but this is more mood-centric record than either of those two records. The elongated songs give it a loose, almost meditative feeling, evoking associations with latter-day Bob Dylan at his most accessible.

Williams is a legend partly because she crafts her records on her own terms. Had this record been put out during her major label days, it probably would have been cut to fit onto one disc and she probably would’ve been told that there wasn’t a “single.” “Faith & Grace,” which closes the set, clocks in at nearly 13 minutes. It’s only repetitive to those listeners with short attention spans. If you accept the groove, you’ll be down for the entire ride.

All throughout “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” there’s a sad, downtrodden energy. But this is Williams’ sweet spot. She mines this territory well and yet, after all these years of making records, as always she still remains a somewhat alluring enigma.

Focus Tracks:

“The Ghosts of Highway 20” She definitely picked the title track well as she ponders all the death the road has seen while reassuring herself, “I know this road like the back of my hand.” Most affecting are the lines, “Every question. / Every breath. / Every exit leaves a little death.”

“Dust” This slow-builder serves as a perfect opener, setting the mood of the rest of the set quite well. There’s sadness here as Williams sings, “You couldn’t cry if you wanted to,” but there is a celebratory undercurrent trying to break its way through the mix.

“Bitter Memory” This is a country blues number finding Williams asking her sadness to go away and not come back.

media: 36844545

quicklist: 3title: The London Suede’s “Night Thoughts” ****1/2text: The London Suede (or simply Suede as they are known in the rest of the world outside the U.S.) came back with a vengeance in 2013 with their last album “Bloodsports.” They’d been gone 11 years, but they came back just as sharp as ever. That album, with strong tracks like “Snowblind” and “Barriers,” quickly re-established that they had not lost their edge.

Their new album, “Night Thoughts” is even better, adding a significant punch. All the peak elements are there, and they are still delivering the kind of arty, moody post-punk that made them stand out from the other Britpop bands of the '90s. Brett Anderson’s bizarre yet distinctively elastic voice if anything has improved with age, especially when you listen to his impressive falsetto on the standout “No Tomorrow.”

This record not only would stand well with their '90s output, it also possesses a symphonic maturity. That’s not to say that they have mellowed. They haven’t, but the opening string-section on “While You Are Young” pulls you in like a strong current. For a few seconds, it sounds like it may be mining similar territory as Bjork’s masterpiece, “Vulnicura” from last year.

This is a dense song set that is full of moody undertones. Its physical version is packaged with a DVD containing a film version of the record complete with actors playing out scenes. This helps create some sort of narrative thread throughout the collection, thus setting a mood. The official video for “Outsiders” features just a couple kissing in slow-motion underwater. The sensuality and the water associations are also present in the album’s artwork. The cover depicts a woman floating as if she has just fallen and hit the water. Will she go under? It’s hard to tell.

With “Night Thoughts,” The London Suede show a striking level of ambition. This is not a quest for a cash-in. This is a band hitting its peak. This album joins the likes of Veruca Salt’s “Ghost Notes,” Failure’s “The Heart Is a Monster” and Dinosaur Jr.’s “Farm” as a key example of a band delivering a late-period classic. Albums like this prove that many of these bands from the '90s that are suddenly re-forming left and right still have an awful lot to say. This album makes quite a statement. It deserves a great amount of attention and praise.

Focus Tracks:

“Outsiders” This is about as tremendous and anthemic a single as this band has ever delivered. It has just as strong a wallop on the thirtieth listen as it does on the first. This should be a hit here, but it probably won’t get the airplay needed for that to happen.

“No Tomorrow” Similarly, this song is pretty tremendous with a timeless, rocking charm. It’s another hit waiting to happen.

“Like Kids” The guitar line that opens this track sounds wonderfully fractured, leading to a well-written narrative and a bright chorus. Again, in another time this song would have been a huge hit for them.

media: 36848244

quicklist: 4title: Elliott Smith’s “Heaven Adores You Soundtrack” ****text: After the sonic disaster that served as the soundtrack to “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” I find myself wary of any soundtrack for a documentary about a tragically deceased musician said to feature “previously unreleased recordings.” Thankfully, unlike the Cobain collection, the soundtrack to “Heaven Adores You,” the documentary about Elliott Smith, gets it right by delivering a collection that serves as a worthy addition to Smith’s discography while also giving a bit of an overview for new listeners.

Sure, there are the spare home recordings, but here they are intriguing instrumental pieces and early versions of future classics. The recording from 1985 of Smith singing his song “I Love My Room” shows both a quirky, oddball youthful sense of enthusiasm and a Brian Wilson-like sense of composition.

This set is often about filling in blanks. There’s a version of Smith’s song “Christian Brothers” done by his band Heatmiser, alternate versions of classics like “Son of Sam” and “Coast to Coast” along with other such gems. There’s even his performance of “Miss Misery,” his theme to “Good Will Hunting” delivered on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” The liner notes say that this performance occurred eighteen days before he would perform the song during the Academy Awards telecast.

This album also contains a few previously-released studio tracks from his albums. A few of them are from “Figure 8,” the last of his records to be released in his lifetime.

Like any Smith record, this album serves as a reminder that when he died at the young age of 34 in 2003, we lost one indie-rock’s brightest composers. But as the liner-notes and everything around this record seem to indicate, this is a well-curated collection put together with love. Elliott Smith is greatly missed.

Focus Tracks:

“Coast to Coast” (Early Version) The version that made his posthumous record, “From a Basement on the Hill” was packed with loud, daunting menace. Stripped down, this song still has that same darkness. Smith never needed much instrumentation to create a memorable, haunting environment.

“Son of Sam” (Acoustic) The version that opens “Figure 8” is led by a piano. Here with just an acoustic guitar, Smith still fully maintains the song’s integrity.

“Don’t Call Me Billy” (Demo) This early demo is wonderfully fuzzy and angry. It also has a funky charge.

media: 36844760

quicklist: 5title: James Hunter Six’s “Hold On!” ****text: If you are unfamiliar with James Hunter, he is a retro-soul singer who makes music that sounds like it could have been released in the late '50s or early '60s. He sounds like a cross somewhere between Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin and Jackie Wilson. Like Leon Bridges, he gets the retro sound absolutely right. His latest album offers more vintage gold. It’s a little on the slim side at just a half-hour but this is a case of quality over quantity. It is also fitting that the British-born singer is now signed to Daptone Records. He’s someone who would have long fit in with the like-minded Dap-Kings, so it is a natural union.

Along with the slightly Latin-infused, organ-driven waltz of “This Is Where We Came in,” Hunter and his band also deliver the groovy instrumental, “Satchelfoot,” and he allows his voice to go lower than usual on the ballad “Something’s Calling.” While this music does sound very much suited for old-time sock-hops, as with just about every Daptone release, this record has an eternal coolness to its grooves. This is smartly made music. Fans of Hunter’s previous records, “People Gonna Talk,” “The Hard Way” and “Minute by Minute” will find more joy in this set.

Somehow, Hunter is able to breathe new life into these old sounds. Maybe it is because he is a showman in the classic sense. He may seem like he was born in the wrong era, but at the same time, he’s mastered his craft and surrounded himself with great musicians.

The only regret is that this album flies by in a flash. It needs more than its ten songs. That being said, this is a great example of what James Hunter does best.

Focus Tracks:

“This Is Where We Came in” How beautiful and majestic is this song? This plays like the greatest hit from 1959 that you have never heard before.

“Free Your Mind (While You’ve Still Got Time)” This is told from a death bed. It borrows its verse funk from James Brown and its chorus stomp from Motown, but it’s a winner all the way around. It’s an upbeat song about a sad moment and yet it also has a pretty stellar guitar solo and a great bass breakdown.

“Something’s Calling” This is just really incredibly smooth. Again, Hunter’s vocal shift here provides an unexpected surprise.

media: 36844667

quicklist: 6title: Sunflower Bean’s “Human Ceremony” ***1/2text: Brooklyn trio, Sunflower Bean make their full-length debut following last year’s “Show Me Your Seven Secrets” EP. “Human Ceremony” is a weirdly hypnotizing record, but even in the alternative and indie-rock world, this band’s sound is a little hard to neatly classify. They are part psychedelic and part grunge. The riffs on the title-track, “Come On” and “Easier Said” sound a bit like dream-pop-infused answers to “Chronic Town” era R.E.M., while “I Want You to Give Me Enough Time” is a warm, glowing ballad.

The interplay between singers Julia Cumming and Nick Kivlen keeps things interesting and Cumming’s high, tender voice seems suited for ethereal soundscapes. Really this is a band built on the last 50 years of underground rock, with a modern bend.

Things get a little lyrically odd in the middle of the record with the song “Creation Myth” which spells out the biblical story of how the Earth was formed. A few songs later on “Oh, I Just Don’t Know,” the two singers sing, “I just don’t know my place in this world. / Jesus has a place for me.” This brings to mind the Vaselines’ version of “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam.” Whether this is actually a bit of religiosity thrown into the mix or just setting a mood of sorts is unclear. The fact that it is followed by the album’s closer, “Space Exploration Disaster,” in which the world ends and human-kind evacuates the Earth by spaceship seems to indicate the latter, even if both songs put together do indicate an odd rapture fascination.

“Human Ceremony” is an ear-catching record with a lot of promise. Sunflower Bean are definitely a band worthy of your attention with enough left turns to keep you guessing. Really the one who comes out like a star is Cumming, whose distinctive voice serves as one of this album’s greatest assets.

Focus Tracks:

“2013” This song was a highlight on the EP from last year and it gets a nice new recording with a great moody bounce fusing harder rock with dream-pop and some subtle Farfisa.

“I Want You to Give Me Enough Time” This not only sounds like the album’s strongest chance at a crossover pop hit, but it also seems ripe to be picked for a soundtrack for a cool indie film.

“Come On” This is a tight rocker packed with tension and punk-driven frustration. There’s also a vintage garage-rock vibe here.

media: 36844495

quicklist: 7title: Lou Doillon’s “Lay Low” ****text: Lou Doillon is the daughter of model, actress, singer and style-icon Jane Birkin and director Jacques Doillon. This means on Birkin’s side, she is also the younger half-sister of singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Doillon’s second album, “Lay Low,” effectively follows up her 2012 album “Places.” She possesses a low, chanteuse-like vocal tone, mixed with a little vibrato. This means she sounds a little like a French answer to Fiona Apple. Like Keren Ann and even Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, Doillon is working off of a classic mold. “Left Behind,” which opens the set, is a rather sad torch-song that sounds like response to Sia’s “Breathe Me.”

This is a bit of a spooky record, but it has a bit of lived-in vintage dust giving it some real allure. Fans of Karen Elson’s 2010 album, “The Ghost Who Walks” should also be paying attention to this record.

Only three of the 11 songs on this set clock over the three-minute mark, but these are some really tight mood-setters. As a vocalist, Doillon is less whispery than her half-sister, but she’s still on the mellow side, with the gruffer aspects of her voice adding some nice, subtle sparks to the more driven tracks. The title-track, with its bluesy undertones is a great example of this being put into practice.

Doillon is also gifted when it comes to singing R&B-style lullabies. Both “Where to Start” and “Let Me Go,” play to her soothing side. Again, her voice is a very textured and nuanced instrument, which takes some fascinating raspy turns from time to time.

Lou Doillon may not be a big name in the States. (She is also a model and an actress.) With this album, it is evident that she has gifts as a singer and a songwriter. “Lay Low” is a slightly more solid record than its predecessor and shows that she is ready to receive worldwide exposure in this realm. This album sounds like an unassuming game-changer. It seeps its way into your subconscious and doesn’t let go.

Focus Tracks:

“Weekender Baby” This is a fun folk song about having a lover who deserts her on the weekends. The ominous humming section underscores Doillon’s growing, seething jealousy. Is he cheating? One gets the feeling she will find out the truth.

“Nothing Left” This has a retro '60s soul swagger and some really nice organ work. It also has one of the strongest choruses on the album, though it remains on the subtle side.

“Lay Low” This is some slightly Gothic, sensual blues about staying in bed in a loved-one’s arms ignoring all the chaos in the outside world.

Next Week: New music from Dion, Lissie and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Sia, Bloc Party, Massive Attack and more.

media: 36844612