Gorillaz, Juliana Hatfield, Feist and more music reviews

PHOTO: Gorillaz perform their new album "Humanz" live on March 24, 2017 in London, United Kingdom.
WireImage via Getty Images

This week Gorillaz make a return, Juliana Hatfield targets misogyny within our culture with her eyes on the White House, Canadian songstress Feist makes a challenging comeback, young rockers Skating Polly get some assistance from Veruca Salt’s Louise Post and Nina Gordon on a new EP and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore drops a new album. With the exception of Gorillaz, it is a heavy week for rock releases.

PHOTO: Humanz [Explicit] by Gorillaz
Gorillaz’s “Humanz” ***

A lot of hype and attention is surrounding “Humanz,” the latest offering from animated act Gorillaz. It’s still amazing to me that in the U.S. out of the outfits fronted by Damon Albarn that Gorillaz seem to be a bigger draw than Blur. But their first album in seven years is slightly better than the one-two punch of “Plastic Beach” and the iPad-recorded offering “The Fall” in 2010.

Admittedly, as a record, it is a bit of a head-scratcher. While Vince Staples does some excellent work on “Ascension,” and it is cool to hear Grace Jones kill it on “Charger,” one problem seeps into the framework. The over-reliance on guests makes this album a little faceless. On their first album in 2001 and 2005’s “Demon Days,” Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett set up Gorillaz like a real band. While on a certain level, the records they have made since are ground-breaking sonic feats, the heavy reliance on guests make Gorillaz seem more like a production team than a real (err ... animated) band. For a moment I find myself wishing for the return of both Miho Hatori and Del the Funky Homosapien so that the group could have some sort of career consistency.

This is a merely OK but often bizarre party record. Anthony Hamilton and Benjamin Clementine each add an unusual soulfulness to the set on “Carnival” and “Hallelujah Money,” respectively and Savages’ Jehnny Beth makes an uncharacteristic turn on the very pop-minded “We Got the Power.”

It’s great to hear Pusha T and Mavis Staples on the same track on “Let Me Out,” while the Jamie Principle & Zebra Katz-featuring “Sex Murda Party” is a bit of a weird mess.

This album wins on the whole because it is technologically adventurous and plays with genre-bending in an often appealing way. It is an album with some key mistakes, even if you are willing to give some of those mistakes a pass. De La Soul get their third Gorillaz feature on “Momentz,” but there is something disorienting and ill-fitting the way a vocoder is momentarily used over Posdnuos’ verses.

The album is strewn together by warped spoken interludes performed by actor Ben Mendelsohn, with the exception of “The Non-Conformist Oath” which plays with a vintage Steve Martin sample.

If you are looking for some sonically challenging, forward-thinking productions, “Humanz” is packed with them. This is a semi-decent-to-good effort but it doesn’t quite live up to the hype and it probably won’t stand the test of time like the outfit’s first two offerings. Nevertheless, the way Albarn is branching out and expanding his sonic palette is commendable even if it isn’t always successful.

Focus Tracks:

“Charger” (featuring Grace Jones) This is what happens when this album goes in the right direction, as Albarn (as 2-D) raps in almost a dance-hall “toasting” sort of way, while Grace Jones adds some vocal punctuation. This is more a hypnotic sonic piece than a song, but it is still the coolest selection here by a long-shot.

“Ascension” (featuring Vince Staples) Staples tackles an effective electro-groove with dexterity. Like he did on his landmark 2015 album, “Summertime ’06,” Staples doesn’t pull any punches, mixing a club-like rawness with biting political sentiment, all the while maintaining an apocalyptic energy. His strip-club-fueled thematic thread may lose some folks in the audience but he’s using it as a metaphorical tool. Maybe this will become an actual club hit. Hopefully its embedded message and frustration about the state of the world won’t be lost in the process.

“Hallelujah Money” (featuring Benjamin Clementine) If you are unfamiliar with British singer Benjamin Clementine or his 2015 album, “At Least For Now,” you have your work cut out for you. He should be on your radar. This electronic hymn of greed is highly political, anchored by Clementine’s operatic delivery. This was the first single to be released from this record. Its praise of currency also pleads for us to reconnect with our sense of humanity in the face of power and corruption.

PHOTO: Pussycat by Juliana Hatfield
Juliana Hatfield’s “Pussycat” ***1/2

Juliana Hatfield’s 14th album (not counting her various side-bands) is a direct response to the election of Donald Trump last November. Sometimes the correlations are clearer than others. There are bits of anger as she handles issues of misogyny, privilege and fame on “When You’re a Star,” which quotes the famous Trump/Billy Bush “Access Hollywood” tape and peppers it with some Cosby-allusions, as well. This is a pointed, highly political offering. But it isn’t without humor. “Short-Fingered Man” speaks to both insecurity and issues of sexual inadequacy. Hatfield puts it all on the table and minces no words. This is also a response to the culture that allowed Trump to rise based on his rhetoric. There’s often a sadness and a rage embedded into the mix.

“Sunny Somewhere” hopes a better day is around the corner, while “Rhinoceros” describes an awful, slobbery, unwanted sexual encounter which is no doubt meant to be symbolic. That track also mentions Melania in great detail.

“Heartless” asks the questions, “How can you care when you have no empathy? / How can you judge when you have no authority? / How can you tell the truth without honesty?”

Hatfield name-checks Kellyanne Conway on the upbeat “Kellyanne.” Of course, in a world of “alternative facts” it is possible that such a move could backfire and be seen as a badge of honor by some of her targets, even though it is meant as a scathing indictment. You never know how people will potentially turn things on their heads.

This is a vital, often angry record. It doesn’t quite have the solid, universal appeal of Hatfield’s last effort, “Whatever My Love,” but it isn’t an album meant for pure entertainment. It is meant to express frustration with our current political climate. It does still have that classic Hatfield spark in places. “Wonder Why” for instance sounds like it could be on any of the other albums she released over the years. “Pussycat” is a protest record that is sure to ruffle some feathers. Even though she has made some stronger sets over the years, this is sure to be a notable highlight in Hatfield’s impressive and growing discography.

Focus Tracks:

“When You’re a Star” Arguably the center-piece of the album and maybe Hatfield’s most visceral “RIOT GRRRL!”-esque works to date. She questions a society that rewards predatory men simply because they are famous.

“Kellyanne” I’m guessing this was written in response to one of Conway’s appearances on the Sunday morning political programs. Hatfield asks, “Do you feel love? / Do you feel? / Did you used to be real?”

“Wonder Why” This is a strong Hatfield classic. How a trip through what sounds like a childhood home fits in thematically within the context of the rest of the set remains a bit of a mystery but it is a winner, nonetheless.

PHOTO: Pleasure by Feist
Feist’s “Pleasure” ****

Ten years ago, “1234” gave Leslie Feist a huge hit. Six years after her last album, “Metals” the Canadian singer returns with “Pleasure.” This is a very strange but exciting record that will please those looking for something compelling but will no doubt anger the people looking for another “1234.” This is a daring, challenging piece of work that sounds places Feist in the middle of some entrancing, sonically sparse settings. While “1234” made her momentarily a “lite” radio/coffee-shop darling and 2004’s “Let It Die” found her exploring lush, chilled backdrops, “Pleasure” is willfully unhinged placing her in territory somewhere between PJ Harvey and Cat Power. There’s an unexpected rawness here that moves this album into fascinating places. In other words, if you enjoyed “1234,” this album will be a bit of a challenge. If you found that song to be cloying and twee, “Pleasure” is Feist’s anti-cute, sometime brutal response.

Throughout the set, she sounds like she is singing through a guitar amp and there is a simmering hum to this album on the whole. When the title-track explodes into a mess of guitars it is both jarring and thrilling. A decade ago “Any Party,” would have been a polished, sultry exercise, whereas here it has a fresh, vibrant feeling, while “Lost Dreams” is both lulling and a tad eerie.

Most of this record sounds like a breathing, living beast. It feels like they set up the microphones in the middle of a giant room and just had everyone play. The crickets you hear chirping in the background of “A Man is Not His Song” provide a natural touch, whereas “Baby Be Simple” uses its empty space well to drive its lyrics home. The album makes excellent use of natural, surrounding sound/ Jarvis Cocker shows up to give a slightly spooky speech on “Century,” while “Young Up” has a vintage, scratchy tone.

“Pleasure” is an intense, fiercely experimental offering that will hypnotize you if you listen to it at the right time. If you are looking for another big, crowd-pleasing song like “1234,” you’ll have to look elsewhere. Feist is heading into different territory.

Focus Tracks:

“The Wind” No, this isn’t the Cat Stevens classic but it pairs a catchy melody with some strong guitar-textures and a few synth-driven touches.

“Lost Dreams” This song captures the core sound of this album well, possessing the ghostly vibe that runs through its construction. It’s also among the most bare on the collection.

“Any Party” This starts off like a busker’s lament and ends up turning into a sing-along. Feist sings, “You know I’d leave any party for you.”

PHOTO: New Trick by Skating Polly
Skating Polly (Featuring Louise Post & Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt)’s “New Trick” EP ****

Three-song EPs that clock in under 12 minutes are rarely as enjoyable as Skating Polly’s “New Trick.” That being said, Skating Polly aren’t a typical band by any stretch. Like Throwing Muses, the band was started by two step-sisters. The duo formed when the duo of Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse were only nine and fourteen respectively. Now with Mayo at 17 and Bighorse at nearly 22, they are nearing veteran-status having already released a small handful of indie-rock records, all along impressing with a level of skill far surpassing their years.

“New Trick” follows last year’s quite notable full-length “The Big Fit” and finds the duo playing songs they wrote with Louise Post and Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt. Obviously, for the kind of music they are making, Post and Gordon are perfect musical mentors. Not only does their presence here raise eyebrows in the best way but you can hear echoes of Veruca Salt’s extremely excellent 2015 album “Ghost Notes” within its framework. It helps that Brad Wood, who handled production for both that album and “American Thighs” is here also to help Skating Polly.

These three songs are all quite strong “Louder in Outer Space” is the strongest, showcasing a pop hook with a forceful crunch. “Hail Mary” favorably recalls both “Black and Blonde” and “Prince of Wales” from “Ghost Notes,” in a way, but stands on its own, as well. Finally “Black Sky” works with a slightly gentler framework but possesses the same kind of melodic charm as “Louder in Outer Space.”

“New Trick” is a huge step forward for Skating Polly. Sure, they have always exceeded expectations and have showed themselves to be the real deal, but this is a polished wonder of a work. It also seems to be the first release with their brother Kurtis Mayo on drums, which is a change since Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse used to just switch positions on guitar and drums as needed. Now they are a fuller band.

Post and Gordon’s involvement also speaks volumes. Not only in their encouragement of the next generation but also about the state of the reformation of the original line-up of Veruca Salt. Hopefully this means they will continue to release records on their own.

“New Trick” is a bit too brief in the way that it leaves you wanting more. Here’s hoping Skating Polly continue to work with Post, Gordon and Wood.

Focus Track:

“Louder in Outer Space” Both this song and “Hail Mary” have been released as singles and given the fact that this EP only has three songs total, I am only choosing one focus track. This opener is really explosively appealing. If there was a song I could point to that had the potential to return guitar-rock to pop radio it would be this one. Peyton Bighorse handles vocals here quite well and gives it the kind of punch it demands. It is an insistent pop song that thrives on the “loud-quiet-loud” formula. It works on all fronts.

PHOTO: Rock N Roll Consciousness by Thurston Moore.
Thurston Moore’s “Rock N Roll Consciousness” ***1/2

If Sonic Youth made an acid-rock jam-band record, it might sound a little like “Rock N Roll Consciousness,” a five-track record where Thurston Moore wallows in guitar textures and allows grooves to build. Sure, the vocals on opener, “Exalted” don’t kick in until roughly the seven-and-a-half minute mark, but there’s something winning and downright psychedelic about the sounds that he achieves at the beginning of the track, even if the opening signature repeats for more than a minute.

“Cusp” sounds a bit like his answer to Love’s “7 and 7 Is,” and you get the feeling that this album is what would happen if garage-rock was made with a jazz-master’s mentality. The guitar-solo on “Turn On” sounds like the grunge-era’s answer to the Allman Brothers.

This isn’t a record designed for easy, passing consumption. It’s the kind of offering you put on and ponder deeply. Perhaps it is the kind of album meant to soundtrack a traveling experience. “Smoke of Dreams” has a vaguely soul-searching energy that could make it ripe for music licensing, while “Aphrodite” begins with a bell-tolling guitar-riff that bursts into a signature-style riff for Moore.

Since the breakup of both their marriage and their band, both Moore and Kim Gordon have reveled in the long-form. After all, the live album from Gordon’s post-Sonic Youth outfit Body/Head from last year consisted of three extended tracks. Her other outfit, Glitterbust’s album was also five extended tracks. They may no longer be together, but the spirit of Sonic Youth still lives on in their separate work.

“Rock N Roll Consciousness” is a more than decent record. It plays with textures and signatures in an intriguing way. Perhaps it is an album that deserves a better title, but if you’ve ever loved any of Thurston Moore’s work, this will also do the trick.

Focus Tracks:

“Smoke of Dreams” This is probably the most accessible cut on the record. Straight from the beginning this kind of reminds me of Neil Young’s majestic nineties album, “Sleeps With Angels.” Moore has maintained his experimental coolness but he’s also not afraid to show some “classic rock” influences.

“Exalted” If you can make it through this extended jam, this album is for you. This is a psychedelic workout. When the lyrics come in, you are probably already resigned and expecting this to be an instrumental but they end up adding a new color to the dense composition.

Next Week: New music from Blondie, The Afghan Whigs and more.

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