quicklist: 1title: Idina Menzel’s “Idina.” ***text: Since the huge success of “Frozen” and “Let It Go” propelled her from Broadway star to superstar, Idina Menzel has merely brushed upon her potential. “Idina.” is really her first proper pop album since her world changed and she got a wider audience paying audience for her work. She released her holiday album, “Holiday Wishes” in 2014. In truth, this is Menzel’s first pop album since “I Stand” in 2008.
As expected, “Idina.” is a collection full of inspirational ballads. These are the kinds of songs that allow Menzel to sing to the theater's back wall. “I See You,” for instance is her attempt to cheer up “the forgotten” and “those who got lost along the way.” It would seem a bit saccharine and heavy-handed if it didn’t have a “Dear Prudence”-esque kind of energy.
When Menzel heads into breaking-glass territory at the end of “Queen Of Swords,” it is kind of amazing.
At this point, the question isn’t if Menzel is up to the task. She is and then some. Her voice is a remarkably sharp and powerful instrument. Material-wise, however, she could tackle more interesting terrain. When she begins “Show Me,” with the line, “Heaven knows I went through hell,” you can probably guess the rest. With titles like “I Do,” “Extraordinary,” “Perfect Story,” and “Like Lightening,” it is pretty obvious that this is a collection dedicated to self-love and the courage to find one’s true self. It’s inspiring on one hand and vague on the other. It also seems somewhat formulaic. Really only on the almost shrill, wah-wah-pedal-assisted rocker, “Cake” does Menzel distance herself from her comfort zone.
Nevertheless, she sings these songs with remarkable gusto. If anyone can do these songs justice, she can. The material may be basic, but the performance is not. Maybe this is why she is “the wickedly talented, the one and only Adele Dazeem!”
“Nothin’ In This World” This closer finds Menzel singing in a toned-down manner that brings forth a lot of folk and jazzy textures. It comes off as genuine and sweet.
“Like Lightning” This is a pretty strong single contender, showing off Menzel’s best qualities, even if it does play to various anathemic tropes. The song does have an effective, forward-advancing drive.
“Everybody Knows” This is a rather chilled ballad, but it has the kind of build that could possibly lend itself to possible future club remixes. The beat-work here is subtle but effective.
quicklist: 2title: Skylar Grey’s “Natural Causes” ****text: Skylar Grey may be one of the most under-rated figures in pop. She’s written hit songs for others, guested on a number of high-profile singles, been placed on quite a few major soundtracks and still for some reason, in spite of catering to the sounds that pop radio currently favors and delivering solid material, she isn’t yet a household name.
“Natural Causes” immediately reverses the errors of her last record, placing her in a realm that puts her stylistically in favorable company with the likes of Imogen Heap and Kate Havnevik on one end of the spectrum and Halsey and Ellie Goulding on the other. In other words, this is a strong pop album with an underlying artistic core. It’s the kind of album you’d expect pop radio to champion.
Throughout this record Grey shows great versatility. “Off Road” is a tremendous, banger of a pop single. It should be everywhere. It isn’t. “Moving Mountains” is more folky, with a tone similar to Kansas’ “Dust In The Wind.” “Lemonade” has a slick, electro-flamenco vibe while Grey effectively sings in three different singing voices in the wonderfully rumbly, bass-heavy “Straight Shooter.” Eminem drops by and delivers an effective verse on “Kill For You” and Grey’s voice mightily dances across Questlove’s drum-heavy backdrop on the Eminem-produced “Come Up For Air.”
This is a pop record that should make giant waves. It is packed with hit potential. With the label machine behind it, it should be a monster. This is a remarkably consistent set that displays Grey’s talents in the most centered-focus yet. If radio doesn’t catch on, it is their loss. In any case, if you love modern pop sounds, “Natural Causes” will be your new addiction.
“Off Road” The rev-up on this track is tremendous. Sure, sped-up voices have become the norm in pop songs these days but the one that serves as a bit of an alternate hook here sort of recalls the sped-up sample in LL Cool J’s “Around The Way Girl.”
“Come Up For Air” This is a slow-burning ballad that gets more powerful with every listen. Considering he was involved in the production, I’m amazed Eminem didn’t decide to drop a verse on here as well.
“Moving Mountains” This was released as a single back in March. Grey shows she can really shine with this sparse backdrop. She is equally suited for folk and pop.
quicklist: 3title: Warpaint’s “Heads Up” ****text: Warpaint’s third album, “Heads Up” is everything their last album wasn’t. While that self-titled, sophomore album set a mood, it seemed somewhat groundless. Here, the band manages to pair their sound with the most accessible collection of songs to date. Imagine if Luscious Jackson had recorded their classic album, “Fever In, Fever Out” after listening to nothing but Bauhaus for an entire week and you kind of get the picture.
There’s a hushed majesty throughout the record that can be heard on “Whiteout,” “Don’t Wanna” and the title-track. Fresh off her solo record, “Right On,” last year, leader Jenny Lee Lindberg (or “Jennylee”) is more focused than ever. This album shows significant growth. Pop edges bring out a new side. The funky grooves on “New Song” for instance bring to mind a darker, art-rock answer to Haim.
Much has been made in the press about Warpaint over the years, since the band was originally started by Lindberg and her sister, actress Shannyn Sossamon. Current Red Hot Chili Pepper, Josh Klinghoffer was also once in the band’s lineup as well. Both are no longer in the band, but their association is still frequently mentioned and still probably looms as a reason people give the band an initial listen.
“Heads Up” is a high-quality album that should boost Warpaint to a higher level, raising them above their mere past associations.
This record finally delivers on the promise of Warpaint’s first two albums, by offering an appealing, concentrated collection. After years of being a band steeped in mood and tone, they finally haves strong songs to match.
“New Song” Somehow this comes off like a post-punk, love-fueled dance anthem. The song is sugary and dark at the same time, making it a perfectly entrancing hit-contender.
“Don’t Wanna” This is some subtle trip-hop with a bass-line that borders on low-key dubstep. This is hypnotic and slow-burning.
“Whiteout” This opening track is both a reminder of the band’s past sound and a way to ease you into their new brand of focus.
quicklist: 4title: Passenger’s “Young As The Morning Old As The Sea” (Deluxe Edition) ***text: Singer-songwriter Mike Rosenberg’s seventh Passenger record shows that he is going in the right direction. Is his work still a bit twee, precious and self-aware? Certainly. Does he still sound like a cross between Ed Sheeran and James Blunt? Yes. The music of Passenger can be a difficult listen for some. It has a forced earnestness in places. As Rosenberg sings about aging and journeys to exotic locales around the world, it borders on being cloying. His tone on “The Long Road,” for instance seems to hint at folk cliché.
That being said, this album has some very strong songs. This is a very tuneful record. The build-up on “If You Go” is rather redeeming of Rosenberg’s lesser qualities, while the title-track nearly sounds like something Sting would have put on “Nothing Like The Sun.”
Rosenberg’s folk-driven seriousness has sometimes been his downfall, especially when his material hasn’t been up to the task, but it is strongly evident here that he actually is slowly creeping over to the respectable Damien Rice-side of the spectrum. He has the sensibilities and the story-telling instincts. He just needs to be less aware and less cliché in his delivery. If you listen to his duet with Birdy, “Beautiful Birds,” the two singers come off a bit like B -level answers to Rice and Lisa Hannigan. There’s growth needed, but strong potential.
The deluxe edition of the album comes with six bonus acoustic versions, thus giving the songs an effective, stripped-down approach. It also is packaged in a beautiful hardcover book format.
“Young As The Morning Old As The Sea” still suffers from many of the problems found of Passenger’s previous work, but it ultimately is a step forward.
“Young As The Morning Old As The Sea” Besides Sting, there’s also a strong Gotye influence here, but it is a sound that works effectively for Passenger, sounding both genuine and natural.
“If You Go” This is a bit clichéd in its approach but melody-wise this is definitely in the winning column and Rosenberg peppers the track with plenty of sweeping elements.
“Anywhere” With a surprisingly bright riff, this is a pleasant, upbeat pop song that does the trick and should provide a smile or two.
quicklist: 5title: Rachael Yamagata’s “Tightrope Walker” ****text: Singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata dropped her first full-length album in five years last Friday on the occasion of her 39th birthday. Yamagata is still probably best known for her 2004 single, “Worn Me Down” and this album was funded by a PledgeMusic campaign. Yamagata really deserves to be a major-label artist again, but recording independently allows her to chart her own path and “Tightrope Walker “ is a wonderfully daring and eclectic collection.
Throughout the then-song set, Yamagata aims to show off her versatility. The opening, title-track is jazzy, while “Nobody” is dark, foreboding and wonderfully sludgy. “E-Z Target” mixes some orchestral elements with banjo-funk and “Over” is an authoritative mid-tempo rocker. “Let Me Be Your Girl” sounds like something from Stax Records.
Yamagata still has a very strong Fiona Apple influence, a fact made even more striking when you realize the two musicians are only ten days apart in age.
The second-half of the album is ballad-heavy with mighty fare like the Broadway-esque symphonic showstopper “I’m Going Back,” or the folky and ethereal “Rain Song.” This is a multi-hued collection that in many ways expands on the all of the best work Yamagata has done up until this point. In some ways, this is like a more concentrated, less segmented answer to her excellent 2008 album, “Elephants…Sinking Teeth Into Heart.” In fact, it is quite possible that “Tightrope Walker” is Yamagata’s best work to date.
“Let Me Be Your Girl” This should be the chilled, smooth jam of the Fall. Yamagata’s voice here is butter-soft, but when the hook launches and the horn-section plunges into the mix, she dives into the warm groove head-first. This song should redefine Yamagata’s career.
“Nobody” Somehow this sounds sultry and threatening at the same time, as if taken from a letter from a stalker. Yamagata sings “Nobody wants you the way I want you” at first with a quiet sense of calm that gets increasingly urgent as the song progresses. By the end, her delivery is packed with bile. This song perfectly captures both heartbreak and unhealthy obsession.
“Over” This is one of the most straight-forward tracks on the set, providing a possible crossover pop-hit, but the drums pound and there are some cool, dream-pop-like atmospherics at play as well.
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