This week country superstar Kenny Chesney releases a new album, Swedish pop sensation Tove Lo drops her sophomore effort, M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel release yet another She & Him Christmas album, rapper and producer Sammus makes a grand entrance, New York metal band Helmet returns, and My Chemical Romance’s Frank Iero releases an album with his new band, the Patience. It’s quite a varied week as we step into November.
|Kenny Chesney’s “Cosmic Hallelujah” ***|
If you can believe it, “Cosmic Hallelujah” is Kenny Chesney’s 17th studio album. He’s a seasoned veteran at this point. While this album unsurprisingly has a lot of the same issues as a lot of the twangy pop records that pass for modern country these days, with folksy tales of “buying another round” and other such genre tropes, Chesney manages to tell stories with a narrative style that indicates that he’s doing more than hitting the normal talking points. He nails his unlikely duet with P!nk, “Setting the World on Fire,” and while the slightly overproduced “Noise” reeks of modern Nashville formula, the angst that Chesney is addressing is palpable and real.
The album works above the obvious stereotypical elements partly because it is decently crafted. It is unapologetically aiming for the pop charts. This is proud, factory-made “country” music, and Chesney doesn’t try to hide that in the least. Why should he? He’s got the hooks and the chops to sell a song like “Bar at the End of the World.” It’s a delicate balancing act that takes a lot of skill.
On some level, this sounds like many other records you have heard before. You can hear the transparent pandering to his audience on “Some Town Somewhere.” The same can be said for “Rich and Miserable,” which kind of nicks a melodic line in its chorus from Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams,” and the a-bit-too-on-the-nose and saccharine “Coach,” which has a riff that sounds like a major-key answer to the Smashing Pumpkins’ classic “Hummer.” (I kid you not.)
Listening to a song like “All the Pretty Girls,” it almost seems like there are people working in boardrooms in Nashville crossing off things to mention in “hit” country songs in order to get airplay. But Chesney has the charisma to make this kind of writing work for him. When he delivers a surprisingly excellent countrified reworking of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” it shows he could do better with deeper material. That being said, he’s doing just fine. On “Cosmic Hallelujah,” he’s playing the music his audience expects. The formula exists because it has proven to work. Sometimes that ends up working out for the best.
“Setting the World on Fire” (Featuring P!nk) I suppose it isn’t surprising that P!nk and Chesney don’t sound out of each other’s elements singing together, but let’s face it. This is much more pop than it is country.
“I Want to Know What Love Is” When you are drastically reworking a culturally ingrained song, you have to be careful. Against the odds, Chesney is able to make this song his own.
“Bucket” Part of me thinks that Chesney wants this to be a sing-along favorite somewhere between Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” and Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” It doesn’t pack the punch of either, but it is still a decent effort.
|Tove Lo’s “Lady Wood” ****|
The second album from Swedish pop singer Tove Lo isn’t quite as classic a knockout as 2014’s amazing “Queen of the Clouds,” but it is close, showing the same charm and appeal. At under 40 minutes, it is a little too lean for its own good, but admirably it doesn’t go for the easy win.
The Wiz Khalifa–assisted “Influence,” ”Imaginary Friend” and the sexually charged title track all go for the sweet spot in her formula. She specializes in ballads that are disguised as sleek club tracks. As a writer, who often writes for others, this is one of her greatest strengths. These songs seem cut from the same cloth as the “Queen of the Clouds” tracks “Not on Drugs” and “Thousand Miles.” This is a pop record that earns its parental warning sticker on tracks like “Flashes” and “WTF Love Is,” not to mention the album’s art which includes topless shots in the album’s booklet, but Tove Lo is just continuing to prove herself to be a fierce, sexually liberated force of nature as she charts her own course. She knows her way around a pop hook and doesn’t care about holding up any puritanical standards.
Only on the single “Cool Girl” does Tove Lo slip a little. The chorus is on the weak side, and we know from her past that she can do better. But from the sensual, acoustic-guitar-fueled flamenco-pop of “Vibes” to the slick, neon sleaze of “Don’t Talk About It,” “Lady Wood” continues to showcase Tove Lo as a fearless writer and performer carving her own niche in the pop world. This is a gritty but slinky record for adults.
It could be said that Tove Lo is the great hope for people who want an edginess in their pop. She can craft a beautiful hook, tell a brutally and emotionally honest story and spike it with a unique sensuality. In this world where pop music is often factory spun and on the bland side, it is nice to see artists like Tove Lo stirring up the water with a touch of controversy and creating her own rules.
“Imaginary Friend” As she did on “Habits (Stay High),” Tove Lo proves no other pop star can address the issues of depression the way she can. If I’m reading this song right, it is about how you can cheer yourself up with your hopes, your dreams and your imagination even when life crushes you. It has one of the strongest hooks on the record and should be a single.
“Flashes” This is another strong single contender, even with its un-radio-friendly chorus refrain that repeats the line “When I f--- things up.” But the song has a sleek, powerful core.
“Don’t Talk About It” Part of me thinks this would have perhaps gone well in the movie “Drive.” Again, this is another strong possible single.
|She & Him’s “Christmas Party” ***1/2|
Something bizarre happened to She & Him when they signed to Columbia. Their two records for the major label are different from their Merge output. 2014’s “Classics” was a complete set of covers. Covers were always part of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s formula, but Deschanel’s originals made up the bulk of the highlights on “Volume One,” “Volume Two” and “Volume 3.”
“Christmas Party” is the duo’s sixth album, and while the general quality of their output hasn’t gone down, it is puzzling that it is their second Christmas offering, after “A Very She & Him Christmas” five years ago. So if you are waiting for “Volume 4,” this isn’t it. This is yet another collection of covers. I don’t know if Deschanel’s songwriting spring is dry, if she’s too busy with “New Girl,” or if this covers-only tactic is one the duo are using as a safe way to keep their place secure on a major label, but it is kind of frustrating.
That being said, the two tackle a wide array of Christmas classics from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph.” If you ever wanted to hear Deschanel sing the Chipmunks’ classic “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” you get a surprisingly hushed version here. They deliver a quality rendition of the Kay Starr–popularized song “The Man With the Bag,” as well as evergreen chestnuts like “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” or “Happy Holliday.”
With the existence of “A Very She & Him Christmas,” the mere existence of “Christmas Party” could be seen as redundant, but it still will find its audience and will pass the time until we finally get a proper “Volume 4.”
“The Man With the Bag” There is something extremely old and classic about Deschanel’s delivery, and this song really suits her voice quite well.
“Christmas Don’t Be Late” Ironically, the Chipmunks’ version of this song is used in an early scene in “Almost Famous,” a movie in which Deschanel stars as the sister of the main character. Here, she and M. Ward turn it into a weepy country ballad.
“Happy Holiday” Again, here’s another song much older than both Ward and Deschanel, made famous of course by Bing Crosby in “Holiday Inn.” It has also been famously covered by Peggy Lee, Perry Como and others.
|Sammus’s “Pieces in Space” ****1/2|
Sammus is an underground, Cornell-educated, left-field MC. A Ph.D. candidate and the daughter of college professors, Sammus named herself after Samus Aran, the female protagonist of the classic video game “Metroid.”
“Pieces in Space” is a fascinating, thought-provoking set which captures a chilled mixture between youthful nostalgia and poignant observations. The guest appearance from Jean Grae on the excellent standout “1080p” speaks volumes about Sammus’ place in the hip-hop world. This set is self-produced, and her digitized beats and inward-looking lyrics speak to a newer school mentality, but her emphasis on lyrical skill puts her with an older, less pop-obsessed set of players. The beautiful but isolating synths on “Comments Disabled” or “Cubicle” have a lush coldness, but at the same time, they perfectly suit Sammus’ rhymes and thus pull you deeper into the songs.
It’s not all downbeat, however, “Childhood” has a bright (but still minimalist) R&B backbone, and the Homeboy Sandman–featuring “Weirdo” has a bright electro bounce. Even the ear-catching and perhaps career-defining “Song About Sex” has an almost disarmingly light, loungey beat, when placed in contrast with the song’s subject matter.
This record is likely to be ignored by rap radio. It is likely to not get the hits of, let’s say, records by Drake or Kanye, but this is the kind of record that keeps the genre growing and evolving. On “Pieces in Space,” Sammus sets herself up to be an icon. In 2016 there are still shockingly few female MCs and producers who are given the level of attention afforded to their male peers. Sammus fills a void with her indie-minded, highly conscious rhymes. This is the kind of hip-hop that should championed more often. This record should be a big deal because it is one of the strongest and most important hip-hop statements of the year.
“1080p” (Featuring Jean Grae) This song serves as a great introduction to Sammus’s work if you are unfamiliar with her work. This is an ode to good mental health, rhyming the title with the words “clarity” and “therapy.”
“Song About Sex” In the male-dominated genre of hip-hop, women are often sexualized through the lens of the male gaze. This is a song about sex from the female perspective, but it closes with a jarring verse that seems to describe a sexual assault. Sammus raps, “He held me down / I couldn’t breathe / Began to pound / I couldn’t leave / And I ain’t really make no sound. / I can’t believe / It’s finally out / I feel relieved / ‘Cuz up ‘til now / I never grieved.” I don’t know for certain if this is completely autobiographical, but it speaks to the growing climate where it is becoming safer to openly talk about such issues. Sexual assault should not be tolerated, and maybe by hearing this song, more victims will break their silence.
“Perfect, Dark” Here Sammus derides the comic book and cartoon industries for not having black female superheroes, proclaiming “Black girls want to have a hero, too. / All kids want to have that mirror view.”
|Helmet’s “Dead to the World” ***|
Page Hamilton’s first Helmet record in six years finds the famed guitarist charging through a decent 11-song set, packed with maybe enough bile to satisfy the diehards. If you are looking for anything close to the classic crunch of “Meantime,” or even something close to “Betty,” or even a later record like “Size Matters,” you are going to have to search a little longer.
Hamilton seems to be taking a streamlined approach here. He’s singing a little differently, and even at their hardest, these songs don’t quite pack the massive punch of vintage Helmet. More often this album sounds like it is trying to make mainstream concessions in an effort to widen the audience, which would be a fair attempt if alternative rock was still given a fair shake on the radio dial. But on the upside, it seems like this newest version of Helmet is going for the darker, minor key cinematic sound.
It sounds like Hamilton has been spending a lot of time listening to Failure. You can hear the ghost of that band’s sound running through this album’s title track, “Expect the World” and “Life or Death (Slow).” There are even moments in the chugging “Bad News” that bring Failure to mind.
Most bizarre, however is Hamilton’s choice to cover Elvis Costello’s “Armed Forces” classic, “Green Shirt.” You’d think he’d rave it up and bring it to a thunderous yell, but no. Instead he sings it in a very playful way, bringing to mind Primus’s Les Claypool.
“Dead to the World” is merely a good place filler of a record. It has some small surprises, but it doesn’t re-establish Helmet as the metallic force it was nearly a quarter of a century back. Hamilton is still an expert at his craft. This record may take some sharp turns, and it may have some weak spots, but it is still worth a listen.
“Life or Death (Slow)” The album is bookended with versions of the same song, “Life or Death.” The slower version that ends the record provides some more memorable sonic textures.
“Expect the World” This is another slower song which finds its apex when Hamilton lunges into the louder chorus. You might spend this album wishing he would scream and growl more often.
“Drunk in the Afternoon” This song has a nice chugging energy and almost works itself into more familiar territory.
|Frank Iero and the Patience’s “Parachutes” ***|
If all you know about Frank Iero is that he used to be the guitarist to My Chemical Romance, “Parachutes” may be an eye-opening listen. Iero’s distressed yelp may be a hard sell to some, but on hardcore tinged rockers like “I’m a Mess” and “Veins! Veins!! Veins!!!” he can pack a lot of brutal power.
On later cuts like “I’ll Let You Down,” when he tries to sing more tuneful material he falls a little. You might find yourself wishing that he’d drop the yelling and sing it in a straight-ahead way. This unhinged quality of his work definitely won’t be for everyone, but at least this aspect of Iero’s keeps you guessing. Sure, it does in some places sound like work of kids who listened to a lot of Minor Threat trying to reinterpret Springsteen classics through that lens, but there’s enough punk charge to downplay any tired bits of formula. In a different world, “Remedy” would be a cleaned up stadium hit. But then again, that song’s sing-along chorus is followed by the furious and foaming, interestingly titled “Dear Percocet, I Don’t Think We Should See Each Other Anymore.”
The quieter acoustic rocker “Miss Me” might make you wonder if Springsteen’s influence is spread through the New Jersey water system. (Frank Iero is from Belleville.) Of course a track later, “Oceans” owes just as much in its ragged construction to the early work of Minnesota native Paul Westerberg, so perhaps there are other forces at work here. Especially since that seems to be a somewhat common hybrid formula.
“Parachutes” is by no means a great record, but it does have somewhat solid footing. If you are down for what it delivers, you’ll find elements to appreciate.
“I’m a Mess” Quite simply put, this is where this album hits its chaotic apex. This track offers a thunderous attack.
“The Resurrectionist, or an Existential Crisis in C#” Twenty years ago this song would have given Iero a solid alt-rock radio hit. It sounds like a lot of the second- and third-tier grunge-era classic singles.
“Miss Me” Sure, above I make a little light of the Springsteen influence, but this track at least shows there are some solid songwriting chops at work.
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