Kings of Leon, Suzanne Vega, Mike Doughty and More Music Reviews

Plus, get reviews of the latest albums from Suzanne Vega, Mike Doughty and more.

ByABC News
October 19, 2016, 4:52 AM

— -- intro: This week Kings of Leon return with a new album, Suzanne Vega pays musical tribute to one of her favorite classic novelists, former Soul Coughing leader Mike Doughty releases yet another strong solo album, the work of Elliott Smith gets an all-star tribute, Irish band Bell X1 release their strongest album in a decade and Moby rediscovers his harder and louder side.

quicklist: 1title: Kings of Leon’s “Walls” ***1/2text: If you’ve ever liked Kings of Leon, you’ll probably enjoy “Walls.” It’s a pretty streamlined collection, angling toward a new-wave direction. Compared with their other albums, this one lies somewhere in the middle to the higher end of their discography. It doesn’t show any of the weakness of 2010’s “Come Around Sundown,” but it doesn’t quite distinguish itself either. “Over” and “Reverend” are the kinds of songs the Followills could probably write in their sleep, but at the same time, these songs are still decent additions to their discography.

Although this record is solid, it is also a tad predictable. Still there are a few moments that will likely cause your ears to perk. The riff on “Find Me,” is one of those moments and as the song blossoms it recalls “Rock n Roll”–era Ryan Adams in the best way.

But there’s also a jaunty quality to this collection in places. “Around theWorld” has a bouncy guitar line that will probably lend itself to dancing while “Eyes on You” has a similar sense of pep.

“Walls” just shows the Kings of Leon doing what they do well without breaking much new ground. It is a solid place filler of a record that has a few really excellent moments.

Focus Tracks:

“Find Me” The second the guitar line comes in on this song is key turning point on this album. This is definitely the album’s strongest point. Somehow this song sounds bright, but it seems to have a darker underlying subtext.

“Conversation Piece” This ballad with a strong walking beat serves as a semiethereal hymn of sorts. There are hints of Van Morrison’s influence here and it suits them well.

“Around theWorld” Depending on your perspective, you could possibly fault this song for taking an easy route to accessibility, but the bottom line is that it works and it sounds like a hit.

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quicklist: 2title: Suzanne Vega’s ”Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers” ****text: Suzanne Vega’s latest album really serves as a soundtrack to the show she did five years ago as a tribute to the work of author Carson McCullers. Vega tends to shine as of late in a vintage way and so the Broadway-meets-cabaret vibe of this set seems fitting somehow when compared with the old-school noir elements she played with on 2007’s “Beauty and Crime.”

There’s still a studied, beautifully mannered feeling when more modern sounds are brought in on songs like “We of Me” which is obviously cut from the same cloth as classics like “Marlene on the Wall.”

This is really an in-depth nod to McCullers, a celebrated, groundbreaking novelist with whom Vega has a shared artistic kinship, even though the majority of her work was published in the forties. Most of the songs here were written in collaboration between Vega and Duncan Sheik. To some, Sheik is probably still known best for his 1997 hit “Barely Breathing,” but his Broadway success with “Spring Awakening” has turned him into an in-demand composer and he and Vega make an excellent team.

On a number of levels, this album is a resounding success. Even if you’ve never read any of McCullers’s books, songs like “New York Is My Destination” or “Annemarie” are enjoyably vintage Vega. If you’ve never read “The Heart Is a Lovely Hunter” or “Clock Without Hands,” Vega paints a loving tribute that makes you want to do more research on McCullers's and her work. Stylistically this album has a huge range from the jazzy, half-spoken Tin Pan Alley–esque sound of “Harper Lee” to the sweeping piano explorations found on “Instant of the Hour After.”

In the end, with “Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers,” Suzanne Vega effectively channels the author. The music here is a testament to the power of the art from both women. For her part, more than 30 years after her first album’s release, Suzanne Vega continues to offer up surprises.

Focus Tracks:

“New York Is My Destination” This is an unabashedly romantic view of New York and the glamorous world of the working writer. It also swings with each beat even as Vega transitions briefly into narrative.

“We of Me” I said it above. I’ll say it again. This track is classic-level Vega. Even as it swells into a somewhat catchy chorus, it doesn’t lose its firm grounding.

“Harper Lee” This is a firm statement of McCullers’ placement in the literary world. Dropping names of her contemporaries, Vega as McCullers delivers a truly biting performance.

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quicklist: 3title: Mike Doughty’s “The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns” ****text: First off, it is funny that Mike Doughty and Suzanne Vega have dropped albums the same day considering that Doughty’s former band Soul Coughing’s 1994 debut album was named “Ruby Vroom” in tribute to Vega’s then somewhat newly born daughter, Ruby Froom. That album was produced by Tchad Blake who frequently collaborated with Vega’s ex-husband, producer Mitchell Froom.

Like its predecessor, “Stellar Motel,” “The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns” teams Doughty with producer Good Goose and will remind some listeners of his Soul Coughing work in places. This is a much more even record than that last effort that was often weighed down by its many guests and sometimes claustrophobic sonic elements. At a mere 36 minutes, this record feels a tad slight, but it wrestles enough moods in a brief span to feel full enough to satisfy.

The folk-country swagger of “I Can’t Believe I Found You in That Town” is worlds away from the fuzz-rock beat-poetry march of “Give Me Something.” The trippy, electro workout of “You Could Fly” is very different from the retro-leaning stripped-down lament, “Sad Girl Walking in the Rain.”

There’s a looseness to this record that wasn’t present on most of “Stellar Motel.” It feels more like Doughty is informing the strategies he used say on 2011’s “Yes And Also Yes” with what he learned from making his last album.

After a solid stack of solo albums, Mike Doughty still maintains the same wit that made him famous with Soul Coughing. He came into his own, creatively speaking a long time ago and is long overdue the mainstream attention he deserves. “The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns” may be slightly bested in his discography by “Sad Man, Happy Man” and “Yes And Also Yes,” but it is still a strong offering.

Focus Tracks:

“Wait! You’ll Find a Better Way” “Stellar Motel” began with what is probably Doughty’s strongest solo single, quality-wise to date, “Light Will Keep Your Heart Beating in the Future.” Similarly, the album begins with the strongest track on the set. This is a haunting, deeply captivating track that is downright cinematic in its scope. This song would have made a much better first single than “I Can’t Believe I Found You in That Town,” as Doughty sings cryptic lines “Smiling like a check is due / Feeling pleasure that you are bound to lose.” Quite simply, this song finds Doughty at the top of his game.

“Give Me Something” In some ways this song sonically combines the murkier moments of Soul Coughing’s 1998 swan song “El Oso” with some modern pop touches. The bass line bubbles up below Doughty’s deadpan lyrical flow.

“Making Me Lay Down” This sounds like Doughty is trying to make an anthemic, appealing, somewhat lovelorn pop song, but he doesn’t overplay his hand and in some ways this could potentially serve as a perfect possible crossover single for him. It could definitely get him a lot of play on the triple-A radio formatted stations.

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quicklist: 4title: “Say Yes!: A Tribute to Elliott Smith” ****text: Collections of covers can be a gamble depending on the artists interpreting the work being celebrated. “Say Yes!: A Tribute to Elliott Smith” is on the whole an extremely solid tribute to the late singer-songwriter, with a wide range of alt-rock greats paying their respects.

Yuck finds a celebratory grungy core in “Bled White,” while Julien Baker’s version of “Ballad of Big Nothing” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on her tremendous album from last year, “Sprained Ankle.” Waxahatchee brings a shoe-gaze-y sense of menace to “Angeles” and Escondido manage to capture all the bizarre and eerie textures of “Waltz #1.” Amanda Palmer turns “Pictures of Me” into a cabaret number of sorts while Tanya Donelly captures the doomed, drunken sadness embedded in “Between the Bars.”

One guesses that the genesis of this collection may have started with Juliana Hatfield’s version of “Needle in the Hay.” That song appears here, but it also appeared on a stellar Wes Anderson tribute album in 2014, “I Saved Latin.” The song was included on that compilation due to the placement of Smith’s original on the soundtrack to “The Royal Tenenbaums.” (Both compilations were released by the same label, American Laundromat.)

There are only a few small complaints about “Say Yes!” as a collection. One wishes that the songs from “Figure 8” and “From a Basement on the Hill” had gotten more love. It would have been nice to hear someone cover “Junk Bond Trader,” “Somebody That I Used to Know” or “King’s Crossing.” Another sore point for some might be J Mascis’ radical rewriting and interpretation of “Waltz #2.” It’s still decent, but it definitely isn’t the iconic song that you hear on “XO.”

Still this album shows the depth of Smith’s work and its lasting impact. He was one of the greats and he left this earth way too soon. This collection was obviously crafted with love.

Focus Tracks:

“Ballad of Big Nothing,” Julien Baker I don’t think you need any further proof that Baker is a new artist worthy of watching after hearing her heartbreaking take on this song. If you enjoy her version, you’ll probably love her album, too.

“Between the Bars,” Tanya Donelly In some ways, this is worlds away from Donelly’s work with Belly, Throwing Muses and the Breeders, but it makes perfect sense. As she proved on this year’s three-disc “Swan Song Series,” she is an extremely flexible performer who can feel at home in just about any musical setting. Not only is this song iconic within Elliott Smith’s discography, but like “Miss Misery,” it is also important for its placement in “Good Will Hunting.” Donelly definitely managed to capture its essence.

“Bled White” – Yuck This is a perfect meeting of band and a song. This is one of Smith’s sunnier sounding compositions and the members of Yuck give it a nice, fuzzy quality.

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quicklist: 5title: Bell X1’s “Arms” ****text: Bell X1 to many are known probably most for their associations with Damien Rice. The members of the band and Rice were originally in the Dublin band Juniper. When Rice broke free to set his own course, the band Bell X1 was formed from Juniper’s ashes.

“Arms” is the seventh studio album and the band’s best and strongest record since their landmark release “Flock” a decade ago. That album’s beautiful ballad, “Eve, the Apple of My Eye” earned them a great many fans and those fans will also enjoy this album’s standout “The Upswing” which manages to harness the same kind of energy, even if they somehow humorously shoehorn the phrase, “These aren’t the droids you are looking for” into the lyrics of this otherwise tender song.

At only nine songs, this album still manages to show some sonic range from the airy funk of “Fail Again, Fail Better,” to the ethereal and slightly hypnotic “Take Your Sweet Time.” The band mixes call-and-response sing-along vocal lines with some well-placed synth work, on “Sons & Daughters,” while “Out of Love” is a slinky bit of trip-hop with dynamic beatwork.

For the most part, in the U.S., Bell X1 still remain a bit of a secret that only certain indie-rock fans seem to know. In all truth, “Arms” is a record that could get them a wider audience on this side of the pond if given the right attention. Amazingly there are tracks here that sound like they could land on the left field of pop radio.

“Arms” is a rich, rewarding, highly textured collection that will sink further into your subconscious with each listen. If you don’t find yourself magnetized by the bass line on “Fake Memory,” I don’t know what to tell you. This is a collection that deserves your attention.

Focus Tracks:

“The Upswing” This is a jaw-dropping ballad of the highest order. Listening to this song, their past association with Rice made perfect sense. Fans of his work will probably appreciate this song, as well.

“Out of Love” The beat manipulation on this track is stunning, even during the chorus when the song settles into a more standard, funky chug. The piano work in the middle portion is an appealing touch as well.

“Fake Memory” How can I describe this track’s lyrical content? I suppose it provides a winning sense of wounded nostalgia, if such a concept exists.

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quicklist: 6title: Moby and the Void Pacific Choir’s “”These Systems Are Failing” **1/2text: I’ve wanted Moby to return to his rock side for a long time. Sadly, his latest album, “These Systems Are Failing,” recorded under the moniker of Moby and the Void Pacific Choir, doesn’t hit the spot. This is a collection that fuses new-wave and industrial influences too frequently into a forgettable but bombarding force.

Most of these songs are upbeat which is a nice shift on some level for Moby but one gets the idea that he feels the need to bury his own voice. The vocals here are often delivered in a gang-punk sing-along sort of style, often obscuring his performance to some degree.

It’s odd that Moby sometimes falls flat when he tries to bring out his punkier side. This album comes off like a diluted answer of sorts to 1996’s “Animal Rights,” which was a polarizing album for sure, but not a collection without its moments. While that album wallowed in an alt-rock world, this one spikes those influences with a pulsing dance beat which often creates a sense of auditory overload. It also makes a lot of the album sound similar. Rhythmically speaking, “Hey! Hey!” “Break.Doubt” and “I Wait for You” all sound like an extension of a similar idea. But as landmark albums like “Play” and “Last Night” proved, Moby is often at his best when he is mixing eclectic sounds from track to track. The only exception to that general rule comes from his stunning ambient work on the second disc of “Hotel” and this year’s epic “Long Ambients1: Calm, Sleep.”

Later tracks on this album like “A Simple Love” and “The Nighttime” show some different sides and some fortitude, so ultimately this isn’t a complete wash. Like all of Moby’s albums, this one has at least a couple keepers, but it is far from his classic work.

Focus Tracks:

“The Nighttime” This is one of the few times where the rock and synth elements really mix with each other effectively. The keyboard work in particular really grabs your attention.

“Don’t Leave Me” This is probably designed to be a simmering, funky dance number and on that front, it does succeed. Moby also makes most of the heavy, distorted fuzz over the chorus.

“A Simple Love” This feels very much like Moby’s compositional side meshing with a bit of New Order influence. It definitely works.

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