Lorde, Ride, Fleet Foxes and Sebastian Blanck music reviews

PHOTO: Lorde performs at Randalls Island, June 2, 2017, in New York City. PlayAngela Weissangela/AFP via Getty Images
WATCH Lorde releases first new music in 3 years

intro: This week as we usher in the beginning of summer, Lorde delivers perhaps the best pop album of the year, shoegaze favorites Ride return, Seattle folkies Fleet Foxes come back after a six-year absence and indie-rock singer-songwriter Sebastian Blanck releases his first proper album in seven years.

quicklist: 1 title: Lorde’s “Melodrama” ****1/2 text: Lorde follows up her debut, “Pure Heroine,” with an album that marries intelligent, introspective writing with club-ready tracks. For the most part, “Melodrama” is a lesson in how to write a pop album with a sense of integrity.

On “Green Light,” as an example, Lorde ponders heartbreak but decides to go dancing to rid herself of her pain. This isn’t casual or shallow. Somehow, she has managed to write songs about exploring a club-like utopia while coping with an emotional situation. Few pop artists could handle the tightrope-act that such a feat would demand.

It’s obvious that Lorde not only has been listening to her late friend David Bowie’s albums from the '70s and '80s but there’s also a bit of Bjork influence in the vocal tricks heard on “Sober,” and some “Afro-beat” influence in its horn-section work.

She sings with a hushed, damaged crackle on the wounded make-out ballad “Writer in the Dark,” but when she drifts into her upper register she resembles Kate Bush. At 20, Lorde has shown herself to be a key sonic definer of her generation, and while these tracks recorded with Jack Antonoff are often bigger and loftier-sounding than the sparse cuts heard on “Pure Heroine,” they still maintain a wise, arty sense of coolness, as if she is courting both the pop radio audience and fans of more experimental, cerebral fare. “Supercut” and “Perfect Places” both sound like they would fit in well in the modern radio landscape but at the same time, Lorde attacks her songs with such gumption and focus that you want to listen to every one of her words.

From end to end, it seems as if “Melodrama” makes a full circle with Lorde's heart being broken and trying to find redemption amidst the booming club speakers as she finds herself sleeping with strangers until she finds the right one. Most of the album is about what happens after meeting at the club with the closer, “Perfect Places,” bringing her back to same territory as “Green Light.” This album has a shockingly dense sense of narrative considering it is crafted by a 20-year-old singer-songwriter. Then again, Lorde has proven herself to be a gifted, artistically-driven prodigy way ahead of her peers.

This is a near-perfect follow-up to “Pure Heroine.” It’s an album that surprises and stuns all while delivering a fresh, eclectic song set. Lorde wants to be a classic figure in music history. She has extremely lofty ambitions. She’s definitely on her way to attaining that level of stature.

Focus Tracks:

“Green Light” With its Latin piano line and its booming almost disco-minded beat, this is a bit of a wonderful throwback. As the song climbs and bursts, it will get you enthusiastically moving with every successive spin.

“Liability” As I mentioned in my recent Bleachers review, this song reminds me melodically of the Bowie-penned anthem, “All the Young Dudes,” and it also gives Lorde an effective and captivating piano ballad.

“Perfect Places” The idea of a club being a cleansing, cathartic place is fascinating. We are all dancing, looking to find paradise.

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quicklist: 2 title: Ride’s “Weather Diaries” **** text: Shoegaze-legends Ride returns with “Weather Diaries,” its first album in 21 years. Sure, guitarist and co-vocalist Andy Bell took more of a background role in recent years, as a member of Oasis during its final albums and continuing with Liam Gallagher in Beady Eye, but “Weather Diaries” proves that he hasn’t lost the original focus that made Ride a cult-like draw in the early-to-mid '90s. Lead singer Mark Gardener is still in top form as well. This is a dreamy, warm set which makes the most of thick, watery guitar lines and in the case of both “Lannoy Point” and “All I Want,” incorporates some low-key electronic elements into the fold.

Some of the modern touches may be momentarily jarring to some listeners, but the band still maintains the same appeal it had on earlier standout singles like “Drive Blind” and “Vapour Trail,” even if this album is a bit slower and dreamier in its sonic scope. You could get lost in “Home is a Feeling” or the seven-minute title track. Of course, then there is the pounding, rousing rock of “Lateral Alice,” which for a moment puts the late author David Foster Wallace in Lewis Carroll’s world, and the beaming, relaxed surf-rock on “Cali.”

This is not a record that finds the members of Ride resting on their legacy. This sounds very much like a new beginning which in some ways tries to make up for the lukewarm reception of their last work, 1996’s “Tarantula.” It doesn’t hurt that the ambient, arty experiment, “Integration Tape” vaguely brings to mind Radiohead’s recent work and that “Impermanence” sounds like a version of a U2 ballad, only better than most of U2’s output over the last two decades.

“Weather Diaries” not only reestablishes Ride as a driving, vital force, but this album also serves as a decent introduction for people who missed their music when it went around the first time. Ride is another band coming back after a long hiatus with a stellar, perhaps defining piece of work.

Focus Tracks:

“Impermanence” This ballad has “major crossover single” written all over it and yet it is a song that would probably still satisfy the band’s fan base.

“Lateral Alice” A woozy, booming statement of a song, it should also perhaps please people who may have been slightly let down by the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Damage and Joy,” earlier this year.

“Charm Assault” Beatle-y rave-ups during the chorus meet a dream-pop/shoegaze signature during the verses to create a truly winning single.

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quicklist: 3 title: Fleet Foxes’ “Crack-Up” ***1/2 text: On their third album and their first in six years, the members of Fleet Foxes continue to explore semipsychedelic, folk-driven textures. Sometimes Robin Pecknold hits gold with his harmonies, evoking the sunny AM “California Sound” of the late '60s and early '70s (even though this band is from Seattle) and sometimes there is an eerie, almost menacing campfire hippie energy. No doubt the starting section of the album’s opener, “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” will be a polarizing bit. Songs like “Cassius, -” and “Third of May / Odaigahara” bring forth a timeless sense of songwriting.

This is essentially new folk music with an old soul and this album gives a better first impression than both their self-titled 2008 effort and 2011’s “Helplessness Blues,” even if it takes a number of bewildering turns. Of course, that means that this album sometimes veers between being maddening and mesmerizing. The last minute or so of “Mearcstapa” can be compelling and hypnotic, recalling some of Stereolab’s most drone-infused work.

This album is indeed mostly a mood piece that will take a while to settle into your consciousness, even if “On Another Ocean (January/June)” has sort of a downer Brian Wilson vibe.

Pecknold has great ambitions. This album’s near 55 minutes are pretty dense and sound like they were carefully pieced together with an orchestral touch. If the band America had more of a gonzo chamber-pop flare, they would’ve sounded like Fleet Foxes.

Like former drummer Josh Tillman, who has since reinvented himself as Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold aims to bring an old sound back into indie rock. Pecknold also aims to add subversive elements into the fold. While the oddball side of Father John Misty’s music often lies in his clever, pointed lyrics, Pecknold (perhaps accidentally) sometimes stumbles into an uncomfortable area. It isn’t Fleet Foxes’ fault that Charles Manson’s unfortunate musical legacy sort of tainted this kind of experimental folk.

“Crack-Up” is in many ways a wonderful but perplexing record.

Focus Tracks:

“Third of May / Odaigahara” This effective, sweeping number shows this album working at its apex. During the “Third of May” section, Pecknold finds one of his best melodies to date.

“If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” This is another peak example of Pecknold taking hold of a folky hook and letting it sink into the an airy arrangement. Melodically speaking this may very well be Fleet Foxes’ best album.

“Cassius, -” Weird things are happening with this album’s use of punctuation in its titles, and this song has some unusual edges but at the same time, it has a similarly warm glow and a strong build.

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quicklist: 4 title: Sebastian Blanck’s “Convince Me” **** text: Sebastian Blanck is not only a musician. He is an accomplished visual artist as well. As a founding member of Black Dice, he earned his left-field, sonically artsy cred before reinventing himself musically with the somber, folk-infused offering “Alibi Coast” in 2010. That album showcased him singing alongside high-profile guests like Lia Ices, Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek. This was very different territory than the oddball experimentation of his previous (and still existing) band.

This past April, Blanck returned with the “Likeness” EP, which included some songs that had appeared on Soundcloud over the years, including “Standing on My Own,” which had been featured in the 2012 film, “Why Stop Now?” In that movie starring Jesse Eisenberg, Melissa Leo and Tracy Morgan, Blanck appeared singing that song alongside Hannah Cohen.

“Convince Me” continues where the “Likeness” songs were heading. This is a brighter, happier, grungier offering when compared with the downbeat “Alibi Coast,” which was written during a period of mourning.

The opening riff of “Vanishing Point” is a ray of sunshine in contrast. Again this record finds Blanck harmonizing with some stellar female voices, with not only the return of both Cohen and Stark but also with Sharon Van Etten, who appears on “Among the Ones You Love.”

“Convince Me” is bright and buoyant and in some places almost a celebratory record, but when it hits darker, rockier passages like on “Twin Fog,” a very effective alt-rock side is brought out in Blanck. The same can be said for the booming closer, “Denial,” with its heavy Dinosaur Jr.-influenced guitar work.

What Blanck has delivered here is an extremely well-rounded set where upbeat, romantically-minded tracks like “Magnolia” can sit in the same space as sweeping songs like “Cannot Let You Go.” This is definitely a multifaceted offering, with Blanck aiming for similar territory as his friend Van Etten while fostering a simmering bit of '90s influence.

Fans who discovered Blanck’s music with “Alibi Coast” will love this record, even if the records come off like two very different sides of the same coin. There’s a classic rock and folk thread going through both of these albums, making them timeless.

“Convince Me” should be an easy sell to people who enjoy intelligent indie rock anchored by tight harmonies.

Focus Tracks:

“Twin Fog” This is a booming, slightly foreboding and ominous-sounding rocker anchored by a churning guitar line. Blanck’s vocals remain as soft and gentle as they do on his softer work and yet that contrast almost brings the track a stronger tension. When Blanck sings, “All that you want to remember is gone,” it will stick with you, but you might not know exactly why. The last minute or so of the song turns into a classic rock-ballad, instrumental workout.

“Among the Ones You Love” (Featuring Sharon Van Etten) Blanck and Van Etten’s voices sound like they were meant to harmonize together. This is definitely an album her fans should discover.

“Never Let You Go” A different, more Moody Blues-esqe reading of this song is on the “Likeness” EP. Both versions bring out different elements in the song.

Next Week: New music from Imagine Dragons, Vince Staples and more.

Missed last week's? Get all the details of Katy Perry's "bumpy" new album.

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