Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The 1975, School of Seven Bells and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Ryan Lewis and Macklemore LIVE On The Honda Stage at the iHeartRadio Theater, Feb. 24, 2016, in Burbank, Calif.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

This week hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis return, The 1975 embrace their pop side for their sophomore effort, electro-dream-pop act School Of Seven Bells release what is more than likely to be their last album, Santigold returns, Bonnie Raitt drops another collection of reliable blues-rock, Willie Nelson sings Gershwin and London indie-rockers, Yuck forge ahead. It’s a really interesting week with lots of records to discuss.

PHOTO: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - "This Unruly Mess Ive Made"
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” **1/2

First off, I really enjoyed “The Heist.” It was fresh and exciting and sounded unlike the other hip-hop of the time. Second of all, Macklemore gets a lot of flak that he doesn’t really deserve. Listen to his song “White Privilege” from his 2005 album, “The Language Of My World,” and it is evident that he not only understands the fundamentals of hip-hop’s history but he also knows his place within the culture. That being said, he is from Seattle, so the kinds of subjects he raps about are going to be different than the New York or California perspectives we are more used to hearing.

“This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” is an all-too-appropriate title for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ second album post-success. It’s a woefully uneven collection that doesn’t come close to the high points found on “The Heist.” Its main problem as a set is that it is way too self-conscious for its own good.

From the beginning of “Light Tunnels,” when Macklemore is rapping about his newfound fame, it immediately becomes uninteresting. Songs about glitz and being on television from a personal standpoint can come off as stale. Then comes “Downtown,” which is little more than a rewrite of “Thrift Shop” with some awkward, Broadway-style flourishes. The fact that the track wastes the talents of hip-hop legends Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee and doesn’t make the best use of Foxy Shazam’s Eric Nally is almost beside the point. The song is just an aimless exploration about buying a Moped that then gets lost in a tangent.

Things don’t get much better on “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” which delivers little more than embarrassment for everyone involved. The Ed Sheeran-assisted “Growing Up” tries to muster the same kind of thought-provoking magic as the Mary Lambert-aided “Same Love” did on “The Heist,” and its lessons on new fatherhood slightly succeed and make it a possible highlight, but it is a pale ghost compared to its gut-gripping predecessor.

Macklemore seems more interested in making a record with pop hooks to maintain his and Lewis’ newfound status than he does in making straightforward hip-hop. This album would be much better if there were less forced pop hooks and more tracks like “Buckshot,” which nicely features KRS-ONE and DJ Premier and effectively calls back to both Eric B & Rakim’s “My Melody” and KRS’ “Out For Fame.”

Elsewhere, here’s a lot of wasted space on this record. “Dance Off” tries some stunt-casting by sticking Idris Elba in the mix, but it still winds up being shockingly lame in spite of Elba’s efforts. The diet-themed “Let’s Eat” doesn’t help things either.

When you think all is lost, then comes “White Privilege II,” which although a bit of a sonic mess is a nearly nine-minute meditation on racism, social injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement. This track, along with “Buckshot,” is this album’s saving grace. It sounds more akin to something off a Talib Kweli record, as if nodding to Gil Scott-Heron. Macklemore debates if it is his place to shout “Black Lives Matter” and in the process comes to a conclusion that it takes all of us to speak up when we see injustice. This is an effective conversation about race relations from a white performer, which is actually a shockingly rare occurrence. Macklemore calls out the people who claim to be his fans but don’t like other hip-hop and in the face of injustice, guest-vocalist Jamila Woods is addressing the struggle of what it is still like to be black in America by telling the other listeners, “Your silence is a luxury.” In other words, we all need to speak up until we are all equal. Institutional racism needs to end.

Macklemore is actually best as a thought-provoking consciousness rapper and not as a hook-heavy pop-minded radio star. “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” isn’t an awful record. It is just extremely spotty, but there are some really bright glimmers of hope.

Focus Tracks:

“White Privilege II”(Featuring Jamila Woods) With all the stories in the news about injustice, this makes for an interesting modern civil rights anthem. It may not be as succinct as its predecessor but its messiness shows the chaos of our times. Like Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” album, here Macklemore has chronicled the tension and uneasiness of our times, but from a different angle. This is a daring, often scary track especially during the sound-bite portion of the song. Too many people prefer to keep a blind eye when these are issues that need to be discussed. He points out and asks, “We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?”

“Buckshot” (Featuring KRS-ONE and DJ Premier) The fact that Macklemore and Lewis picked KRS-ONE and DJ Premier to be on a song proves that they know their hip-hop history and KRS and Macklemore sound surprisingly good rapping side-by-side.

“Kevin” (Featuring Leon Bridges) Macklemore brings a unique perspective as an addict in recovery and this song about a friend who O.D.ed is quite powerful. Leon Bridges brings a strong gospel energy to the hook and Macklemore delivers a very magnetic flow. It provides a scathing indictment of the pharmaceutical industry.

PHOTO: The 1975 - "I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It"
The 1975’s “I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It” **

In 2013, The 1975’s self-titled debut showed them to be a rock band with a strong retro-eighties pop flare. But they were at their core still a rock band. You could play a song like “Chocolate” next to “Dominoes” by The Big Pink and it wouldn’t seem like that great a stylistic leap.

Three years later, the Matthew Healy-led band has decided to ditch any alt-rock touches they had and dive headfirst into the pop realm. The heinously-titled “I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It,” is the result and it is a record that is drowned in its own shiny production with each bubbly synth effect taking focus away from just about every tune on the set. This album is so buried in effects that you feel bombarded as a listener. Only in the moments of semi-ambiance like on the nearly-instrumental title-track do you get any sort of sense of atmospheric beauty. Otherwise the band is stuck in the kind of “you are so beautiful, Girl” kind of lyrics. It’s not that this element of the record doesn’t give us some high points. “The Sound” is an amiable clapper, but at the same time it is a guilty pleasure at best. The rest of the album is a collection so drenched in sound, so screaming for approval that it just ends up being rather numbing.

“She’s American” sounds like 1988 in a negative sense, while the awkward “Love Me” sounds like someone badly trying to create a hybrid of eighties Duran Duran and “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan”-era Red Hot Chili Peppers.(There are also bits of David Bowie’s “Fame” and The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” thrown into the mix.)

“A Change Of Heart” is a nice ballad, which gives the album a moment of greatness, but it might be because the sonics have been slightly muted. There’s an OK album here, but it needs to be radically remixed. As is, this record is drenched in a candy-coated sheen that ends up being rather punishing.

Whereas these pop effects were also featured to some degree on the band’s infinitely better self-titled debut, they served as decorations and didn’t steal focus. The 1975 are so set to achieve full crossover status that they have digitally washed this album of most of its genuine bits of excitement.

The 1975 still show promise, but this is a seventy-four minute record with very few moments of actual joy. There are moments that grab your ear momentarily, but they don’t stick for the long-term. This album is just a very shiny object of distraction. It will widen their audience but it is full of empty calories.

Focus Tracks:

“A Change Of Heart” This is the only song that actually works completely. With a John Hughes-like sense of nostalgia, this recalls groups like OMD and When In Rome. This also plays a bit like a modern answer to Escape Club’s “I’ll Be There.” It’s syrupy, yet enjoyable. Later on the album, “Paris” has a similar tone, as well, but it is too heavily-covered in Auto-tune to recommend.

“The Sound” The fact that this is the lead single and is track 13 is an interesting choice. Yes, it is repetitive and also shows many of the album’s worst qualities, but at the same time, it is an undeniable single in spite of its over-saturated mix.

“I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It” This song may have an embarrassingly One Direction-esque title, but like most of the other more subdued sections of the record, it provides a decent argument that this group may be better suited for more ambient material.

PHOTO: School Of Seven Bells - "SVIIB"
School Of Seven Bells’ “SVIIB” ****1/2

School Of Seven Bells always seemed ripe for a pop crossover hit. Listen to “Windstorm,” “Lafaye” or “Secret Days” and see if you agree. The story behind what is most likely their last record is a sad one. Producer and guitarist Benjamin Curtis died on Dec. 29, 2013 after a battle with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, leaving his bandmate, Alejandra Deheza to complete this album on her own as the only remaining member of the group. Curtis apparently had his laptop by his hospital bed and continued working until the end. A cover of Joey Ramone’s “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Back Up)” was released shortly after his passing.

By all accounts, “SVIIB” should be a downer of a record. It isn’t. Sure there is sadness, but there is also a feeling of lush euphoria across these nine tracks. This is a glowing, electro, dream-pop collection made out of sheer love. The inside of the album reads: “For my best friend and soul mate Benjamin Curtis. Here’s to our next 1000 years. Love and gratitude forever. Alejandra.” Reading this lands a punch to your soul. Deheza obviously had to finish this record. Some friends join her as well. Her sister Claudia Deheza (who was originally a member of the band, before exiting after their second album) co-wrote the words to “Music Takes Me,” while Curtis’ brother, Brandon Curtis is listed as doing some additional engineering. (Benjamin and Brandon Curtis co-founded the band Secret Machines. In 2007, Benjamin left that band to form School Of Seven Bells.)

“SVIIB” is a sweet and beautiful goodbye and there is sad affection in Alejandra Deheza’s voice as she sings songs like the softly anthemic, “Open Your Eyes” or the New Order-esque “A Thousand Times More.” “Ablaze” and “On My Heart” are both celebratory-sounding even if they have a strong thread of heartbreak. In fact just about any one of these songs on this record would make a decent single.

I have to applaud Deheza for not ending the album with the softly ethereal, “Confusion.” In another time, its low ambiance would have provided perfect closure. Considering the circumstances, ending it with the much brighter, “This Is Our Time” was the right call.

“SVIIB” is a beautiful love letter to the memory of Benjamin Curtis. It is an album that is both shiny and effective. Curtis and Deheza’s musical union was cut short way before its time. Here is hoping she will continue her musical journey through other bands or a solo career.

This album serves as a reminder that life only lasts so long but music, love and friendship are eternal.

Focus Tracks:

“This Is Our Time” This closing track feels both like a thesis statement and a final, enveloping embrace.

“Open Your Eyes” This lead single deserves “Top 40” radio airplay with Deheza’s word-heavy verses giving way to a fittingly sweeping chorus. Again there is a tremendous mixture of emotions buried within the context of the song.

“Ablaze” This opening song fades in and charges through, giving the album an upbeat, dance-rock core that serves as its overall backbone.

PHOTO: Santigold - "99 Cents"
Santigold’s “99 Cents” ****

We need more artists like Santi White. White’s third album under the Santigold moniker like her first two is a hard record to pin down, delivering an appealing and often bewildering cross between pop, R&B, reggae and punk. Santigold’s music is more experimental than the output of most acts signed to the major labels.

While “99 Cents” isn’t as immediate as her classic self-titled debut from 2008, it is a touch better than her still excellent 2012 follow-up, “Master Of My Make-Believe.” Unlike most artists today, it seems that White thrives on throwing her listeners curveballs. It has been that way since the beginning. On her debut, the outrageous “Creator” is stunningly different from the new-wave-tinged “L.E.S. Artistes.” On this record, you hear that same sense of contrast throughout as she shifts from the electro, retro-girl-group workout of “Can’t Get Enough Of Myself,” to the bass-heavy dancehall-minded “Big Boss Big Time Business.” Really, the first half is dominated by a reggae energy that even permeates the piano-ballad “Chasing Shadows”

The second half is full intriguingly ethereal and alluring moments like the standout “Before The Fire” and the similarly unique “Outside The War.”

The album’s only weak spot is the duet with ILoveMakonnen, “Who Be Lovin’ Me.” He obviously needed another take since his vocals here are unquestionably off-key, but this can be forgiven in the scope of the entire record because you’d be hard-pressed to find a collection more fascinatingly unpredictable.

To outsiders who are used to being spoon-fed pop that sounds like everything else on the charts, this might be a difficult listen, but this is more of the kind of records we need. This is a stylistically challenging set that pushes the boundaries of pop in the best ways.

At her core, Santi White belongs in the “alternative” realm, but she possesses an eclectic pop sensibility. What does this mean about “99 Cents?” In some ways it is a record that will frighten the squares while expanding beyond the now tight-confines of pop. Considering this is an album that most likely gets its title as a snide but needed jab at the recyclable nature of modern music, I really hope this record gets the audience it deserves. It’s a really weird (but cool) sonic ride.

Focus Tracks:

“Banshee” With backing-vocals from Charli XCX, this is a real stomper anchored by a whimsical and flagrantly cartoon-like synth and bass-pattern. The cheer-leading-style “come on” refrain and the hand-clapping both create the atmosphere of a coolly psychedelic pep rally.

“Before The Fire” This track plays with a sense of threatening ominousness but at its essence it is just a really strong, darkly-hued piano ballad. White’s vocal performance during the chorus is one of her strongest on the record. She really embraces the hook as she sings, “but I was burned before the fire.” She sings this line with great conviction.

“Who I Thought You Were” Ending the album with an upbeat rave-up is an interesting move but this track plays well to the new-wave side that dominated her debut. This is a big single waiting to happen, or at the very least a song that should be licensed in a number of places. It provides a satisfying ending to the set that leaves the listeners cheering and wanting more.

PHOTO: Bonnie Raitt - "Dig In Deep"
Bonnie Raitt’s “Dig In Deep” ***1/2

On her first album in four years, Bonnie Raitt delivers yet another collection of reliable blues-rock with a mixture of originals and covers. Essentially she continues doing what she does best and what has continued to keep her fan-base happy.

“Dig In Deep” is short on revelations but is still a firm reminder of Raitt’s level of skill. The one standout shocker is her excellent blues reading of INXS’ classic “Need You Tonight,” which really in its original form was a blues song to begin with disguised as an eighties dance club hit.

Elsewhere, Raitt delivers some strong blues on numbers like “Unintended Consequence Of Love” and the strong and clever “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through.”

Interestingly as the album winds down it is the two softer songs, the Joe Henry-penned “You’ve Changed My Mind” and the excellent original, “The Ones We Couldn’t Be” that really grab your attention. I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise. After the success of her hit, “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Raitt proved herself to have equal prowess as a balladeer as she does in a more rock-driven context.

This is album isn’t necessarily a career high-point, but it is a pretty sturdy set that should really satisfy her core audience. She might even grow said audience in the process if this album gets the exposure it deserves.

Focus Tracks:

“Need You Tonight” Raitt has always been a strong interpreter of other people’s material. (Her version of Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” comes to mind.) But since this is a song from the eighties and is a song that wouldn’t come immediately to mind for her, the fact that it works so well is pretty amazing. Somewhere hopefully Michael Hutchence is hearing this and smiling.

“The Comin’ Round Is Going Through” This is a great, down and dirty blues workout about karma. This deserves some airplay and a placement among her best work.

“The Ones We Couldn’t Be” This is an extremely strong piano ballad. It’s a morose, inward-looking breakup hymn that ends the record on an appropriately gentle note.

PHOTO: Willie Nelson - "Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin"
Willie Nelson’s “Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin” ***

The thought of Willie Nelson singing Gershwin may be an odd concept for many people. But let’s face it. Willie Nelson can sing just about anything in his signature tone and do it some sort of justice. The idea of him attacking these standards isn’t as foreign as say his 2005 reggae album, “Countryman.” (Look it up. It exists.) Willie has always been suited for areas stretching way beyond the realm of country and there’s something both enjoyable and comfortingly humorous about this record. It is as if he recorded it on a lark.

Nelson and Cyndi Lauper sound like they are having a ball duet-ing on “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” while Willie alone delivers surprisingly fresh-sounding takes on classics “But Not For Me,” “I Got Rhythm” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.” When Sheryl Crow drops by, she and Willie deliver a show-stopping version of “Embraceable You.”

Doing an album of Gershwin standards isn’t all that original an idea. It has seemingly become a move made by entertainers of a certain age at a given point over the last couple years, but Willie Nelson’s voice remains as distinctive and iconic as ever, into his eighties. He comes from a classic songwriting tradition, himself and thus, while this set by its nature doesn’t bring much new to the table, it is still a worthy addition to his lengthy discography.

Focus Tracks:

“Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” (Featuring Cyndi Lauper) There is no question that this is a weird pairing, but it really works and they both sound like they are on the verge of laughter before the track is over.

“I Got Rhythm” Who would have thought this song would survive a vaguely honky-tonk makeover? It does.

“Love Is Here To Stay” This is another timeless gem where Willie effectively and firmly places his stamp. I suppose jazz and traditional country aren’t as far apart as one might originally think. Considering that the acoustic guitar used to be a more prominent jazz instrument, Willie’s reading of this has a vintage sense of greatness.

PHOTO: Yuck - "Stranger Things"
Yuck – “Stranger Things” ****

If you don’t know, Yuck are a London-based band built on a foundation of indie-rock, power-pop, shoegaze and grunge. Their self-titled debut album came out in 2010 to critical acclaim only to have their leader and chief songwriter Daniel Blumberg left to record under the moniker Hebronix. All was not lost, though. In 2013, they returned with member Max Bloom taking over the lead and the majority of the songwriting duties.

After surviving such an upheaval the band was safe to continue with no loss in the quality of their work. Their second album, “Glow & Behold” continued the greatness of their debut.

Now, their third full-length, “Stranger Things” is just as assured as anything the band has ever done, so anyone doubting whether they should have continued without Blumberg should now be silenced. This is a very strong collection of indie rock in the classic nineties sense. It stomps and pounds in all the right places on big numbers like “Only Silence” and knows when to be lush and subdued on tracks like the softer and gentler, Ed Hayes-penned “Like A Moth.”

The title-track has a bit of a jangle-pop factor that recalls bands like The Lemonheads and Small Factory while “I’m OK,” “Hearts In Motion,” “Yr Face” and “Hold Me Closer” all contain a potent, chugging charge. “As I Walk Away” showcases a really great vocal turn from bassist Mariko Doi, while “Swirling” has a strong, complex, shuffling rhythm.

If anything, throughout “Stranger Things,” the members of Yuck prove themselves to be a flexible and cohesive unit able to deliver wide variety of songs. The music here continues a few evergreen traditions and should satisfy fans looking for something maintaining a grunge-era sensibility with a sensitive, reflective undertone.

Contrary to what their name suggests, the music of Yuck should please a lot of people. “Stranger Things” is a really concrete offering that further cements them as one of this decade’s most reliable indie-rock bands.

Focus Tracks:

“Only Silence” This is a powerful, upbeat song that kicks into gear during its chorus while offering a melodic core, throughout. The pounding drums and opening guitar-riff are likely to incite cheers from large groups of people.

“Down” There’s also a bit of Teenage Fanclub-via-Big Star influence in their sound and the slow-burner, “Down” is a really strong example of this in practice. It’s a possible single that should get airplay but probably won’t get the attention it deserves.

“As I Walk Away” Mariko Doi’s performance here adds a feeling not present on the rest of the album. Her voice has always been an occasional part of Yuck’s albums, but she should sing more often. This song has a really appealing texture. Imagine a dream-pop answer to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and you have close to an idea of the mood this track captures.

Next Week: New Music From Nada Surf, Ray LaMontagne, Violent Femmes and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Rick Springfield, Mavin Staples and more.

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