-- intro: This week is jam-packed with excellent releases. Duran Duran puts out their first album in four years, blues-guitarist turned buzz-bin hopeful Gary Clark Jr. releases his second major-label album, British band the Libertines return after an 11-year hiatus, pop singer Leona Lewis celebrates a new beginning, Jewel covers familiar ground, Ben Folds goes the orchestral route and new country-folk singer Austin Plaine makes his debut. It’s another week where we have a lot to discuss.
quicklist: 1 title: Duran Duran’s “Paper Gods” (Deluxe Edition) ****1/2 text: If you really think about it, Duran Duran are among the fathers of many of the sounds that populate Top 40 radio in 2015. Before you scoff at that notion, go back and listen to “Rio” or any one of their eighties hits and you’ll find that synth-heavy glossy sound sounds strikingly familiar. In the eighties, Duran Duran were a rock band using elements of synth-pop to their advantage long before many of their modern pop disciples were born. Still, “Paper Gods” is a shocking, yet reassuring wake-up call, continuing on and besting the rebirth heard on their last album, 2011’s “All You Need Is Now.” That album followed the merely passable “Red Carpet Massacre.” But really this reawakening feels akin to the one felt in 1993 when the band re-emerged with the massive hit singles, “Ordinary World” (which is still their best song to date) and “Come Undone,” off their self-titled “Wedding Album.”
Duran Duran remain ever constant pop shape-shifters. This album feels strikingly modern. It feels like today’s pop radio and yet, the band never feels like some sort of eighties nostalgia act trying to stretch to sound young and hip. This record sounds very natural for them. It helps that Simon Le Bon’s voice has not changed a bit over the years. It also helps having cool friends make some key guest appearances. (When you hang with both Nile Rodgers and Mark Ronson, hits are bound to happen.) This record sports guests as varied as former Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, Janelle Monae, pop-singer Kiesza and Kanye West-associate Mr. Hudson. When Lindsay Lohan drops in and does a fitting spoken-word bit in “Danceophobia,” it totally works.
With “Paper Gods,” the members of Duran Duran have made a record that should please both old and new fans alike. It sounds like their vintage work in many ways, but it also sounds like it has at least six or seven possible hit singles. This is a pop reawakening for this veteran band and it is the kind of album one hopes that the current programmers of the pop stations won’t ignore. As Charli XCX proved when she sang with Simon Le Bon on her standout ballad, “Kingdom” (From “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1”) Duran Duran may be a bigger influence on this younger crowd than one might expect.
Above all else, this is an exceptionally-crafted pop record with strong orchestration. The breakdown alone that arrives somewhere in the middle of the seven-minute title-track is as full of artistic intention as it is with pop appeal. Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor and Roger Taylor know exactly what they are doing here. And for instance, unlike Madonna’s often excellent “Rebel Heart,” which hasn’t gotten the pop radio attention it deserves, or U2’s also decent “Songs Of Innocence” which was overshadowed by its poorly-executed Apple-assisted roll out, Duran Duran are eighties veterans doing a modern pop reinvention the right way. 34 years after their debut, they sound as fresh as ever. By all means, this should be a landmark release in their discography.
The deluxe edition is packed with three bonus tracks that don’t lessen the impact of the album on the whole. Again, this is a record a great deal of appeal. It is a triumph.
“What Are The Chances?” This is a classic electro ballad led by John Frusciante’s guitar-work. And Le Bon sings a chorus which winds and turns in intriguing ways. This song has “pop-hit” written all over it. It stands easily among their best work.
“You Kill Me With Silence” This song places the band in a post-EDM, post-hip-hop realm and they really shine. This is electro-pop gold. And the turn that Le Bon takes on the word “Silence” during the chorus sends it to another level entirely.
“Paper Gods”(Featuring Mr. Hudson) This epic opening ode to money and fame begins with what sounds like a Gregorian chant and evolves into a bit of an electro-pop symphony. Again, the breakdown at the center of the track is where the song hits its apex. (That beginning sounds more akin to something you’d hear on an album by Elbow or Doves. It is a nicely edgy move for Duran Duran.)
quicklist: 2 title: Gary Clark Jr.’s “The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim” *** text: On his second major-label offering, “The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim,” Gary Clark Jr. continues to water down the blues elements that originally made him a buzz-worthy draw. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He obviously has ambition and he is able to throw elements of classic R&B and thudding rock under his stellar guitar-work.
The album works best on a groove-based level and Clark still makes his name on his technical skill as a player. There are also plenty of sonically interesting songs here and the fact that this is essentially an R&B album with layers of guitar work makes it stand out. Tracks often begin and end with feedback and amp hums, allowing the songs to feel volatile and alive. Sometimes, Clark turns down the guitars and just croons some old-school R&B, as he does on the standout, “Our Love.”
Clark is still building and learning as writer. While he possesses and impressive amount of technical prowess, some of these songs aren’t very distinct when it comes to melody or lyrics. A song like “Grinder” rocks with great fury, but structurally with its lyrics about “thinking too much” about “money,” it comes off on the bland side until Clark comes in and shreds. It just sounds too generic, (For a guy with such unique guitar chops, he too often sounds half-heartedly derivative in other elements of his craft.)
Inversely, on the acoustic-gospel-soul workout, “Church,” Clark finds a nice balance between classic Sam Cooke and early Bob Dylan. Like his last album, “Blak And Blu,” this album is a little uneven, but shows a lot of promise. Clark is still more soulful than some of his fellow bluesmen who have attempted to go a mainstream route. You get the feeling that Clark’s notion of widening his scope isn’t likely to let him down.
The downright trippy “Wings” again shows another fascinating groove that downplays the song’s somewhat forgettable, formulaic lyrics.
Clark’s unique edges just barely make this an interesting, intriguing listen and move it over to the positive side of the equation. Over time, I have faith that Clark will up his songwriting game to match his instrumental skill. This is a only a passably good record, but Clark still hopefully has great records in his future. Someday soon he will live up to the industry hype that surrounds him.
“Church” For the reasons listed above, this song is the album’s brightest standout. Clark does well in a retro setting and he sounds more focused on this track than he does on the rest of the record.
“Our Love” On this track, Clark shows a nice lullaby-ready falsetto and this song’s organ line really comes alive.
“Shake” In a way this track displays both this album’s strengths and weaknesses. This song is little more than a classic-minded riff with some bluesy toasting in its midst, but this plays to Clark’s current sweet-spot because it puts the focus on the instrumentation. It isn’t much of a song, but it wins with its attitude.
quicklist: 3 title: The Libertines’ “Anthems Of Doomed Youth”(Deluxe Edition) **** text: The Libertines make an unlikely return after 11 years of silence. To be fair, co-leaders Pete Doherty and Carl Barât have been busy with their respective second bands Babyshambles and Dirty Pretty Things in the years since their last album and Barât also issued the enjoyable, “Let It Reign” backed by another one of his bands, The Jackals last year. But “Anthems Of Doomed Youth” is a rather strong offering, giving us just what we expect from the band. They still sound like a volatile and exciting, ramshackle answer to The Clash.
This is a better, more consistent collection than their 2004 self-titled offering, but it isn’t quite as iconic as their landmark debut, “Up The Bracket” from 2002. (It may not be as brash as their debut, but don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. That doesn’t mean it isn’t as good. It actually equals that record in quality.) It sounds, though like this band is in the healthiest place they’ve ever been. This is especially true for Pete Doherty, who reportedly completed a stint in rehab at the beginning of 2015 after years of publicly struggling with addiction. There is newfound clarity in his work and performance, like the gorgeous piano ballad, “You Are My Waterloo,” which begins with the lines, “You never fumigate the demons no matter how much you smoke.” He follows that up by saying, “You are the survivor of more than one life.” It makes you wonder if he’s singing about himself, considering he is a man who obviously feels happy to be alive and who knows he’s had some close calls over the years.
“Anthems Of Doomed Youth” shows The Libertines at their most focused. This is a kinder, gentler, more mature version of the band that every now and then is still capable of pulling off huge left-turn surprises. In other words, they have grown but that doesn’t mean they’ve become boring.
“Belly Of The Beast” has a low-key Bo Diddley-meets garage-skiffle vibe. Really, throughout the set, there is a ragged, punk answer to The Kinks kind of energy at work. “Iceman,” sounds like something from the darker side of Ray Davies. Really this feels like the band is at the top of their writing game.
Weight-wise, this is in a different class than its predecessors, when you consider in its 16-track deluxe-edition form, the album clocks in at nearly an hour and showcases multiple sonic textures. On “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues,” during the chorus, drummer Gary Powell is able to summon the kind of consistent “thwap” that made the rise in their classic “The Good Old Days” such a standout moment on their debut.
Really, this is a band that has come back, intact. The energy is there and so is the songwriting. Let’s hope they can keep it together. It’d be nice to have more records like this.
On “Anthems Of Doomed Youth,” The Libertines come off as survivors making their journey into a clearer space. If you loved their first two records, this one is not to be missed.
“Gunga Din” This is a Rudyard Kipling-referencing bit of reggae-punk about bouts with insomnia and presumably struggles with demons. It definitely has the group’s signature sonic lift mixed with their lyrical darkness.
“Anthem For Doomed Youth” The Barât-led title-track is a nice, mid-tempo rocker, that although hushed still maintains the group’s signature swagger and knack for lyrical narrative.
“Iceman” As mentioned above, this song really has a stirring, underlying menace to it, even if it comes off as initially warm and catchy. This is obviously a song about being in the grips of a vice of some kind as the lyrics warn, “Don’t spend your days in the haze with the Iceman.”
quicklist: 4 title: Leona Lewis’ “I Am” (Deluxe Edition) *** text: There’s no denying Leona Lewis has a great voice that really can soar. In the States, she’s still best known for her 2007 single, “Bleeding Love.” “I Am” is her fifth album and her first release for Def Jam after leaving Simon Cowell’s Syco Music. There’s a thread of defiance that burns throughout the set. It’s like a sigh of newfound freedom and liberation. The title track and “Essence Of Me” both have a hang as huge, new declarations of identity, while opener “Thunder” and its follow-up track “Fire Under My Feet” both use universal elements to tell the story of escaping some sort of menace.
Lewis is an ace belter. She specializes in ballads. That has been clear since she first appeared. But to be honest, it’d be nice to hear some more sonic variety here. She needs to branch out a little more because after a while, these songs tend to blend together. Also, she deserves less formulaic material. “Thunder,” for instance, sounds like a third installment of a trilogy begun by Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” and Katy Perry’s “Roar,” while “Fire Under My Feet” sounds like an inferior rewrite of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.” And too many of these songs have noticeable echoes of “Bleeding Love.”
That being said, although these patterns are clear, Lewis’ talent makes this more than just a mere formulaic exercise. There is texture and depth in Lewis’ performance, even when she’s maneuvering the manipulated pop-house/pseudo-EDM beat of “I Got You.” She rises above the trappings of the record’s boiler-plate tendencies and does so with a stately elegance.
It should be argued, though, that if you are a fan of Lewis, you are already set with this formula, as well. This offers more of the same, and thus more of what her fans expect. That is a valid argument, even if the end results are a little safer than needed.
Also, if you are one of Lewis’ die-hard fans, you are going to want to pick up the deluxe version of this album, which boasts five extra bonus tracks. Three of those tracks admittedly are acoustic and/or live re-recordings of songs that appear earlier in record, but it all adds to a much bigger picture of the whole.
Regardless of my complaints about this album, it is an obvious concept album about freedom and rediscovering one’s self. It’s nice to know Leona Lewis feels rejuvenated by her new situation. Maybe with her next album she will journey further out of her comfort zone.
“I Am” The title-track pairs Lewis with a driving beat, proving that she can handle a slightly more authoritative groove just as well as she can handle a ballad.
“Another Love Song” One of the few moments where Lewis isn’t singing a ballad and she maneuvers this steel-drum-synth coated slice of EDM quite well. The song’s tripping beat also provides an unexpected bit of pleasure.
“Power” The vocal snippets that echo throughout the background are a nice touch as Lewis sings triumphantly about her own, newfound empowerment. The beat has a nice slamming quality as well which is contrasted nicely by the softer synth-bass work.
quicklist: 5 title: Jewel’s “Picking Up The Pieces” **1/2 text: Twenty years after her landmark debut and her still most culturally indelible album, “Pieces Of You,” Jewel releases “Picking Up The Pieces.” It may be an intentional sequel. Jewel still possesses those yodeling-champion vocal chops and that knack for writing dire, sometimes devastating songs, but at the same time, she’s now as much of a country singer as she is from the traditional folk and pop veins.
Admittedly, the opener “Love Used To Be” is a little deadly and monotonous in its lyrical list of things that “love used to be,” but it isn’t quite as harsh as the well-meaning but tedious title-track of “Pieces Of You” was two decades ago.
Listening to this record, it seems a little too close to records she’s recorded before. But at the same time, this is the folk-driven Jewel without the pop appeal. This album lacks an equivalent to “Who Will Save Your Soul?” “Foolish Games” or “Hands.” When 2003’s “0304” showed Jewel going a more pop-driven direction, as much of a shock as it was, the new direction still breathed life into her work.
She’s still a one-of-a-kind songwriter, but many of these songs like “A Boy Needs A Bike,” “Family Tree” and “The Shape Of You” sound like songs she’s done before. I can’t help but feel that I’ve heard this album already, and while there are surprises like the rise in “Pretty Faced Fool” or the fitting Dolly Parton duet, “My Father’s Daughter,” or the semi-spoken word, woozy semi-Appalachian–meets Eastern influenced lullaby of “His Pleasure Is My Pain,” (with its perhaps purposeful lyrical callback to her classic, “I’m Sensitive,”) it still feels like a bit of a somewhat lifeless repeat.
It’s apparent that Jewel is no longer aiming for the charts. For most other people, that might result in more interesting, less formulaic work. For Jewel, the bit of pop-incentive gave her music more life. Even if you go back to her 2002 album, “This Way” and songs “Do You Want To Play” or “Serve The Ego,” there was a bit of momentum that is now missing. Keep in mind, this is an indie-minded, self-produced effort, but even knowing that, the issue still stands. Jewel is still the same songwriter she has always been, but “Picking Up The Pieces” proves to be among her least accessible records, when just a touch of accessibility would go a very long way.
This is Jewel reconnecting with her roots and that makes perfect sense, but at the same time something vital is missing.
“Pretty Faced Fool” This is a soft country ballad which proves to have a soaring chorus, providing one of the album’s most appealing moments.
“His Pleasure My Pain” This is the album’s weirdest moment which immediately makes it among its best, since it is its most adventurous. Jewel has always been good at narrative and as she deals partially in spoken-word, she draws the listeners further into the song.
“My Father’s Daughter” (Featuring Dolly Parton) Pairing Jewel with Dolly Parton seems like an obviously brilliant move since both women have high, sweet voices with a similar vibrating lilt. When their voices come together in harmony, the results are remarkable.
quicklist: 6 title: Ben Folds’ “So There” **** text: The cover of Ben Folds’ “So There” describes the album as “8 chamber rock songs with yMusic plus his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Nashville Symphony, conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero.” Essentially, this collection shows a more delicate, classically-tinged side to Folds. In other words, for fans of his band Ben Folds Five, this is an album more for fans of “Brick” than “Song For The Dumped.”
Indeed, Folds’ smart-aleck side is turned way down here for a mature romp through a well-orchestrated group of pieces. Sure, it shows up from time to time in a line here and there or in the note-centric “F10-D-A,” but for the most part, this plays like something from a well-written musical.
As the subtitle indicates, this is really two albums in one, with the first half of the album showcasing orchestrated songs with Folds’ signature wit and the second half of the album showcasing a truly mesmerizing classical piece delivered in three movements. Anyone familiar with Folds’ knack for detailed song-craft probably won’t be surprised that he has written an extensive classical piece, but frankly, it is still amazing nonetheless, partly because it is a rather sophisticated and densely beautiful number. Folds’ piano work here is particularly striking and nuanced in its sheer detail. On here, Folds pulls off a level of musicianship that I’m guessing not many of his nineties alt-rock peers could match.
The eight selections of “Chamber Rock” often have a sophistication akin to the orchestration heard on The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” This is especially true of “Long Way To Go,” which sounds particularly Brian Wilson-esque. Latter-day Elvis Costello experiments like “North” also come to mind.
In any case, with “So There,” Ben Folds shows an awful lot of skill. It’s quite a piece of work. In fact, it is one of his strongest to date.
“Phone In A Pool” This is the most propulsive of the “chamber rock” section and it also has the catchiest chorus, even if it hints comically at some sort of impending personal meltdown as Folds declares with assurance, “I’ll be back on your sofa in a puddle in a couple of weeks.”
“So There” The title-track is full of details of an apartment as he sings perhaps about making a move to the Ditmas Park area of Brooklyn in the middle of the dirty snow. The song has a real charge in its bouncy instrumentation.
“Concerto For Piano And Orchestra, Movement 1” You can’t have focus tracks for this album and not acknowledge the three-movement classical suite section of the record. And lasting more than ten minutes, this opening movement is where Folds shows real depth as a piano player.
quicklist: 7 title: Austin Plaine’s “Austin Plaine” ***1/2 text: On Austin Plaine’s self-titled debut, the young, Minneapolis native effectively blends folk and country. He’s an old-school troubadour with an indie soul. While there are hints of pop ambition, the production never suffocates these songs, even if he does inch painfully close to the forced anthemic qualities often possessed by too many rock songs currently on the radio.
With Plaine, you basically get an old-school folk artist with a few modern production touches, but the focus is always on song-craft. A key track like “The Other Side Of Town” seems to hint at a strong Connor Oberst/Bright Eyes influence and Plaine is able to tell a story well with his clear, straight-forward voice. This is well-worn territory but Plaine has enough songwriting fortitude to place himself ahead of the pack. This is even true with “Houston,” and its more pop-tinged backdrop and its cooed background vocals which are vaguely reminiscent of The Shins’ classic “New Slang.”
When Plaine hits his stride, he can find his own unique sound. “Only Human,” for instance is a remarkably stirring example that can make up for any formulaic moment found on this record. It is the moments on this album where it takes sonic risks and goes outside of the industry box and puts its focus on what is best for the song and not what will result in the most perceived hit-potential that this album hits its most rewarding points.
For some reason the best moments on this record seem to occur when Plaine’s voice is given an ethereal dose of reverb or echo. When this happens, his songs are given an aura of semi-gothic mysteriousness. When that bit of reverb is combined with multi-tracked vocal harmony, as it is on “Wait,” Plaine hits a really keen sweet spot.
Austin Plaine may be one of many singers working somewhere between the intersection of folk, country and pop, but his self-titled debut is full of enough intriguing moments to make him unique This record leaves an impression and as it progresses, it further cements Plaine’s gifts as a writer and a performer.
“Only Human” Production-wise, this is the best song on the album, especially with the whirring hums happening in the background. The song also possesses the most haunting and unexpected tune on the set. It is a definite left-field single and could easily be licensed for movies or television. If you listen closely, the tinkling piano keys as they reverberate in the background of the mix add an excellent bit of sonic texture.
“Reckoning Plan” Another echo-heavy track, this song sonically brings to mind the same kind of enveloping qualities found last year on Beck’s album “Morning Phase.”
“Wait” Another possible single, this song has a slow-burning quality and a soft, welcoming sense of intricacy.
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