-- Last week, Marilyn Manson returned to his more shocking side, Gwen Stefani dropped a Christmas album, George Harrison’s son Dhani mixes a familiar sound with experimental electro edges and former first lady of France Carla Bruni releases a well-curated collection of covers.
Marilyn Manson’s “Heaven Upside Down”
Marilyn Manson’s last album, “The Pale Emperor,” in 2015 was a mannered, comparatively low-key, surprisingly bluesy offering. “Heaven Upside Down” returns Manson to his roots, playing overtly with taboos and openly baiting his critics.
Certain lyrics are sure to cause controversy but Brian Warner, the man who is Marilyn Manson, tends to use religion and blasphemy as a tool to curate his image and to raise eyebrows. Those who will never understand that this is an act will take this on the surface level and get immediately offended. Manson comes off like someone whose main interest is to push boundaries.
Musically, this is an interesting record as well, keeping much of the bluesy stomp of the last record but peppering it with his signature sense of volatility. This helps make “We Know Where You F---ing Live” sound even more threatening. Vocally, Manson sounds strangely like and evil answer to Beck.
“Heaven Upside Down” won’t be for everyone. It definitely will offend a few folks. What this record shows is that 10 albums in, he still knows how to stir the pot.
“Threats of Romance” This is an interesting turn for Manson and surprisingly melodic by his standards. Easily the best song on the set, it shows both the rawness that he is known for and a confession-fueled vulnerability.
“Say10” This is the kind of playful sense of menace that has built Manson’s career.
“Blood Honey” Manson’s answer to a hard-edged piano-ballad is filled with guitars and weird synth effects. When he sings in a semi-operatic tone “I’m just being me!” it will most likely trigger a bit of laughter.
Gwen Stefani’s “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” ***
“You Make It Feel Like Christmas” paints Gwen Stefani in an old-school light. When she handles versions of timeless numbers like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” she does so with care. Hearing her sing with an upbeat tone against a horn section, in a way recalls her ska-punk roots.
The dusty, retro energy that fuels this record proves to be a real asset. The version of “Let It Snow,” mixes an orchestra, some Phil Spector-esque production and a twangy guitar solo. Even when Blake Shelton shows up on the title-track, the upbeat, Motown-influenced song isn’t marred in the least. This is Shelton being welcomed into Stefani’s world and not sounding out of place.
On “My Gift Is You,” Stefani somewhat successfully tries to incorporate some twang into her own vocal performance, mixing some vocal harmonies with the kind of string section work that you might expect from a Leiber and Stoller record.
Her version of “Santa Baby” obviously isn’t as searing and indelible as Eartha Kitt’s classic take, but she still does her best to put her stamp on the song. Similarly, her take on the Wham! Classic “Last Christmas” serves as a fitting tribute.
Mostly, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” sounds like it was a fun record to make. Stefani sounds more animated than has in recent years. Hopefully, this burst of energy will still be present on her next proper solo album.
“Never Kissed Anyone With Blue Eyes Before You” This song has a few lyrical mentions to fit the context of a Christmas album, but it wins because it has an excellent arrangement and some interesting melodic turns.
“White Christmas” Sure, this Irving Berlin classic has been done to death, but Stefani’s version has a surprising punch.
“My Gift Is You” Another original and a hit single perhaps waiting to happen. Again, this could’ve potentially been on a regular Stefani record, but the hints of sleigh-bell percussion makes it fit.
Dhani Harrison’s “IN///PARALLEL”
Dhani Harrison is the son of the late Beatle, George Harrison and his new album “IN///PARALLEL” has all the psychedelic, Eastern markings that sometimes fueled his father’s work. If you loved the Beatles’ “Within You Without You,” but thought it needed a trip-hop makeover, this album is for you.
Harrison often uses these frequently extended tracks to experiment with different sounds. There’s a menacing, thunderous feeling present on the skittering “#War on False,” while opener “Never Know” is somewhat hypnotic.
Given his rock pedigree, there will be some people surprised by how synth-driven this record sounds. It isn’t particularly immediate or catchy. It sounds like Harrison is putting his pursuit of a given mood over his need for hooks. This strategy works in his favor.
“IN///PARALLEL” is admittedly an arty, defiantly strange record. Harrison lacks his father’s pop ambitions, but that’s OK. With his group of assembled musicians, this album sounds like a haunting, semi-surreal art project. It’s a winning, stirring piece that frequently puts the rule-book on its head.
“All About Waiting” (Featuring Camila Gray) Featuring a guest-appearance from Camila Gray of Uh Huh Her fame, this is an electro-stomp of a song, which finds Harrison lamenting that “It’s not like it used to be” over a tightly wound, intense backdrop.
“Never Know” If you ever wanted to hear the Indian-influenced side of the Beatles with a slight dub-step undertow, this is your track.
Carla Bruni’s “French Touch”
Italian born, singer, actress and model Carla Bruni is best known as the former first lady of France. Her latest album is a collection of well-picked covers. She gives some whispery momentum to Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and turns the Clash’s “Jimmy Jazz” into something that could have been in the musical “Chicago.” She duets with Willie Nelson on “Crazy” and delivers a most-unexpected rendition of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” She turns the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” into a lush, French answer to a samba and gives a French spin on Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.” She turns Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” into a cabaret number and gives Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” an appropriately delicate reading.
Sure, this is a collection of covers and sometimes Bruni radically reworks them, but at the same time, this is a finely assembled record. Bruni proves she has excellent taste and brings a quiet serenity to many of these songs. At the same time, there’s something perhaps purposely funny about how laid-back some of these songs sound when compared to their original versions.
“French Touch” gives many songs you love a relaxed, Parisian flare.
“Enjoy the Silence” Famously covered by everyone from Failure to Nada Surf, Bruni’s version is delicate and sounds like it belongs at the climax of a serious film.
“Moon River” The most obviously appropriate number for the set, Bruni’s version makes you think of that famous scene in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” where Audrey Hepburn is strumming the guitar and singing this song.
“Highway to Hell” The most surprising of all is this reading that turns the original rocker into a sly, horn-led number.
Coming up: New music from Beck and more.