This week Miley Cyrus drops a surprise album after hosting the MTV VMAs, The Weeknd releases his latest installment of intoxicating R&B-flavored pop, Beach House continue to make more enveloping dream-pop, rap-rockers Crazy Town return after a 13-year break, Yo La Tengo deliver a spiritual sequel to their 1990 classic “Fakebook,” electro-pop singer Halsey delivers a striking full-length debut and budding singer-songwriter Soren Bryce drops her debut EP. To say this is a very loaded release week would be quite an understatement. We are in the thick of the late-summer release rush.
|Miley Cyrus’ “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz” **1/2|
On the heels of hosting the MTV VMAs, Miley Cyrus dropped a surprise album that is streaming on her website. Backed mostly by the Flaming Lips with guests Ariel Pink, Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel, rapper Big Sean and producer Mike WiLL Made-It, this is a woozy, expansive 23-song collection that alternately shows promise and sounds like some sort of acid-tinged nightmare.
Cyrus does best here when she focuses less on her shocking side and more on songs. “Karen Don’t Be Sad,” for instance stands out in the same way “Wrecking Ball” did on her last album, “Bangerz.” Overall, this is a slightly better, more effective, more intriguing collection than “Bangerz,” but it is no less frustrating. Like it or not, if you strip away the electro-psychedelic haze and the shock, Miley actually does have talent as a singer. When she’s not putting on the shock like a hipster pose, there are redeeming qualities. But she’s trying to be crass and druggy simply to get a rise out of the audience. There are ways to do that authentically, but she has yet to master them.
“BB Talk” for instance has a nice chorus, melodically speaking, that is undercut by her refrain of “**** me so you stop baby talkin’.” That is intercut with rambling, spoken-word verses. Everything reeks of immaturity masked as “artistic expression.”
Almost all these songs show promise but it is promise that Cyrus thwarts as if in an act of self-sabotage. With some more substantive writing, “Fweaky” could have been a decent country-flavored ballad, but doesn’t live up to its promise because of Cyrus's ridiculous lyrics. Cyrus gets raunchy with both “Bang Me Box” and “Milky Milky Milk,” the former of which actually possesses a semi-decent disco groove.
I do want to give Cyrus credit for being adventurous and for not following the cookie-cutter mold, but part of me wants her to abandon this juvenile rebellion that fuels some of this album’s worst aspects. This album also doesn’t reflect well on the Flaming Lips, who have surprisingly been squandering all the good will they rightfully earned from classics like “The Soft Bulletin” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.”
This is still an album a little too pointlessly strange for its own good. If Cyrus plays her cards right, though and realizes that this is a phase she needs to take down a few notches, she’ll be unstoppable. Her albums now may be frustrating, woozy messes, but there is artistic integrity trying its best to get through here. It is awkward and mismanaged, but I have faith that within the next decade, Cyrus will be able to turn it into something more appealing. She’s right on the cusp of that happening but she’s not there yet. There’s a lot to dislike here, but at the same time there is some growing artistic promise. Maturity will be Cyrus’ friend.
“Karen, Don’t Be Sad” This sounds like an offshoot of the cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” that Cyrus and the Flaming Lips recently recorded. It maintains the psychedelic energy while showing Cyrus’ strengths. It also leaves a better impression than the album’s leading single, “Dooo It!”
“I Get So Scared” Cyrus seems to be aware that she does better work with ballads since this album, particularly in its second half is pretty ballad-heavy and this one is a pretty nice one that is a single waiting to happen.
“Twinkle Song” Honestly, I debated to have the third focus track be “Pablow The Blowfish” considering the fact that it serves as a weirdly tender, admittedly slightly goofy eulogy for her dead fish (one of the fallen friends for whom the album is named) but instead I went with “Twinkle Song,” the album’s understated closer in which Cyrus sings about some truly bizarre dreams. It has a sweetness that isn’t destroyed when she delivers the last verse in a powerful yell. It is quirky and strange, but it kind of works.
|The Weeknd’s “Beauty Behind The Madness” ***1/2|
Abel Tesfaye, A.K.A. The Weeknd continues to forge his own unique path on “Beauty Behind The Madness.” It could be considered his fifth album following the trilogy of initially free releases that he originally rose to fame with in 2011 and 2013’s “Kiss Land.” Like all of those releases, this one continues to show Tesfaye to be the most obvious heir vocally-speaking to Michael Jackson, but only if Jackson sang explicit odes to drug-fueled parties and sex-romps.
This is The Weeknd’s most commercial-sounding album. It is the first one of the five releases that seems like it is overtly aiming for hits and yet at the same time, it is perhaps his most lyrically jarring. His graphic tales of sex combined with his sometimes semi-spoken vocal delivery occasionally makes him venture into R. Kelly territory.
On the initial trilogy, these songs had an intriguing, semi-voyeuristic quality, here it seems like ego is taking over. On “Tell Your Friends” for instance, he’s bragging about conquests that have been afforded to him by fame, whereas on “Shameless,” he asks, “Who’s gonna **** you like me?” This is all done in his pitch-perfect, smooth voice which can sometimes cut the sting of some of his more explicit passages. While sometimes it can seem like too much, there’s something refreshing about Tesfaye’s unwavering confidence. It is pretty obvious as a record this is intended to follow-up and continue the work he did on the soundtrack to the movie version of “Fifty Shades Of Grey.” He had two songs on that soundtrack and “Earned It” makes the cut on both collections.
What makes The Weeknd so compelling is that sonically his work fits in multiple worlds. It is sort of “smooth-lovin’ R&B,” and yet it kind of also belongs in the sleek Ellie Goulding-esque electro-pop world. It has enough mainstream-pop appeal to land in the narrow confines of Top 40 radio and yet showcases enough strange edges to get the alternative crowd.
It’s odd when Ed Sheeran shows up to sing on the bluesy “Dark Times,” but it kind of works. Tesfaye finds a better duet partner of “Prisoner” where he meets Lana Del Rey.
Thanks to the huge success of single “I Can’t Feel My Face,” I would bet this will be the Weeknd’s most successful album sales-wise to date. It is a good record, showcasing many of Tesfaye’s creative hallmarks, but as in-your-face as it is with its pop intentions it is slightly less intriguing than his previous releases. The trilogy of “House Of Balloons,” “Thursday” and “Echoes Of Silence” still stands as a possibly unbeatable high-point. Still The Weeknd stands as one of this decade’s most interesting and unique pop-crossover stories.
“Can’t Feel My Face” Admittedly, the chorus of this song is kind of on the ridiculous side. Since I first heard it, I have found myself asking the question, what does “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you” mean? Is this song not about a woman but rather about some sort of drug? Why can’t he feel his face? Perhaps the drug theory stands when paired with the line, “I know she’ll be the death of me…” Either that or it is using the often-used lover-as-drug-pusher metaphor. The song itself in anchored by the best pseudo-disco jam since Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” It’s surprisingly funky.
“Real Life” This album’s opener is a deep ballad full of tension-building distorted sounds inserted to add gravity. This is the kind of song Tesfaye can deliver in his sleep, but he does songs on this nature so well.
“As You Are” This is another smooth ballad with an 80s-style cinematic feel. As is the case on most of this record, Tesfaye’s voice takes most of the focus. He really knows how to mix lurid, taboo elements with melodic beauty.
|Beach House’s “Depression Cherry” ***1/2|
Beach House’s fifth album, “Depression Cherry” showcases many of the hallmarks of the duo’s previous records. It’s another collection on lush, understated electronically fueled pieces. This record is carefully spread out on nine enveloping tracks. In other words, if you’ve ever loved a Beach House album before, odds are you’ll like this one, too. On the flipside, if you’ve found their records tedious and on the sedate side, this record also won’t change your mind.
This album seems to turn up the duo’s dream-pop elements. This is especially true with Victoria Legrand’s voice which sounds less raspy that it does on previous records, perhaps due to a nice layer of reverb that is heard throughout the record. On top of that, Legrand is almost making a point to sing in a higher register here and she find great beauty in the chorale-like “10:37.”
Beach House are very set in their sound at this point, so it is almost as if this album takes very few risks by sticking to the formula, which is both nice, for reliability’s sake and on another level a bit of a letdown. In other words, this album delivers exactly what is expected, with a lush, meditative level of focus. Really what Legrand and her co-conspirator Alex Scally have created is a collection of chilled background music that delivers rewards when listened with a close attention. The closing track, “Days Of Candy” mixes some Beach Boys-style harmonies with an arrangement that is almost church-like. This is another densely beautiful record that finds Beach House inching their sound ever-so-slightly forward while essentially maintaining the status quo.
The group also deserves bonus points for the physical packaging of the album. The CD is packaged in an impressive red velvet case, thus proving there are still benefits to getting the album in hard-copy.
“Space Song” This is typical Beach House terrain. What sounds like perhaps a drum machine fades in with gloriously layered synths and a slide-guitar. Legrand then sings a bright lullaby of sorts that compliments the song’s airy, anti-gravity vibe.
“10:37” As mentioned earlier, this song offers up the album’s most defining melody and it grabs you by the ears with a crisp tenderness that is so spot on that it almost possesses an eerie undercurrent.
“Bluebird” Another really understated song, this track sounds like a “Lite” reading of an eighties new-wave standard. And when I use the term “Lite” I mean no insult since Legrand and Scally maintain a sense of sonic intricacy throughout the track. But at the same time, it sounds like a quiet re-writing of something by either the Cure or New Order.
|Crazy Town’s “The Brimstone Sluggers” **|
After a 13-year silence, the members of Crazy Town have returned with their third album. Best known for their 2000 single, “Butterfly” which turned a sample of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ instrumental “Pretty Little Ditty” into rap/pop gold, the band has gone through many changes since their last album, “Darkhorse” in 2002.
Mainly, not one, but two members are no longer with us. First former guitarist Rust Epique (who had left the band shortly before their breakthrough) had a heart attack and died. Then the world lost DJ AM in 2009 to a drug-overdose. After a lengthy hiatus, leaders Seth “Shifty Shellshock” Binzer and Bret “Epic” Mazur have resurrected the band for a third release. Binzer, himself had a close call when he fell into a coma in 2012 and his struggles with drugs have been documented multiple times on “reality television” over the years. In other words, the fact that there is a third Crazy Town record is a bit of a miracle and a testament to Binzer and Mazur’s hard work.
By 2015 standards, though, the record seems somewhat out of step. It sounds like no time has passed between records. In some ways that is good since now in their forties Shifty and Epic still sound as youthful as ever, but it is bad in the way that this record still sounds like the rap-rock of the late-nineties and early 2000’s, thus delivering music that usually neither satisfies as credible hip-hop or rock. They’ve updated their sound with a bit of dub-step-driven bass-drops from time to time (notably on the track “Lemonface”) but really they end up sounding like a less emo, rougher, dingier answer to Linkin Park. Also, the heavy use of electronics throughout (particularly on “My Place”) reeks of the same forced party-anthem quality that has marred latter-day Black Eyed Peas records. Essentially, these guys would probably do better attempting to do a more straight-forward hip-hop record without all the technological frills.
Every now and then, they catch fire. The second verse on “Light The Way” (delivered by Shifty) momentarily possesses an energy that recalls Cypress Hill, while “Megatron” is a very obvious, ham-fisted response to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” Elsewhere, “Ashes” sounds like third-rate 311, even if it does feature some nice ska-guitar work from Tom Dumont of No Doubt.
Amazingly, six years after his death DJ AM is credited as a guest on “Born To Raise Hell,” but even in the face of all the tragedy this band has faced thanks to drugs and addiction, Shifty still makes a reference to how he wants to “drink a bottle of Winehouse and pop a couple Heath Ledgers.” It’s rough to hear. His struggles are definitely right in front. It should be noted, too that the album itself is dedicated to the memory of DJ AM.
The weird thing is, as awkward and misguided as this band often is, part of me wants them to succeed. They really need guidance. They want this album to be the second coming of 1999’s “The Gift Of Game,” the album that gave us “Butterfly,” but that album had unlikely guest-appearances from both KRS-ONE and Mad Lion. This album does occasionally have moments of slight hip-hop momentum and it does have some interesting things happen from time to time, but for the most part, it builds off of a the tired, post-Limp Bizkit rap-rock stereotypes that keep it from going anywhere. Even the fact that this collection nearly shares that album’s cover indicates that the band is trying very hard to repeat history.
Both Mazur and Binzer were floating around the record industry before “Butterfly” momentarily made them stars. But now, maybe they need to make some friends with some current heavy-weights to brush up their sound. Nothing on here has the hit-potential of “Butterfly,” but this record still has a couple faint, fleeting moments of glory. Even though this record doesn’t really deliver any surprises, it is still admirable that Shifty and Epic have soldiered on considering what this group has been through.
“The Brimstone Sluggers” was Crazy Town’s original name. There is no question that in choosing this name for the record they intend this as a new beginning. For their sake, let’s hope that it is and that it leads to brighter, better records. This album is definitely not the reinvention they needed. It’s a (very) guilty pleasure at best.
“Backpack” (Featuring Bishop Lamont and Fann) This is one of the only songs that has a chance of getting decent airplay, thanks to its ominous guitar-line, combined with its darkly-hued flow. This is far from the party jam of “Butterfly,” especially when Bishop Lamont ends the songs with a decent verse. (Although Lamont’s mention of Columbine is bothersome considering all the recent shootings we have experienced in this country lately.) Again, Shifty mentions his past troubles. As a listener, it really makes you really hope he’s doing alright at the moment.
“A Little More Time” (Featuring Koko Laroo) Epic and Shifty rap over a nice piano-loop as Koko Laroo sings the hook, asking for “a little more time and a little more sunshine.” Again, Crazy Town are trying to get out of a dark haze and here they get in touch with more of an emo side. Again, Linkin Park seems like an apt comparison.
“Baby You Don’t Know” (Featuring Fann) Fann delivers a raspy, semi sultry hook while both Shifty and Epic drop some of their best verses on the record.
|Yo La Tengo’s “Stuff Like That There” ***1/2|
Hoboken, New Jersey alt-rock veterans Yo La Tengo helped define what was called “college rock” in the ‘80’s. Initially as an experimental band, bouncing from noisier soundscapes to quieter fare, the band has had fun playing with extremes over the years. “Stuff Like That There” is no doubt intended as a sequel to 1990’s “Fakebook,” delivered a quarter of a century later. That record consisted mostly of covers with a small handful of originals as well as new recordings of originals that Yo La Tengo recorded previously.
This is one of YLT’s quieter records, with Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan rarely singing over a hushed whisper. This approach can cause these records to be underestimated, but upon closer listen, as is usually the case with YLT’s albums of this type, there is an underlying appealing pleasantness throughout. If you listen to the opening minutes of their rerecording of their own “The Ballad Of Red Buckets,” there is a delicate intricacy achieved. In other words, the members of Yo La Tengo often show signs of muted but focused study. This is background music that achieves more heft when the volume is allowed to be turned up.
Covers-wise the band tackles classics from everyone from Hank Williams, to The Cure to Sun Ra. All of these songs are approached with a keen, hushed folk-pop jangle. At times you might wish they’d let loose and allow some real guitar fuzz into the picture, but this isn’t one of their louder records. The vocals on their cover of Great Plains’ “Before We Stopped To Think” are delivered with the quiet, mannerisms of a laid-back NPR host, while Hubley is able add a slight bounce to her still soft voice in her reading of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Butchie’s Tune.”
As mellow as this album can be, once it grabs you, it will suck you into its pull and it will be ideal listening for relaxed late summer afternoons. There’s a reason why Yo La Tengo have survived as indie-rock royalty and this album shows many of their gifts well.
Hubley also deserves credit for this album’s beautiful, abstract album cover. It in itself is a rather stunning piece of art.
“Friday I’m In Love” YLT give the Cure’s most polarizing hit a pleasant reading that does the song some justice. I say the song is polarizing because it went to number one, but many longtime fans considered the song to be a pop-driven, happy embarrassment at its time of popularity in 1992. This is a really nice version.
“Deeper Into Movies” A YLT original originally on 1997’s “I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One,” this version strips the song of its original layers of overwhelming guitar-fuzz to present a pleasant streamlined version. This allows Hubley’s vocals to be clearly heard and understood better than before.
“The Ballad Of Red Buckets” As mentioned above, this re-recording awakens new textures hidden in the composition.
|Halsey’s “Badlands” (Deluxe Edition) ****|
On her debut full-length, New Jersey-born singer Halsey comes off like a darker, more alternatively-hued answer to Ellie Goulding, delivering some really engaging electro-pop. This album effectively delivers on the buzz earned by her “Room 93” EP last year. In fact compared to a lot of her electro-pop peers, Halsey has a lot more to offer. Opener “Castle” has elements of trip-hop and blues interspersed into its foundation.
Similarly the more melodic and pop-driven “Hold Me Down” possesses an unsettling underbelly as Halsey sings, “I sold my soul to a three-piece / And he told me I was holy. / He’s got me down on both knees / But it’s the devil that’s trying to hold me down.” The implications are clear and this is a brave, frank, gutsy album. “New Americana” is a club-anthem for the partying youth as she sings, “We are the New Americana. / High on legal marijuana. / Raised on Biggie and Nirvana.” She intersperses this chorus with images of excess that bring to mind Lana De Rey without the spoiled debutant associations that often come with her lyrics.
Sonically, this is a neon-hued collection anchored by a keen sense of melody. “Drive” is as synth-y as it is folk-based, showing that Halsey has quite a bit of depth as a writer.
Back in May, Halsey gave a great interview with Elle magazine which was published on their website where she openly talked about being diagnosed at 16 or 17 with bipolar disorder and how she has used music as an outlet to get out her emotions. There are a small handful of lyrical allusions to this on the record and “Badlands” is definitely a powerful collection steeped in intense honestly, but Halsey also knows how to put together a hook and a melody, which kind of creates the perfect storm for a compelling pop record.
We are no doubt in a golden age of electro-pop with multiple artists coming forth in recent years delivering quality work of significant substance. The majority of these performers are singers who balance pop hooks with slightly alternative, unique artistic touches. Halsey is one of the best of the crowd. The fact that she is signed to respected electronic label Astralwerks speaks volumes.
If you aren’t aware of Halsey, “Badlands” should provide you with all the proof you need of her gifts as a writer and a performer. She is one to watch.
The deluxe edition of “Badlands” contains a jumbled and expanded track order when compared to the standard edition. It includes five more tracks spread out throughout the record, including a really radical reinterpretation of the Johnny Cash classic “I Walk The Line.” The album is better arranged and sequenced in its deluxe form.
“Roman Holiday” With tales of stolen perfume, childhood memories of domestic violence and making out with a lover in the backseat of a car during a “drive to Queens,” Halsey sure knows how to weave a dense lyrical tapestry.
“Hold Me Down” The passage I mentioned above is haunting and it is partially why this song stands out from the crowd. It’s strong melody and production also serve as assets.
“Drive” This is a pretty perfect example of Halsey’s work as well, even how the song manages to intertwine car sounds into the track’s production.
|Soren Bryce’s “Soren Bryce EP” ***|
Soren Bryce is an 18-year old Texas-born, Los Angeles based singer-songwriter whose debut EP shows a great deal of promise. Again, she’s another writer of literate, well-thought electro-tinged pop with an edge. She’s more organic and folk-based than many of her growing class of peers, which essentially means that she is a pop-friendly singer-songwriter.
The fact Bryce’s EP was helmed by veteran producer David Kahne speaks volumes, Kahne has been making quality records for more than thirty years, working with everyone from the Bangles and Fishbone to Paul McCartney.
Bryce is obviously still growing as a writer, but there are flashes of greatness here, particularly on the hushed “Gelatin” which shows a level of depth in her writing as it delivers an unexpected attack. She’s got decent chops and good instincts that will no doubt be strengthened when she releases a full-length album. But there’s beauty in the rambling sonic essay that is “Sirens” which skillfully plays with word-association with ease.
It seems standard practice these days for labels to drop EPs for new artists before debut full-lengths in order to test the waters. This is a brief offering, but no doubt it is just a taste of what could be in store.
“Gelatin” This song really does deliver a surprise with its hushed, orchestral build. This shows hints of what Bryce’s future probably holds, as it builds and goes in a few really interesting directions. It shows some compelling intensity in Bryce’s level of compositional skill. She also provides a particularly engaging vocal line on this track.
“Chariot” The EP’s key-track, this opener has hit appeal and a gently soaring airy quality.
“Newport” This is a quiet, folky closer which again shows Bryce’s lyrical depth, as she sings about a spider-web that hasn’t been delivered any flies. Bryce paints quite a lyrical picture here.
|UPDATE: Sean Price’s “Songs In The Key Of Price”|
Last week, I reviewed the late Sean Price’s “Songs In The Key Of Price.” Something strange happened. There are apparently two versions of this release. The digital version is the eight-track, sixteen minute EP that I reviewed. I recently got a hold of the physical CD version which is a thirty-track mixtape tour-de-force which clocks in at over an hour. It possesses what sounds like live mixing, with samples being repeated for effect in a classic old-school turntable-driven style. I gave the shorter version three and a half stars. The longer, physical version also gets that rating but it provides a more complete listen while maintaining the set’s unapologetically rough edges. This is hip-hop with some lyrically hard-core tendencies that may not be for everyone, but the focus is on skill and multi-hued experimentation.
I’m not sure why Price’s label, Duck Down/Ruck Down Records decided to do it this way and create this album difference exactly, but I like the fact that it happened because it encourages fans to buy the physical version of the album thus putting them ahead of the ones who merely downloaded it, thus giving the music value again. Frankly, as someone who still loves to collect music in the physical form as hard-copies are getting increasingly scarce, this turn of events is refreshing. Maybe this is how labels should handle “deluxe editions” from now on. Maybe the standard versions of albums should be available as downloads while the physical versions should have bonus tracks. Maybe this tactic could provide the industry with the jumpstart it so desperately needs. (Just some food for thought.)
Next Week: New music from The Arcs, the new band featuring Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, plus new albums from Lou Barlow and more.
Missed last week's? Get the latest from Carly Rae Jepsen, Method Man, Tracy Bonham and more.