Music Reviews: Dion, Eliot Sumner, Pete Astor and Lissie

PHOTO: Sting attends A+E Networks "Shining A Light" concert at The Shrine Auditorium, Nov.18, 2015, in Los Angeles. | Eliot Summer attends the Louis Vuitton show, March 11, 2015, in Paris.
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So this week I was going to review the new Kanye West album, “The Life Of Pablo.” Then he kept changing the name of the record. It was out for a while and then pulled and he is still completing it. When and if he settles on a final version, then I will write a review.

In the meantime, this week Sting’s kid, Eliot Sumner releases a fantastic record, Dion (of the Belmonts fame) releases his latest blues album, indie-rocker Pete Astor releases a new album and Lissie makes a swing for the big leagues.

PHOTO: Eliot Sumners album, "Information" is pictured here.
Eliot Sumner’s “Information” ****

Eliot Sumner is the offspring of Sting and Trudie Styler. This is openly apparent the second Sumner sings. That raspy, throaty voice is very similar to Sting’s. It is obvious the talent is inherited. Sumner recorded a great pop album in 2010 under the band-name I Blame Coco, and “Information” is essentially a sophomore offering.

According to a recent Evening Standard interview where Sumner does not identify with a gender, preferring to be known as a “musician.” That label is fitting, considering that Sumner is indeed a very gifted musician.

The dark new-wave of “Dead Arms & Dead Legs,” “After Dark,” the title-track and “Firewood” should all remind listeners of an updated, synth-driven response to the albums by the Police. The talent and songwriting skills are quite strongly passed on from generation to generation. Even the way words are delivered evokes memories of Sting in his youth. Eliot’s half-brother Joe leads the band Fiction Plane and while Joe also possesses a lot of Sting’s best qualities in his music, this is even more strongly present in Eliot. The I Blame Coco record was kind of a lost collection over here in the States since it never received a proper release on this side of the pond. (If you stumble upon an import copy of I Blame Coco’s “The Constant,” you should pick it up.) Fans who dig up the album’s singles like “Selfmachine” and “Quicker” will find much to enjoy here, even though there is a much stronger, more mature approach being taken.

Sumner is less pop-minded here than on the Coco work. That isn’t to say that this album doesn’t have pop potential. It certainly does, but it is from a grounded, earthier place, even if that place still brings to mind neon-lit clubs.

Much of this record was released in various pieces through singles and EPs over the last year or so and this album was available digitally at the end of January. This past week it was finally released in hard-copy and it is really nice to have these songs all in one place and getting the proper release they deserve.

This is a remarkably dense and varied album showing a second-generation performer at the dawn of establishing a legacy. Eliot Sumner is extremely assured in every performance here, thus ensuring a very bright future as a singer, songwriter and performer. The praise is not due to nepotism in any way. This is sheer, inherited talent in the best and brightest sense.

“Information” is a career-establishing record that sounds both familiar and brand new at the same time. While Sting has gotten a bit lost playing the lute and making pirate-themed musicals, it is nice to see Eliot take the reins.

Focus Tracks:

“Firewood” The bellowing “whoa”-ing paired with the synth-line help showcase the album’s signature sound in a very strong way. This song has pop potential and it goes well with the retro-eighties sounds that are currently popular on top-forty radio.

“Let My Love Lie On Your Life” The synths bubble up underneath, but this is a rocker, anchored by hard guitars that enter and recede as the chorus enters and ends. This is a wonderfully tight and tense track.

“After Dark” Again, the synths serve as a key entry point. This song has a haunting undercurrent but Sumner keeps things interesting with a melodic chorus.

PHOTO: Dions album, "New York Is My Home," is pictured here in this file photo.
Dion’s “New York Is My Home” ****

Dion DiMucci is one of the only prominent hit-makers of the fifties still standing and making quality records. If someone had told him in 1958 that he’d still be making records in 2016 he might not have believed it. But he has survived as a constantly evolving entertainer, from the doo-wop pop beginnings of “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” to the melancholy Civil Rights anthem “Abraham, Martin and John” in the sixties. Over the years, he has explored many genres from rock and folk to religious music.

In recent years, he’s reinvented himself yet again as a blues man. These records for the most part have not gotten the attention they deserve. At 76, his voice is as strong as ever. “New York Is My Home” as an album sounds like the work of an entertainer in his prime. This latter-day “blues-y” period has been among the most rewarding sections of his career, material-wise.

Sure, you can hear echoes of “The Wanderer” in “Can’t Go Back To Memphis," but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Blues was after all the basis for early rock and roll. The motorcycle-themed “Ride With You” also brings to mind a sort of vintage nostalgia, even if the kind of shredding rock that Dion now brings is very much post-fifties.

But it is the title-track with his friend Paul Simon that really stands out. It’s a beautiful song with a heartbreaking energy, bringing to mind Dion’s Bronx youth. Both Dion and Paul Simon are New York legends and their voices sound pristine together.

Elsewhere, “The Apollo King” is an upbeat love-letter to the classic Harlem theatre, while “I’m All Rocked Up” should by all counts come off as a basic blues number, but surpasses expectations thanks to Dion’s charismatic delivery.

Dion is a legend who is still working as hard as ever at his craft, his dedication shows. This album (along with the rest of his work from the last decade) firmly displays an artist in the midst of a startling rebirth. Decades after he dominated the radio airwaves, Dion DiMucci still very much deserves your attention. He is one of the only acts from the dawn of rock who clearly still has a lot of new things to say, even if he is still treading on vintage territory. All hail “The Wanderer.” He’s still going.

Focus Tracks:

“New York Is My Home” (With Paul Simon) This track will surprise a lot of people who haven’t been following Dion’s career. It deserves at least AAA-radio airplay and it deserves to be a hit. If these two had teamed up and recorded this track together in the mid-seventies, it would now be considered a classic.

“Aces Up Your Sleeve” If anyone doubts Dion’s prowess as a blues man, this opening track should please a lot of skeptics. It finds him fitting well in the world of modern blues.

“I’m Your Gangster Of Love” Again, like “Aces Up Your Sleeve,” this shows some blues muscle. Then again, it has a wonderful, almost sleazy seventies-style funkiness underneath all its elements. Maybe it’s the way Dion sings “Rat-a-tat-tat-tat” and “Bang! Bang! Bang!” but he exudes a sense of authority here.

PHOTO: Pete Astors album, "Spilt Milk," is pictured here in this file photo.
Pete Astor’s “Spilt Milk” ****

Pete Astor spent the eighties in the bands The Loft and The Weather Prophets. His latest solo record “Spilt Milk” comes like a shot out of the dark, delivering a retro-surprise. The most exciting and unexpected side of this record is how much it really sounds like a lost, stripped down Kinks album. In fact, Astor’s delivery and sense of song-craft owe a lot to Ray Davies, which is a comparison that is always a compliment. One can picture The Kinks having a late sixties hit with something like “Mr. Music” or “Really Something,” and in 2016, that authentic vintage sound can be a bit startling, especially since Astor is more from the post-punk generation.

As its title and goofy album art would indicate, this is an album that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a quirky friendliness to these songs. Take for instance the future-looking “Perfect Life,” which keeps its sunny optimistic hue while lyrically hinting at a destructive divorce. “My Right Hand,” is probably about exactly what you think, even if it casually dances around the issue while “Sleeping Tiger” is another song that playfully hints at possible impending doom.

Even though in certain indie-rock circles he is really rightly revered, this album may be a lot of people’s first chance to hear Pete Astor’s work and it is full of wit and dry humor. “Spilt Milk” is essentially a collection of ten stories each wrapped in appealing retro-pop. Pete Astor is a songwriter you most likely don’t know by name but should. This is a very enjoyable record from start to finish.

Focus Tracks:

“Really Something” If this opening track doesn’t grab you in the first thirty seconds or so, this album isn’t for you. It stands as the album’s brightest track. Again it balances indie-rock with a retro-“British Invasion” sound.

“Good Enough” This song has a pretty humorous undertone as Astor sings about all the household chores he didn’t have time to complete. What makes it even funnier is the way this song is delivered. It’s like a sad, tender love song.

“The Getting There” This five-and-a-half-minute rocking builder is a keen piece of songwriting that does not wear out its welcome. Again, Astor’s narrative gifts are apparent. Yet there is kind of a Velvet Underground energy here as well.

PHOTO: Lissies album, "My Wild West," is pictured here in this file photo.
Lissie’s “My Wild West” ***1/2

Lissie is an Illinois-born singer-songwriter who delivers well-crafted pop with some slight blues and country edges. Listening to her third album, “My Wild West,” it is clear that this is a work for a post-Adele world. Lissie’s voice is an interesting, throaty, raspy instrument with a lot of soul and this collection finds her aiming for the pop charts quite firmly. The song “Wild West,” for instance sounds like a response to both Adele and Lady Gaga.

This record on the whole is slightly shinier and more overtly pop-driven than her previous two offerings, 2010’s “Catching A Tiger” and 2013’s “Back To Forever,” and she seems ripe for a cross-over with big ballads like “Hero” and “Together Or Apart.” All throughout, it is evident that Lissie is trying to record the next big pop anthem, but that doesn’t matter. She’s got a lot of power and enough interesting qualities of her own to set her apart from the formula.

“My Wild West” is a bold, promising record that plays by the rules set by modern pop conventions while delivering smartly-written anthems of heartbreak and personal exploration. In other words, this is a record that should easily find a wide and willing fan-base beyond the folk and “Heatseakers” charts.

There’s a sadness, throughout this record and Lissie’s voice lends itself to this kind of emotional material, even if “Go For A Walk” has a hint of hope in its lyrics. But the texture of her voice is something no singer can merely attain. It is an inherent gift.

“My Wild West” deserves to be a turning-point in Lissie’s career. It may sound on some level like it is purposely aiming for the big leagues, but Lissie is a worthy candidate for larger success. This album may alienate fans of her previous work slightly, but it still makes for an interesting piece of work.

Focus Tracks:

“Hero” There’s also a bit of Lana Del Rey influence in Lissie’s delivery here, even if this is a more animated and charged song than Lana Del Rey would sing. There’s a noir quality here even if this song has a commanding stomp.

“Wild West” Think “Rolling In The Deep” + “Edge Of Glory” and you get the idea. Even though its sources of inspiration are clear, it still is a winner.

“Hollywood” This piano-ballad was meant for the radio and it should get there. Yes, its message of searching for fame has been done to death over the years, but this song is still a worthy entry.

Next Week: New music from Animal Collective, Ra Ra Riot and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Elton John, Lucinda Williams and the London Suede.

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