— -- intro: This week Ed Sheeran makes his second official splash at mainstream gold, Phish returns after a five-year hiatus, Mastodon bring the rock, Bassnectar explores a wide variety of EDM sounds and RIFF RAFF delivers one of 2014’s most baffling records. As the summer kicks into gear, this proves to be a diverse week.
quicklist: 1title: Ed Sheeran’s “x” **text: Ed Sheeran’s “x” follows his debut “+.” It continues to offer up Sheeran’s sensitive acoustic guitar-heavy pop. At his best, Sheeran can offer up a level of song-craft not often given to his young, radio-listening audience. At his worst, he can be placed in sonic landscapes where he does not comfortably fit. His Pharrell collaboration, “Sing” is the album’s single and it is painfully awkward. As much as he wishes to have a funk and hip-hop-driven swagger, it just isn’t a pose that works in his favor. He attempted this kind of balances on “+” also, but here he has seemingly, unwisely upped the ante.
Too much of this record finds Sheeran trying to force the groove in the name of pop success. He’s trying to play rhythm games on tracks like “Don’t” and “Nina,” attempting an R&B rebirth. The truth is, Sheeran is in top form when he is delivering more straight ahead material. He can sing a soft acoustic ballad without coming off as stale or boring. But he seems determined to fuse hip-hop into his work, even actually flat-out rapping on “The Man,” but the style doesn’t bring out his best qualities. Sheeran may be a fan of hip-hop, but it truly does not suit him. That combined with an attempt at a Timberlake-style croon for smoothness could doom this album.
Sheeran can be a gifted writer, so the fact that “x,” like its predecessor is such a mixed bag leaning towards the negative side of the equation is frustrating. One can probably assume that his next few albums will be called something like “-,“ “/” and “=.” Let’s hope if he continues this title trend that by the end of the cycle he knows where his strengths truly lie.
“I’m A Mess” This is a stirring example of what this album could have been. This track is melodically rich with a sense of tension. It shows what can happen when Sheeran shifts his focus from lyrical syncopation to tunefulness. By a long shot, this is the best song on the record.
“Tenerife Sea” This is a nice bit of lovelorn folk pop, even if the beginning sounds like he’s about to cover Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You.” But this kind of straight-forward love song is Sheeran’s specialty.
quicklist: 2title: Phish’s “Fuego” ***1/2text: On their first album in five years, the members of Vermont’s jam-band institution return in top form. The level of musicianship has always been high on their releases. After all, they have been playing as a band now for 30 years. Sometimes on their previous releases, their tracks’ elongated lengths and their occasional noodling tendencies made their albums a bit of a chore for non-diehards, but on “Fuego,” they sound refreshed, meaning that this is a rather lively release short on tedious passages.
It’s also a really crisp sounding record. When the other members harmonize with Trey Anastasio, it is as if they are all singing in the room with you. This is bright, old-fashioned band-know-how without major studio tricks. It is actually refreshing. This is also a pretty melodic set of songs, which means this record could easily win over people who have never heard Phish before.
Maybe due to their jam-band pedigree, it has become a little too easy to compare this band to the Grateful Dead, but they have always had a distinct quirkiness of their own. Comparing them strictly to the Dead does them a severe disservice. In all truth, on “Fuego,” the members of Phish deliver a modern take on the earthy sound that ruled the radio in the seventies. There are hints of the Band, Steely Dan and others throughout this set. Had Phish been around at the time of the inception of “Saturday Night Live,” their natural feel would have fit right in with the show’s original musical flavor. They are a throwback to the days when musicianship actually trumped pop flash.
The band only falters once on this 10-song set, on the disastrous hip-hop and funk experiment, “Wombat,” but the rest of the album makes a strong enough statement to forgive the momentary slide. In other words, “Fuego” for the most part is a strong record.
“Halfway To The Moon” If Jackson Browne or Ben Folds were set up with a vaguely funky backdrop, they might come up with a track like this. Somehow it balances a pensive quality with a grooviness. Plus, it has a really excellent piano solo.
“Fuego” At over nine minutes in length, this opening title-track could potentially outstay its welcome. But it doesn’t because it stands as a constantly moving exercise in musical prowess. As the band rallies between rock edge and jazz freak outs, they show their skills.
“Winterqueen” This playful, reflective song brings to mind a jammy, ethereal response to INXS’ “Beautiful Girl.”