Music Reviews: The Latest From Jessie J, Idina Menzel and More

PHOTO: Jessie J performs at Z100?s Jingle Ball 2014 Official Kick Off Event on Oct. 9, 2014 in New York City at Macy?s Herald Square.
Brad Barket/Getty Images

This week British pop songstress Jessie J drops her third album, "Frozen” star Idina Menzel gives us an early start to the holiday season, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke drops his latest dance-flavored album, Something Corporate/Jack’s Mannequin front-man Andrew McMahon goes solo, the members of Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks prove why they are one of the best rock bands you aren’t probably listening to yet, The Kinks get a career-spanning best-of and U2 release the physical version of their controversial “Songs of Innocence.”

PHOTO: Jessie J, "Sweet Talker" (Deluxe)
Jessie J’s “Sweet Talker” (Deluxe) **1/2

What usually separates British pop from American pop is that their singers survive in their own realm whereas most American pop regardless of the artist still sounds similar. There are exceptions, of course on both sides of the pond.

In an ideal world, Jessie J, a British pop singer, would be as unique as Adele, Amy Winehouse or Lily Allen, but no. She's somewhere in the middle. A soulful pop singer who aims for a P!nk level of moxie, she occasionally surprises but ultimately she bucks the trend by being caught in the formula. That isn’t to say that her third record, “Sweet Talker” doesn’t have its moments. It does. In fact, it is has a few decent, promising sections, but it also lets its audience down in some ways.

“Bang Bang” with Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj has all the artistic integrity of an advertising jingle for a muffler company. It’s catchy in the wrong ways and its refrain of “Bang Bang all over you” is awkward at best.

Elsewhere De La Soul show up, disappointingly soiling the memory of their classic “Me, Myself and I” by rapping over the same George Clinton sample. (The guys are legends. They deserve better. By the way, where’s their new album? I hope it comes soon!)

Jessie J shines most on the ballads where she can stretch out and show what separates her from the pack. Similarly, she shows some promise when she exhibits weirder, spikier edges, as she does on the quickly-spoken section of opener “Ain’t Been Done,” as she introduces herself over a slamming beat and a surf-y sounding, down-scale guitar riff. She’s a singer with quirks, but on too much of this record those elements seem muted.

After her first album, “Who You Are” produced the massive hit “Price Tag,” her second album, “Alive” didn’t even receive a proper release in the U.S. This album sounds like an attempt to dumb Jessie J’s sound down for an American audience to ensure that never happens again. And it is disappointing on a number of levels. Nothing on here is quite as indelible as “Price Tag” or frankly even the stand-alone sunny dance single “Domino.” “Sweet Talker” finds a promising artist with a great deal of talent still trying to find her creative voice.

Focus Tracks:

“Personal” Jessie J is an impressive vocalist even if the results don’t always suit her. She does best on ballads and “Personal” is a hit waiting to happen and it finds the perfect balance between melody and emotion.

“Masterpiece” The verses are run-of-the-mill pop bravado, but the chorus is beautifully blooming achievement that makes the track a success.

“Keep Us Together” This is an effective mid-tempo love jam about the ups and downs of a relationship. It’s somewhat standard fare, but it is executed well.

PHOTO: Idina Menzel, "Holiday Wishes"
Idina Menzel’s “Holiday Wishes” ***

Years before the success of “Frozen” and “Let It Go” gave her a pop breakthrough, Idina Menzel was a fixture on Broadway, memorably starring in both “Rent” and “Wicked.” No doubt, making use of the new-found visibility that “Frozen” has given her, Menzel has released a holiday collection, “Holiday Wishes.” (Yes, it is only mid-October and the holiday albums of 2014 have already begun to be released!)

At first glance, this is a rather typical album of this kind. The standards are there. Everything from “Do You Hear What I Hear” to “White Christmas” is represented. But then there are a few interesting touches. A duet between Menzel and Michael Buble of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a nice matching of talent, even if the song itself stands as an anthem to using the cold weather as a creepy excuse for lechery. (The two have a little fun with that, actually.)

Joni Mitchell’s “River,” a song which mentions Christmas, but was originally released on Mitchell’s classic “Blue” album in June of 1971 has been popping up more on proper holiday records as of late and Menzel offers up a decent version.

There are some brief stumbles. Menzel’s cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” doesn’t add much and a couple of the arrangements on the record can come off a bit too saccharine, but that is probably to be expected to some degree.

Most surprising, though, is a cover of “When You Wish Upon A Star” which I have never thought of as a holiday song, but I suppose it captures the season’s element of wonder. No doubt the use of this theme to “Pinocchio” is meant to highlight the post-“Frozen” kinship Menzel feels with (ABC's parent company) Disney. Interestingly enough, this album was released by Disney’s once cartoon rival Warner Brothers.

“Holiday Wishes,” yes is a formulaic display of holiday joy, but these records tend to come out that way in general. Menzel’s voice and her presentation, however, make it worth a listen.

Focus Tracks:

“Do You Hear What I Hear” A standard holiday-album opener, but Menzel does the song well and the main refrain accentuates her vocal range.

“Holly Jolly Christmas” This is more downbeat than the spritely Burl Ives original, but it has a playful energy combined with a low-key jazz-club brand of pep.

“The Christmas Song” Again, this Mel Torme classic is somewhat standard terrain, but it does the trick.

PHOTO: Kele, "Trick"
Kele’s “Trick” ****

With his band Bloc Party, Kele Okereke makes hard-edged angular rock with occasional electronic accents. Alone as a solo artist, he explores electronic dance music to the extreme, bringing together elements of chill and house music into a potent stew. His distinct voice is the one unifying factor of both of these sides of his career. “Trick” is his second solo full-length following “The Boxer” and an EP, “The Hunter” and it continues his journey further into the dance world with subtle nods to dubstep and “glitchtronica.” For the most part, this is a lush, oddly soothing, smooth collection. These tracks skitter along with a pleasantly off-kilter appeal but they come off as simultaneously polished and at ease. Kele sounds more assured than ever. In a way this album sounds like a more streamlined, lust-filled answer to Thom Yorke’s “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.” In some ways this is a throwback to the heavily inventive dance-pop of the eighties, even if it does sound like it is from a post-Four Tet world. One thing is for certain. This is sonically as far as one can get from the hard-rock on Bloc Party’s last masterpiece, “Four." (If you prefer Kele making music like that album’s “Kettling,” this might not be your record.)

Kele has a brief history of passing off some elements to other vocalists. Memorably on the lead single to “The Hunter” EP, “What Did I Do?” he deferred the center of attention to vocalist Lucy Taylor. On this album’s “First Impressions,” he passes the mic to singer Yasmin Shahmir, while the main hook to “Closer” is handled by Jodie Scantlebury.

The main goal of “Trick” seems to be seduction. The album on the whole has a chilled, alluring vibe meant to draw in its listeners.

Focus Tracks:

“Stay The Night” This is a warm ballad and one of the many sexually-tinged, lovelorn pleas for attention. I can see this song having possible hit potential in the same vein as Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.”

“Closer” As mentioned above, Kele gets some nice assistance from vocalist Jodie Scantlebury giving this spiky bit of piano-fueled dance-pop a warm duet feel.

“Coasting” This is a lush dance track full of subtle touches. It emphasizes the best elements of the collection on the whole.

PHOTO: Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness- "Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness"
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness’ “Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness” ***1/2

Former Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin leader Andrew McMahon went solo last year with the very glossy, pop-driven EP, “The Pop Underground.” It was a small misstep, even if the EP did still show the similar promise as his previous work.

Now, newly dubbed “Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness,” he gets himself back on right footing with the help of friends and co-producers Mike Viola and James Flannigan. McMahon has always been known for his chops as a songwriter. Back when Something Corporate first emerged, his piano-heavy allegiance to classic songwriting helped set them apart from the rest of the “pop-punk” fray and his Jack’s Mannequin work continued that trend. “Everything In Transit” is considered a masterpiece by those in the know.

On this album, McMahon fully embraces his pop potential without selling out the core of his music. He has big choruses. He has “whoa whoa whoa” chants. Every big, anthemic pop clichéd device is used here, but it doesn’t come off as stale because McMahon knows how to write a song and his extremely narrative lyrical style truly anchors him in a comfortable and intriguing place. In addition, his voice (which in the past to some has probably been an acquired taste) sounds better than ever. In other words, he continues to grow into himself.

There are some slight bumps. The chorus of “High Dive” sounds like a modern rewrite of Don Henley’s “Boys Of Summer” and by the end, the set can come off a touch too unified in its singular tone, but ultimately, McMahon gives us another batch of anthems to suburban angst. His characters always have a sense of exploration and this is even true when he’s singing from his own perspective.

Andrew McMahon continues to surprise and amaze as he matures. This is merely the latest example of his gifts as a writer and performer.

Focus Tracks:

“Maps For The Getaway” This is the album’s closing track and its title almost serves as a summary for every song McMahon has ever written. Somehow, though, he ends up sounding like today’s answer to Bruce Hornsby’s eighties pop hits.

“Cecilia And The Satellite” This ballad is McMahon at his best. It is a personal track full of whimsical images of a passing youth, with a huge, bursting chorus.

“Rainy Girl” For this track, the production is taken down and the focus is mostly on McMahon and his piano and it remains just as powerful. It is also surprisingly soulful.

PHOTO: We Were Promised Jetpacks, "Unraveling"
We Were Promised Jetpacks’ “Unraveling” ****

Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks crafted their first two albums around their ability to create mammoth rock songs with amazing slow-builds. If you want to hear this masterfully done, check out their song, “It’s Thunder And It’s Lightning.” On their third album, “Unraveling,” they in effect streamline their sound. The focus is no longer on the guitar work and the occasional sonic explosions. Really, what comes into focus are the songs themselves and how they are structured. Drummer Darren Lackie particularly now takes focus as he lays down some particularly intricate rhythms. In other words, the band has honed their formula and yet these songs end up every bit as introspective and intriguing as before. Really, they now come off as a more aggressive, assertive cousin to the equally skilled Frightened Rabbit.

“Unraveling” is a very mannered and focused display, but that doesn’t mean it is ever uninteresting. This is an album packed with undiscovered gems and leader Adam Thompson continues to surf the non-cloying, non-intrusive, more appealing side of emo as he delivers his thick, grappling narratives.

Of course this band doesn’t lose a step when they lose the words. The six-and-a-half minute instrumental jam “Peace Of Mind” is every bit as intriguing as the rest of the set without uttering a syllable.

Over three albums, We Were Promised Jetpacks have proven to be one of the most consistently compelling rock bands to emerge over the last decade. As they balance dreamy, shimmering guitar textures with the impending chaos brought on by the occasional freak-outs, the achieve greatness. “Unraveling” is the work of a band on the verge of great things. In a perfect world this album would give them a wider audience.

Focus Tracks:

“Peaks And Troughs” Thompson comes off like he is trying to merge the sound of early Radiohead with Alt-J with his vocal tone during the verse sections, but the song morphs into something impressive as it continues, anchored by some stunning drumming.

“A Part Of It” The way the guitars burst and recede throughout this track, amidst an expert-level rhythmic assault can’t help but impress. The song’s progression from verse to chorus is also quite remarkable.

“Moral Compass” This is an appealing track that seesaws from sludgy guitar riffs to dreamy background synth riffs. Again, this band has quite a knack for sonic textures.

PHOTO: The Kinks, "The Essential Kinks"
The Kinks’ “The Essential Kinks” *****

You may be familiar with Sony/BMG’s “Essential” series where the collective labels compile an artist’s singles into one or two (usually chronological) discs. The best and the brightest usually get this treatment and they are usually among the best “best-ofs” you can get. So what makes “The Essential Kinks” different than any other compilation the band has released? The answer is simple. It is king because it is the first cohesive compilation to cover the band’s entire 30-year recording history. Of course, it still misses a few tracks especially towards the end. It might have worked even better as a three-disc collection. But culling together the best of 23 studio albums into two discs is no easy task. But this is a singles collection with essentially no filler. It is two nearly 80-minute discs packed with 48 classics.

Why now? Well, the band is at the beginning of a massive reissue campaign. “You Really Got Me” was released 50 years ago, which is a bit of a staggering thought when you consider that song and “All Day and All Of The Night” sound like the first inklings of punk. But the band had a lot more to offer. Ray and Dave Davies anchored an unstoppable, impressively varied catalog of songs between their 1964 debut and the 1993 swan song, “Phobia.” In fact, it seems to me that Ray Davies doesn’t get the respect he deserves and as a craftsman he should be seen the same way we now view John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. He is one of the timeless greats.

This collection serves as a condensed testament to the band’s endurance. Sure, to many the first disc of their sixties material is key, but if you miss out on the second disc you miss “Lola,” the contrarian Christmas classic “Father Christmas” and their huge eighties comeback, “Come Dancing.” With a liner note essay from David Bowie as well as fan quotes from everyone from Iggy Pop, to Donovan to Matthew Sweet, the band’s influence is undeniable. And yet, they still seem drastically under-rated. If you have never heard the Kinks or have just been a passing fan over the years, this is a must-have compilation.

Over the last few years Ray and Dave Davies have had passing rumbles about a possible reunion. I’m still crossing my fingers in the hopes that it happens.

Focus Tracks:

“Nothin’ In The World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl” This quiet, low-key blues track is just as affecting as it was when it was released and it stands as one of the first indications of the band’s wider reach beyond the initial garage-rock sound. No wonder Wes Anderson memorably chose to use it in a key scene of “Rushmore.”

“Picture Book” Green Day obviously loves the Kinks. They famously covered “Tired Of Waiting For You” and they nicked the riff of this song for the title track to “Warning.” This is a typically whimsical Ray Davies narrative. Davies’ sense of the past almost always has a sense of optimism. This is true sometimes in spite of his subjects.

“Lola” (Live 1979) This is perhaps the best song ever written about picking up a drag queen. It gave them in many ways an unexpected hit, but that chorus is undeniable.

U2’s “Songs Of Innocence” ****

Update: This album was already reviewed the week that U2 and Apple dropped in on an unsuspecting public, but this week it came out in its physical form with a few bonus studio tracks and an impressive acoustic performance.

Listening to the breathtaking acoustic version of “Every Breaking Wave” it seems sad that because of this release plan (free on iTunes), people are talking more about the album’s promotion than the album itself, which is the band’s strongest album in some time. Had they released the album traditionally in the first place, the radio might be crowded with its singles. Bono has even this week apologized for the way in which the album was released.

So while the bonus tracks and the live cuts add to the impressive picture, the legacy of “Songs Of Innocence” will probably always be about the public’s reaction and how they couldn’t handle a band trying to give them a “free” album. It serves as a warning for those planning one of these shock releases. I’m guessing Apple won’t do something like this again anytime soon.

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