— -- intro: This is the first truly substantial release week of the year with mega-producer Mark Ronson delivering his fourth star-studded effort, singer Meghan Trainor dropping her full-length debut, hoping to repeat the success of her single “All About That Bass” and indie-rock act Guster returning with their latest and more ethereal effort. In addition, this week we have debuts from both English pop singer Ella Henderson and Miami singer Kat Dahlia, as well as the return of R&B songstress Jazmine Sullivan. This week may be the first true glimpse of what lies ahead for the rest of 2015.
quicklist: 1title: Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Special” **text: Mark Ronson has long established himself as a ground-breaking and amazingly inventive figure. He’s produced excellent records for everyone from Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen to Kaiser Chiefs and Paul McCartney. His presence usually gives albums an extra kick. His last two records under his own name, “Version” and “Record Collection” are pretty much indisputable modern classics and that is really saying something considering “Version” is much more forward-thinking and innovative than a collection of covers really should be.
The strange thing is, “Uptown Special” will probably sell more copies and get much more exposure than his other three records, mainly due to the popularity of the Bruno Mars-assisted “Uptown Funk.” The album does have a few, spare exciting moments, but for the most part what Ronson has done is create a group of songs that too often echo the filler and weaker songs on eighties movie soundtracks. Most of these songs sound like the forgettable tracks you’d find between the hits on the soundtracks to “Ghostbusters” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” In fact, that might be overselling it. Really these songs sound like third-rate imitations of these kinds of tracks. This album sounds dated in a negative way. It’s as if Ronson went back to celebrate a sound but chose the wrong aspects to highlight. Coming off of Ronson’s previously stellar track-record, this album is a stunning misstep.
On the whole, the record is somewhat boring, full of funk stereotypes and tricks that have been done better by others in the past. With the exception of Mystikal’s appearance on “Feel Right,” Ronson seems to be missing his usually potent hip-hop influence. Mystikal’s presence, too, in spite of his James Brown-esque sense of propulsion, is troubling as well, considering this is one of his highest-profile appearances since getting out of jail after serving time for his role in an incident where he and his bodyguards reportedly forced a hairstylist to perform sex acts against her will. (The incident was reportedly videotaped.) Given this fact, no matter how funky this song may be, Mystikal’s lyrical threats of violence throughout track (no matter how cartoonish they seem) leave a very unpleasant feeling.
Elsewhere, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker offers up a decent guest appearance on “Summer Breaking,” which plays like an alternate universe answer to Steely Dan, while Keyone Starr appears on the shockingly generic “I Can’t Lose.” Throughout the set there is a ton of winning/losing imagery, as if Ronson is trying to soundtrack some sort of down-and-out film about gamblers in Las Vegas.
No one has respectfully busted out the kind of guitar work heard on “In Case Of Fire” since 1985, and it probably should have stayed that way. I honestly appreciate what Ronson is trying to do here, but he doesn’t succeed because the material itself doesn’t quite pop the way it should. It is style over substance. If you buy this album and you like it, I urge you to buy “Version,” “Record Collection” and “Here Comes The Fuzz” as well. Odds are, you’ll probably agree this is overall the weakest collection of the bunch. Not even two guest appearances from Stevie Wonder can save it.
“Uptown Funk” (Featuring Bruno Mars) This is an undoubted party-starter and Mars does his best to conjure up Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” era energy, perhaps with a little Morris Day & The Time influence thrown in. Admittedly, this track shows promise. Most of the rest of the album, however does not deliver.
“Leaving Los Feliz” (Featuring Kevin Parker) This semi-psychedelic rocker, again featuring Parker from Tame Impala is the only glimpse of what one usually expects from Ronson and it has enough Beatle-y nods to truly please.
quicklist: 2title: Meghan Trainor’s “Title” (Deluxe Edition) **1/2text: Meghan Trainor has a lot to prove on her major-label debut full-length, ”Title,” which is essentially a greatly expanded version of her EP from last year of the same name. She has to prove that she’s more than a one-hit-wonder, given the omnipresence of positive body-image anthem “All About That Bass.” Trainor proves herself to be a talent. She obviously can sing in a variety of different styles, volleying from traditional pop with slight country tinges to doo-wop. It is interesting that Trainor spends so much time in a pseudo-fifties mold. The problem lies in the production. It’s weird to hear this kind of music with obvious drum-machines and sometimes, Trainor’s voice which is obviously naturally clear plays as if it is digitally manipulated just because that is the kind of sound that is expected to get on radio. That initial thought hits you like a train the second you start the opener, “The Best Part (Interlude)."
Trainor has enough attitude and sass to carry the show without the technical tricks and the sheen given to her voice on a track like “Close Your Eyes” feels like it robs the song of sincere emotion. It feels like there might be natural cracks or bits of rasp in her voice that might be muted. Too often, glossy production can come off like the audio-equivalent of Photoshop. It is interesting that Trainor is working with an odd hybrid of modern-pop and older, classic styles. She’s no Amy Winehouse, but she probably would benefit from a more raw and natural production approach.
She holds her own next to John Legend on “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” even if the results are a little bland. On the other hand, “Bang Dem Sticks” is a painfully awkward stab at a hip-hop-tinged club-banger on which she refers to herself as “M-Train” as she raps about how much she’s “got a thing for drummers.” Later, “Lips Are Moving” is almost as weird. (Throughout the set, Trainor’s repeated attempts at hip-hop feel tremendously forced.) The album overall is eclectic and occasionally a misguided mess, but in spite of the album’s weak spots and overzealous production, Trainor shows potential beyond “All About That Bass.” With a different, less smotheringly flashy approach, she could probably really do something substantial.
“All About That Bass” I can’t review this album without mentioning this. You’ve heard this and while this album has more to offer than just this song, this will obviously be the first place people will gravitate towards.
“3AM” This song is the best hope on this record for a great pop single to follow “All About That Bass.” It’s actually a more winning song, relying less on the kitsch-factor. Really, on this track, Trainor comes off like an American response to Kate Nash, whose 2008 debut “Made Of Bricks” showed a winning attitude but also didn’t always deliver. It’s hard to tell if Trainor will have a sonic makeover akin to Nash’s later and more exciting embrace of post-“RIOT GRRRL!” punk, but like Nash she shows possible branching out potential.
“Walkashame” This is a humorous ode to crawling home in the hung-over morning hours. This is the kind of song that sets Trainor apart from the rest of the pop masses. She has her own take and a unique spin. Again, this recalls Nash’s poppiest work and even possibly Lily Allen.
quicklist: 3title: Guster’s “Evermotion” ***1/2text: Twenty years after their debut, Boston band Guster have released their seventh album and this one is glossier and spacier than any of their previous records. The new-found electro-sheen may come as a shock to fans of more organic-sounding records like 1999’s masterpiece “Lost And Gone Forever.” Singers Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller’s voices are still clear as ever and within the new, admittedly more-synth-driven backdrops everything still gels in a very familiar way, even if the gloss does sometimes ultimately end up muting a few of the songs. One thing is for certain, and that is that this is a more enjoyable listen than their uneven last album, “Easy Wonderful.” One senses that the band knew this switch in direction would both throw some old fans for a loop and open them up to new avenues of experimentation. Maybe that is why they chose to release 2013’s decent “Live Acoustic” collection. Perhaps it was intended as a last hurrah before the band’s latest shift.
Lead single, “Simple Machine” may initially get on listeners’ nerves with its intense verse section, but its chorus is rather winning, allowing the rest of the song to blossom upon repeated plays. Elsewhere the band has much more success, particularly on the closer “Farewell” and the opener, “Long Night.” And there are tracks like “Doin’ It By Myself” which seem like day-glo-highlighted versions of the old Guster sound.
The lava-lamp-like imagery on the cover perfectly captures the woozy nature of this record, and while it may not be completely successful on all fronts, this record still opens up the band to new areas of exploration and provides some fascinating new directions.
“Long Night” This track sets the mood for what’s to come with an energy that is both haunting and chillingly beautiful. The vocals are often at a mellow near-whisper on this track, allowing the instruments to really provide the majority of the punch, even if the vocal volume does rise as the song progresses.
“Endlessly” This sort of feels like Guster’s answer to Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” and I say that completely without irony or insult. This song has a lush, nostalgic build firmly planted in the eighties.
“Never Coming Down” This is a playful, quasi-Drifters-esque detour. You can probably imagine a more stripped-down rendition of this song on an earlier Guster record, but the ethereal production here gives it a unique energy that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
quicklist: 4title: Ella Henderson’s “Chapter One” ***text: British singer Ella Henderson makes her full-length debut with “Chapter One,” after finishing sixth on the UK version of “The X Factor.” Henderson favors big, pop stomping ballads that seem at first products of faceless formula, but as a performer, this 19-year-old has the gumption and the force to push these songs beyond their somewhat static nature. She sells every note she sings. It helps that she is listed as the first writer on the majority of these songs. Mostly it is the production that keeps these songs from going that extra mile. Opener and lead single “Ghost,” for instance has the kind of forced anthemic quality found on the majority of Ryan Tedder productions, and when the song breaks out into a funky burst, it is evident that this is trying too hard to be the next answer to Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.”It’s when Henderson steps out from that very specific formula when she shines the most, like on the sly and groovy “Mirror Man,” a hit waiting to happen, co-written with singer-songwriter LP and producer Al Shux.
While Henderson is painfully obviously from the reality show contest-show mill, she has the talent and skill-level to push herself ahead of the pack even when the backdrops are just a little too clean and predictable. These songs have their blueprint-esque moments, but at the same time sometimes the material still surprises. Henderson has a future and hopefully with more releases she will be allowed to take more chances.
“Mirror Man” Above I explained that this track works, but to expand, the great bass-line, and dynamite chorus set it apart from the majority of this album. It’s got some effective punch without feeling so calculated.
“Give Your Heart Away” At first this seems rather basic, but then Henderson busts out the chorus and really nails it in the best way possible.
“Empire” Part power-ballad, part club-banger, this track is a strange hybrid, but as Henderson carefully allows this song to build, she effectively gives it the power it needs. She proves herself to be quite a versatile vocalist on this track.
quicklist: 5title: Kat Dahlia’s “My Garden” ***1/2text: Singer, Kat Dahlia’s full-length debut offers up a complex, fascinating sonic stew, showcasing elements of pop, hip-hop, Latin and reggae influence. Two years after the Miami-bred singer made a splash with her debut single, “Gangsta” she finally gets to show the world her full-length release and it is worth the wait. Dahlia has a refreshingly gruff persona, that brings to mind someone who has lived the tales she tells. She also tends to have a style that often favors story-telling over melody. She often comes off like a female answer to Citizen Cope fused with slight flecks of the pop ambition of Nelly Furtado. Her voice often quivers as if full of rage and/or emotional determination, with a unique rasp which is added and removed at will for emphasis. There’s a great deal going on here and Dahlia quickly proves herself to be beyond pop formula even if the production sometimes suggests otherwise.
“My Garden” is frequently more alluring than it is catchy. I mean that in the best way. Dahlia often focuses in on moods over tunes. The title-track with its semi monotone drive seems like an odd opener at first, but she is more of a storyteller than a pop star. Somehow, the personality and charisma behind her delivery drives everything further home, although when she adds an infectious chorus into the mix as she does on “I Think I’m In Love,” she’s able to take her sound further. As an album, “My Garden” may disappoint those looking for a pop fix, but obviously Dahlia is in it for the long-haul. While it may take her a record or more to fully combine all her talents together into the perfect concoction, this album shows her as an extremely promising, distinct voice. Dahlia has plenty of room to grow and expand, but that doesn’t keep her from owning the room from time to time. Yes, this album may be from the major labels’ state-of-the-art hit factory, but Kat Dahlia is definitely not a cookie-cutter artist.
“I Think I’m In Love” When Dahlia drops the roughness and shows a sweeter side as she does here, she shows massive pop potential without missing a step. This is an amazing pop ballad and yet it still maintains her edge.
“Saturday Sunday” This is a groovy, possible big single comparing the blur of the weekend between the late-night partying on Saturday and the praying on Sunday. “Who do I tell my stories to?” she asks, adding, “Is the DJ in the confession booth?” The contrast of the club and church has been done before, but Dahlia does this particularly well.
“Gangsta” Yes, if you are looking for her 2013 single, here it is and it still packs a lot of streetwise attitude.
quicklist: 6title: Jazmine Sullivan’s “Reality Show” ****text: For her third album and her first album in five years, Philadelphia R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan proves why she is one of the most exciting singers that the genre currently has to offer. Modern R&B has often lost its way in recent years, but Sullivan keeps things fresh with strong material, production and a distinct flare and attitude. She’s holding her own like a peak-form Jill Scott did a decade ago and almost as much as Lauryn Hill did roughly two decades ago. Sullivan’s gospel roots show in her strong vocal technique, even if now her material is now rougher around the edges. Strangely, though, even the “Explicit” version of this record seems half-censored in some places which although puzzling doesn’t distract from the record as much as you’d probably expect. Why some words appear to be removed on “Brand New” while others remain intact is a mystery. Even in its half-censored state, it earns its sticker.
While this record is very much in the traditions the genre has set over the last couple decades, Sullivan is always taking chances. She changes the tone of her delivery a variety of times to suit the material. Her authoritative reading on the verse-section of “Stupid Girl” stands out significantly. She’s also not afraid to put earthy-sounding tracks next to more electro-sounding fare. But no matter what kind of track she’s singing over, she gives each song special care. She’s a vintage talent amidst a modern landscape.
“Masterpiece (Mona Lisa)” This is a drifting slice of classic radio-ready R&B with jazzy undertones and driving guitar-work. In a different time, this would probably be a career-changer and while this isn’t the toughest or most conventionally pop-ready piece of work, it packs an amazing amount of power and artistry.
“Dumb” (Featuring Meek Mill) This single has an ominous swagger and is beaming with attitude. This song has actually been floating around for 8 months so it should be familiar to her fans. Its clapping stomp, akin to Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” too, should make it ripe for licensing and placement in movies and on television.
“Silver Lining” Simply put, this is a smooth bit of artfully crafted R&B, punctuated by a wonderfully trippy beat and some fitting Latin-tinged piano work during the chorus.
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