Music Reviews: The Latest From Ne-Yo, The Dodos, Jamie Cullum and More

PHOTO: Ne-Yo performs at the BET Honors 2015 at Warner Theater, Jan. 24, 2015 in Washington.
Kevin Wolf/Invision/AP

This week R&B star Ne-Yo returns with his latest pop-flavored offering, indie-band the Dodos offer up some frantic, fuzzy rock, jazz musician Jamie Cullum brings new cool to the old school, Americana act Punch Brothers get intricate, and newcomer Natalie Prass blends strong, timeless arrangements with in-depth song-craft. It’s an unusual assortment this week, full of surprises.

PHOTO: Ne-Yo "Non-Fiction" (Deluxe Edition)
Ne-Yo’s “Non Fiction” (Deluxe) ***

Ne-Yo’s sixth album, “Non Fiction” finds the singer balancing a classic R&B style with modern pop conventions. Throughout his career, he’s been hit or miss, offering up R&B for a post-Usher pop audience, but here he finds a nice middle-ground. Even at its weakest points, this album has an undeniable silky smoothness. There’s definitely an electro sheen at work throughout most of the album, but if you scrape away some of the layers of lacquer, you’ll hear that he’s working with a classic template.

Really this album’s biggest flaw is that, true to its title, it’s an R&B album about finding love in the face of fame and “adoration,” dodging perceptions of image and flash in order to find something real. The reason why that is a weakness is because it has been done countless time before, even if Ne-Yo brings some understandable insight. Of course it doesn’t help that the explanation in the album’s title-track intro openly contradicts itself, thus blurring the album’s overall mission statement.

Of course, sometimes he’s not even looking for something real, like for instance on “Story Time” when he’s merely trying to convince his girlfriend to have a threesome with another woman. (Then when she suggests they have a threesome with another man, he gets offended.)

Ne-Yo is best when he’s delivering smooth R&B ballads. In contrast, the Pitbull-assisted “Time Of Our Lives” comes off as the lamest form of pop pandering. Thankfully, on this collection, this stands as an atypical outlier. There’s still a lot to enjoy on here otherwise.

Throughout the set, ScHoolboy Q, T.I., Juicy J and Jeezy bring doses of hip-hop with mixed results. Ne-Yo’s latest chapter may have a couple low points, but it still ends up leaving a winning, positive impression overall.

Focus Tracks:

“Coming With You” For Ne-Yo’s fans who prefer his R&B-leaning material, this club track will be undeniably polarizing. It sounds like it is from the late eighties or the early nineties. Think about Black Box or Soul II Soul and you are in the right arena. It may sound a bit humorously retro, but it’s a killer of a dance track. Still, even with this pseudo-house beat, Ne-Yo still manages to keep his R&B cool.

“Who’s Taking You Home?” This is a great song for the end of a dance. It is mellow, smooth and assured, with a softly driving beat.

“Religious” This album is rich with “smooth loving” R&B hallmarks and this song compares making love to a religious experience. It has been done before, but this is handled in a loving and tender way.

PHOTO: The Dodos "Individ"
The Dodos’ “Individ” ****

For their sixth album, “Individ,” San Francisco indie rock duo The Dodos have concocted a jumpy, tense, atmospheric collection full of pep and drive. Committed to tape reported shortly after their last album, 2013’s “Carrier,” this record sits well on its own and actually plays a touch better than its predecessor. Members Logan Kroeber and Metric Long alternate between frantic-rhythmed rockers and doses of low-key power-pop, combining a grungy sensibility with a clear mathematical approach. At the same time, this album has an airy sound, thick with rich vocal harmonies, bringing to mind the famous “California Sound” that emerged on AM radio in the seventies. This mixture can create some truly fascinating moments, like when guitar dissonance momentarily covers crystal-clear vocals halfway through the album’s seven-minute closer, “Pattern/Shadow,” while a cymbal clicks away like a rushed metronome.

This is a very organic record, and one would bet it would sound even better on vinyl than it does on CD. It is clearly an exploration in fuzz, rhythmic angst and vocal precision. From the moment the distortion of opener, “Precipitation” sinks into your eardrums, the mood is set. Roughly four minutes into the track when the tempo completely changes, another key element is cemented.

If you’ve never heard The Dodos before, you are missing something and should do some exploring of their back-catalog. “Individ” is an intensely jaunty, tight sonic ride which surely will win the Dodos some new fans.

Focus Tracks:

“Bastard” Don’t be frightened away by the title. If you are, you are doing yourself a disservice. This is the slowest (and shortest) song on the record, but it is also among the most appealing, showcasing a slow-burning intensity which comes to a head during the strong chorus.

“Competition” The beat to this track slaps along with great power, giving a feeling of constant momentum. Even when the beat gets momentarily augmented, the rhythmic interplay between the drums and guitars remains rock-solid.

“Bubble” This track’s unusual beat is typical of the rest of the set. But even with its odd shifts, this song harnesses some off-kilter beauty. The key shifts during the guitar solo, keeping with the rest of the unpredictable left turns on the set.

PHOTO: Jamie Cullum "Interlude"
Jamie Cullum’s “Interlude” ****

If you are a savvy, resourceful music fan, it is possible you got this album last year, when at the same time as its initial British release, it received a quiet digital release in the States. Now, it actually gets a proper American release on Blue Note, adding three tracks to the original release.

More than a decade removed from his initial breakout and still best release, “Twentysomething,” Cullum has settled well into a jazz-vocalist niche and on “Interlude” he covers everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles to Sufjan Stevens. As a singer, he’s got a surprising amount of soul, mining an area more similar to the vintage R&B on his fellow countryman, James Hunter than let’s say the Sinatra-lite world of Michael Bublé. Cullum has teeth and he has edge. He’s an old-school cat, who knows how to bring a new spark into an old sound. He approaches Richard Carpenter’s “Walkin’” with the kind of energy that recalls a peak-period Bobby Darin.

On “Good Morning, Heartache,” he finds an ideal duet partner in singer Laura Mvula, whose album, “Sing To The Moon” was one of the brightest debuts of 2013. Cullum proves throughout the set to be a versatile showman, with copious amounts of talent.

Sure, on this set, he explores standards and covers and he doesn’t explore the kind of original adventurousness that he did on his Dan The Automator-produced 2005 single, “Get Your Way,” but this album has a clear vision and that means it never exits a supper-club brand of retro cool. Even though this is well-worn territory, it never sounds the least bit stale.

Focus Tracks:

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Featuring Gregory Porter) The first impression of this track is why do it? It’s been done so well by Nina Simone, the Animals and more, but Cullum and his guest Gregory Porter deliver a top-notch version which is indeed worthy of existence. This track in essence proves all of my above points.

“Losing You” Cullum brings a late-night sense of sadness to his version of Randy Newman’s “Losing You.” The feeling of regret ingrained in the song itself is strongly felt.

“Sack o’ Woe” Cullum gives this Cannonball Adderley/ Jon Hendricks number exactly the right amount of boogie-woogie swagger.

PHOTO: The Punch Brothers "The Phosphorescent Blues"
Punch Brothers’ “The Phosphorescent Blues” ****

Here’s the thing about Punch Brothers’ music. Given their set-up, which includes a banjo player, a mandolin, an upright bass player and a fiddle, you’d expect them to be a straight-up bluegrass band. On this, their fourth album, “The Phosphorescent Blues,” there are hints of Americana and of old country-blues, but at its core this is something completely different and more progressive, rich with intricacy. From the ten-minute opener, “Familiarity” onward, it is apparent that they don’t want to be pigeon-holed or held to one style. Yes, songs like “My Oh My” and “Boll Weevil” will please country and bluegrass purists, but during the rest of the record, the group act like a tight, tiny, shape-shifting orchestra. Each plucked note has its exact purpose, weaving a careful tapestry.

If you ever saw their episode of the A.V. Club’s “A.V. Undercover” where they performed a surprisingly faithful and amazingly spot-on cover of the Cars’ “Just What I needed” a few years back, you know that this band is pretty much up for anything, anchored by Chris Thiele’s strong, yet gentle voice. In some ways, there’s an element to this album that recalls Guster’s earliest records, from back when their music came off as more gently plucked and all their rhythms were famously kept without sticks.

Punch Brothers have a similar energy, finding beauty by mixing flecks of folk, country and slight spots of jazz. And with producer T. Bone Burnett, they are in excellent hands.

What kind of music is this? Progressive Americana? Maybe. One thing is for certain. It deserves a wider audience than it probably gets.

Focus Tracks:

“I Blew It Off” Arguably, this is the most mainstream-sounding track on the record, with its big, building chorus. Again the music of Guster comes strongly to mind. This is a gently appealing song.

“Julep” A walking bass-line plays over a verse section about death. It’s not as dark as it probably reads and as the song progresses it blossoms into something densely-woven, but quietly crafted, all with the repeated refrain of “Heaven’s a julep on the porch.”

“Passepied" (Debussy) If you want to focus on this band’s tremendous level of skill, listen to the inherent complexity of this instrumental performance.

PHOTO: Natalie Prass "Natalie Prass"
Natalie Prass’ “Natalie Prass” ***1/2

Singer/Songwriter Natalie Prass’ self-titled debut offers up a surprisingly rich tapestry with orchestral flourishes mixed with a retro soulfulness. As a vocalist, Prass comes off as wonderfully sweet. This album is hard to classify because it dips into so many genres at once. At its core, this plays like an offering for indie rock fans who also love retro R&B and elements of jazz. There’s also a seventies AM radio thread throughout.

These songs are dynamic, complex and full of tremendous ambition. The arrangements are sharp and well-orchestrated. In truth, this album takes a very strong walk through musical history, from the soul of “Bird Of Prey” to the almost Broadway-esqe quiet sweep of “Christy.” Only on the nearly Lawrence Welk-esque closer, “It Is You,” (which also brings to mind images of Bambi and Thumper frolicking around in the forest) does it come close to stumbling.

But overall, this album is a clear winner, showcasing a fresh new talent. If it has a slight flaw, it is that sometimes the instrumentation overpowers Prass’ quietly-affecting vocals. She’s a gentle singer, and while these songs are wonderfully dense, sometimes she feels a tad drowned out in the process. Still, all the elements are strong, and surely that balance will come with time. Natalie Prass is definitely an artist you should know.

Focus Tracks: “My Love Don’t Understand Me” When this opening track starts, it gives the album an uncertain beginning, before softly building into something truly powerful. The repeated refrain of “Our love is a long goodbye,” really sticks, as does the burning question, “Where do you go when the home that you know is with a stranger?” This is an ace slice of songwriting.

“Why Don’t You Believe In Me” Like a lost radio hit from another time, this song announces itself with a gentle, low bass-line, which gets augmented by some excellent piano and horn work. Prass is also not afraid to throw a flute into the mix. This album has an unflinching kitschiness that lacks a sense of irony. This is just some old-school song-craft in action. “Your Fool” This is a kiss-off love-letter to a no-good flame who has done her wrong and it is three minutes and 16 seconds of sonic gold.

Next Week: New releases from Bob Dylan, Diana Krall and more.

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