Music Reviews: The Latest From Taylor Swift, Yusuf (Cat Stevens), Rancid and More

PHOTO: Taylor Swift performs at the "Good Morning America" taping in Times Square, Oct. 30, 2014, in New York City.GC Images/Getty Images
Taylor Swift performs at the "Good Morning America" taping in Times Square, Oct. 30, 2014, in New York City.

intro: This week Taylor Swift releases what will most likely be the biggest-selling album of the year. Most likely it will be the first album of 2014 to be certified platinum, which considering we just crossed into November makes a truly depressing statement about the state of the music industry.

Also this week Cat Stevens returns to release his latest album (as Yusuf) with the help of producer Rick Rubin, Rancid relight their ska-punk fire after a five-year absence, The Flaming Lips get together with some “Fwends” to cover the Beatles for charity, rappers El-P and Killer Mike rejoin forces as Run The Jewels and actress Leighton Meester releases an album of chilled indie rock ballads. It’s a diverse week.

quicklist: 1 title: Taylor Swift’s “1989” *** text: Is there a more polarizing popular entertainer than Taylor Swift? Her fans rabidly love her while her critics view her as overly sugary. Whatever is said here is no doubt going to anger someone, but the truth is, “1989” which is touted as Swift’s first proper “pop” record, exhibits Swift pretty well. Yes, it still has its moments, like the cloyingly bouncy, single, “Shake It Off,” complete with a cringe-inducing half-rapped bridge, but otherwise, this album shows growth. Mark my words, “Shake It Off” may be getting a lot of play, but it is the weakest song here. The rest of the set shows her in a better light. Some fans will lament the lack of guitar work here, which is a fair point, but many of these songs show her in a new and different light.

Swift has always told stories. Her pseudo-spoken narrative style has made her an easy target for detractors, but it is a unique facet of her style. This isn’t really Swift’s first pop record. Though touted as a country artist originally, she’s always shown a bit of a pop side. Anyone who thinks that the dub-step-flavored drops on “I Knew You Were Trouble” from her last album “Red” belonged on country radio obviously doesn’t know what country really sounds like. As on that song, Swift does her best when she fuses that narrative, plain-spoken style with a dynamite chorus.

Here, Swift continues to grow in her level of confidence. That being said, the biggest weakness in her material is that it’s catchy but not always memorable. Still, when Swift finds an amazing chorus she nails it. And while her personal lyrics about breakups and rebounds can get tiring to some as if scrawled in the journal of a naïve teenager, this is a far better and smarter example of a mega-selling pop album than others that have been released this year.

Swift also sounds like she’s been listening to some unexpected sources. Lana Del Rey is quite an influence here and “Welcome To New York” strangely sounds like it was recorded after hours of listening to LCD Soundsystem.

The shift to full-fledged pop suits Swift well even if there is room for improvement. But there are hints of maturity seeping in. I think it is possible that within the next 10 years, Swift will release something more immense that will reach a wider audience including some of her current doubters. “1989” is far from perfect, but it has glimpses of a bright future. This album deserves closer inspection and should not be easily dismissed. However, Swift’s best work is likely still ahead of her.

Focus Tracks:

“Bad Blood” This should have been the first single with its soaring chorus and its stomping beat. There’s a call-and-response quality that works incredibly well. This is a club stomper waiting to happen. The lines “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes. / You say sorry just for show. / If you live like that you live with ghosts” bring up some intriguing questions.

“Wildest Dreams” There’s no doubt in probably anyone’s mind that Lana Del Rey is a huge influence on this song. There are probably people thinking that Swift has liberally stolen Ms. Grant’s style here, but really I consider it a strong influence. Yes, it sounds like Lana Del Rey but through Swift’s sunnier perspective. Lana has yet to sing something that has this track’s hint of major-key optimism.

“Blank Space” This dance number pairs her narrative style with a strong tune. The line “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed up like a daydream” is a bit frightening in its implications while the assertion that “Boys only want love if it’s torture,” may indicate someone in severe need of intelligent dating advice.

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quicklist: 2 title: Yusuf’s “Tell ‘Em I’m Gone” ***1/2 text: The artist formally known as Cat Stevens has been recording as Yusuf for a number of years now since his conversion to Islam. While he may be far from his late-sixties and early-seventies heyday, the truth is, his music hasn’t changed all that much. He’s still the same guy who recorded “Peace Train,” but there are just a few more occasional Eastern-flavored and slight religious touches in his music that pop up from time to time.

“Tell Him I’m Gone” is primarily actually a blues record, recorded mostly with Rick Rubin. Yusuf mixes covers with originals with a few surprising results. First of all, he is quite capable of the blues, which I suppose isn’t all that shocking since many of the “British Invasion” artists from the sixties were incredibly enamored with and influenced by American blues and while primarily seen as someone who has mainly worked in the folk and pop traditions, Yusuf has always been known to draw from a diverse sonic pool. Secondly, his take on Edgar Winter’s “Dying To Live” sounds very much like an out-take from his work in the early seventies.

His voice has barely changed over the years. It has an ever-so-slightly deeper resonance which just gives it more presence.

There are a few religious references throughout the set including the opener, “I Was Raised In Babylon” and the Gospel-esque “Doors.” It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that he is showing his spiritual side. He has a long history of doing so. (Think back to his classic, “The Wind,” for instance.)

While this album does have its awkwardly heavy-handed moments (like the worker pleading for more money from his boss so he doesn’t starve in “Gold Digger,”) this album fits decently with his earlier work. No, there isn’t a standout akin to “Wild World,” “Here Comes My Baby” or “The First Cut Is The Deepest,” but to those who may have given up on him over the last two decades due to various controversies, this is a reminder that he is still the same dynamic performer that wrote so many classics.

Focus Tracks:

“You Are My Sunshine” Believe it or not, this is a cover of the Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell-penned song that has become a celebrated lullaby and sing-a-long staple over the years. Yusuf’s reading is full of bluesy vigor. It is very surprising.

“Editing Floor Blues” This is an autobiographical bluesy number with a vital bit of edge. He explains his life history in just under four minutes, culminating in a jab at the media for how he has been misunderstood in the press.

“The Devil Came From Kansas” This is a surprisingly grungy, rollicking reading of the Gary Brooker and Keith Reid-penned song. As an added bonus, it features backing vocals from Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

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quicklist: 3 title: Rancid’s "...Honor Is All We Know" ***1/2 text: If you’ve ever liked Rancid, you know exactly what to expect from their eighth album, “...Honor Is All We Know.” Yes, the California mainstays are still playing their potent mix of ska-infused punk with a slight, occasional dose of rockabilly influence.

This album is more brutally blunt than many of their previous offerings. At just 32 minutes, it is also somewhat leaner than their albums have been in recent years. It’s been five years since their last release, “Let The Dominoes Fall,” so this set’s brevity serves as a bit of a letdown. But considering the album is produced by Bad Religion-leader and Epitaph Records’ founder Brett Gurewitz, it seems that at its core this album is meant to be a focused restatement of purpose. It’s not flashy. It doesn’t show off any tricks outside of the band’s character. It just offers Rancid in their rawest form.

In between albums, leader Tim Armstrong produced Jimmy Cliff’s 2012 album, “Rebirth,” and you can hear Cliff’s influence in the back-to-basics ska approach that fuels the tracks where the guitars recede.

Of course, for the most part this seems to be a down-and-dirty collection of songs about street fights, political discord, life and death. With titles like “Grave Digger,” “Already Dead,” “Face Up” and “In The Streets” the tone is essentially set. Is this album as monumental as “Let’s Go” or “…And Out Come The Wolves?” No. Not even close. But it does still have a great deal of kick.

Focus Tracks:

“Evil’s My Friend” A ska groove with beat destined for some righteous “skanking” action, this no doubt deserves to be among their best work.

“Honor Is All We Know” This title track plays like a rallying of the troops. It’s like a pep talk with societal subtext, which is augmented by some gang-style punk backing vocals.

“Diabolical” “One man gives an opinion. / The other man takes offense. / When it comes to violence / It’s a diabolical dance.” This is a song about disagreements both personal and global. It’s the kind of political reflection that would’ve made Joe Strummer proud, but then again The Clash have always loomed largely as a key Rancid influence.

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quicklist: 4 title: The Flaming Lips’ “With A Little Help From My Fwends” *1/2 text: I'm not sure what is happening to the Flaming Lips. They used to mix their knack for the avant guard with flecks of genius. “Transmissions From The Satellite Heart,” “The Soft Bulletin” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” are all classics. But something happened to them around the time of their pretentiously strange 2008 experimental film, “Christmas On Mars.” With the exception of 2009’s “Embryonic” which had its share of decent moments, each record since then has been a collection of brutally forced weirdness, sacrificing music quality for oddity. Their world has become one full of cartoonishly awful NSFW music videos and aimless 24-hour jam sessions.

Within the last few years they have also released a few truly off-kilter records. In late 2009, they issued a somewhat pointless (but not totally dissatisfying) full-length rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” and in 2012 they issued “The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends,” an odd collaborative record with a wide variety of guests. The highlight of which was a 10-minute cover of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” sung by Erykah Badu. Of course, all didn’t go well after the highly controversial music video for the collaboration caused an ugly public feud between Badu and the Lips’ Wayne Coyne.

Now a year off of their last proper and spotty album, “The Terror,” the band sets the bar lower than ever before. “With A Little Help From My Fwends” is a complete, guest-packed album length cover of the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and it is an unholy mess full of guests you’d expect to know better. This is the sound of a classic album not being lovingly reconstructed, but defiled. Maybe this fails because most of these guests recorded their parts separately, only to have them pieced together. High-caliber collaborators like J Mascis, Phantogram , Grace Potter and Tegan & Sarah can’t revive this collection from the Lips’ insistence to drape it in cacophonous wooziness. This is trying to update the Beatles’ psychedelic side, but it ends up misfiring and sounding downright blasphemous.

The sad part is, this is a benefit album for the SPCA’s “Bella Foundation,” which helps animal owners who can’t pay their pets’ medical bills and helps people become better pet owners. It’s a cause that deserved a better album. There’s no justifiable reason to give this album this this dreadful a reading.

Focus Tracks

“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (Featuring Miley Cyrus and Moby) Honestly, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Miley Cyrus’ surprisingly soft and sweet vocal reading of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” gives this album its one highlight. It helps that this is also one of the least sonically drowned tracks on the record. Cyrus shows up again later on “A Day In The Life” with less-impressive results.

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quicklist: 5 title: Run The Jewels’ “Run The Jewels 2” **** text: Run the Jewels is the duo of ex-Company Flow juggernaut El-P and rapper Killer Mike. El-P has built his name on both his impressive production prowess and his knack for shooting out authoritative verses. Killer Mike is probably known best to the passing public for his collaborative work with Outkast. Both men issued strong records in 2012, with El-P dropping “Cancer4Cure” and Mike releasing “R.A.P. Music.” When they came together in 2013 to release the first Run The Jewels album it was a match that made sense. Both of them dish out unapologetically hardcore rhymes with tenacity, skill and force and both command attention at the mic.

“Run The Jewels 2” offers up the same kind of brutal rhymes as the first volume, but it is clear this time that the match’s success the last time around wasn’t merely a fluke. They come off spitting bile over heavily distorted and tweaked beats that bring to mind a dystopian future. The beat-work is dizzying in the best way and it seems like every aspect of this album is amped up as to max. Each verse is delivered with angst-driven drive of an intense lyrical battle.

Lyrically speaking, this record is not for the easily offended but it is an exercise in constant momentum. This is 38 minutes of pure, blunt experimental hip-hop that aims to both push the genre forward and return it back to its glory days. Here’s hoping there is a third record.

Focus Tracks:

“Close Your Eyes (And Count To F___)” (Featuring Zack De La Rocha) The former Rage Against The Machine vocalist makes a key appearance in this propulsive jam. He also drops a verse on this magnetic jam.

“Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” This is swirling, drum-n-bass influenced number that sounds amazingly dizzying as both El-P and Killer Mike both drop rapid-fire verses.

“Early” Killer Mike drops a potent verse here about fear of being arrested without true cause. It’s no doubt a response to controversial “stop and frisk” laws.

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quicklist: 6 title: Leighton Meester’s “Heartstrings” **** text: Yes, Leighton Meester spent years on “Gossip Girl” and yes she did briefly try her hand at pop a few years back (including an embarrassing single with Robin Thicke) but thankfully her proper debut isn’t really a pop record at all. It has a well-crafted, indie-minded ethereal feel. These nine songs are gentle exercises in lush song-craft. Meester’s voice is a high, but flexible instrument full of sweet warmth. There’s a lounge-y dream-like appeal here that is undeniable.

And Meester surrounds herself with industry veterans who nicely aid her in her musical vision. Matt Chamberlain has played drums on record for everyone from Morrissey to Dido, producer Jeff Trott is a longtime collaborator with Sheryl Crow and keyboardist Patrick Warren is probably most famous for his collaborative work on Michael Penn’s albums.

Essentially, this is a breezy collection that finds a potent middle ground somewhere between the upbeat work of Haim and the sedate, laid back work of Mazzy Star. Influences are all around, from the glee-filled “L.A.” which sounds like a Phil Spector production sans the “Wall Of Sound” reverb to eighties Fleetwood Mac sound of closer “Entitled.”

“Heartstrings” is gloriously potent. Meester’s husband in real life is actor Adam Brody who famously played music lover Seth Cohen on the show “The O.C.” It’s not that hard to imagine Seth Cohen listening to this album in between Death Cab For Cutie binges.

Actors and actresses putting out records can be a tricky business. When she was in the “pop” column, she was on the negative side of the equation, but here Meester proves herself to be more than up to the task. The fact that she writes her own material makes this a even more of an authentic exercise. Her music on “Heartstrings” is cool, confident and often entrancing.

Focus Tracks:

“Run Away” This is a sweet song with a really addictive chord progression and it has an ease and lift that recalls late-period AM radio hits of the early eighties. This deserves to be a hit now.

“Dreaming” This soft ballad has an expansive tune. While it is somewhat quiet, it announces itself fully with its expressive tune. Meester is perfectly suited to sing this song.

“Good For One Thing” This handclap-fueled builder is truly infectious and yet in some ways it sounds like a more commercial, less dissonant answer to the side of The Jesus & Mary Chain that brought you “Just Like Honey.”

Next Week: New reviews from Calvin Harris and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Jessie Ware, Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox and more.

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