Music Reviews: The Latest From Thom Yorke, Prince, Lucinda Williams and More

PHOTO: Prince performs in Birmingham, England, in this 2014 photo released by NPG Records.NPG Records/AP Photo
Prince performs in Birmingham, England, in this 2014 photo released by NPG Records.

intro: This week Radiohead’s Thom Yorke dropped a surprise album, Prince released not one but two new records, Lucinda Williams released a new double album, Oasis’ “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?” got the deluxe reissue treatment, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross scored David Fincher’s latest film, “Gone Girl” and Swedish singer Tove Lo offered up a collection of addictive and honest dance pop. It’s an extremely varied week with a lot of heavily-packed releases, so as usual we have a lot to discuss.

quicklist: 1 title: Thom Yorke’s “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” ***1/2 text: Late last week, Thom Yorke dropped a surprise album, “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” via BitTorrent. It was kind of a strange way to release an album, but it's not the first time he's done something different; with Radiohead, he asked fans to pay what they want. This album comes at a set price.

Sonically, if you are familiar with his previous work outside of Radiohead, “The Eraser” or last year’s Atoms For Peace record, this album actually offers very few surprises. He continues to explore the sometimes claustrophobic, post-“Kid A” electronic soundscapes. While there is warmth here, it very much plays to what we probably expect from him at this point.

The piano riff that fades in on “Guess Again!” has a particularly striking Radiohead-esque signature. One gets the idea that Yorke quit trying to have hits a while ago, focusing on artistic exploration over pop success and yes, there is almost a jazz-like meditative quality to the focus of these grooves. Still they very much come from a post-Four Tet and post-Aphex Twin world.

Ultimately, this winds up being an extremely capable collection that will be a rewarding listen to fans of Yorke’s earlier work. But, for as experimental as it sounds, this is actually a record that takes fewer risks than it should. The crazy beat-work and use of electro-sonics have both become easy signatures for Yorke. In fact what comes to mind when hearing this record (even as one enjoys it) is how much the guitar-work of early Radiohead albums like “Pablo Honey” and “The Bends” is missed. At this point, if Yorke wants to do something really risky, he should switch back to making guitar music. He should switch it up a little.

This is a very good record, but it isn’t classic because it feels like variations on elements we have heard before. Still, it does have its fleeting moments of whirling fascination and beauty.

Focus Tracks:

“Nose Grows Some” This closing track begins in typical spacy Yorke fashion but quickly becomes a warm, airy ballad. It’s hard to make out his garbled, cryptic falsetto lyrics at first, but tone-wise the track has a smooth and welcoming feel.

“A Brain In A Bottle” This is an alienating bit of bass-heavy dance music, with a pulse that seethes with every beat. As strange as this track is, I can still imagine it getting the massive remix treatment and becoming an offbeat hit in the progressive club circuit.

“The Mother Lode” This is another stab at warmth, with Yorke playing with an off-kilter house-driven beat, that at times sounds like low-key disco on a bender.

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quicklist: 2 title: Prince’s “Art Official Age” **1/2 / Prince & 3rdEyeGirl “PlectrumElectrum” *** text: These two new Prince albums are slight disappointments considering the power of his back catalog and the fact that he remains not only to be one of the best rock guitarists of his generation but of all time.

“Art Official Age” focuses mainly on the funk, a place where Prince was once a groundbreaker, but the album itself lacks a little bite for two main reasons. It often sounds like a George Clinton or a Zapp & Roger record and secondly, the production is too slick. While this album does have a few notable moments, it is one of the weaker offerings in his discography and doesn’t have the power of early benchmarks like “1999” or “Purple Rain.” There’s a drive missing that once existed.

The second record, “PlectrumElectrum” finds Prince alternately being backed by and co-headlining with an all-female trio, “3rdEyeGirl,” and this is much more of a rock exploration. It’s weird, if you’ve ever seen Prince live either in person or on video, he can really wail on the guitar and yet something about the spectacle gets lost on his studio recordings.

There are some odd moments that bring the album down, though. The title track of “PlectrumElectrum” sort of apes Zeppelin, while the opening singing/shouting bit on “PretzelBodyLogic” is grating and might make you question listening to the rest of the track.

Fans were looking for a new classic may be disappointed here. Prince is still one of the greats but these albums are just OK.

Focus Tracks(“Art Official Age”):

“Breakdown” This song is an enveloping falsetto-driven love ballad and stands as the album’s strongest offering, especially as it seems to really lift off during the chorus. I wish the rest of the album was this powerful.

“Way Back Home” Another highlight. Like “Breakdown,” this track finds Prince working in similar ballad territory. Somehow these tracks work better than the funk side because they recall the greatness of early hits like “I Would Die 4 U.”

Focus Tracks (“Plectrum Electrum”):

“FunknRoll” This song actually appears on both records, but while the one on “Art Official Age” sounds like a tripped-out dance remix, this one maintains a stronger rock edge and is thus much more effective.

“White Caps” Prince takes a backseat to this reflective R&B ballad. The track possesses a sophisticated, appealingly jazzy edge.

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quicklist: 3 title: Lucinda Williams’ “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” **** text: Lucinda Williams’ first album is three years in a sprawling double record full of meditative blues and been-there-done-that knowhow. The alt-country singer doesn’t offer much “alt” here. I suppose that what makes this record actually alternative is that it is an old-school country record that sounds like what came out of Nashville before the genre got spiked with a radio-ready sugar-coating.

This record doesn’t quite resonate like her 1988 self-titled record or the now classic “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road,” a decade later, but it is a reminder of Williams’ power as a performer. As the years have gone by, the twang in her voice has gotten stronger, but that now almost slurred lyrical approach somehow gives a little more breadth to these songs about heartbreak and world-weariness.

What Williams gives us here is a solid hour and 44-minutes of reflective numbers. She’s wary of demons and being too vulnerable and she’s obviously gained a lot of knowledge. There’s intelligent wisdom in each of these songs, thus further cementing Williams’ status as legendary writer and performer. This is real country without the fluff and it is indeed an epic statement.

Focus Tracks:

“One More Day” Towards the end of the set, Williams offers up this mellow request for forgiveness asking for “one more day to turn things around.” It is quite potent.

“Protection” This is a fed up plea to be sheltered from evil, whether it be hate or heartbreak. As Williams asks for “protection from the enemy of righteousness,” she develops a Gospel-esque sense of fortitude.

“Magnolia” This JJ Cale cover that closes the set clocks in at nearly 10 minutes but it has a strongly reflective, contemplated energy. Really, this is the perfect closer to an album that at its core is about love, kindness, warmth and compassion. There’s sadness in Williams’ tone as if she is responding to disappointment and tragedy. That energy is palpable.

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quicklist: 4 title: Oasis’ “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?” (Deluxe Edition) ****1/2 text: Oasis’ second album, originally released in 1995 gets the same 3-disc “Deluxe Edition” treatment as their debut “Definitely Maybe” recently received and it has a huge selection of B-sides and live cuts. The original 12-song record has ballooned to 40 tracks and it has something for just about every Oasis fan.

A large portion of the B-sides found their way originally onto the compilation “The Masterplan,” and there are others that one can guess why they didn’t make the final cut of the standard record. “It’s Better People,” for instance sounds like a happier, bouncier reading of the “Wonderwall” riff, while the appealing “Bonehead’s Bank Holiday” is better here in its demo form than it is in the full studio take. But why “Acquiesce” (which became a decent hit when it was released on “The Masterplan”) didn’t make the original album is anyone’s guess. That song is classic Oasis.

Of the original album, the standouts still remain as “Wonderwall,” “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” the title-track and “Champagne Supernova.” One stray discovery when re-examining this record is that Best Coast really need to cover “Hey Now!” I could imagine an arrangement that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on their album “Crazy For You.”

The nineties were packed with notable records, so as anniversaries pile up, we are likely to see more extensive reissues of this variety. It is pretty safe to say that on “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?” Oasis definitely struck a high note.

Focus Tracks:

“Acquiesce (Live At Earl’s Court)” I could talk about the original record, but odds are you know that pretty well, so for this section I will focus on the bonus materials. This live take of “Acquiesce” is raw and rocking, proving that at their peak this band must’ve put on a mammoth live show.

“Bonehead’s Bank Holiday” (Demo) This track is an argument for simplicity. It works even though it is playful and lyrically a little on the harsh side. But it’s a winning piece that isn’t overthought. It’s lighthearted and fun.

“Round Are Way” (MTV Unplugged) Yes, this song’s title substitutes the word “are” for the word “our,” but that can be forgiven because this is a jaunty horn-assisted number. It’s a shame the entire MTV Unplugged episode wasn’t released. If you may recall, Liam Gallagher was sick that day and didn’t make it, so Noel sang every song. If you’ve never heard Noel sing “Wonderwall,” it is definitely something you should see if you can find.

“Cast No Shadow” (Live At Maine Road) This upbeat reading of this track sounds almost celebratory.

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quicklist: 5 title: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ “Gone Girl (Soundtrack From The Motion Picture) **** text: It should surprise no one that Trent Reznor has found great success as a film-scorer. A listen to Nine Inch Nails’ instrumental double opus, “Ghosts i-iv” automatically lets you know he’s been up to the task for a long time. Go even further back to “La Mer,” from “The Fragile” and it is clear that he is equal parts composer and rock star. He and his How To Destroy Angels bandmate Atticus Ross have obviously become David Fincher’s scorers of choice, having previously helmed the soundtracks to both “The Social Network” and Fincher’s version of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”

Like their two previous soundtracks, this is a whirling, sophisticated, ambient mix that no doubt enhances the film. Making records like this can be interesting because one can explore sonic textures in ways a more traditional album won’t necessarily allow.

It is also evident that the two performers didn’t have a shortage of ideas, making their second score in a row to span multiple discs. This 24-track, hour-and-27-minute set is about half as long as their nearly three-hour companion to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” but it still takes them above and beyond the requirements.

A word of warning, if you are just a casual Nine Inch Nails fan looking for something similar to the songs you know, you won’t find it here. This is more ambient and contemplative fare that requires deep listening, so be prepared. It continues Reznor and Ross’ winning streak nicely.

Focus Tracks:

“Procedural” This is a dose of clinical synths, but as robotic as they initially seem, Reznor and Ross make sure to give them soul. The guitar-wash dissonance in the background is a nice touch.

“Perpetual” This sounds like an instrumental out-take from “The Fragile” as does a track like “Something Disposable.” Reznor has had a love for this kind of tone for much of his career.

“Secrets” Again, dissonance is a strong ingredient here. This track marries a sweet piano tinkle with an overwhelming and ultimately capsizing beat in an effort to create tension. It is effective.

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quicklist: 6 title: Tove Lo’s “Queen Of The Clouds ****1/2 text: Swedish singer Tove Lo has offered up one of the freshest, most honest and appealing pop debuts of the year. Her songs are both catchy and unapologetically frank. Somehow the album has a surprising number of layers. Lo can be forward in her lyrical approach maintaining both a powerfully upfront sexiness and an innocence simultaneously. That’s not an easy wire to walk.

This is an album about relationships and it is divided into three distinct parts. The first part is dubbed, “THE SEX,” which chronicles the opening lusting phase, then comes “THE LOVE,” which focuses on the relationship. The closing section is “THE PAIN,” about the break-up. This section features the monster single, “Habits (Stay High)” which unflinchingly depicts the depression, sickness and drug-addled haze that follows heartbreak.

Not only is this record honest, but it recalls a simpler time. It is a throwback to the massive pop records of the eighties while still playing with current trends. This is an album of singles. It’s the kind of record that can restore your faith in the power of excellent pop.

The album deserves to be an omnipresent fixture and Lo has enough charisma and presence to forge her own path. While it sounds familiar, it is still unique and with its own personality. Tove Lo is someone you should pay attention to and know.

Focus Tracks:

“Talking Body” From “THE SEX” portion, this song is both extremely forward and extremely sweet even as Lo sings, “If we’re talking body / You’ve got a perfect one. /So put it on me. /Swear it won’t take too long. / If you love me right / We f___ for life.” Delivered in the wrong way, these lines could easily sound crass, but she is able to make them encompass the passionate feelings she is addressing. They are weighted with hopes for the future and the optimism that comes with initial, unquestionable attraction.

“The Way That I Am” This anti-gravity electro-ballad from “THE LOVE” section is pleads for love in spite of perceived personal flaws. It is full of dread and a fear of rejection, but she’s fallen deeply and is putting all her cards on the table.

“My Gun” Another one from “THE SEX” section, this is an upbeat song about passionate love-making and the high that results in the aftermath. Lo sings, “I’m not easy, but if you want to touch me do it gently.” This might be about a fling, but at the same time it asks for respect. This is an appealing dance number that deserves to be a club hit.

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