Music Reviews: The Latest From Van Morrison, Action Bronson, Laura Marling and More

Find out what you should be listening to this weekend.

March 29, 2015, 3:10 AM
PHOTO: Van Morrison and Roger Daltrey perform at Teenage Cancer Trust 15th Anniversary Year Concerts at Royal Albert Hall, March 25, 2015, in London.
Van Morrison and Roger Daltrey perform at Teenage Cancer Trust 15th Anniversary Year Concerts at Royal Albert Hall, March 25, 2015, in London.
Mick Hutson/Getty Images

— -- intro: This week, Van Morrison returns with a duets album, rapper Action Bronson makes his full-length debut, British folk singing phenom Laura Marling branches out, singer Nellie McKay delivers a covers collection of songs from the mid-to-late sixties, singer-songwriter James Bay makes his debut and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion once again bring the funk. It is yet another densely populated week of new releases.

quicklist: 1title: Van Morrison’s “Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue” ***text: There apparently comes a time in just about every entertainer’s career where stock is taken. During this time, said entertainer looks through his/her back-catalog and decides to re-record songs previously recorded with often younger friends in the hopes of refreshing the material for a younger generation.

"Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue” is exactly what its title says that it is for Van Morrison. Although, Morrison does not pick his most popular songs. You won’t find “Moondance,” “Into The Mystic” or “Brown Eyed Girl” here. But this strategy allows him to give a bigger overview of his career, allowing later gems to shine.

He sings with peers like Steve Winwood, Mavis Staples and Georgie Fame along with younger voices like Joss Stone and Michael Buble. He even duets with his daughter, Shana Morrison on “Rough God Goes Riding.”

Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall, Natalie Cole, George Benson and Taj Mahal also make appearances and it is really nice to hear the late Bobby Womack one last time as the two duet on “Some Piece Of Mind.”

In the end, while this record is a rather standard exercise with nothing truly noteworthy to set it apart from other albums of its type, it still does its job by celebrating Morrison’s vast influence and saluting his long career. Could this have been done with a better known set of songs from his past? Certainly! But one gets the feeling that Morrison prefers to do it this way.

Focus Tracks:

“Whatever Happened To PJ Proby?” (with PJ Proby) It’s pretty funny that Morrison chose to record this song he originally cut in 2002 with its subject as his duet partner. Proby is an American singer who had more success in England than he did in the U.S, where he scored only one hit with 1967’s “Niki Hoeky.”

“Streets Of Arklow” (with Mick Hucknall) To a generation of fans, Mick Hucknall is known for the hits he had with Simply Red, mainly in the eighties that were somewhat bland “lite-radio” fare. To his credit, he has is a great vocalist and if you’ve ever seen the movie “24 Hour Party People,” you know that in that film, Steve Coogan, playing Factory Records-founder Tony Wilson tells us that Hucknall was actually one of the surprising people in attendance at a key event at the dawn of punk, so the man probably deserves more respect. Here, Hucknall plays well off of Morrison with a more stately rendition of this classic originally from Morrison’s 1974 album, “Veedon Fleece.”

Irish Heartbeat” (Featuring Mark Knopfler) Last week, by coincidence, I compared Mark Knopfler to Van Morrison in my review of his new album, “Tracker,” so this week it is funny to hear them sing together.

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quicklist: 2title: Action Bronson’s “Mr. Wonderful” ***1/2text: After years of floating around in the game, rapper Action Bronson finally makes his full-length debut with “Mr. Wonderful,” and as was the case with his previous work his vocal similarities to Ghostface Killah can’t be denied. The two rappers share a very similar cadence and rhyme style, almost to the point of weirdness. Both also share a knack for off-color humor and a balance between surliness and likability. Once again, if you are easily offended, look elsewhere. There are some grimy passages, but when Bronson grabs a hold of something, he really cements his presence.

All along the way, this album has a classic feel to its beats, with production from the likes of Mark Ronson, The Alchemist, 88-Keys, Oh No, Party Supplies and more. And along the way Bronson takes us on a gleefully explicit, cartoon-like ride through the life of an avid, world-traveling foodie who loves his mother and is happy for his own success. Keep in mind, before Bronson became a rapper, he was an accomplished chef.

At its core, this is post-Wu-Tang hip-hop, anchored by dusty-sounding beats fused with elements of jazz and funk. However, where this album really makes its mark is with its unusual surprises. The psychedelic jam of “The Passage (Live From Prague)” and the stern, authentic feel of “City Boy Blues” both comes as huge surprises.

There’s anger and frustration in the dysfunctional relationship depicted in the lyrics of “Baby Blue” which features Chance The Rapper, even if at its core it is just a plea for love and respect. (Although Chance’s verse seems bent on revenge.)

Bronson can definitely be rough around the edges, but he tempers this with humor. It is hard to tell how much is real and how much is meant as put on bravado. My tendency is to think it is more than likely the latter.

Still, at its best, “Mr. Wonderful” shows Action Bronson as one of hip-hop’s rising stars. He’s an unapologetic, unflinching MC who is comfortable in his own skin. This Queens native aims to advance the genre with sonic experimentation while remaining informed by the lessons of nineties hip-hop. He’s definitely brings his own, unique energy to the table.

Focus Tracks:

“Easy Rider” This is not only the album’s closing track, it is also the best song on the album. Bronson originally dropped this as a single and released a video last August and it is by far his most authoritative and most psychedelic track. The beat, itself is simply stunning and this is in effect a huge nod to the classic movie of the same name. Bronson repeats, “Ride the Harley into the sunset,” giving way to an acid-rock guitar solo. There isn’t another song currently in hip-hop with this kind of energy. This is a unique, potentially career-making jam.

“Actin’ Crazy” With its backwards chording and its slapping beat, this track immediately grabs you by your ears.

“Terry” The jazzy riff that serves as the center of this track is ace while Bronson chants, “Don’t hurt me again.” Beat-wise, it kind of has a similar energy to Q-Tip’s “Let’s Ride.”

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quicklist: 3title: Laura Marling’s “Short Movie” ****text: “Short Movie” is Laura Marling’s fifth album in eight years and as has always been the case, her youth does not match the maturity of her material. At 25, she sounds like an old soul. This was jarring when she was 17 and this is still the case.

This album is rather adventurous, too, by her standards. She’s still very much a folkie in the classic sense, but she occasionally plugs in and she deals with some experimental sonic textures. This is a transitional album and it is somewhat of a thrill to hear her branch out, from the spoken word dabbling of “Strange” to the brooding, haunting “Howl."

Marling has always done well with sparse backdrops, but this album is more assertive while keeping up with that tradition. Opener, “Warrior” is an echo-drenched haunter that recalls Nick Drake as much as it does “Sea Change”-era Beck. The title track has a hint of reflective psychedelia as it builds to an explosive conclusion while “Worship Me” is an apology from a deity who pleas for peace.

Quietly, Marling has become one of the frontrunners in the current British folk scene and this album is her booming rumble out of that genre’s confines. Marling has never sounded so confident and so sure of herself, even when it is obvious she is journeying into territory she hasn’t explored before. This is her strongest, strangest and most interesting album to date. My tendency is to think that she will somehow only continue to get even better over time.

Focus Tracks:

“Warrior” This opener as mentioned above is ethereal and stirring and it sounds like a classic cut. It deserves a lot of airplay.

“False Hope” As Marling sings about crazy neighbors who won’t let her sleep as she lies in her tiny apartment, there’s an honest sense of tension. It’s the kind of tension one authentically feels from insomnia as neighbors bang on the walls. As this track escalates, a full band kicks in, which makes it truly a unique track in Marling’s discography. It’s an unsettled rock song. The lyrical imagery of a city in the midst of a blackout adds to the song’s appealingly claustrophobic feel.

“Don’t Let Me Bring You Down” Like a cross between Bob Dylan and PJ Harvey, here Marling plays this unhinged bit of blues while she’s half singing and half speaking. She explains in the chorus, “Please don’t let me bring you down,” following it up with the attention-getting question, “Did you think I was f___ing around?”

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quicklist: 4title: Nellie McKay’s “My Weekly Reader” ***text: The bad thing about singer Nellie McKay doing a covers record is that the snarky and biting aspects of the material are diminished when compared with her original work. McKay is a genius at delivering songs of dissatisfaction with an off-putting sweetness. If you are unfamiliar with her work, you need to go back to 2004’s “Get Away From Me” and 2006’s “Pretty Little Head.” They are both classics that balance bile and confection. The disturbing and sarcastic “I Wanna Get Married” comes to mind as a perfect example of her output at its finest.

On “My Weekly Reader,” McKay does her best by picking material that would highlight her tendencies toward the darker vein. The incoming, impending doom of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” the uneasy politics of Alan Price’s “Poor People / Justice” and the sly contempt in Moby Grape’s “Murder In My Heart For The Judge” all fit well in McKay's wheelhouse. And there is something vaguely eerie about how sweetly she sings Trevor Peacock’s Herman’s Hermits-popularized “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter."

All along, McKay takes a lot of risks. It can’t be easy to cover Frank Zappa’s “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” or The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” but she does both decently. She even tackles The Beatles’ “If I Fell,” which is notable because like her 2004 debut, this album teams her up again with producer/engineer Geoff Emerick, who was the Beatles’ engineer.

Is this album necessary? Not really. McKay already did a covers record six years ago where she paid tribute to Doris Day. While these versions work, they don’t really shed new light. Will this album forward McKay’s career? Not really. Or at least not as much as a collection of originals might. But it does at the very least provide a fun and fascinating listening experience. “My Weekly Reader” ends up being a satisfying and capable place-filler in McKay’s discography.

Focus Tracks:

“Murder In My Heart For The Judge” While this song lacks the sludgy quality of the original, there is something really funny about McKay’s theatrically funky reading of this track.

“Red Rubber Ball” Originally a hit for Cyrcle, this song that counts Paul Simon as one of its writers is a perfect fit for McKay who keeps its jangly energy intact.

“Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” McKay turns this Gerry and the Pacemakers hit into something elegant and gently jazzy. (Is that a harp I hear? There’s definitely a marimba.)

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quicklist: 5title: James Bay’s “Chaos And The Calm" **1/2text: Without question, English singer/songwriter James Bay has talent. On his first full-length album, “Chaos And The Calm,” he’s obviously aiming for a pop middle-ground somewhere between James Blunt, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran. In fact, while this album plays well, the worst thing that can be said about it is that it sounds way too formulaic. Its mere predictability serves as its main detriment and yet, Bay has the kind of cookie-cutter pop voice that singing-competition show judges would love. It soars in certain places and at the same time it has a unique bit of vibrato that sometimes can make it sound like he might be crying while he’s singing. To this record’s credit, at least his vocals don’t have that slight ghost of autotune that you often hear on records of this type nowadays.

Bay is actually at his best on the softer, sparser numbers since he likes playing with spare guitar textures. "Hold Back The River” and “Scars” showcase this aspect of his work quite well. When he tries to rock out as he does on “Craving,” “Collide” and “Get Out While You Can” he goes into more formulaic, forced anthem territory. As hard as these songs can be, they severely lack edge. Small bits of unguarded guitar feedback would go a long way to keep these songs from bordering on blandness. But in the end, on the whole this record is a rather unexciting exercise that points out all the problems with watered-down major-label, middle-of-the-road “rock” acts. Too often this record sounds like countless other acts currently on the radio and it lacks distinction.

I have a feeling Bay has better records ahead of him. While this album shows promise, it also disappoints.

Focus Tracks:

“Hold Back The River” The bits of guitar texture that begin and end this track make it interesting. As it swells, it gets less interesting, but it still has a nice swing to its off-kilter beat.

“Let It Go” Again, this song showcases some nicely sparse bits of guitar, cementing the track quite nicely. This is a well-made track. Bay is again best at his most understated.

“Incomplete” This acoustic closer has a chorus that is both unassuming and gently effective. It doesn’t feel forced. It feels natural. This even stays true as the song builds.

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quicklist: 6title: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015” ***text: There is something seemingly inappropriate about naming what is essentially a funky party record after the building that was recently erected on the site that used to house the World Trade Center. That is such sacred ground. So many people died there. Still, that is exactly what the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have done on their follow-up to 2012’s “Meat + Bone,” which was the band’s first album after an eight year break. In addition to the album’s title, you have to question why they chose to begin the album with an upbeat song called “Funeral” where Spencer exclaims, “Come on, fellas! We got to pay respect!” Unless this is the band’s way of saying that it is time to stop being sad about the horrible tragedy that happened and pick ourselves up again. No matter how you read the meaning behind the title, it is still going to be a point of conversation.

This is a down and dirty, quickly-paced collection which showcases the band’s signature sound, with Jon Spencer talking and shouting his way through funky grooves like the awkward love-child of James Brown and Anthony Kiedis while delivering a double-guitar attack alongside bandmate Judah Bauer. Meanwhile, drummer Russell Simins funkily delivers a tight backbeat. If you didn’t like this sound when the members of the Blues Explosion were releasing records in the nineties, you still won’t appreciate this record. And considering the title, there are a number of unsettling sirens and explosions throughout the record.

At its core, though, this is a brash love letter to New York with songs like “Betty Vs. The NYPD,” “Bellevue Baby,” “Tales Of Old New York: The Rock Box” and the location-listing “Down And Out.” Still, one gets the feeling that these doses of punk-flavored funk would sound better live, in a darkly lit, small club where the floors are sticky from spilled beer. If “Freedom Tower” proves anything as an album, it is that the members of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have remained true to their name.

Focus Tracks:

“Betty Vs. The NYPD” This is under two minutes and comes through like a stomping attack, with interplay from its bass-y riff and a hand-clapping chorus.

“Wax Dummy” There is an ominous, surly energy to this record and this minor-keyed riff grabs your attention, even if Spencer sounds gleeful as he sings about getting how he “get(s) a nose-bleed in the balcony.” This song is silly and absurdist, but it still maintains a great deal of pull.

“The Ballad Of Joe Buck” I’m pretty sure this song has nothing to do with the sportscaster, but it sure is a nice workout with some nice “funky drummer” action from Simins.

Next Week: The latest from Death Cab For Cutie, The Prodigy and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Modest Mouse, Mark Knopfler and more.

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