Music Reviews: The Latest From She & Him, Wu-Tang Clan, AC/DC, Mary J. Blige and More

PHOTO: Singer Mary J. Blige performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in Los Angeles, Nov. 23., 2014.WireImage
Singer Mary J. Blige performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in Los Angeles, Nov. 23., 2014.

intro: This week, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward make the transition to a major label and release a collection of covers, the Wu-Tang Clan reunite, AC/DC bring the rock, Mary J. Blige goes to London and De La Soul get joined by Chuck D. for a new Internet-only single. As we begin to wrap up the year and things come together, 2014 proves that it still has some surprises.

quicklist: 1 title: She & Him’s “Classics” *** text: “Classics” is a bit of a strange release. It’s M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel’s fifth release as She & Him since 2008 and they have managed this without a dud in the bunch. Usually, they mix originals with covers. This album is different because it is all covers. It also marks the duo’s shift from Merge records to the much larger Columbia.

Deschanel and Ward here show less of the bouncy spark heard on their three previous, traditional albums and their Christmas album. They seemingly inhabit a world reminiscent of the “pre-rock” '50s. This is even true when they cover songs of more recent vintage. It is well-executed but, at the same time, it can be somewhat sleepy cocktail music. That being said, the versions here of classics like Alex North and Hy Zaret’s “Unchained Melody” (with the Chapin Sisters) and Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Oh No, Not My Baby” are perfectly enjoyable.

Usually, when an act switches to a major label, it brings rejuvenation. With “Classics,” Deschanel and Ward reaffirm the fact that they are indeed skilled. But while their previous records were enjoyably kitschy, this one seems to be of a completely different time altogether. Perhaps that is the overall goal, but it still remains puzzling. Do we really need their versions of Ross Charles and Hugh Parker’s “We’ll Meet Again” or Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time”? Not really. But we have them and they are still decent. While this record is good, it doesn’t make as strong a statement as a collection of strong originals. Still, fans of the duo’s previous work will find plenty to enjoy here even if these tracks come off slightly muted.

Focus Tracks:

“Oh No, Not My Baby” You can’t go wrong with Goffin and King, and this is one of the only tracks on here with a bit of a funky strut underneath the orchestration. Deschanel delivers a winning, carefully honed vocal performance.

“Stay Awhile” This Dusty Springfield cover is also a winner. It’s also the album’s main single, delivering an upbeat energy while still remaining reserved. It also maintains an old-school, country-tinged vibe.

“We’ll Meet Again” To some, yes, this might seem a little precious, and I get that perspective. But for the mood that Deschanel and Ward are setting, it’s a fitting album closer.

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quicklist: 2 title: Wu-Tang Clan’s “A Better Tomorrow” ***1/2 text: The Wu return in full force on “A Better Tomorrow.” No, this obviously is not the one-off record they were selling for possibly $5 million. This, instead, finds them celebrating 20 years since “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers.)”

If you are looking for the raw thrills that were present on that landmark debut, you’ll probably be disappointed, but this isn’t a bad album, either. While it doesn’t sound particularly fresh, this album upholds the Wu-Tang legacy with mixed results. If you’ve ever heard a Wu album, you know exactly what you getting. The Wu are still as gritty as they are cryptic. They still aren’t for the easily offended, but that probably goes without saying. The warning sticker is there for a reason.

“A Better Tomorrow” aims to recall the group’s high points. The opener, “Ruckus In B Minor,” brings forth a ton of memories with its title alone and one of the first voices you hear on the track is the late O.D.B., who has now been dead an astonishing 10 years. When Method Man comes in with the chorus and says, “Young’un! I can see your drawers. / Pull your pants up!” it is an indication that time has passed, but he still possesses the same amount of pull. Ghostface Killah, GZA and Raekwon also prove themselves to be standouts throughout the record, which, of course, isn’t a surprise.

On occasion, there are some rough spots. The cool drum intro on “40th Street Black/We Will Fight” morphs into a somewhat disappointing canned beat. Combine that with the song’s clumsy, horn-assisted chorus and it adds up to an awkward listen, but that is atypical.

As on most of the Wu-related sets, RZA’s production really becomes the star, and tracks like “Crushed Egos,” “Ron O’Neal” and “Keep Watch” maintain his signature ominous sound. There are, of course, some surprises, like his transformation of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacherman” into the minor-key stomper, “Preacher’s Daughter.”

No, this isn’t quite classic Wu-Tang, but that kind of magic and that kind of energy can be difficult to muster on command. And yes, perhaps this album does recycle ideas for the sake of branding, including the title track, which i, in effect, a sunnier sequel to the track with the same name that appeared on 1997’s “Wu-Tang Forever.” In fact, it is quite refreshing that the album actually ends with three of the most uplifting tracks the group has ever recorded. This album shows the Wu’s nine members coming together to re-emerge as Shaolin’s undeniable force.

Focus Tracks:

“Keep Watch” This track has the Wu’s signature sound. When Method Man drops his opening verse over that freshly foreboding piano loop, it’s undeniable. The beat has a great slam, as well.

“Miracle” Wu-Tang purists probably won’t like this track because of its sweet, orchestral beginning, but listen to this on headphones and it’s obviously one of their most sonically-ambitious tracks to date. 4th Disciple, who handled production on this track, did excellent work.

“Ron O’Neal” From the kung-fu movie fight samples at the beginning to the minor-key soul vibe underneath, this is another example of vintage Wu-Tang.

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quicklist: 3 title: AC/DC’s “Rock or Bust” *** text: Say what you will about AC/DC. Yes, they are a one-dimensional band that doesn’t really advance, working off the same hard-hitting formula for 40 years. And yes, on some level it is big, stupid rock. But on another level, it is an expert exercise, at this point. It’s amazing that Brian Johnson’s yowling voice has held up all these years, because every word he sings sounds as if it was painfully shot out from the far reaches of his gut.

"Rock or Bust" comes at a particularly dark time in the band’s career. Guitarist Malcolm Young was forced to quit the band shortly before the set was recorded because of the onset of dementia and, last month, drummer Phil Rudd was arrested for alleged murder for hire, as well as for possession of meth and marijuana. The murder-for-hire charges were dropped but Rudd still faces charges for threatening to kill as well as the drug charges, according to The Associated Press. The AP added that he has pleaded not guilty and will face a judge-only trial next year. While his drumming is heard here, his current status as a band member remains unclear as his case gets addressed.

With all those things to consider, “Rock or Bust” is a surprisingly stable-sounding AC/DC record. Is it as good as career-high, mega-seller, “Back in Black”? Of course not. But if you liked that record or the early-'90s high-point, “The Razor’s Edge,” you’ll probably like this, too. Considering they have never been that forward-thinking a band, changes in the formula are not expected. Listening to a song like “Rock the Blues Away” or the mammoth title track, it seems pretty evident that they could have been among the influences for Spinal Tap.

The lesson of “Rock or Bust” is that circumstances in their lives may get more chaotic as time passes, but AC/DC will always remain the same reliable band. Yes, their approach is, at times, painfully simplistic, but the formula is still pretty effective.

Focus Tracks:

“Rock or Bust” This is easily the album’s thesis statement. If you are looking for a typical rocker from them, this is it.

“Rock the House” The Zeppelin influence is felt throughout this track, even down to the guitar breakdown and its “Black Dog”-esque vocal yelps, but AC/DC really put their own stamp on the track, nonetheless.

“Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder” This is yet another high-energy, bluesy stomper. It may be a textbook workout, but it again proves to be pleasing.

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quicklist: 4 title: Mary J. Blige’s “The London Sessions” ****1/2 text: Here’s a big surprise: Mary J. Blige picked up everything and relocated to London to switch things up to record “The London Sessions” -- and it ends up being one of her freshest and most organic-sounding statements to date. Bits of live instrumentation add an urgent punch to the record, and Blige’s vocal presence is at its peak, bringing a gospel-like warmth to this set of songs. Collaborating with Disclosure, Sam Romans, Naughty Boy, Emili Sandé, Sam Smith and others agrees with Blige as she alternates between earthy numbers and more electronically infused efforts.

Smith, in particular, has a large presence on this record as Blige’s co-writer on several tracks. This is very far removed from the “New Jack Swing” of her classic, “Real Love,” or other hits like “The Young & The Restless”-theme-sampling of “No More Drama” or the strident funk of “Family Affair.” Here, she has escaped the formulaic trappings of R&B radio to create an adult R&B record that doesn’t stick to conventions. Of course, maybe she’s not worried about radio play because R&B’s presence on the airwaves seems to be waning, so it is no longer a concern -- but this record feels very open and free, like a breathing entity.

The real discovery that “The London Sessions” provides is how comfortably at ease Blige comes off singing over a house-like electronic beats. The juxtaposition of the dance-y numbers with the more natural ones theoretically should create a clash. But this album makes such a huge statement that it all comes seamlessly together.

Spoken interludes with her collaborators go in between tracks, and there’s a feeling of anxious unpredictability throughout. Even though this is a set of originals, the last album I can think of that gave me this kind of feeling was Mark Ronson’s ambitious covers set, “Version.”

While a song like “Right Now” could easily fit with the rest of the grooves in Blige’s career, it has a new flexible bounciness. She’s open to newer, freakier sounds than before. “My Love” sounds a bit like the kind of track Ellie Goulding might have put on “Halcyon,” which is a strange realization considering the difference in Goulding's and Blige’s delivery styles. At its core, though, this is one of Blige’s trippiest and most inventive records. Twenty-two years into her career, this album shows a new side to her. This record never seems formulaic. Blige has confidently stepped out of her comfort zone and gets great rewards as a result.

Focus Tracks:

“Whole Damn Year” This soulful piano ballad is the perfect single for this record that should definitely please fans old and new. It’s one of her most powerful pieces, to date.

“Long Hard Look” This has a warm, off-kilter, woozy electo track with a mood similar to Washed Out’s “Hear It All Around.” It’s a warm summer jam. Too bad it came out in December. Still, it stands out.

“Therapy” This is a fantastic bit of old-school soul. One listen to this track and Blige’s legacy should be set.

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quicklist: 5 title: De La Soul’s “The People” (Featuring Chuck D.) (Single) **** text: The day after Thanksgiving, De La Soul dropped a new single on their website as a free download. Its free status is presumed to be limited and, considering the landmark Long Island hip-hop trio hasn’t dropped a proper album in 10 years, this is a welcome delivery on par with their excellent J Dilla-themed mixtape, “Smell the DA.I.S.Y.,” from earlier this year.

“The People” is an uplifting rally of a track, with its socially conscious lyrics, and the presence of Public Enemy’s Chuck D. adds a sense of gravity to the track. When Chuck speaks, you’d better listen. It says on the site that they wanted to release the song in June, around the time Chuck got into a heated conflict with radio personality Peter Rosenberg and New York Hip-Hop station “Hot ‘97” over the amount of times the N word was uttered at the station’s “Summer Jam” concert, but then they decided to delay its release until Black Friday.

Given the events in Ferguson, Missouri, over the last few months, De La Soul decided to do something special. So along with the song’s release, they also made merchandise to coincide with the song’s release. Proceeds from the sale of these items reportedly will go to the organizations “All Star Code” and “I Love Ferguson.” “All Star Code” helps gear youth for jobs in the technology fields while “I Love Ferguson” was started to help rebuild the city in the aftermath of the last few months.

Little did De La Soul know what would happen this past week with the Eric Garner case in New York City. Given the rise in awareness over these types of events, this song carries even more weight.

Consider this song the sequel to the title track on 1996’s “Stakes Is High.” This is a song about daily struggles while, at the same time, it is a call to lift people out of their despair. This might be the closest we will get to an anthem to represent this time of unrest and, like a previous high-point, “I Am I Be,” from 1993’s “Buhloone Mind State,” it shows once again that De La Soul can really bring forth a serious, strong brand of “consciousness hip-hop” when put to the task.

Truth be told, De La Soul are obviously still one of the best and most influential hip-hop acts to ever exist. Not only is this song worthy of being considered among their best but it also means that the world needs them to release a new album as soon as possible.

Next Week: New music from Smashing Pumpkins, Ghostface Killah and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Coldplay, Iggy Azalea, David Guetta and more.

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