Music Reviews: Neil Young, J.Cole, Maria Taylor

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This week we have a smaller batch of reviews for the last week of new reviews of 2016. Neil Young releases an admittedly strange new album, rapper J. Cole continues to build momentum and singer-songwriter Maria Taylor once again shows her reliability. As the best year in recent history for music winds down, here are three more albums for you to spin.

PHOTO: Neil Young - "Peace Trail"
Neil Young’s “Peace Trail” ***

Neil Young has had a busy few years recently. The fact that “Peace Trail” is his seventh album in four calendar years should say a lot. This is also his second album this year, following June’s live album, “Earth.” There are ghosts here of classic Neil Young. “Can’t Stop Working,” for instance has a strong vintage feel, even if the harmonica solos are admittedly (and presumably purposely) a bit assaultive. The same can be said for the title track, but what is that effect on his voice? Some sort of Auto-Tune?

Still, the protest-singer side of Young is in full effect here. “Indian Givers” definitely resonates given the recent happenings at Standing Rock. The line “Behind big money, justice always fails” succinctly illustrates the imbalance between influence and fairness.

There are still some truly bizarre moments on here, like the defiant and dissonant “Texas Rangers.” Young has always been someone who has balanced his time-tested sound with occasional oddball touches. “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders” sounds musically like a bizarre relative of “My My Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” but has sarcastic, pointed lyrics like, “I think I know who to blame. / It’s all those people with funny names moving into our neighborhood."

There is something heavy-handed about Young’s approach here. Like 2006’s “Living With War,” this record is so targeted that politically speaking it will probably only preach to the choir. Still, the fact that in these times of political unrest, Young remains a fixture of protest music in oddly comforting. “John Oaks” makes the most of an effective shuffle while “My Pledge” is once again slightly marred by the use of Auto-Tune/vocoder technology.

This is by no means a Young record that stands out as an important offering in his discography, but at the same time, even with the abrupt left turns it takes, “Peace Trail” still very much feels like the work of the same artist we have been listening to for five decades. It’s not a great record, but if you are up for its experiments, it is strangely satisfying.

Focus Tracks:

“Can’t Stop Workin’” You get the idea that Young has written this song five times before in a much better way, but it still captures a classic energy of sorts.

“John Oaks” This is an environmentalist and socio-economical anthem that has some swagger, especially with the minimalist riff that plays during the chorus.

“My New Robot” Yeah, this sounds a lot like “Margaritaville,” and you get the feeling that it was written as a bit of an afterthought, but it is a ridiculously funny track, especially near the end when automated, computerized voices take over the vocal duties.

PHOTO: J. Cole - "For Your Eyez Only"
J. Cole’s “4 Your Eyez Only” ***1/2

Listening to J. Cole’s fourth album, “4 Your Eyez Only,” it is evident that he is going for more of a low-key, stripped-down approach this time around. The jazzy opener, “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Vile Mentality” speak to larger, artier aspirations, even if his songs still maintain a lyrically coarse toughness. But in essence, this is Cole’s chill-out, mature record.

In 2016, it is evident that hip-hop is at a turning point, with a number of releases hitting a “Golden Age”-esque sensibility. This isn’t quite Cole’s classic record yet, but you can tell that he’s aiming for the climb and that such a record is in his sights. Listening to the hushed vulnerability of “She’s Mine Pt. 1” and “She’s Mine Pt. 2,” you can definitely hear that Cole is switching up his sound. These are tender reflections of a new father, just happy to talk to his child and try to give her the best life he can. There’s a verse in part two that nails the Christmas season for its commercialism and really sticks its points.

This album definitely has its own sound and while the pace gets particularly lifted on the key standout, “Change,” this album is full of a sense of calm, even as Cole drops lines about friends and family falling victim to acts of violence. He raps on “Neighbors” about how “The neighbors think I’m selling dope,” over a lush but skeletal beat, while still maintaining a nonchalant energy.

Cole’s last album, “2014 Forest Hills Drive” was also on the downbeat side as an album, but this record takes that approach that much further. It’s a sound he’s apparently honing.

Like all of Cole’s records, this isn’t for the faint of heart, but that probably goes without saying. “4 Your Eyez Only” is a gritty but musically sophisticated offering that shows Cole as one of his generation’s biggest hopes. “4 Your Eyez Only” continues to show J. Cole as one of hip-hop’s growing voices.

Focus Tracks:

“Change” Easily, this is the best and brightest track on the record with Cole getting on the set’s best flow. This track has momentum as Cole drops thought-provoking verses.

“4 Your Eyez Only” Sadly, the title track has nothing to do with James Bond or Sheena Easton. Rather, this is an 8-minute reflection on the everyday struggles of hustling and surviving. Cole’s imagery is vivid and the bassline rumbles in the background, underneath, giving the track a Marvin Gaye “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” kind of sensibility.

“Folding Clothes” This is a funky, bluesy workout, finding Cole halfway rapping and halfway singing over a groovy, earthy beat. This is a hard-working and rewarding love song about modern domesticity.

PHOTO: Maria Taylor - "In the Next Life"
Maria Taylor’s “In The Next Life” ****

Maria Taylor is probably still best known as one-half of Azure Ray, but as a solo artist, she has released a string of reliably great solo albums. Her best album is still her remarkable and ethereal 2005 solo debut, “11:11,” but this album has glimpses of the same tender magic that has fueled many of her past releases. She can handle rockier textures as she does on “Free Song” or sound great singing with Conor Oberst, as she does on “If Only.”

Taylor is often understated, but that suits her music. She’s got a quiet, almost deadpan quality to her voice, but at the same time, she knows her way around a melody and where to exactly place emphasis. She actually sounds like an even cross between Veruca Salt’s Nina Gordon, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes.

This album mostly works from a dreamy folk template but there are touches of other elements at work, as well. “There’s Only Now” has a slight new-wave glow with its spacey keyboard work, while the stunning “While The Rest Of Me Is Waking Up” has a banjo line and a string section both playing in the back of the mix. “Flower Moon” plays like a doo-wop-flavored lullaby, while “Just Once” has potent, building rumbling energy.

Maria Taylor is the kind of artist who should get more mainstream attention. Yes, over the years she has had her music licensed in a number of television shows and films, but she has long deserved wider mainstream exposure.

Like much of the rest of her discography, “In The Next Life” is a compact, endearing set of songs that gain more depth with repetition. It may often be on the quiet side, but this album resonates.

Focus Tracks:

“If Only” (Featuring Conor Oberst) Taylor and Oberst are peers. The two singers were label-mates on Saddle Creek for a long time and they sound great harmonizing together. This is also one of the album’s most indelible songs.

“While The Rest Of Me Is Waking Up” This is tremendously beautiful and gloriously haunting. It’s the kind of song that should instantly earn Taylor an even wider audience.

“Pretty Scars” Told from the perspectives of several people. The first of which appears to be her own. It shows Taylor working effectively from an older narrative folk tradition. We each all created and molded by our personal histories. “Pretty Scars” uses its title as a metaphor for each of our experiences.

COMING SOON: The 50 Best Albums of 2016! (And yes, you should get excited.)

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