quicklist: 1title: Paul Simon’s “Stranger to Stranger” (Deluxe Edition) ****1/2text: Paul Simon’s last album, 2011’s “So Beautiful or So What” was arguably his strongest set since “Graceland” in 1986. “Stranger to Stranger” is equal to its predecessor, if not better. It finds Simon exploring territory you’d expect, like the tender title track and going in unexpected directions like the very funky “Wristband.” Most of this record sounds like Simon has been absorbing avant-garde beat-driven music. The sample-driven “Street Angel” sounds as if it is informed by Soul Coughing’s “Ruby Vroom,” while the very rhythmic “In a Parade” possesses hints of the African influence that has long been a part of Simon’s music.
This is an awake, very current record. Simon is a legend and he’s not just resting on his laurels. This is as biting and engaging as any one of his records from the seventies or eighties. “Wristband” is a bit like a jazz and drum-n-bass-influenced follow-up to “Late in the Evening” with its late-night concert-themed imagery.
There are also flecks of his Simon & Garfunkel work here. The beautiful instrumental “In the Garden of Edie,” (named no doubt for his wife Edie Brickell) wouldn’t have sounded out of place on “Bookends.” The same is true for his theme song to the Louis CK web series “Horace & Pete” which is available on the deluxe edition of the album.
The deluxe edition also has an additional instrumental, a couple of performances from an appearance on “A Prairie Home Companion” and the title track to Dion’s latest album, on which Simon duets.
All of this spells out one of the greats at his best, adapting with the times and at the same time being utterly timeless in his approach. With its album cover designed by Chuck Close, “Stranger to Stranger” cements itself among Simon’s best, most iconic and engaging solo offerings.
“Stranger to Stranger” This ethereal ballad hits a comfortable place for Simon. At the same time, there’s something about the song’s construction that also brings to mind Sting’s best solo records.
“Wristband” This is a trippy groove fest about going out for a smoke before a gig and accidentally getting locked out of your own concert. It’d be interesting to know if this actually happened to Simon at this point. Again, it is an amazingly funky workout.
“Insomniac’s Lullaby” This song definitely sounds like it came from the same well-spring that birthed “America” and “Kathy’s Song.” In addition, it featured Bobby McFerrin on background vocals.
quicklist: 2title: Tegan and Sara’s “Love You to Death” ****text: When Tegan and Sara abandoned indie-rock for pop for 2013’s “Heartthrob,” it was the pop world’s gain. In fact, if “Heartthrob” found them dipping their toes in pop’s waters, “Love You to Death” is closer to a deep-sea dive. Nevertheless, the Quin twins keep their strong songwriting chops intact. Their music maintains its intelligent fortitude even though it has a pop sheen.
A song like “Boyfriend” for instance, isn’t your typical pop fare. Both twins are openly gay and this song is about not wanting to be in the shadows, with its chorus, “Kiss me like your boyfriend. / You call me up like you would your best friend. / You turn me on like you would your boyfriend. / I don’t want to be your secret anymore.”
“Love You to Death” is a dynamic and exciting pop record. If Tegan and Sara are alienating fans of their earlier work, those fans need to listen more closely. They may have changed arenas but they are still just as strong as ever.
“Dying to Know” This sounds like a modern take on a summer hit from the depths of the eighties. It is pretty evident that this song and this album are both destined to be blasted on the beach this summer.
“U-Turn” This is an undeniable slice of pop, full of sugary drive. It has a synth-pop appeal similar to Class Actress’ song “Weekend,” displaying great hit potential.
“100x” This is a show-stopping piano ballad. Bonus points are earned for its funny and adorable dog-themed music video.
quicklist: 3title: The Strokes’ “Future Present Past” EP ***text: “Future Present Past” is a four-song EP that finds the Strokes further exploring the synth-y energy of their last album “Comedown Machine.” Really, it is three songs and one remix since drummer Fabrizio Moretti remixes earlier track “Oblivius.”
If you liked the rock of earlier classics like “Is This It,” and “Room on Fire,” these songs still have some crunchy, fun moments, that find the band firmly planted in their tightly rhythmic framework but at the same time, this brief set has a revitalized quality. Julian Casablancas’ mutter-to-shout lyrical style may be still polarizing to some and while this isn’t a home run, it shows promise for the band’s latest direction.
It’s a little disappointing that this is just an EP. The opening three tracks would set off a new album decently, even if on the spoken beginning of “Threat of Joy,” it sounds like Casablancas is trying his hand at a half-hearted Lou Reed impression.
In spite of its brevity, this is still a more satisfying offering than let’s say, 2011’s “Angles.” Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long to hear more.
“Oblivius” This is no doubt the strongest and most complex song on the set. The chorus possesses commanding punch that rivals the group’s stronger earlier work. Interestingly, the guitar-solo brings to mind Daft Punk’s “Aerodynamic.”
“Drag Queen” By modern Strokes standards, this is rather basic at this point, but it does show a touch of New Order and new-wave influence that makes it stand out.
quicklist: 4title: Train’s “Led Zeppelin II” ***1/2text: When it was announced that Train, the architects of ubiquitous lite-radio pop fare like “Meet Virginia,” “Drops of Jupiter” and “Hey, Soul Sister” was going to tackle and record a version of “Led Zeppelin II,” it was understandable that many music fans were apprehensive. That record is considered one of the greatest of all time, and from immediate appearances, Train doesn’t seem like the kind of band that could be up to doing it justice. Here’s the thing: The result is here, and it actually sounds extremely respectable. In fact, I’m positive that I wouldn’t immediately recognize this as Train without prompts.
You may ask why Train would do this. Isn’t it somewhat pointless to rerecord a whole album and to try to sound as much like the original band? To a certain degree, yes. But this is an album recorded for charity to benefit Family House San Francisco, a nonprofit that helps find temporary housing for families with sick children during their treatment. Knowing this and hearing this somewhat admirable finished product, it all makes perfect sense.
The question is, if Pat Monahan can wail like Robert Plant, how come this kind of edgy rock energy isn’t more present on Traim’s records? The whole band does an impressive job. There are small points that fans may pick apart, but you can’t fault Drew Shoals for not being John Bonham or Luis Maldonado for not being Jimmy Page. It just wouldn’t be fair. The fact that from beginning to end, this set holds up proves that Train is a more powerful band than many listeners assume. Listening to this rendition is like discovering someone you know possesses a secret power. Nice work!
“Whole Lotta Love” These songs have been butchered by lame cover bands for years. From the very beginning notes, this record immediately validates its existence.
“Ramble On” I am always struck by this song’s “Lord of the Rings” lyrical imagery. Again, this is another tremendous reading of a well-worn classic.
“Thank You” Yet another song that has been done to death, but the members of Train deliver it with care.
quicklist: 5title: The Kills’ “Ash & Ice” ***1/2text: “Ash & Ice” is Alison Mosshart’s and Jamie Hince’s first album in five years as the Kills, and like the rest of their discography, it mixes blues, punk and electro elements into an appealing concoction. It is a relief to hear Mosshart back on her own turf. The Kills’ albums are better and more consistent than her work with her other band, the Dead Weather. That band gets more attention, mostly because it counts Jack White among its members, but there is something more appealing about the Kills’ stripped-down, almost reductionist approach and it allows Mosshart to really shine as a powerful vocalist. There is something nicely raw about tracks like “Bitter Fruit” and the SBTRKT-sampling “Heart of a Dog.”
The fact that the duo decided to use the Dap-Kings’ Homer Steinweis on drums and record the album at Jimi Hendrix’s famed “Electric Lady” studios speaks volumes at the duo’s goal for this album. Steinweis doesn’t appear on the drum-machine-fueled “Days of Why and How,” but it finds Mosshart delivering one of her most soulful vocal performances to date. “Hum for Your Buzz” is another showstopper with a great deal of depth.
I suppose what makes the Kills most compelling is that their records provide an eclectic mix of sounds that combine underground aspects of hard-edged indie-rock, classic R&B and a slight hint of electro-clash influence.
In the Kills’ discography, this is one their most focused records to date. Quite simply, Mosshart and Hince are fusing a number of old traditions and breathing new life into them. “Ash & Ice” is a thoroughly enjoyable, occasionally entrancing collection.
“Days of Why and How” This song’s beat suggests it should be blasted at a neighborhood block party. All the other elements hint at something more chilled in nature. It may be their strongest hope at a crossover pop single, with its driving, catchy chorus.
“Hum for Your Buzz” This kind of feels like Mosshart is heading towards Alabama Shakes territory, but she’s up to the task.
“Black Tar” This is another possible contender as a hit single, partly because it really possesses the kind of momentum that encourages repeat listens.
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