Prince, De La Soul, Travis and More Music Reviews

Plus, get reviews of the latest offerings from De La Soul, Travis and more.

ByABC News
May 4, 2016, 4:18 AM

— -- intro: This week the last album of Prince’s lifetime gets a physical release, De La Soul drop a surprise teaser EP ahead of their anticipated new album, Scottish band Travis make a strong return, Rogue Wave also make a comeback, rapper Aesop Rock shows off his award-winning vocabulary, Britta Phillips makes her solo debut and We Are Scientists releases its fifth album. Spoiler Alert: This week has no duds! These are all pretty strong offerings.

quicklist: 1title: Prince’s “HITnRUN Phase Two” ****text: Considering the high amount of unreleased music said to be in Prince’s Paisley Park vault, “HITnRUN Phase Two” is the last album of Prince’s lifetime -- but most likely not his last album to see a release. It was actually dropped on Tidal in December and got a fuller, wider physical release this past week. This date was set long before Prince died unexpectedly.

This album is the sequel to last year’s just OK, but not remarkable “HITnRUN Phase One.” While that album aimed for a more contemporary, slick pop sound, this album is a little different and more organic in its approach. In a way, it’s an old-school funk record, but a low-key one by Prince’s standards.

It starts with a prayer for peace with “Baltimore,” a song that name-checks both Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. Prince asks for the violence to be stopped in this heartfelt anthem.

“Stare” could very easily be a vintage Prince song. The horn section throughout this song and this record gives this album a Seventies-style feel, although by the time you get to the slow-jam, “Revelation,” there is more than a bit of “smooth jazz” sneaking into the mix.

What’s really fun about this collection is that it still hints at Prince’s sexually-charged side. “Screwdriver” for instance dances around Prince’s “dirty” past with its chorus refrain of “I’m your driver / You’re my screw,” and it does so in a way that melodically wouldn’t displease fans of Eighties-era hits like “Raspberry Beret.” The dynamite ballad, “When She Comes,” hints at similar territory as does “2 Y.2 D.” Prince may have stopped cursing and writing overtly sexual material, but the legacy still stands.

“Look At Me, Look At U” and the closer, “Big City,” both bring a mellowing, yet authoritative sense of funk. This isn’t the digitized funk side that Prince showed on the “Phase One” standout, “Shut This Down,” this is more natural sound.

I’m sure a lot of people are examining Prince’s discography right now. “Purple Rain,” “1999,” “Dirty Mind” and other eighties classics will sell a lot of copies in the coming weeks. “HITnRUN Phase Two” was Prince’s fourth album in a two year span. Of those four records, it is also the best of the pack. While this album doesn’t possess the amazement factor of 2010’s aptly-titled, “20Ten,” which showcased the purple one using old-style synths, it is still one of the better albums he released during the last decade of his life. I just hope in the scheme of things that generations of younger listeners don’t forget to explore these later albums.

If “HITnRUN Phase Two” is to be seen as an end to Prince’s career, it definitely ends on a high note.

Focus Tracks:

“Stare” You have to love how Prince quotes himself in this song. After the line, “Can I get a kiss?” he plays a bit of the guitar-line to his classic song, “Kiss.”

“Baltimore” Prince obviously wanted to make a modern protest song and give a musical nod to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. His line “Peace is more than the absence of war,” really sticks.

“Big City” This jazzy, six-minute workout is like one last love letter to the funk from Prince. It is fitting that the last album of Prince’s lifetime would end with some upbeat optimism. This track brings the party. It ends with Prince exclaiming, “That’s it?” This brings a touch of sadness and you wonder if the 49 seconds of silence that follows was added at the last minute on purpose.

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quicklist: 2title: De La Soul’s “For Your Pain & Suffering” EP ***1/2text: The original release date announced for De La Soul’s new album was April 29, 2016. This was the album that the pioneering Long Island hip-hop trio made and started a Kickstarter campaign last year in order to raise money to promote. Very quickly they met their goal. In fact they had one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history.

Their new album has been pushed back until August, but for the fans, they dropped a new free EP, “For Your Pain & Suffering.” They haven’t released a proper album since 2004’s “The Grind Date,” so while they have released projects of other sorts over the years, including spare singles like 2014’s fantastic Chuck D collaboration, “The People” or the Nas-assisted “God It,” expectations are high for this new record.

The new EP is bound to disappoint some fans at first. It is four tracks. Of those four tracks, two are regular songs and two are skits. Essentially, you could view this as a double-sided single consisting of “TrainWreck” and “Beautiful Night.” Skits, “The Devil Likes Candy” and “Schoolyard Studios” respectively begin and end the set. While the latter skit seems to not make the best use of a pretty excellent beat, this taste of what’s to come should still please fans of De La Soul’s classic work. The two main tracks are pretty solid and the skits show a return to the quirky playfulness of “3 Feet High & Rising” and “De La Soul Is Dead.” Would this all be better within a larger context? Yes, but that’s the point. This is a taster meant to get us stoked for what is coming in August. By that definition, it succeeds.

Focus Tracks:

“Beautiful Night” (Featuring Dave West) This is an old-school De La jam that recalls the energy of “A Roller-Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays.’” Working a funky groove and an appealing hook, this has a feeling not felt on the later “AOI” records. It speaks well for the new record.

“TrainWreck” Posdnuos sounds hoarse on here, but over a catchy beat, both he and Dave rap about a woman they both know is trouble. Lust leads to heartbreak, but the trip is still fun. The best is when Maseo comes in and sings a semi-off-tune chorus, again, recalling the jokey, fun side not really felt since their collaborations with Prince Paul. One could say this is a more overtly adult sequel to “Jenifa Taught Me,” with a touch of “3 Days Later,” thrown in for good measure.

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quicklist: 3title: Travis’ “Everything At Once” ****1/2text: With “Everything At Once,” Scottish rock band Travis, return with a tight nugget of a record. It goes by in a little more than a half-hour, but it says what it needs to say, making it the band’s strongest most biting record since their often misunderstood 2003 album, “12 Memories.” It’s also an album that isn’t afraid to mix their well-honed orchestration with a chugging rock flare. For instance, the well-placed doses of feedback add so much to key standout, “Radio Song."

“Paralyzed” sounds like it owes a debt to Ennio Morricone while “Animals” sounds at first like a sweeping, classical piece, but both swell up to a big rock, pay-off. Around the time of 2001’s “The Invisible Band,” it almost seemed like it was in fashion to poke fun at this band, due to delicately-made singles, like “Sing.” While this album does have its gentler moments, like the beautiful “All Of The Places,” it is evident that it has an experimental fuzz-pop core. The initially electronically-minded title-track even swells with a rock crunch. When it isn’t rocking, it usually still maintains a high-pressure tightness, in its arrangements. This is true on the Josephine Oniyama-duet, “Idlewild.”

Initially seen as one of the bands taking strong influence from Radiohead’s rock beginnings when Radiohead themselves were delving further into alien territory, “Everything At Once” seems to take its “Pablo Honey” and “The Bends” influence and give it a modern shine. This actually may very well be the edgiest and best album of Travis’ career.

Focus Tracks:

“Radio Song” This starts off sounding like material Travis has made before and then it makes a left-turn and becomes a wonderfully anthemic, grungy gut-punch of a track. In three minutes, it summons a lot of great power. It is the strongest song they have released in quite a long time.

“Everything At Once” This sounds kind of like Fran Healy is having a bit of a panic attack while he sings the verses and then the chorus quickly shoots the song into the stratosphere. Again, the guitars have a booming, washing quality, which balance with the back and forth electro moments quite well.

“3 Miles High” This is another well-made pop song from the Travis camp. I think Dougie Payne’s excellent bass-work here is the song’s secret ingredient.

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quicklist: 4title: Rogue Wave’s “Delusions Of Grand Fur” ****text: Rogue Wave’s first album in three years is a self-produced effort. Why do I mention this? It speaks volumes. Given the glossy sound found on their last few records that often drowned out Zach Rogue’s high, sometimes slight voice, “Delusions Of Grand Fur,” has the band sounding the most natural they have sounded since 2005’s “Descended Like Vultures.” They aren’t aiming to sound like an overly-compressed “radio” band anymore and the sunny riff on “California Bride,” for instance is given room to breathe.

For the first time in a long time, too, it feels like Rogue’s voice is more to the front of the mix where it needs to be. “Look At Me,” is a highlight partly because you can understand every word he sings, and his voice with overzealous production tended to blend too much into the sound of the record. Essentially with this newfound sense of clarity, the band has a quality not dissimilar from the Shins.

It helps that this is some of the band’s best material to date, too. “Falling,” is gorgeous and “What Is Left To Solve” has an intriguing sense of rhythmic interplay. But the main reason why these songs really pop is because of the production that allows Rogue’s voice to be the center of his songs. Even when dealing with electronics, on a track like “Frozen River,” Zach Rogue’s voice is still very clearly heard.

This is the record Rogue Wave have been trying to make for a while, showcasing all of the band’s best qualities. “Delusions Of Grand Fur,” in spite of its ridiculous title, offers up a long overdue return to form.

Focus Tracks:

“Ocean” This song has perhaps the biggest chorus I have ever heard from Rogue Wave. It is allowed to bristle and bubble at the same time, it has a pop center and yet it isn’t drowned.

“Falling” This is the album’s most stripped-down moment and it really pays off for that very reason.

“Look At Me” Again, this has a bare feeling as well, but that works in its favor. Again The Shins and perhaps even Matt Costa serve as similar sonic touchstones for comparison.

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quicklist: 5title: Aesop Rock’s “The Impossible Kid” ****text: In 2014 data scientist Matt Daniels did a study and determined that Aesop Rock had the largest vocabulary in hip-hop. He is a master of word-play often spinning language into lyrical tangles. On his first album in four years, he doesn’t disappoint, thus supporting Daniels’ findings.

“The Impossible Kid” is a dizzying record with a futuristic, electro-sonic sheen. Spacey synths sit side-by-side with dynamic scratch-breaks as Aesop Rock raps about everything from the number of tattoos he possesses to whether he will die alone and be eaten by his cat.

Aesop Rock grew up drawing inspiration from both the hip-hop and the punk worlds. As he says in “TUFF,” he says he’s “Part Def-Jam / Part Dischord.” His music really is a unique spin on straight-up hip-hop, but there is kind of a hardcore punk ethos in his lyrical drive. He’s an artistic skate-punk-turned-epic-lyricist creating a potent cross-pollination of influences.

On “Blood Sandwich” he talks about growing up with his brothers and gives a shout-out to Ministry’s Al Jourgensen. This track also recalls some memories of playing little-league. As lyrically dense as Aesop Rock can be, if you really pay attention and work to decipher his meanings, he is quite a story-teller.

“The Impossible Kid” will amaze longtime fans but at the same time, if it gets heard by the right people it should widen his audience as well. Aesop Rock’s brand of hip-hop continues to be thoroughly intense.

Focus Tracks:

“Blood Sandwich” This is obviously the most essential track on the set. The stories of his youth provide some excellent bits of contextual background.

“Lotta Years” This is one of the shortest track on the set and it is also the most straight-ahead delivering an observational narrative about a trip to a juice bar.

“Shrunk” This track will make your brain spin pretty quickly as Aesop Rock spits some playfully perplexing verses, coming off like a post Wu-Tang beat-poet.

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quicklist: 6title: Britta Phillips’ “Luck Or Magic” ****text: Britta Phillips is perhaps best-known for her time as a member of the band Luna or for her albums with her Luna-band-mate (and husband) Dean Wareham. She’s also an actress, having appeared alongside Julia Roberts and Justine Bateman in the 1988 movie “Satisfaction.” I know, though, that a certain portion of the population’s ears will perk when they find out she was the singing voice for Jem of Jem and the Holograms on the original Eighties cartoon.

Hard to believe it, but “Luck Or Magic” is Phillips’ solo debut, mixing originals and covers in a spacey, semi-psychedelic electronic realm. Phillips is quite a dynamic vocalist. These synth-driven tracks almost have a futuristic cabaret feel. She also chooses covers that some might consider untouchable, like the Cars’ “Drive” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Against all odds, she breathes new life into both well-worn classics.

The originals are strong, as well. She originally wrote “Million Dollar Doll” for the “Frances Ha” soundtrack, a film in which she also appeared. “Do It Last” has a lounge-like sense of coolness, as Phillips essentially tells her lover to forget his exes. “Ingrid Superstar,” on the other hand, understandably has a bit of a Velvet Underground-style build.

Phillips’ voice is extremely clear and it is nice to see her going out on her own. “Luck Or Magic” offers up a fascinating and cool collection of performances.

Focus Tracks:

“Daydream” This song kind of sounds like a paisley-hued, sonically-winding trip. This might be blasphemous to say in some circles, but this could probably be appealing to some fans of Lana Del Rey’s work.

“Drive” This song has been done so many times by so many different people. This warm rendition should be added to the best of the pack.

“Million Dollar Doll” This plays like a lost alternative club hit from the eighties. Think of a sleek, feminine answer to the Cure’s “Let’s Go To Bed,” and you are close to this track’s core sound.

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quicklist: 7title: We Are Scientists’ “Helter Seltzer” ****text: “Helter Seltzer” is the fifth album by the California-bred, New York-based We Are Scientists and narrowly their second strongest offering next to their 2005 debut, “With Love And Squalor.” This album delivers a fleshed-out and nuanced collection of songs, giving their standard indie-rock sound a pseudo-eighties-style sound.

Although, “In My Head” is an upbeat, rock-driven sound, its accentuating keyboard line seems to take its cues from both ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” and Madonna’s “Live To Tell,” while both “We Need A Word” and “Too Late” sound like they were lifted from a prom scene in an iconic eighties teen film.

This album sounds retro, but never in a cheesy way. Actually these sounds are only heard in scattered hints. This is after all, still a very contemporary sounding collection, finding members Keith Murray (not the famous rapper) and Chris Cain further expanding their sound.

“Want For Nothing” has a mature, acoustic appeal, even as it grows to something larger, while both “Classic Love” and “Headlights” bristle with the same kind of punk-like energy found on an early cut like “Inaction” and “Callbacks.”

In some ways 2005’s “With Love And Squalor” sounded like an American response to Bloc Party’s “Silent Alarm.” Maybe that explains why We Are Scientists seem to have a bigger audience across the pond. 2008’s “Brain Thrust Mastery” had more of an eighties-influenced feel, and follow-ups “Barbara” from 2010 and “TV en Français” from 2014 were both quality records, but on “Helter Seltzer,” the band members finally nail down their desired balance of sounds into a cohesive, highly appealing collection.

Focus Tracks:

“In My Head” This is the strongest song on the set, partly because of the above-mentioned keyboard line.

“Want For Nothing” We Are Scientists have recorded ballads before, but they aren’t generally known for them. This is an exceedingly strong one, showing some significant growth in their level of song-craft.

“We Need A Word” This album’s gentler moments are full of sweeping romanticism. This is especially true here.

Next Week: New music from Cyndi Lauper, Keith Urban and more.

Did you miss the review of Beyonce's "Lemonade"? Get it here.

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