-- intro: This week pop sensation Ariana Grande releases her second album in just under a year’s time, AC Newman and Neko Case lead the New Pornographers creating more power-pop gold, Bruce Hornsby gives his catalog the live treatment, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis shows his quieter side and the Rentals make their most significant statement in 15 years. It is another very busy week with a lot to hear and discuss.
quicklist: 1 title: Ariana Grande’s “My Everything” ***1/2 text: Ever so slightly less than a year after her debut, “Yours Truly,” Ariana Grande returns with her second pop record and you would have had to have been in hiding to have avoided her Iggy Azalea-assisted hit “Problem.” This album is much more of an upbeat party record than its predecessor, in many ways shedding the “young Mariah” comparisons that Grande earned and expanding more into club territory.
This album could easily be a predictable, formulaic mess, but it isn’t due not only to Grande’s vocal presence but also the way she and her producers have created an interesting hybrid between retro-90’s “New Jack Swing” and modern nods to EDM. Omni-present pop architects like Max Martin, David Guetta, Ryan Tedder and Rodney Jerkins are all over this record. This is calculated pop, but it works because it plays more for the fans of 90’s R&B and pop-flavored hip-hop.
The majority of this album is made up of jams either meant to start a party or to evoke a feeling of cultural nostalgia for the recent past. On this record, Grande definitely hasn’t hit any sense of a slump. In fact she seems to be rising and gaining appeal.
“Break Your Heart Right Back” (Featuring Childish Gambino) With an extremely liberal sample of Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” this song can’t help but recall Biggie’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” and guest Childish Gambino (AKA Donald Glover) comes in like Diddy and Mase to drop his verse over the distinctive riffs. It’s a little on the nose, tactically speaking, but it actually works.
“Love Me Harder” (Featuring The Weeknd) This silky bit of electro R&B fits well with the Weeknd’s previous work and Grande and Abel Tesfaye complement each other quite well on this sultry, retro-80’s dance groove.
“Problem” (Featuring Iggy Azalea) There’s a sassy En Vogue “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” kind of energy to this sax-led stomper. That sax riff is about as basic as they come, recalling a plethora of hip-hop and R&B classics from the past, plus it gives Iggy Azalea a better rapping backdrop than her album “The New Classic” provides. In some ways this track and that sax riff sound like a direct response to the success of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop.”
“Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart” As I’ve said, this album is lighter on ballads than her debut, but this is a stellar example of what Grande can do when handed an excellent softer number. This should be a hit. And yes, this song was co-written by One Direction’s Harry Styles.
quicklist: 2 title: The New Pornographers’ “Brill Bruisers” ****1/2 text: A.C. Newman is one of power-pop’s true masters, writing effortlessly infectious numbers. He’ll probably never get the credit he deserves though. Many of the people who would probably enjoy the New Pornographers’ music might be turned off by the band’s name, a moniker that has never quite suited their sweetly boisterous knack for inter-gender songplay. This is a supergroup in every sense of the word, even if Newman and Neko Case are still the only two immediately recognizable members for most. But on this, their sixth album, the group showcases a sound that is more forceful and more new-wave driven than before. This is not a subtle record. In fact, for a band known for in-your-face records, this one is about as brightly buoyant as they come. Even the dreamier, more echo-drenched tracks give you a bit of a punch. And when they rock out, the results are hard-edged yet still melodic.
“Brill Bruisers” is a fitting title for this record. Like much of the music that came out of the Brill Building in the fifties and sixties, this band’s sound is built on immediate pop-driven hooks, only flavored with and informed by some well-placed post-punk authority. Newman might have done well in the classic Brill Building era, except maybe for his attraction to cryptic lyricism.
But there is something classic about the vocal approach in the way that Newman, Case, Dan Bejar and Newman’s niece Kathryn Calder harmonize and trade off vocal duties with each other. And yet underneath all of the sweetness, there is a dark undercurrent when you see titles like, “War On The East Coast,” “Marching Orders” and “Another Drug Deal Of The Heart.” Yet, throughout the set it is brimming with a booming, joyous glow. This band is full of grand contradictions. “Brill Bruisers” is an excellent album within a consistently strong discography. This is the group’s strongest and most enjoyable album since 2005’s “Twin Cinema.”
“Brill Bruisers” If the Mamas and The Papas came up during the grunge era, they might have sounded like this. Classic harmonies are paired with mosh-pit-worthy riffage. This is hands down one of the best opening tracks to an album this year. It sets the album’s pace perfectly.
“Champions Of Red Wine” This Case-led number is sleeker and more dreamy and yet that bass-line is extremely insistent and the operatic background vocals are chopped up and scratched apart like a trippy, post EDM experiment. It’s amazing how Case’s work here differs so greatly from the alt-country found on her solo records, while keeping the same level of quality.
“Wide Eyes” This is a melodic switch off between Newman and Case, with Newman handling the verses and Case handling the chorus. Underneath, the beautifully catchy number is peppered with electronic sounds akin to something Stereolab might have put on their album “Dots And Loops.”
quicklist: 3 title: Bruce Hornsby’s “Solo Concerts” **** text: Listening to Bruce Hornsby’s new double live set, “Solo Concerts” where he tackles over an hour-and-a-half of material with just his voice, a piano and an occasional synthesizer reminds us that Hornsby may actually be the best pianist pop music has seen in the last 30 years. He’s versatile, too, merging classical elements with jazz and blues. Songs that are well-known here are radically reworked on this set. If you are looking for the straight-forward studio versions, go to the original sources. This record is about stretching out and creating something more musically ambitious. Familiar elements are interwoven with adventurous finger-work, peppering in some simmering dissonance.
There are a great many elements working together to create this record’s overall sound and within this context, Hornsby is injecting these songs with a bit of boogie-woogie soul. Other times he sounds like the most impressive performer at a serious piano recital. And his compositions are memorable from his wounded ode against bullying, “Sticks & Stones” to the contemplation of violence in “Where’s The Bat,” to his humorous take on our pill-popping culture in “Life In The Psychotropics.” Hornsby possesses a great deal of wit, coming off at times like a more soulful descendant of Randy Newman.
“Solo Concerts” is an impressive display all around, showcasing the raw talent of an under-rated musical powerhouse.
“The Valley Road” I remember when this great song was in regular rotation on MTV, which today seems remarkable when you consider the lack of flash in the original video. It’s just Hornsby and his band The Range playing in what looks like a high school gym, with intercut exterior footage to set the mood. On this collection, this song gets a rich, walking blues makeover that really suits it. Without all the eighties synthetics found on the studio version, the song becomes utterly timeless.
“Mandolin Rain” This is another big hit for Hornsby that gets reinvented as a pensive seven-minute lament. It’s interesting to note that Hornsby does this song and “The Valley Road,” but he doesn’t do a version of “The Way It Is.” He only echoes that song slightly in his reading of Schoenberg’s “Gavotte.”
“Invisible” This is one of the few times on the set when Hornsby turns down the piano tricks and focuses on more straight-ahead chording and the results are beautiful.
quicklist: 4 title: J Mascis’ “Tied To A Star” **** text: There may be people who disagree with this assertion, but in my mind J Mascis is currently at a creative peak in his career. This burst of true greatness made itself apparent on his band Dinosaur Jr.’s 2009 album, “Farm” (an album which I may add topped my best albums list that year) and then continued through Mascis’ 2011 mellow solo offering, “Several Shades Of Why” and Dinosaur Jr.’s 2012 album “I Bet On Sky.” This level of quality even continued through Mascis’ contributions to the excellent supergroup Sweet Apple. Thankfully, the streak also continues with his latest solo effort, “Tied To A Star,” a mostly acoustic album much like its predecessor that showcases Mascis’ softer side.
He has one of the most distinctive voices, with its lazy drawl and its half-hearted croak. The built-in, half-awake sadness that his voice routinely conveys is accentuated by these softer songs. Even when Mascis revs himself up on the upbeat track “Every Morning,” the track maintains the earthy campfire glow of the rest of the set. This mood isn’t even altered by an electric solo.
For the most part, “Tied To A Star” is a contemplative record full of Autumnal reflection. You can’t help but listen to this album and imagine the Massachusetts Fall foliage. And yet these songs sound both morose and celebratory. There’s an organic sweetness to this record as Mascis continues to prove himself to be a modern master. As always with his work, he shows off some impressive guitar chops. J Mascis remains at the top of his game.
“Me Again” This is the album’s bold, sweet opener. It sets the album’s tone perfectly. Its serenity may be jarring for those expecting Mascis’ heavier work.
“Heal The Star” Like a lost acoustic track from the grunge era, this has a chilling build that is enhanced by a slight wall of fuzz during the song’s peak.
“Stumble” This song is plugged in, but it still possesses the same intimacy as the rest of the record. Mascis’ falsetto here may not be for everyone, but again this plays like a quality nineties flashback. Mascis is still a top-notch song-writer and guitarist.
quicklist: 5 title: The Rentals’ “Lost In Alphaville” **1/2 text: If you remember the Rentals at all, you’ll recall that the band started as the Moog-tastic side-project for former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp. Sharp brought on some high profile friends over the course of the band’s first two records, with help from That Dog’s Petra Haden and Rachel Haden. Maya Rudolph was even a member for a while before her days on Saturday Night Live.
“Lost In Alphaville” is technically only the band’s third full-length. It is the follow-up to 1999’s greatly adventurous “Seven More Minutes.” Sharp regrouped a couple of times in the years between, releasing the “Last Little Life” EP in 2007 and a rare boxed set “Songs About Time” in 2010, but this is really the band’s first widely available, mass-marketed statement in 15 years.
Not one of these songs is bad, necessarily, although “Traces Of Our Tears” can be unintentionally grating. Taken one at a time, these songs capture the essence of the band’s sound well. As a continuous set however, the album has a bit of an uninspired monotonous feel. As I said, the compositions are not the issue. Had there been variation in the production or more upbeat numbers, this album might have captured something. But there’s nothing on here quite as indelible as “Friends Of P,” “Waiting,” “The Man With Two Brains” or “My Head Is In The Sun.” Even on the upbeat tracks, the constant whirr of sound, emphasized by Sharp’s deadpan vocal delivery make this record come off like it is half asleep. There are fleeting moments of hope, and the backup band (including Patrick Carney of the Black Keys on drums and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig on vocals) try their best to lift it up.
This album echoes Sharp’s past glories but doesn’t match them. He can be forgiven for being a bit rusty. He just needs some warm up time. He should release more records and keep this project going at full-speed. Then and only then will he be able to summon the bright new-wave punch he once effortlessly achieved. This album has the spirit, but it sounds undercooked.
“Thought Of Sound” This is the only true fist-pumping moment on the record. If the whole album had this level of punchiness, it would have worked better.
“The Future” This sounds like the theme song for an anti-utopia-themed film. It’s not necessarily memorable for its melody, but its sonic experimentation puts it above the rest.
“It’s Time To Come Home” This is an enveloping opener, thick with promise for the rest of the record. Sadly, that promise is never quite delivered.
Next Week: Counting Crows, Maroon 5 and more. Missed last week's? Get the latest from Imogen Heap, Kimbra, and Smokey Robinson.