intro: This week, former Husker Du and Sugar front-man Bob Mould issues another hard-edged back-to-basics record, eclectic funk and soul star, Meshell Ndegeocello issues her 11th eclectic album, 50 Cent returns after a five year break, Echo & The Bunnymen remain as strong as ever more than thirty years into their career, the long-awaited return of nineties trip-hop and alt-rock act Ruby finally gives us a full-length release, and lo-fi buzz-band Parquet Courts issue their second offering. It has been a busy week and there is a lot to discuss!
quicklist: 1 title: Bob Mould’s “Beauty & Ruin” ****1/2 text: Bob Mould has spent the last few years releasing a string of truly impressive records that pay homage to his years as a hardcore and alt-rock veteran while alternating between hard-edged sounds and pure pop gold. Fans of Mould’s eighties Husker Du output would find much to love in these last few records. It’s as if time stood still for Mould sonically speaking. He’s not mellowing in the least. He’s getting better. Tune-wise, he remains an ace-songsmith, and his gorgeousmelodies often shine through even when buried beneath a wall of guitar fuzz.
The sticker on the cover of “Beauty & Ruin” calls this album “A lifetime of emotion in 36 minutes.” That may be over-stating it, but this is a really passionately rollicking record. In fact, it is a more stunningly assured effort than Mould’s effective last album, 2012’s “Silver Age.” It finds true balance in all of Mould’s strengths. It hits you hard with great punk velocity and bile, but at the same time, these are beautifully crafted pop songs. If his past work with Husker Du and Sugar weren’t proof enough, this record cements Mould’s strong footing in the worlds of both punk and power-pop.
Given the sea-saw of melody and destruction that Mould has delivered here, perhaps “Beauty & Ruin” is a perfect title for this often tightly-wound release. This record was meant to be played at top-volume.
“I Don’t Know You Anymore” Aided by a hilarious music video made for “Funny Or Die,” in which Mould makes sad realizations about the modern music industry and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists provides some self-mocking levity, this strong, hook-driven pop song should get the hits and listens it deserves. Mould is after all a pop writer in a punk’s body and this is one of his strongest singles to date.
“Let The Beauty Be” This is one of the few songs where the guitars recede, giving way to an Elvis Costello-esque ballad in the most classic sense.
“Kid With The Crooked Face” Evoking his hardcore past, you can hardly hear Mould’s voice over the guitar and drum fury, but he’s yelling like a madman, all without losing his sense for melody. In fact this song wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Foo Fighters’ album, “The Colour And The Shape.” No doubt, Dave Grohl has some Mould influence. It may be a two-way street.media: 24028470
quicklist: 2 title: Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Comet, Come To Me” **** text: Bassist and singer Meshell Ndegeocello is now on her 11th album and her sound is as diverse and eclectic as ever. Keep in mind, this is a woman who has spent her career working with everyone from John Mellencamp to Talib Kweli and Redman. If you haven’t heard her cover of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” from the 2006 tribute album, “Exit Music” you need to immediately.
Although she has had a long, storied career at this point, the glorious thing about Ndegeocello is that she doesn’t fit neatly into a box. Sure, she’s still got an R&B and funk core, with some jazz-fueled touches, but there also seems to be a shape-shifting alt-rock artist in there, too. But everything she approaches is handled with a keen sense of focus.
“Comet, Come To Me” is not necessarily the career-defining classic that 1996’s “Peace Beyond Passion” is, but it is a reliable set, more akin to the anything-goes approach found on 2009’s “Devil’s Halo.” Name another artist who can cover Whodini’s “Friends,” one moment, deliver a stark (yet funky)piano ballad the next and then hand in a few jazzy bits of fuzz-rock.
This is a record for adults with sophisticated tastes. With each album, Ndegeocello proves to be more and more fascinating. It feels like she is approaching the last fifty years of music with the precision of a scholar.
“Continuous Performance” This is a subtle bit of new-wave, and it builds impressively without hitting you over the head. Ndegeocello is more likely to meditate on tones than she is out to make pop hooks and yet, there is a quietly affecting poppiness hidden in the track.
“Comet, Come To Me” This title track is based around a glorious piano riff, which is then accompanied by a reggae-influenced rhythm and organ line. Meanwhile, Ndegeocello is singing in a sweet tone that is almost Betty Carter-esque. Multiple elements are at work here and somehow they all come together very cohesively.
“Conviction” Like “Continuous Performance,” there is an effective pop song here, although this one is more obvious with its momentary flirtation with hand-claps and synth-string punctuation for emphasis. The guitar part also possesses some excellent wah-wah pedal action.media: 24028423
quicklist: 3 title: 50 Cent’s “Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire To Win” *** text: 50 Cent’s first album in 5 years is a brief, tight set that clocks in at less than 40 minutes. Not much has changed. He still is delivering gritty tales of hustling with a thirst for survival. His lackadaisical, desensitized approach to violence and drugs is under-pinned by the deadpan, nearly mumbled delivery that has become his hallmark.
The album itself is a mixed bag. 50 sounds great on the earthy, soul-tinged beat on opener hold on, but the second song, “Don’t Worry ‘Bout It” gets a bit monotonous. From the elephant sounds filling the title track, it is evident that he has a sense of humor.
While this album doesn’t truly distinguish itself, it does provide a few key moments, thus making it a merely satisfying entry in 50’s discography. Will it have the commercial appeal of “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’?” No. That’ll be a record he will be chasing for his entire career. Unlike fellow Queens native Nas, who continually reinvents himself, 50 seems stuck in one mode, which makes this album both truly focused and a bit of a disappointment. There’s something to be said, however about knowing exactly what you are getting. In other words, this is a reliable dose of the 50 Cent brand, but it shows little artistic growth. However, it definitely should satisfy his core audience.
“Hold On” This track has a Wu-Tang-like approach to its tightly-wound tales on gang-violence. Even the beat, built around a sample of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” has a Wu-like sensibility. 50 knows what he’s doing. Those who are shocked by the gun-violence would probably be best advised to check out the statistics included in the booklet of this album. These stats, combined with the red, white and blue gun that serves as the image under the disc-tray show that violence has become a very present reality in American life.
“Irregular Heartbeat” Similarly, this track’s lyrical content is unflinchingly brutal, but the beat’s quiet approach and 50’s hushed delivery add a creepiness as he whispers to an enemy, “I can hear your heartbeat.”
“Hustler” Perhaps this track hits it all a little too hard on the nose as 50 tells tales of “hustling” over a funky beat, singing “I’m a hustler, baby.” The beat is interestingly off-kilter. As obvious as it is, it works.media: 24028372
quicklist: 4 title: Echo & The Bunnymen’s “Meteorites” **** text: Quietly, over the last decades, Ian McCulloch and his band, Echo & The Bunnymen have continued to issue some excellent records that have remained under the radar in the U.S. Their 2009 album, “The Fountain” was an effectively punchy exercise in song-craft. Their remained freshness is remarkable especially considering it has been 34 years since their debut album. McCulloch’s voice is raspier than it was in the eighties, but his knack for writing songs hasn’t changed.
“Meteorites” is sometimes ethereal and echo-y, bringing to mind later groups like Spiritualized and yet, most of it has a kind of timeless quality. Single, “Holy Moses” sounds like it could have very easily been laid down in the eighties.
This is the sound of a band comfortable in their own skin, adding to their legacy effectively without repeating themselves. While there’s nothing on here as pop-driven as their classic staple, “Lips Like Sugar,” this album possesses a more nuanced sophistication that comes with age, often delving into darker, Eastern-sounding realms. This album has some surprising edges which will no doubt make it rewarding upon repeated listens. It can be wonderfully murky in some places without sacrificing its accessibility.
“Holy Moses” As stated above, this is a single that easily fits with the group’s classic catalog, with its quiet eruption of a chorus. There is a subtle anthemic quality at work here. Like U2, who in many ways can be seen as Echo & The Bunnymen’s peers, McCulloch and company know how to craft an effective rising hook, albeit with more subtlety in their approach. The jangle-pop work of the Smiths and early R.E.M. come to mind as well.
“Grapes On The Vine” On this single-ready tack, McCulloch sings, “I love the devil. The devil is you,” with a surprising amount of sweetness, His voice is double-tracked in different octaves, and the song has simultaneous distance and warmth.
“Market Town” At nearly eight minutes, this jam is almost chant-like in its execution, but as it continues, melodic elements creep their way in. The drum-work and guitar riffs are appealing, as are the backwards, psychedelic touches.media: 24028526
quicklist: 5 title: Ruby’s “Waiting For Light” ****1/2 text: If you are a regular reader of these reviews and this looks vaguely familiar, it’s because last year, Ruby’s Lesley Rankine broke a 12 year silence and issued the “Waiting For Light” title track, an EP called “Revert To Type” and a remix EP. These titles made my best of 2013 list last year. Now, Rankine has issued “Waiting For Light” in its full 12-track album form, containing the previously released 4 songs as well as 8 others, and it plays excellently, standing very strongly alongside Ruby’s 1996 classic, “Salt Peter.” In fact of the three Ruby full-lengths, “Waiting For Light” may be Rankine’s strongest offering to date. Not only does her work here recall peers like Bjork and Portishead, but it is also quite forward-thinking, making for a record that echoes the industrial and trip-hop of the nineties while simultaneously sounding very current. Imogen Heap and Kate Havnevik also come to mind, but Rankine is her own innovator with her own hypnotic and stirring sonic stew.
In addition, over time, she has gained sophistication. Her voice is a wonderfully textured instrument, suited very much for the occasionally sparse backdrops. In another life, she probably could have been a jazz singer. This is a surprising revelation when you consider her punk and industrial background. To borrow a descriptive song-title, this album is an endlessly “Lush” exercise.
Few artists come back after such lengthy hiatuses and deliver such firm statements. “Fireweed” deserves to be a trippy crossover pop hit, while “And 5 & 4” is a strange and exciting experiment in voice recording. It’s a rich, sonically diverse set from the acoustic folk lullaby of “Pulling Teeth” to the rocker, “Last Life.”
Sure, last year Rankine give us small pieces of this, but in its full form, it is an even more enveloping collection. After listening to “Waiting For Light,” you’ll wonder why Rankine went away in the first place and why she isn’t seen as one of alt-rock and trip-hop’s biggest innovators. Having once been signed to the majors (where she issued the hit “Tiny Meat”) she’s now making the calls on her own terms, and her music is all the better for it. Let’s hope this is just the beginning of Ruby’s long-overdue second chapter. We need more albums like this one. Ruby needs to stick around.
Note: In previous writings, I’ve championed the title-track, “Fireweed” and “Lush.” I’m focusing on tracks not previously issued.
“Spin” This track plays like a trance-y answer to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Rankine’s voice is right upfront in the mix, singing a melody rich with warm psychedelia. This track is woozy and rave-ready.
“Rain” This industrial rocker slowly creeps in, exploding as a slamming beat kicks in. This should appeal to fans of Garbage and Curve, while the jazz-influenced piano accents in the background add for a unique touch.
“Note To Self” This bass-heavy jam has a tripped-out beat punctuated by some fascinating blips and bloops. It’s hard to tell if Rankine is singing here about a broken heart or something more sinister as she repeats the ominous phrase, “Nothing kills like a knife.” Again, her voice is extremely prominent in the mix, which works in her favor, since it is this album’s undeniable focal point.media: 24035503
quicklist: 6 title: Parquet Courts’ “Sunbathing Animal” ***1/2 text: On their second album, Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts offer up more post-Pavement/post Archers Of Loaf indie-rock albeit with more half-singing and wounded-sounding jams. But this kind of ramshackle indie-rock still sounds alarmingly refreshing when compared to the clean production found on modern-pop radio. There’s something vibrant about these songs, even if they aren’t particularly original. It’s a low-down, very nineties garage aesthetic at play here, full of planned dissonance and raw fortitude. Like its predecessor, “Light up Gold,” this album points to a brewing lo-fi scene that is just under the mainstream’s surface. I really do think one of these bands is going to break through and crossover eventually, ushering in another nineties-style reinvention. If there does get to be such a “second-wave” of mainstream alt-rock, it will be because the original wave provided so many lasting joys. Parquet Courts aren’t the most melodic in their approach, so the breakthrough probably won’t come from them, but nevertheless, “Sunbathing Animal” delivers a varied, high-velocity song-set which should please any fan of the messier edges of the nineties. It’s a very back-to-basics approach with a few sing-along (or probably more aptly shout-along) moments of bliss.
Focus Tracks: “She’s Rolling” A slow, extended jam that gets better with each repeated listen. This band usually favors faster numbers, but when they allow their grooves to breathe, new sonic colors emerge. “Ducking And Dodging” This punk wallop announces itself with shouted chorus of “You’ve been ducking and dodging but you can’t come home no more!” The words are shouted over mainly a drum and bass combo, but when the guitars come in they add some extra kick. “Instant Disassembly” At seven minutes, this is another extended jam that recalls Stephen Malkmus at his most low key. It is more than likely that the members of Parquet Courts each have well-worn copies of “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.”
Next Week: New music from Jack White, Chrissie Hynde, Andrew Bird and more.
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