Record Release Rundown – The latest from One Direction, Billie Joe Armstrong, Norah Jones

What albums should you buy this week?

November 29, 2013, 12:54 PM
PHOTO: One Direction, left, and Billy Joe Armstrong.
One Direction, left, and Billy Joe Armstrong.
Getty Images

Nov. 30, 2013 -- intro: A quick one this week. Three reviews. First, of course, is a review of One Direction's third album, "Midnight Memories." Then Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong joins unlikely forces with Norah Jones to pay tribute to the Everly Brothers. Finally, we'll listen to Soundgarden's first two EPs, which had fallen out of print but are newly available again this week.

quicklist: 1title: One Direction's "Midnight Memories" (Deluxe Edition) **1/2text:

It is evident that the focus isn't on the music by the fact that when I ordered this record to review it, I was immediately asked if I wanted to buy a One Direction calendar, too. That being said, of the vacuous boy bands building their names off frivolous pop, One Direction seems to have the best writers and, surprisingly, decent hooks.

The boys aren't out to make classics. At times it's as if they don't even want to be remembered next week. This is music for now and now alone. A track such as "Best Song Ever" is too self-conscious, even if it is catchy, but this is bright pop at its brightest. That is not to say it is pop at its best, although the guitar-ballad "Story of My Life" has some decent heft, even if it sounds a bit too polished to deliver the grit the composition itself demands.

This is One Direction's third record in as many years, and there are marked stabs at maturity. Not much here is as cloyingly calculated as "What Makes You Beautiful" or "Live While We're Young." "Diana" owes more to the pop of the '80s than the boy bands of recent times. Maybe it's because the group is British, but here it has a slight new wave streak running through its songs.

Of course, the hopes set from the first three tracks are dashed a little by the horrendous title track, which sounds like New Kids on the Block's "Hangin' Tough" if it were a faux-rock, globe-trotting romp from hotel room to hotel room. (There's also a little of Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" thrown in for good measure.) It's one of those jaded songs about life on tour. The fact that the lyrics are censored and that it is built into the song that way is annoying as well.

"You & I" is an example of bland but passable balladry. If this were the '80s, this might have been a big crescendo during a dramatic scene of a cheeseball movie, but for now it just seems as if it's by the numbers. Although at the 2:56 mark, one of the boys gives out an impressive yelp of a high note. Maybe the '80s association is linked to the chorus's ever so slight tonal similarities to Bryan Adams' hit "Heaven."

"Don't Forget Where You Belong" sounds like a variation on Snow Patrol for the "oooh, girl!" set. Again, it is rather empty, but it is better sounding than the work of many of their peers. "Strong," "Happily" and "Right Now" continue to try to find a happy ground between teen pop and adult alternative, presumably in an effort to appeal to both kids and their parents. They aren't failures, but I can't say they are clear wins, either. "Right Now," for instance is marred by what sounds like some slightly autotuned background vocals. These kids can sing, so they don't need this.

"Through the Dark" is a likable journey through folkier ground, but it still pales in comparison to "The Story of My Life." It feels as if the group is venturing into this kind of music because it happens to be in at the moment.

If you hear enough of these songs in a row, they begin to blend together. But, again, the homogenous nature of these songs calls back to the idea that the focus is more on One Direction's celebrity, how the boys look on their posters and whether they make 11-year-old girls swoon, and less on the music itself. If any of these songs are still being played 30 years from now, it'll be either because something dreadful happened in the music that came afterward or because the populous simply gave up on any notion of innovation.

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quicklist: 2title: Billie Joe + Norah's "Foreverly" ****

text: For whatever reason, duet records seem to be hot right now, whether it is M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel meeting up as "She & Him" or Adam Green and Binki Shapiro blending styles.

Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and singer Norah Jones seem like odd bedfellows at first, but both of them are infinitely versatile. So the notion that they came together to work on "Foreverly," and it worked astoundingly, shouldn't be all that big of a surprise.

The album is a track-by-track full album-length cover of the Everly Brothers' 1958 album "Songs Our Daddy Taught Us." If you are looking for Everly Brothers hits, you won't find them here, though. These are all classic, old classic country standards. One could point out that this album is just a remake of a completely other record, so on some level it is a tad redundant. But it is better to see it as a loving tribute. And it works. Armstrong and Jones manage to capture the Everlys' spot-on harmonies.

Such a move will be less surprising to Jones' fans than, let's say, Green Day fans. Jones has always had a hint of country in her work. Go back to "Come Away With Me" and you can hear occasional hints of Patsy Cline.

The "punk" purists will no doubt cry afoul at Armstrong's involvement in this project, but if the latter-day Green Day records are any indication, there's very little Armstrong can't do. Once considered a prince of simple three-chord mastery, he has spent much of his post "American Idol" career branching out and spreading his wings. If you listen again to "See You Tonight," the brief lead track from last year's "Dos!" Billie Joe shows off some strong Everly Brothers influence.

It's still a little startling to hear him and Jones cover fare like Gene Autry's "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" or the traditional "Long Time Gone," but both of them pull it off with love. This isn't "Basket Case" or "Longview." But it also isn't "Don't Know Why."

Fiddle-led numbers like "Barbara Allen" sit beside quiet, piano driven tracks like "Rockin' Alone (In an Old Rocking Chair)." For the most part, the two sing simultaneously throughout most of the set, but Norah takes the lead on "I'm Here to Get My Baby out of Jail."

Overall, this record is strangely amazing. The idea that two artists not commonly considered country artists could join forces and return country to its roots is fascinating.

"Foreverly" is an excellent collection even if it is material that has been chronicled before. Truth be told, this album would also probably make an excellent present for a relative -- ironically, perhaps even a relative who once lectured you because you happened to be playing "Dookie" a bit too loudly.

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quicklist: 3title: Soundgarden's "Screaming Life/Fopp" (Remastered) ***1/2text: In 1987 and 1988, Soundgarden was a little Seattle hard-rock band newly signed to Sub-Pop records. Grunge had yet to conquer the airwaves. Really, the group sounded more like a sludgy metal band than anything. Like Jane's Addiction did in the Los Angeles punk/funk scene, Soundgarden provided a more intelligent alternative to the mainstream metal of the time. And their debut EPs, "Screaming Life" and "Fopp," show the band in its infancy waiting to become grunge titans.

On "Hunted Down," for instance, Chris Cornell's signature howl is buried in the back of the mix. Their debt to Led Zeppelin is immediately evident. Cornell is putting on his best Plant.

These two EPs were originally put together on one CD in 1990 but until this week, they had been out of print for years. Listening to them in 2013, they have a loose, filmy quality and sound like vintage, hard-edged classic rock taken to its brink. "Entering" is a rhythmic banger of a workout, whereas "Tears to Forget" has a visceral punk snarl and charge not heard often on the band's later work.

On "Nothing to Say," it is Kim Thayil's roaring guitar that steals focus, while Cornell rages. While they are still finding their place, this is still a fascinating listen, especially for fans of later albums such as "Badmotorfinger" and "Superunknown."

"Little Joe" is kind of a mess, other than having an interesting guitar riff in one portion. Again, Cornell is still finding himself as a vocalist.

A couple of tracks later, we have the disc's one bonus track, "Sub Pop Rock City," taken from an early Sub-Pop compilation. The track has a free, playfulness similar to that of Nirvana, who recorded its album "Bleach" for the label in 1989. The track is a complete freak-out, complete with isolated phone call snippets from Sub-Pop's co-founder, Jonathan Poneman.

The "Fopp" title track is here in two versions. It first surfaces as a fuzzy slice of funk, playing like an early cousin to "Spoonman," with a breakdown that sounds like a warped saxophone sample put on a loop. The second version is a dubbed-out, extended remix, presumably built for dance floors.

Overall, if you are expecting to find the well-structured Soundgarden heard on last year's profoundly excellent "King Animal," you won't. But this is a necessary record to fully understand the band's history. There's a fun sense of urgency throughout the set. It may not be as fully formed or as masterful as their later work, but it still delivers.

Next week: Britney Spears' latest and more!

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