April 20, 2014 -- intro: This week Aimee Mann and Ted Leo join forces as The Both, Ingrid Michaelson delivers her most pop-driven album to date, Nas repackages his signature work, Jason Derulo offers up his fourth collection of dance and pop-flavored R&B, the Afghan Whigs return after a 14 year absence, Jessica Lea Mayfield shows a surprising rock side, Ziggy Marley plays around while simultaneously echoing the past and former Semisonic leader Dan Wilson delivers his latest solo album. There is a lot of music you need to hear this week.
quicklist: 1 title: The Both’s “The Both” **** text: The Both is the duo formed by Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. On the surface, this union seems both unusual and fitting. Going back and listening to their separate respective work with ‘Til Tuesday and Chisel it might not seem like a likely match, but if you listen to Mann’s solo work and Leo’s work with his band’s the Pharmacists, it is easy to see that they are both aiming for a power-pop middle-ground. On this, their debut album, they complement each other nicely with interplay similar to that of A.C. Newman and Neko Case on the New Pornographers’ records.
They temper each other. It is nice to hear Mann get a bit of Leo’s crunch behind her. She has a few rockers on here that show a side of her not heard since 1995’s “I’m With Stupid.” And at the same time, her cerebral approach has rubbed off on Leo as well, giving him a nice sophistication. So, Mann’s energy is turned up and Leo’s energy is turned down, meeting at a pleasing middle-ground.
Ted Leo to me has always come off like an even cross between punk-era Joe Jackson and Freedy Johnston. He can rock with a snarl and then sing you something sweet. Mann has continually and winningly forged her own way to become one of the key modern figures in the “Adult-Alternative” genre. Ever since she contributed to the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” she has continued to move forward in an extremely distinct way. Her often deadpan delivery is always thick with implied subtext. Leo has channeled hardcore roots into a pop-punk concoction. If you don’t believe me, check out his standout single, “Me & Mia” or his vital take on Tears For Fears’ classic, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” which he recorded for The A.V. Club’s web segment, “A.V. Undercover.”
In the end, The Both is a meeting of minds that I wouldn’t have necessarily expected. Once you hear the results, it seems pretty obvious why these two decided to record together. I hope they have more records to come.
“Milwaukee” A key power-pop gem of a single, with the chorus, “It’s the nucleus burning inside of a cell.” Like much of the album, this song finds the two singers eagerly trading off on the verses. The production is sharp and Leo’s guitar soloing adds the right amount of jam-rock roughness, creating a nice sense of tension.
“Hummingbird” This acoustic number plays like an out-take to Mann’s 2002 album “Lost In Space.” It’s like a sequel to her song “The Moth.” She and Leo both find tenderness in the rich tune, harmonizing together quite well. In addition, with its lyrical mention of “protesting on Monsanto,” the song shows itself to be subtly politically and environmentally aware. This is a beautiful track and it deserves to be a single.
“No Sir” This song has more of Mann’s signature stamp than Leo’s, showcasing the late-Beatle-esque, sweeping waltz-driven swagger that has become her bread-and-butter. It builds nicely and again Leo provides an appropriately ragged-sounding solo that compliments the tune quite well.
“Bedtime Stories” This track is a perfect mix of Mann’s and Leo’s styles, with a thunderous punky intro, giving way to some mid-tempo new-wave power-pop. The song has a really nice chorus where the two switch off sections. It will stick with you. Again, this is another strong single contender. As the song ends, the duo makes excellent use of an echo effect, as if driving the song further into your consciousness.
“Honesty Is No Excuse” This is an excellently executed Thin Lizzy cover that fits in with the duo’s originals quite well. It sounds more celebratory than the original with its use of hand-claps but still the gravity of the song’s lyrics remains intact.
quicklist: 2 title: Ingrid Michaelson’s “Lights Out” *** text: “Lights Out” is Ingrid Michaelson’s most obvious and aware pop album to date. By that I mean it seems like it was crafted with the radio in mind. There are good and bad sides to that. On the good side, it means this album is full of catchy hooks, making the most out of Michaelson’s sweetly-toned delivery. On the bad side, the songs’ lyrics stay a little on the vague side.
While she basically built her career herself, releasing her music originally independently, Michaelson sound-wise has never been known for indie aesthetics. That being said, her second release, “Girls and Boys” remains her true masterpiece simply because it has the most lyrical depth of any of her albums. There’s a real darkness hiding underneath a song like “Die Alone” and an honest realness to “The Way I Am.” Even the details in the song “The Hat” show her to be a gifted songwriter. In comparison, the songs on “Lights Out” seem winning but generic. This is an appealing pop record, but in some ways it lacks the intricacy of her earlier work.
At no time here does she meet the level of drama felt on the “The Chain,” a song she felt so strongly about she put it both on her odds-and-ends album “Be OK” and its follow-up, “Everybody.” This album’s track “Open Hands” tries to conjure up that energy but doesn’t quite possess the same level of classical beauty.
Tune-wise, however, she has not lost a step. These songs will remain in your head and could serve as both radio hits and key potential television placements. This guest-filled record is full of cameos, too from the likes of Greg Laswell, Mat Kearney, Storyman, Trent Dabbs and A Great Big World.
It is an appealing disc, even if the sharper edges have now been effectively dulled in the pursuit of further mass-appeal. Michaelson has always aimed for pop perfection and she’s always been deserving of pop attention. This disc will please her long-time fans, even if the unique lyrical touches now seem missed.
“Girls Chase Boys” This single is a bright pop song sporting an eye-catching video which has both men and women dressed up and made up to look like the women in Robert Palmer’s classic videos. The goal is to sexualize both genders equally, while pointing out the disparity in the different ways men and women are depicted in the pop-culture realm. The song itself is a catchy, hook-filled number.
“Time Machine” This is an interesting stomper which sounds like a psych-up track from the eighties. Especially with its momentary use of an accenting saxophone line. In the middle of the song when it momentarily gives way to delicately-played piano part, it shows a touch of musical depth.
“Stick” This track has a chilled sense of menace as it builds. The electro-touches add a sonic richness here, sounding again like the pop of the eighties. At the key point of the chorus build, Michaelson has a nice diva-esque moment.
“Handsome Hands” This track sounds like a really produced response to Stereolab. It sounds both dreamy and eerie at the same time. It stands as one of Michaelson’s most interesting musical moments to date. When it revs up, the loud guitars and the orchestra add some unusual touches. It also stands in stark contrast with the rest of the album’s straight-forward pop approach.
quicklist: 3 title: Nas’ “Illmatic XX” ***** text:The rating here should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of hip-hop. Nas’ “Illmatic” is one of the most iconic hip-hop albums on the nineties, on par with A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” and Biggie’s “Ready To Die.” What Nas delivered here was a lean set that clocked just under 40 minutes and said more than most rappers could say in their entire careers. Nas not only proved himself to be a gifted lyricist, but he also was able to find a take-no-prisoners middle-ground between the gritty, blooming popularity of gangsta-rap and a more soulful, highly conscious approach. The beats are dirty and gritty, often relying on scratchy bass-driven dissonance. In comparison, this record makes most of the hip-hop today sound like sugary pop. This record has a basement-like dinginess, thick with jazz samples that sound like they were ripped straight from the vinyl source. It’s that kind of earthiness that is missed today. This is rawness.
At the same time, this is hip-hop at its peak point where it just focuses on lyrical flow with little care on if it offends anyone. In 1994, Nas exuded brashness and he spit flows with an effortless stream. Radio play wasn’t a factor. This was rough-edged hip-hop straight out of Queensbridge.
The beats themselves were classic, too. It’s amazing what was done with a key section of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on the album’s closer and still key standout, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” Q-Tip brought some jazzy vibe-filled excellence to “One Love.” “Memory Lane” has a doo-wop-esque sense of nostalgia. “N.Y. State Of Mind” comes with the kind of cerebral roughness and intense flow similar to early Wu-Tang tracks. It is no wonder this is the album that Nas is still trying to match. It’s an unbeatable debut.
Of course, it should go without saying that like many hip-hop classics of this period, some may find this material to be on the coarse side. Its frank street tales make no apologies and that’s partly why it succeeds. To clean it up would be to mar it and rob it of its street-wise essence. This is after all, one of the most influential albums in hip-hop history.
It captures what was happening in hip-hop at the time within a tidy microcosm. With production from Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, the previously mentioned Q-Tip and others most of the important players and tastemakers of the genre were present for its inception.
For its 20th anniversary, it has been packaged with a bonus disc of rarities and remixes, adding to the album’s legacy. One of the album’s original strengths was its brevity, but these tracks still further add to the album’s mystique, filling in some historical gaps. In its accompanying booklet, there are testimonials about the record’s importance from Afrika Bambaataa, Raekwon, KRS-ONE and Fab 5 Freddy. There is also an extended essay about the album from hip-hop scribe Sacha Jenkins.
It should be noted that a decade ago, a 10th anniversary edition was released with a few bonus tracks. The bonus tracks found on the two versions differ from each other. So, if you bought it twice before, you now have to debate buying it a third time if you are a completest. (Columbia obviously holds this as a “Legacy” album of the highest order. It’ll be interesting to see if in another decade we get a “30th Anniversary” edition.)
Note: Any self-respecting hip-hop head knows this album from front to back, so for the Focus Tracks, I am looking at what has been added on the bonus disc.
“I’m A Villain” Perhaps this was seen as too raw to be on the main album, but it embodies the feeling throughout “Illmatic.” Just Nas spitting an attitudinal flow over a spare, bass-heavy beat. With samples from James Brown and Kool G. Rap it shows how Nas wanted to fuse old soul and funk with newer street-tale toughness.
“It Ain’t Hard To Tell” (Remix) / “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” (The Stink Mix)) / “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” (The Laidback Mix) If anyone out there is studying the art of the hip-hop remix, (s)he should pay close attention to the original version of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” and these three additional remixes. It is a testament to how strong a flow this is, when it can seemingly be effortlessly placed over these radically different beats. All of them keep the song’s original tension intact.
“One Love” (The LG Remix) The LG Experience’s remix of “One Love” gives the song a “New Jack Swing” and a dose of soul, making it sound like something that wouldn’t have been out of place on the “Juice” soundtrack.
quicklist: 4 title: Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” **1/2 text:On his fourth album, Florida-native Jason Derulo is all about getting busy on an international quest for booty. This is more of a grove-based record than something with memorable hooks. This is post-EDM R&B. Instrumental samples and sound-bites are often used as substitutions for real chorus. This is a record of builds. On the title track, we get a Middle-Eastern flavored horn. On the Snoop Dogg-assisted “Wiggle” we get a whistle. You can guess what we get on “Trumpets.”
“Talk Dirty” isn’t a horrible record, but at the same time, it feels like a passing fad. Derulo doesn’t distinguish himself. He seems more like the front-man for a production-piece more than a singer. He’s just another cog in the epic mix crafted for clubland. Production-wise, there are some interesting moments here, but as I said, these are more grooves than songs. On “Trumpets,” Derulo’s lyrical mentions of Kanye, Katy Perry and Coldplay play like grasps at cultural awareness. In a few years, these mentions may serve as time capsules. The beat to the song would be better used in more of a hip-hop-flavored context. This is, though, most likely meant to be pop music in the most immediate sense. One gets the idea the Derulo and his team are just out to capture the pop zeitgeist of the moment and then move on. It’s been his M.O. since he sampled Imogen Heap’s “Hide And Seek” on his single, “Watcha Say.”
When he steps away from the autotune and the groove-based tracks, he actually has more success. His duet with Jordin Sparks, “Vertigo,” is quite winning.
But at its crux, this is a down-and-dirty electro-fueled sexual celebration. On “Zipper,” Derulo sings about breaking a headboard. On “Kama Sutra” he pleads for a woman to “Come out of them jeans and make me a believer,” emphasizing sex as a sort of means for spiritual redemption.
“The Other Side” sounds like an R&B dance answer to OneRepublic, in the way that it hits you over the head with its calculated, bland, anthemic quality, while “With the Lights On” is another plea for sex.
With its shuffling beat and flamenco flare, “Stupid Love” aims to be an epic love ballad, but slightly misses the mark, while “Marry Me” will most likely be the kind of polarizing, saccharine ballad that will be played at many weddings to come.
There are far worse albums out there than “Talk Dirty,” but its perceived aim for capturing the moment means it sacrifices personality. It comes off as a generalized production piece. Derulo is probably laughing his way to the bank because this approach is working for him, but I sense he might be able to do better.
“Vertigo” (Featuring Jordin Sparks) This is the one moment on this record that seems genuine. It is a step away from the posturing, taking a moment to craft a sweet duet.
“Talk Dirty” (Featuring 2 Chainz) As ridiculous as this song is, it deserves to be highlighted for bringing an international flare not otherwise heard on pop radio today.
“Wiggle” (Featuring Snoop Dogg) Snoop’s verse is too brief and Derulo’s insistent emphasis on the derriere is quite humorous, but the whistling bit that serves as this song’s hook sticks with you. (But seriously…there are a lot of songs about booty on here….)
quicklist: 5 title: The Afghan Whigs – “Do The Beast” ***1/2 text: Of the nineties grungy bands, The Afghan Whigs were perhaps the most soulful. Greg Dulli has always felt more like an R&B singer than a rock singer, given his voice’s resonance. On his band’s first album since 1998, not much has changed. He’s still a powerful vocal force. . When I say he’s like an R&B singer, I mean that in the most unhinged way. One gets the feeling that he has perhaps listened to a lot of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in his day.
“Do The Beast” doesn’t feel like a rehash. It feels like a forceful restatement of purpose. It is an often haunting, stirringly nuanced set. Dulli’s voice gets to show all its impressive shades from its pronounced bellow to a soft falsetto.
Like many of their reunited peers, the lineup of the band has been pretty gutted, but Dulli and John Curley effectively hold down the fort, building on the band’s classic sound and giving it some modern twists.
This isn’t the most immediate record. It’s more of a mood piece that needs to be absorbed and listened to a few times before forming a concrete opinion. It’s a record that plays with extremes. At times it hits you over the head and at times it is quite subtle in its attack methods.
The Afghan Whigs are at their best within the hardest, most rocking context. That is when they sound the most urgent, and that urgency will pull you in. On the softer songs they can suffer from the same blandness that often plagues The National. Luckily, “Do The Beast” has its share of rocking moments to keep it all moving.
Countless ‘90’s bands have been returning after extended breaks. Not one has disappointed yet. Like the rest of these bands, the Afghan Whigs have thoroughly reclaimed their turf. Let’s hope this is truly a new beginning and not just a one-off release.
“The Lottery” Like previous career singles, “Gentlemen” and “Honky’s Ladder,” “The Lottery stands as the band’s latest ominous rock statement. At times during the track, Dulli adopts an Elvis Costello-esque vocal approach, but the guitars are thick and some surprising drum machines give the song some danceable heft before the real drums come in. This is a bold, effective rocker that deserves some airplay. If alt-rock radio still existed at the capacity it did 20 years ago, this would be a mega-hit.
“Matamoros” A funky slap of a song, “Matamoros” announces itself like a twisted guitar-tinged re-imagination of the theme to “Knight Rider.” Dulli packs attitude into every word, even when he’s singing in his highest falsetto.
“Parked Outside” The album’s thunderous beginning, this track sets things off with a crash similar to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs. “ And Dulli is quite an epic force when he lets himself completely go.
“Lost In The Woods” This is the track before “The Lottery” and it plays like a prequel companion track to that song, consisting of some of the same notes. The two notes played on the piano during the verse section have all the tension of a ticking time-bomb. When the chorus is in full-swing it plays like a fleeting moment of serene beauty.
quicklist: 6 title: Jessica Lea Mayfield’s “Make My Head Sing…” ****1/2 text: Three years ago, Jessica Lea Mayfield’s second album “Tell Me” hit the shelves. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach it was a sparse, slightly retro-soul flavored record anchored by Mayfield’s low-key, often muttered delivery. Her latest collection, “Make My Head Sing…” is a whole other beast entirely, fueled by a crushingly sludgy sound. This is an epic rock record with blistering psychedelic edges. Given the Black Keys’ often hard-edged sound, it is remarkable in retrospect that her Auerbach-produced work didn’t sound more like this.
This is all nineties grunge with an occasional sixties Hendrix-esque paisley wash. (No joke.) Mayfield hasn’t switched up her vocal approach. She’s still as under-stated as ever. With a dose of echo, though over the heavy guitar chugging she commands the room like nobody’s business.
This is one of the biggest rock surprises of the year. Production and execution-wise, you’d be hard-pressed to find a current rock record willing to wallow in and experiment with texture in the way that this disc does. Occasionally there is a wonderfully off-putting shoegaze quality to these songs. Experiments with strange tunings, combined with a sludgy insistence can produce remarkable results. And Mayfield’s voice with its subtly mannered drawl sits calmly above the moments of chaos.
Listening to this record, it is evident that Mayfield might have made for another interesting choice to front Nirvana during their “Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame” induction. Kurt Cobain’s spirit is definitely present here. Especially on the album’s second half.
This is one of the most surprising releases of the year. What an incredible, beautifully wounded record!
“Oblivious” Probably the biggest dose of sludge-rock here. If you don’t know what you are initially getting, this opening track delivers the best kind of shock. Long live heavy riffage!
“Pure Stuff” Like a day-glow Nirvana-dream, this song carries a great deal of textural heft as the guitars chug their way along beneath Mayfield’s echo-drenched vocals. This also sounds like psychedelic dream-pop with a crispy core.
“Anything You Want” Like a lost gem from the RIOT GRRRL! movement, this sounds like it could’ve come from the Northwest 23 years ago, with its minor key assault and its guitar squall. Mayfield is singing at a near whisper. She isn’t shouting. Somehow that has an even more chilling effect.
“No Fun” Another grunge-rocker, this plays like a plugged-in, spooky cousin of Nirvana’s “Something In The Way.”
“Standing In The Sun” This song keeps the grungy textures, but it sounds more upbeat thanks to a brighter melody and Mayfield’s effective use of vocal harmony. The guitar-playing style on this track recalls Liz Phair’s “Exile In Guyville.”
quicklist: 7 title: Ziggy Marley’s “Fly Rasta” ***1/2 text: Second-generation artists have a hard time. This is especially true if their parents were icons. It surely isn’t easy to be Sean or Julian Lennon, or Jakob Dylan for instance. Ziggy Marley is in that same grouping. The problem with having a parent who defined your genre of music is that no matter what you do, your work will be compared to your parent’s work. This isn’t fair, but it is a fact of life.
In Ziggy Marley’s case, he’s had a career for almost 30 years and yet due to his name and his vocal tone, it is easy to expect the kind of material that Bob delivered from him. But Ziggy’s world is lighter than Bob’s probably thanks to Bob’s epic musical achievements, so no matter how hard he tries, Ziggy’s music will probably never have the cultural resonance or importance of Bob’s. In addition, Ziggy doesn’t stick to straight reggae. There are tinges of rock that creep into his sound. So while Bob sang about the unity of people and brotherly love, Ziggy sings more playful fare like “I Don’t Want To Live On Mars.”
The beauty of Ziggy is that he can mix light-hearted tunes with tracks that evoke the uplifting work of his father. “I Get Up” and “Moving Forward” for instance have the sort of motivational message that would probably make Bob proud.
More than a dozen albums into his career, if “Fly Rasta” proves anything, it is that Ziggy Marley does not need to prove himself. This is a winning, often quite enjoyable collection full of joyous moments and that distinct, inherited Marley sound.
“Moving Forward” An anthemic dose of reggae rock, this is an anthem about conquering adversity.
“So Many Rising” Weirdly, this song sounds a bit like a rewrite of John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane,” but Marley fills the track with enough artful poetry that it really doesn’t matter. The track possesses a moving sense of fervor.
“Fly Rasta” The album’s title-track is an old-school horn-driven strong reggae groove. A percussion instrument that sounds like a muted bell keeps the rhythm right next to the microphone, adding a sense of urgency. As he does on the rest of the album, Marley makes good use of background singers, creating a nice interplay of call and response.
“Give It Away” This is another soulful old-school reggae jam that nicely evokes the past while paving the way for the future. It ends the album on a perfect note.
quicklist: 8 title: Dan Wilson’s “Love Without Fear” *** text: Former Semisonic leader Dan Wilson returns with his first solo album in 7 years with “Love Without Fear.” To many, he will be forever known as a one-hit-wonder for his former band’s hit, “Closing Time.” This classification is actually unfair, considering that single’s follow-up, “Singing In My Sleep” is actually a much better song, even if it wasn’t as popular. In addition, Wilson has spent recent years as a hit songwriter and producer, working with everyone from The Dixie Chicks, to Mike Doughty to P!nk. His biggest success though was probably with Adele. After all, he co-wrote her hit “Someone Like You.”
On “Love Without Fear” the post-grunge power-pop of his Semisonic days is toned way down giving way to a nice, folk-driven mid-tempo atmosphere. Yes, in some ways, the album’s subtlety and Wilson’s mild-mannered approach can sometimes work against him, but throughout the record he throws some surprisingly effective curveballs. This means some tracks carry more heft than others, but when he delivers, he proves why he is currently one of the biggest hired guns in the business.
Wilson’s success with other artists proves that sometimes the ones you least expect can become major players. His own music has such an unassuming energy and yet, if you really listen, his ultimate success is utterly deserved. He has quietly become one of pop-music’s most important writers. “Love Without Fear” doesn’t often bludgeon you with greatness, but on many levels it succeeds.
“However Long” Wilson is at his best when he angles himself toward minor-key melodies and “However Long” is one of the most moving songs he has ever written. It doesn’t sound the least bit generic. It climbs and falls with ease, bouncing across the scale with a mournful sense of melodic force. As it continues, it gets more dense, The two sung parts that play over the bridge bounce over each other and collide beautifully. He deserves to have a hit with this song.
“Disappearing” An early seventies-style pop song, with an AM Radio glow. This is the kind of track that firmly sits in Wilson’s wheelhouse.
“Your Brighter Days” Perhaps Wilson’s success is tied with his keen-eyed optimism. He tends to sing boldly happy songs and “Your Brighter Days” is full of friendly encouragement. During the bridge, the song gets a surprise shot of energy.
“Two” Another reason why Wilson probably does so well is that his songwriting style is very versatile. Left to his own devices, he seems to favor the subtlest of approaches, but one can imagine a song like “Two” being reinterpreted with a larger, more anthemic rock edge. It is actually quite a song.
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