intro: It's another interesting collection of reviews this week. First, out of Leeds, England, Kaiser Chiefs comes back with its fifth release. Then, we listen to the latest from Christina Perri and indie rockers Cloud Nothings. Mariah Carey's husband, Nick Cannon, tries to cause some controversy, while Leon Russell sifts through the past. Thievery Corporation delivers some quintessential chill music and, finally, Chevelle gives us a very heavy dose of rock.
It's another eclectic assortment. Strap in and start reading!
quicklist: 1 title: Kaiser Chiefs' "Education, Education, Education & War" **** text: At this point, it seems to me that in the U.S., Kaiser Chiefs is extremely under-rated. The band's most buzzed about album was its 2005 debut, "Employment." With each successive record it has gotten more interesting and nuanced, adding to a rather rich discography. The Mark Ronson-helmed, "Off With Their Heads" was a particular creative high-point.
Kaiser Chiefs' sound has always come off like the peculiar love child of the Clash and Duran Duran, creating a danceable, new-wave-flavored brand of rock with a visceral undertone. "On The Run" from 2012's "Start The Revolution Without Me" should have been an epic smash, and I still believe it would have been had it received the attention it deserved.
The group's fifth album, "Education, Education, Education & War" pairs the dark unrest on "Employment" and its key singles, "I Predict a Riot" and "O My God," with sunnier, bigger production. Yes, this album has the attitude, but it has a much grander goal. It appears to be their bid to be a giant stadium rock band. Most bands would look foolish taking this sudden turn. On the surface, it would seem like a transparent move to boost an audience. I'm not saying it isn't, but for Kaiser Chiefs, it works.
The album also has its adventurous side. The band takes some risks, particularly on the second half of the record. "Canons" stands out in a big way, in this regard, given the fact that it devolves first into a strange, yet inspired bit of rock opera and then, as the music recedes, it gives way to some wonderfully dry narration that almost sounds borrowed from some BBC war documentary. The band wants to explore both sides of the coin. And it can. This album is both accessible and experimental.
"Coming Home" As the first and most obvious single on the record, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is by far the band's strongest attempt at courting the mainstream yet. In its sunny, anthemic way, it still maintains a strong rock presence. Yet, at the same time, it feels like a smarter, more enthralling and informed version of the sound that bands like Imagine Dragons have been turning into chart success. Mark my words, this song is a hit. It is the kind of enveloping, charging mid-tempo rocker that could be licensed in movie trailers and on TV shows. But in order to become a hit, it needs to get the airplay it deserves.
"Roses" The album's closer, this song has an atmosphere similar to the Cure's "Disintegration," and it builds into a really enormous chorus. Throughout the entire record, Kaiser Chiefs is experimenting with sounds it hasn't approached before. This is yet another very confident stretch.
"Meanwhile in Heaven" Perhaps crafted with the dance-floor in mind, this song marries a slamming beat with a harpsichord synth. Heavy guitars chug along, eventually giving way to a very solid hook.
"My Life" Pairing the earnest approach of the band's earliest hits with brighter, larger production proves to be rewarding. This slightly ominous organ-led rocker would make for an excellent single.media: 23197745
quicklist: 2 title: Christina Perri's "Head or Heart" *** text: Christina Perri is bound to get comparisons to similar singer-songwriters Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson, but unlike both of them Perri shines brightest when she has darker, more ethereal material. Her second album, "Head or Heart" is packed with ballads, which is good, considering ballads are her strong suit. Some are better than others. The best of the bunch usually find her minimally backed, allowing her voice to be the center. When she has a winding tune with several detours to explore, she is at her most compelling.
Occasionally, the production is a little slicker than it should be, or she heads into saccharine territory. (The Ed Sheeran duet, "Be My Forever" is as cheesy as Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours." It'll probably be popular, but it is the weakest track here.) Perri is best without the pop flourishes, when the focus is kept at a minimal singer-songwriter level. Her compositions can be very gentle and they often don't need frills. Sometimes just a small piano line with a defining underlying bass note does the trick.
"Head or Heart" does have its slightly uneven passages. But when it succeeds, it fully wins you over. Christina Perri proves herself to be a dynamic writer and performer.
"Human" This song plays like an American counterpart to the work of Norwegian singer Kate Havnekik. It has the same glow that has become Havnevik's signature, with its quiet verses and its sweepingly bombastic orchestral chorus. Perri really delivers here, and the song is the perfect single choice as an ode to our inherent human frailties. Really, this is a beautiful example of an excellent modern pop ballad.
"Trust" With very little backing, this opener has Perri's voice taking command. Like an opening chorus, this sounds like the reawakening and rebirth after being hurt in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Again, Perri's sense of melody isn't afraid to take intriguing turns.
"Shot Me in the Heart" One of the album's few upbeat standouts. A building verse section leads to a big chorus. Backed by a go-go beat, it maintains a driving sense of energy. Fascinatingly, the verse section, at points, sounds melodically like something Beck would have written during the "Modern Guilt" era. This is especially apparent at the point when Perri sings, "Here we go fighting again."
"Lonely Child" This sounds like a slightly Eastern-flavored bit of flamenco. At the same time, when the chorus kicks in, it plays like an electro-influenced theme to a spaghetti western. There are many influences coming together here to form something excitingly cohesive.
"I Believe" This is another building based upon a simple piano line. This closes the album well. Like "Human," this would make an excellent single. When the beatbox-style drum-machine comes in subtly, it gives the song a strong backbone. Ending the album with Perri's voice repeating the lines, "This is not the end of me. / This is the beginning. / Hold on. / I am still alive," was an inspired choice.media:23196735
quicklist: 3 title: Cloud Nothings' "Here and Nowhere Else" ****1/2 text: Building off the band's last album, 2012's "Attack on Memory," Cleveland's Cloud Nothings releases yet another trim, eight-song set of hardcore and power-pop influenced fuzz rock. And it improves on the formula. These tracks are catchier than the ones on the previous effort and, yet, none of the bile-spewing energy is diminished. This is low-down-and-dirty sounding rock with bright hooks. This is indie rock at its rawest and most celebratory. Bands have been making albums like this since Hüsker Dü emerged in the early '80s, but this formula is one that, if done well, can be drilled into the ground. And Cloud Nothings proves here to be a visceral force. This is 31 minutes of solid, infectious rock. Pop hooks are delivered with a snarl by leader and mastermind Dylan Baldi.
Cloud Nothings sits well with bands like Male Bonding, Best Coast, Paws, Wavves and others in the efforts to balance a pop sense with rawer guitar sounds. These lo-fi bands are getting an increasing amount of clout. I sense one of them could break through in a really big way on the pop charts given the right timing, potentially spawning another '90s-style revolution. For the last four years or so, there has been a re-emergence of this back-to-basics approach.
With "Here and Nowhere Else," Cloud Nothings deliver one of this currently re-blooming sub-genre's most immediate records.
"I'm Not Part of Me" This is the album's closing track, but it is also the album's best track. If Japandroids decided to cover Jimmy Eat World, it might sound like this. Baldi's voice is buried in the mix and yet, beneath the layers of fuzz, his catchy melody still draws you in.
"Now Hear In" With slight shades of hardcore and the good side of emo, this opener sets the tone for the rest of the record quite well. When the layers of distortion disappear for a moment and Baldi is only singing over drums and bass for a few bars, there's a moment of refreshment, and yet when the guitars come back into the mix, they somehow sound better than ever. Little basic tricks like this can go a surprisingly long way.
"Psychic Trauma" For the beginning of the first verse, the song takes a slower approach. Suddenly, the song rapidly speeds up and keeps its rapid pace for the rest of the track. It becomes a breakneck race and, yet, the tune is appealing at both speeds.
"Pattern Walks" This nearly seven-and-a-half minutes of punk squall once again shows that, if called upon, Cloud Nothings can effectively stretch out its songs. Unlike a lot of their peers, the members of Cloud Nothings aren't afraid to jam out and experiment. Perhaps that is a bit of Sonic Youth influence creeping in. They have done this before. "Wasted Days" clocked in at nearly nine minutes and was a key "Attack on Memory" highlight.media: 23196017
quicklist: 4 title: Nick Cannon's "White People Party Music" 1/2 text: Last week, Nick Cannon caused a medium-sized Internet fuss when he dressed in "whiteface" as an alter-ego, whom he dubbed Connor Smallnut. It was a stunt to promote his new record, "White People Party Music." This week, the album is out. Cannon has said that he hoped such a stunt would trigger frank discussions about issues of race. But at the same time, it is hard to discern his actual goal.
As an album, "White People Party Music" delivers a punishing assault. Not only is this cliched pop taken to its maximum level, but then we get to hear Cannon sing way off-key on the go-go surf-y number, "White Lady." "Me Sexy" plays like a low-rent answer to Justin Timberlake's "Sexyback." On "America," he's paired with Pitbull and they sing a strange love song about our country as if it were a sexy woman in "red, white and blue high heels."
Cannon has a song called "OJ" where guest vocalist Amba Shepherd sings, "You can run as fast as you can, but you're never gonna catch me." At this point, a loud male chorus shouts, "Now OJ Simpson!" giving way to a chorus of pseudo-dubstep beeps and bloops. (Really? An OJ joke?)
If Cannon is aiming for an Andy Kaufman or Sacha Baron Cohen-esque approach, as he has said, he is missing part of the formula. Often, this album seems to try to shock aimlessly. On "F*** Yo Birthday," a rather atrocious club jam, a drunk girl approaches the DJ booth at a club on her birthday. She asks the DJ (in an obnoxious way) to hear a song. That's when the DJ slaps her across the face and yells, "Shut up, b****!"
To confuse things even more, there is a puzzling narrative of self-hatred going through this album. In interludes, Cannon appears as Connor Smallnut, who is apparently reporting from the "White People Party Music Festival" for some media outlet. He openly talks about how much he hates Nick Cannon and how he can't believe Nick Cannon is married to Mariah Carey. (This is all delivered in a high-pitched, affected "bro-speak" voice that sounds more like an audition to play "Fraternity Smurf" than anyone real.) He even has a song called "F*** Nick Cannon" on which he discusses all the "haters."
What is really going on here? Is this a parody of bad pop music or simply an attempt at "funny" pop music that just went horribly sour? The lines are too blurred to truly make out the real intention.
Also, who is this album's target audience? Cannon basically grew up on Nickelodeon, but in spite of his occasionally gruesome posturing here, this 33-year-old seems weirdly stuck in that world. On the inside of the liner notes, there is an ad for his new "Wild'n Out Compilation Vol. 1," "featuring a 48-page activity book, games, puzzles and trivia." (Really? An activity book? Should someone who needs an activity book really be listening to this record?)
Cannon is sometimes considered a comedian. My hunch is that this album is intended as a tongue-in-cheek excursion, but it lacks wit. It ends up just being a profoundly ugly display. This album's incongruous nature is just bothersome. If you hear this album playing at a party, you should probably take that as an indication to leave. There's nothing here worth recommending. media: 23197363
quicklist: 5 title: Leon Russell's "Life Journey" ***1/2 text: Leon Russell's voice gets more raspy in character with each passing year, and his follow-up to his 2010 collaborative effort with Elton John, "The Union," finds him in a warm, reflective mode. John served as executive producer of "Life Journey" and it is easy to see why the two men get along so well. Still one of the best piano players around, Russell turns every ivory pound into something elegantly funky.
The set consists mainly of covers. He turns in excellent arrangements of songs like "New York State of Mind" and "Fever." While his versions may not have the cultural importance of the ones by Billy Joel and Peggy Lee, respectively, his renditions have their own unique swing. Backed by a jazzy-band, he's able to put some palpable soul into the mix.
Russell stands as an excellently skilled interpreter. Many of these songs are familiar, but they aren't boring in this context. This isn't a standard, formulaic album where Russell "does the classics." His piano playing and his gravelly delivery make this all worth the trip. Plus when Russell is upbeat, he maintains a kind of boogie-woogie-esque R&B standard you don't often hear these days. And yet, on the album's softer moments, he shows some surprising delicacy.
In the end, "Life Journey" is a nice reminder of the endurance of Russell's legacy.
"New York State of Mind" Russell turns one of Billy Joel's signature tunes into something you might hear at some sort of supper club. This arrangement is elegant with its horns and flutes. With Elton John's involvement behind the scenes of this album, one can't help but think that he might have had something to do with picking this song. After all, Joel was famously John's former touring partner. While the Oklahoma-born Russell doesn't scream New York, his version pays a nice compliment to the song.
"Georgia on My Mind" Switching states, Russell delivers a fitting cover of this Hoagy Carmichael classic. While this song will forever be associated with Ray Charles, Russell leaves his mark on it, as well.
"I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" Again in the jazzy realm, Russell covers Duke Ellington. His distinct vocal delivery adds character to the song. The Duke after all, remains an evergreen source for material.
"Big Lips" One of the album's few originals, this is also one of the album's biggest rockers, with a Dr. John-esque, New Orleans-influenced sound. He previously recorded this song for his 2008 album, "In Your Dreams," so, essentially, he is covering himself.
"Think of Me" Russell is able to insert the right level of emotion into Mike Reid's "Think of Me." It nicely fits this album's overall reflective tone.media: 23196590
quicklist: 6 title: Thievery Corporation's "Saudade" **** text: Delivering what could be their most chilled album to date, Washington, D.C., duo Thievery Corporation is fully enveloped by a softer, loungier sound, thick with sultry, bossa nova cool. Gone are the reggae, Afro-Beat and Middle Eastern influences that usually occupy space on Thievery Corporation records. In a way, this makes this album also one of the duo's most focused records to date.
This may be sonically focused but, lyrically, it is still an international journey with words delivered in Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and English. Essentially, what Thievery Corporation has created here is the ideal soundtrack for mature, martini-sipping dinner parties. That may not sound great to some readers, but it is.
If you are an artsy, chilled type, this will be one of your favorite albums of the year, and as "Lebanese Blonde" was used a decade ago in "Garden State," this album should also find licensing opportunities in both movies and commercials. It's a lush, warm, well-crafted collection.
With the exception of the instrumental title track, all of these songs are anchored by clear, female voices. If you are looking for something as pointed as the Mr. Lif-assisted title track to Thievery Corporation's last album, "Culture of Fear," you won't find it this time around. Actually, "Culture Of Fear" and its predecessor, "Radio Retaliation," were both pretty political and raging. Perhaps Thievery Corporation decided to relax for a minute, take a breather and just chill by the pool. Even though this collection strips the away the geo-political elements that are usually peppered into the mix, it still captures the duo's essence quite well.
"Firelight" (Featuring Lou Lou Ghelichkhani) Most Thievery Corporation fans should recognize the voice of Lou Lou Ghelichkhani. She has had a long history of collaboration with Thievery's Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, and this won't disappoint fans of her past work. She sings five out of the album's 12 tracks, so she is, by far, the most frequent voice heard on the record. This track is subtle, like the rest of the album, but the production detail given to the drum section is notable.
"Depth of My Soul" (Featuring Shana Halligan) Shana Halligan is the former vocalist for the duo Bitter:Sweet and her old-school flair is a perfect match for Thievery. "Depth of My Soul" sounds like the perfect halfway point between Portishead and Lana Del Rey. It particularly brings to mind the former's "Glory Box."
"Quem Me Leva" (Featuring Elin Melgarejo) Elin Melgarejo sings this song in Portuguese. It borders on being a light samba, as a Latin-flavored acoustic guitar strums a riff in the background.
"Claridad" (Featuring Natalia Clavier) This track has a whiff of spy mystery, as if taken from a seductive bit of film noir. Spacey synths echo across the track, accenting key moments.media: 23196316
quicklist: 7 title: Chevelle's "La Gargola" **** text: On its eighth album, Chicago metal outfit Chevelle continues to churn out hard-edged rock, bridging the gaps between grunge, "math-rock" and "nu-metal." Tool and the Deftones still stand as impressively strong influences. Most listeners probably know Chevelle best still from its early period singles, "Send the Pain Below," "Vitamin R (Leading Us Along)" and "Mia." If you liked Chevelle then, there's really no reason not to like Chevelle now. "La Gargola" is the band's first album since 2011 and it is a wide-awake, hard-edged thrill ride.
Thankfully, it doesn't take into account that modern rock radio has now virtually met its demise. Two out of the three Loeffler brothers still anchor the band and they make no efforts to placate the whims of the pop masses. In fact, this record maintains the brutal sound longtime fans would expect. Compared to most of this album, "Send the Pain Below" seems like light pop in comparison. This is an uncompromisingly hard-edged record.
In a time when it seems harder and harder to find an excellent hard rock record, Chevelle has truly delivered. The band has always had a big, loyal fan base, but this album deserves wider attention. It is an extremely strong set.
"Take Out the Gunman" This is the album's single and it seems like it is directly lifted from the late '90s, even with its surprisingly liberal use of cowbell. The old-school grunge soloing recalls the best sonic elements of that period. This easily stacks up well next to the singles of the band's peak period.
"One Ocean" This is one of the album's softer and more melodic tracks. Chevelle can slow its tempos and lessen its fury without losing the intensity. This also would make for an excellent single.
"Jawbreaker" This muscular, churning relentless guitar wash is like a fun dose of adrenaline being shot into your eardrums. It is truly and wonderfully aggressive.
"Hunter Eats Hunter" Another strong single contender, this song is a metallic, twisting creeper that hits various peaks along the way. The chorus is huge.
Next Week: Former Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, indie buzz artist EMA, hardcore super-group OFF! and more!