June 22, 2014 -- intro: This week Lana Del Rey returns with her controversial "Ultraviolence," Linkin Park flex their metal and prog-rock muscles, Jennifer Lopez releases her eighth album, talented newcomer Sam Smith dazzles, David Gray proves to be as reliable as ever and Willie Nelson further cements his legendary status. It's quite an interesting week.
quicklist: 1title: Lana Del Rey's "Ultraviolence" (Deluxe Version) ***1/2text: Lana Del Rey recently told Fader magazine, "I believe a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants."
She's definitely calling her own shots.
On "Ultraviolence" the songwriting is superior to the work on her first record. It's much more densely cohesive and put together. This might have to do with the occasional presence of The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach in the production booth, but more likely speaks to the fact that singer Elizabeth Grant is more comfortable in the Lana Del Rey persona. And if you want to take this seriously, keep in mind that it is likley a put-on. As Del Rey, Grant seems to be a romantically doomed chanteuse. Although, one gets the feeling that behind her "woe is me" musings lies someone who can wield an icepick if the need arises. Her music could potentially been seen as sarcastic satire and social commentary on hidden darkness behind the glitz.
Say what you will about Lana Del Rey, but her music and image have inspired a great deal of conversation. There are plenty of good and bad things to say about what is being put out there, but in the Internet age of instant gratifications, Lana Del Rey is someone who defies being summarized in absolutes, which is partly what makes her so brilliantly confounding. There remains that air of mystery.
"Ultraviolence" keeps you guessing as to where reality and fiction meet. Its highly orchestral torch songs also sound drastically different from anything else currently getting airplay on pop radio. Name another singer quoting Henry Mancini's "Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet" like Del Rey does on "Old Money." Of the current crop, she may be hard to classify, but she's one of a kind.
Note: The deluxe edition of the album has three bonus tracks not available on the standard version.
"Cruel World" This epic 6-minute opener is a woozy bit of blues. It is also the kind of track that -- if it catches on -- could ensure Del Rey a long career. It's cinematic in its scope, begging to be licensed for use during a climactic scene in a film. Again, it is the ethereal elements that really give the song character.
"West Coast" There is a skeezy '70s funk to this track, giving it the right amount of sleaze as Del Rey sings the driving chorus that effectively merges into a steep tempo shift. This sounds like the soundtrack to Los Angeles' underbelly. It is dark and groovy in all the right places.
"Brooklyn Baby" Del Rey told "The Guardian" that this was supposed to be a duet with Lou Reed but he died on the day they were supposed to record together. This has the vibe that would have suited Reed and I wonder if the lyrical nod to him in the song was added later as tribute.
quicklist: 2title: Linkin Park's "The Hunting Party" **1/2text: "The Hunting Party" for the most part is Linkin Park's attempt to expand further into metal and prog-rock territory. There are few hints of the colorful electronic touches that used to punctuate their records, instead we get ham-fisted riffs and Chester Bennington going into full-on scream mode. There was always a touch of this element in their music, but there were usually enough interesting things going on to keep things interesting. Mike Shinoda still adds a touch of hip-hop with his occasional verses, and rap legend Rakim makes a very out-of-place cameo on the otherwise prog-driven "Guilty All The Same," but the sonic inventiveness that used to be a hallmark of their work is now virtually missing from the equation.
For the most part, it is Bennington who somehow feels most out of his element. His high, melodic voice even in screaming mode doesn't pack muscle to match this record's riffage. Even though this slow slide in this direction has been coming since 2007's "Minutes to Midnight," it still doesn't fit. It feels like forced aggression for these guys.
If you are thinking I am completely down on this record, though, think again. It's actually pretty back-loaded. The second side finally finds them merging this aggressive side with a more melodic side. Also on this second half System of A Down's Daron Malakian and Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello provide guest appearances. In all, "The Hunting Party" is an uneven mess, with a few excellent last-minute saves. In spite of my harsh criticisms here, there are a few fleeting moments when they do channel all their best energies into something cohesive and lasting.
"Mark The Graves" At just about the moment in the record when you think the band has been replaced by a mid-level Machinehead cover band, this track emerges. It is a builder with a great melody that gets occasional metallic punctuation. This should have been the album's first single and it should have been more of a blueprint for the rest of the record.
"Final Masquerade" Again, like "Mark The Graves," this song effectively mixes the tuneful hard-edged nu-metal pop sound that made "Hybrid Theory" and "Meteora" such runaway successes with the newer hard-edged sound. This is also one of the few times on this album that the band members sound fully like themselves.
"Wastelands" This begins like a stuttering math-rock experiment with Shinoda suddenly busting a verse until Bennington comes in with the chorus. On past albums, this would've been probably just a decent album track. On this album, it ends up being a highlight, especially when the heavy guitar solo suddenly erupts into what can only be described as a spacy sonic boom.
quicklist: 3title: Sam Smith's "In The Lonely Hour" (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2text: Sam Smith could probably be the next Adele. By that, I mean he's an unassuming British singer with a surprisingly soulful voice and given the tides of industry it is possible he could really conquer the charts in a big, lasting way if he plays his cards right. Back in April, he gave a couple of stirring performances on "Saturday Night Live." In an unusual move, his "SNL" debut came two months before his debut album hit our shores.
This album is brief, clocking in at a mere 33 minutes in its standard form, but Smith proves himself to be a versatile vocalist with an elastic instrument. He can move across multiple octaves and uses every chance he can get to show his impressive range. Sometimes, this can work to his detriment, even if it is always impressive. The chorus to opener "Money On My Mind," where he momentarily goes into a near squeak, can be quite harsh, but for the most part, Smith makes a lot of the right calls. His voice borders on operatic, possessing a delicate gentle texture.
Most of "In The Lonely Hour" is made up of downtrodden soul ballads delivered with the sincerity of someone who has lived through heartbreak. These songs are Smith's bread-and-butter. This isn't a perfect set, but it sets him up for an impressive career while giving him a lot of room to grow. There's no denying that Sam Smith is quite a unique talent.
The deluxe version comes packaged with four bonus tracks, including an acoustic take on his collaboration with Disclosure, "Latch."
As a side note, it is worth knowing that Smith is also Lily Allen's third cousin. Here's hoping we get to hear the two of them sing together on a track together.
"Stay With Me" This song almost acts as the album's thesis statement. This is Smith's tender plea to a lover to stay after a night of passion. It's vulnerable and it's bold, giving Smith the kind of ballad that will no doubt be heating up certain karaoke circles for quite some time. Few vocalists though, will probably be able to do this track justice. This is Smith's song. In just under three minutes he conveys an endless stream of emotion. It's remarkable.
"Lay Me Down" This works as a sequel of sorts to "Stay With Me." Smith asks a lover, "Can I lay by your side?" It's another smooth, heartfelt plea for affection.
"I'm Not The Only One" This soulful piano groove with an insistent mid-tempo beat is a ballad about confronting an unfaithful spouse. This is another potential hit, made more powerful once the string section enters.
quicklist: 4title: Jennifer Lopez's "A.K.A." (Deluxe Edition) *1/2text: On Jennifer Lopez's eighth album, she tries her best to channel modern pop radio. She brings along a large roster of guests, as well, from T.I. to Iggy Azalea to the seemingly omnipresent Pitbull.
Nas even makes an appearance on the deluxe edition track, "Troubeaux," a track that commits hip-hop sacrilege by mangling and reusing the horn sample that was the basis of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth's untouchable classic "They Reminisce Over You." Nas tries his best to save the track, but the truth is, the two are mismatched.
The rest of Lopez's album sounds good, sonically speaking. The productions are slick, full of buzzing electronics, creating a mixture that sounds like someone fused low-level eighties pop with current EDM trends. But the problems arise when the vocals come in. J. Lo's voice is always heavily treated. She often sounds like she's half-speaking her way through the record.
Take for instance the French Montana-assisted, "I Luh Ya Papi," where an interesting beat is squandered so J. Lo can mutter her way through verses about a beaux "loving that J. Love." (That's right, she not only talks about herself in the third person, but she names the "love" she gives after herself.) The chorus is just her repeating the words "I Luh Ya Papi" over and over again rapidly. It's a disappointment because it wastes this warm, promising backing track.
Then there's the Pitbull-aided "Booty," which is a song about (you guessed it!) large derrieres. The beat has an admittedly hypnotic energy, but the ridiculousness of the song undercuts any real swagger, especially when Pitbull begins his verse, "Booty, booty, booty, booty, booty everywhere…."
Throughout the set, Lopez leans on monotonous tunes with very little variation. When she does take the rare stab at melody, it doesn't necessarily work in her favor. The Chris Brown-co-written "Emotions" is a difficult listen for a number of reasons. In that song, Lopez actually sings the line, "I feel good 'cuz I don't feel bad."
Most of these tracks feel like incomplete pop sketches built from formulas. The electro beats are for the most part promising, but those are promises on which Lopez just can't deliver.
"First Love" This is a really shiny dose of Max Martin pop anchored by a very study, slamming beat. There's a joyful cohesion here not present on the rest of the record and it has a pretty decent melody as well. If Lopez had issued a whole album in this vein, this album would have probably been a pop classic. This is pure-pop electro-pop gold, borrowing heavily from the dance music around 1987. Lopez shines the most when she is the least self-conscious and not trying to follow the trends. This sounds like the album's most focused and least labored moment, and so it is a winner.
quicklist: 5title: David Gray's "Mutineers" (Deluxe Edition) ****text: In some ways, David Gray's ninth studio album, "Mutineers," is a return to form. After releasing a string of excellent records in the '90s with little notice, he rose to fame on the fourth try. On his now classic "White Ladder," Gray augmented his sound with the use of skittering beats and synths. This continued through the equally great (if not better) album "A New Day at Midnight." By the time he released "Life in Slow Motion," the technological aspects were beginning to recede again, until they finally pretty much fully vanished on "Draw the Line" and the earthier and more organic-sounding follow-up, "Foundling."
Regrettably, "Mutineers" doesn't have quite the electronic presence found on "White Ladder" or "A New Day at Midnight," but it is the slickest-sounding record Gray has issued since "Life in Slow Motion." Even if there aren't tripping beats associated with this release, he plays with echo and reverb and digital sound editing to great effect here. It's his most appealing song-set in some time, as well. It is evident that Gray has larger exposure on his mind again and he should get it. The truth is, he is a reliable writer, carrying a longstanding songwriting tradition.
This album has a delicate quality, as if it was painstakingly crafted. You can hear it in the plinking notes that begin the title track or the way Gray's words come and go on "Girl Like You." "Back in the World" is a perfect way to begin the record because it brings to the forefront a concept of rebirth as Gray sings that he is "naked as a tree." It's a weird sentiment, but it is one that is apt.
The deluxe edition of the album comes packaged with three discs in all. The two bonus discs are actually a live album, "Cascade," capturing a performance from 2011. It all makes this a very winning collection all around. If the only album you know by Gray is "White Ladder," you have some rewarding digging ahead of you.
"Beautiful Agony" Several times across the span of the album, Gray sings at a near whisper. Strangely when he does so, he sounds a touch like Ryan Adams during the hushed parts of his album "Love Is Hell." Gray sings this way on "As the Crow Flies" and on this track. Here, a treated piano loop serves as the track's anchor. There are ambient creaks heard in the background that quietly rustle in a rhythm. As drums kick in, Gray raises his voice and the track erupts while still maintaining a very spacious feeling.
"Gulls" Again, there is some airy production here, giving this track a haunted feeling not unlike a slightly muffled response to his single, "The Other Side." One gets the feeling this was the kind of track that Coldplay were trying to make when they made "Ghost Stories." In truth, Chris Martin would be wise to pay attention to Gray's level of craft. This track is both chilling and beautiful.
"Mutineers" There's a still and haunting sweetness to this title track as it burrows into your consciousness. Gray is an expert writer of this kind of slow-burner.
quicklist: 6title: Willie Nelson's "Band of Brothers" ****text: Willie Nelson has been writing and making music since the fifties. He's now 81, but nothing has really changed in his music. "Band of Brothers," his latest album, sounds every bit like the classic Willie you'd expect, bringing the kind of country that country radio has almost completely forgotten. Nelson stands as one of the titans of the genre and he knows not to mess with a good formula. These are songs about downtrodden times, women whom he's done wrong, women who have done him wrong and other meditations that read like entries in a troubadour's diary.
There are very few modern touches on this record. Nelson is smart that way. These songs could have literally come from any part of his career. His voice is the same as it ever was and his songwriting chops are still in top form. In other words, if you are a fan of any of his work over the course of his career, you'll probably like this, too.
"The Wall" This reflective song about accepting breakdown and one's weakness belongs equally in the country and adult-alternative realm. The distant harmonica part adds a fitting sense of tragedy. The chorus has a nice bit of melody to it, making it one for the ages in Nelson's overall songbook. This track has a palpable sense of angst and regret.
"Wives and Girlfriends" "I love my wives and I love my girlfriends, may they never meet," Willie sings. It's an old-school country ode to philandering. You pretty much know this story isn't going to end well. (Bonus points for his nod to his friend Dolly Parton in the mentioning of "Jolene.")
"I Thought I Left You" This is a ballad about a girlfriend who won't go away. Nelson sings with quiet exasperation, asking "What part of 'we can't make it' don't you understand?"
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