May 11, 2014 -- intro: This week, Lily Allen returns after a five-year absence with the humorously-titled “Sheezus,” Sarah McLachlan also returns with her signature sound, Swedish singer Lykke Li offers up her third album, Liam Finn indulges his experimental side, Natalie Merchant resurfaces, Minnesota rap outfit Atmosphere delivers another reliable set, Santana drops another typical guest-heavy record, tUnE-yArDs find occasional serenity in a whirlwind of sound and Scottish band Paws re-invent the grungy sounds of the early nineties.
We have a lot on our plate this week with possibly something for just about everybody.
quicklist: 1title: Lily Allen’s “Sheezus” (Deluxe Edition) **1/2
text: As a huge fan of her first two albums, “Alright, Still” and “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” I can’t help but be disappointed in “Sheezus.” The weird thing is, the album’s shortcomings aren’t necessarily her fault. Her razor-sharp, biting wit remains intact. Her signature sound is heard on “Air Balloon” and the album’s title track, even if both songs borrow liberally (and appealingly) from M.I.A.’s playbook.
But elsewhere, Allen is so coated with Autotune that her high, signature vocal tone is obscured. (This isn’t a T-Pain record!) “L8 Cmmr,” given the electronic treatment becomes a grating exercise. What should be a fun, cheeky anthem of sexual satisfaction is transformed into something tedious and annoying. Allen’s voice should not be altered. Part of the joy of listening to her records is hearing her sweetly sing sarcastic quips. Up until now, her instincts have been dead-on. While this record isn’t without its key standouts, too often it loses its star, treating her like part of the shiny wallpaper.
Allen’s first two albums were modern pop classics. This record is a severely mixed bag, perhaps as a result of Allen’s understandable five-year absence during which she got married and started a family. The missteps here scream of attempts to remain “current,” when in truth, there was nothing wrong with Allen’s previous blueprint. She’s still quite darkly hilarious as a lyricist, which is comforting even if she has been pulled awkwardly away from her comfort zone.
“Air Balloon” This bouncy number is a druggy ode to getting er ... lifted. But this song firmly brings Allen into the kind of territory where she left off. Like “LDN,” “Smile” and “The Fear” it delivers some material that is cutting in a syrupy sweet, appealing pop package. After all, this is a dance song where Allen’s protagonist essentially dies and scores in the afterlife with both Elvis and Kurt Cobain. If you aren’t down with the tongue-in-cheek nature of Allen’s music, this might not appeal to you.
“Sheezus”Notably borrowing from Kanye’s “Yeezus,” the title track is a woozy groove about the way pop stars (especially women) are pitted against each other by the industry. Allen complained a lot about this in the press in the months leading up to the album’s release, and that then caused some non-observant listeners to call her a hypocrite when she lyrically called out Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Katy Perry and Lorde in this song, but it is all meant to be taken sarcastically. This is her ramp-up in prep for her return after five years away from the game. She knows the industry is going to make ridiculous comparisons and try to create fake animosity. This is her theme as she steps into the ring. Like the album’s first single, “Hard Out Here,” this is a jab at how the industry treats women.
“Somewhere Only We Know” (Bonus Track) If you get the deluxe version of the album, you not only get this beautiful cover of Keane’s signature hit, but you get three other songs as well. This stands out for several reasons. First of all, her delivery is clear and sweet and sans Autotune. Secondly, she makes the song her own. This arrangement is much gentler than Keane’s original. Like her Mark Ronson-assisted cover of Kaiser Chiefs’ “Oh My God” and her Mick Jones-assisted cover of The Clash’s “Straight To Hell,” it continues to prove that as a vocalist, she is able to put a unique touch on a well-worn song. She doesn’t need all the flash that mars the majority of this record. She can handle a stripped down arrangement with a surprising level of grace.
quicklist: 2title: Sarah McLachlan’s “Shine On” ****text: On her eighth album, after releasing the rather sleepy “Afterglow” and “Laws Of Illusion,” Sarah McLachlan wakes up again. By that, I mean there are at least four or five songs on here that aren’t quiet piano ballads. That may not seem like much, but there’s a sense of pep throughout the set, even on the softer numbers as if it is a restatement of purpose. This is in a way the return of the McLachlan who brought us “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” and “Surfacing.” She has reclaimed her alt-rock core that had been absent in the quest for “Lite radio” stardom.
McLachlan’s best work has always balanced darker, weirder, harder elements with her angelic voice. This album’s strongest cuts stand well next to career landmarks like “Possession,” “Building A Mystery” and “Sweet Surrender.” During her quiet last decade, only the excellent but criminally under-rated single, “Stupid” played with this balance. Here, McLachlan is tapping into that energy once more, thus creating one of her most sonically well-rounded albums to date.
“Shine On” has something for every kind of Sarah McLachlan fan. The Lilith Fair founder is back in top form, with material to match her stunningly beautiful voice. McLachlan is still one of the most talented singers to ever grace pop radio.
“Love Beside Me” This is a surprisingly edgy, single-worthy stomper full of organ and guitar crunch. It emphasizes how well McLachlan maneuvers darker waters. Playing with distortion and fuzz, McLachlan’s lyrics about an uncertain relationship are heightened. After the song crescendos, as it settles down, it ends with a jazzy piano solo. If McLachlan delivered a whole album of songs this powerful, she’d be unstoppable.
“In Your Shoes” From the first listen of this opener and first single, I loved it. It is signature McLachlan and yet it shows a return of a needed lift. This track soars with a universal uplifting tone. It deserves to be a hit.
“Monsters” This is another potential single balancing the harder edged sound with McLachlan’s soft voice. Her mythically tinged lyrics about dragons and “creatures lurking under the bed” mix a bedtime-story brand of whimsy with her signature semi-motivational approach.
quicklist: 3title: Lykke Li’s “I Never Learn” ****text: On Lykke Li’s third album, “I Never Learn,” she and key collaborator Bjorn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn & John) back away from the dancier elements of her first two albums to deliver a set of nine sweeping ballads in the span of 32 minutes. This is an impressive, emotional record and it plays to the same side of Li’s work as her single, “Sadness Is A Blessing,” off her last album, “Wounded Rhymes.” That album is still probably her finest piece of work, but this album’s keen focus sets it apart, as well. With “I Never Learn,” Li has established herself as a torch-song singer and she can pack quite a bit of unspoken subtext into a few lines.
This collection’s brevity leaves you wanting more. One wonders if she and Yttling recorded any upbeat numbers for the set and then scrapped them in the name of thematic symmetry. With this album, Lykke Li continues to distinguish herself. The Swedish singer is one of the brightest alternative stars with the greatest continuing cross-over pop potential. Three albums in and she continues to impress.
“No Rest For The Wicked” This is a sweeping orchestral number anchored by an effectively tinkered piano riff. The chorus is huge, full of broken-hearted pain. Li has found her creative sweet-spot here.
“Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone” Like a campfire folk song, this mournful lament is a plea to be re-awakened by another’s love. In the sixties, this would’ve made a great, classic “girl-group” ballad. Li is almost crying out the lyrics backed by an acoustic guitar, giving the song a dark, driving sense of purpose. She’s singing as if she’s begging for her life, and it works.
“Gunshot” The most upbeat song on the set, rhythmically speaking is also one of the most ominous songs on the record, but it gives way to a giant eighties-style chorus. It all makes sense when you find out that this one of the songs on the set that Li and Yttling co-wrote with Rick Nowels. (He also co-wrote “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone.”) In the ‘80’s, Nowels, who also had a hand in Li’s previous records, co-wrote hits for Belinda Carlisle and others. Over the years, he’s written songs for and with Dido, Nelly Furtado, Lana Del Rey and more.
quicklist: 4title: Liam Finn’s “The Nihilist” **text: Liam Finn’s third full-length album is a surprise. His first two records, “I’ll Be Lightning” and “FOMO” showed him to have the same pop sensibilities as his father (Crowded House’s Neil Finn) with an experimental edge. This third record, “The Nihilist” is a harsh let-down. It is heavy on the experimentation, which is a good thing, but it feels for the first time that Finn put experimentation ahead of the songwriting. Here’s a very gifted musician who has hit a strange rut. History will tell you that he’s not the first great artist to hit this kind of rocky terrain.
To make things worse, he sings the first three songs on the record, in an unusual layered falsetto. With the bizarre dabbles in electronica, this at times makes the record sound like a more palatable answer to MGMT, and nothing close to previous high points like “Lead Balloon” from “Lightning” or “Cold Feet” from “FOMO.” This album doesn’t work on Finn’s usual level. At the same time, his sonic quest for adventure, while not particularly satisfying, is admirable. This record may not be successful song-wise, but it does show a level of inspiration not possessed by many musicians today. That imbalance is what makes this record such a crushing disappointment.
Neil Finn released his own unusual record in February, “Dizzy Heights,” but that record was an easier, more satisfying listen. It is obvious that father and son have been trading notes. They both deserve credit for not sticking to previously successful formulas.
“Dreary Droop” The most satisfying moment the record has to offer, this is one of the few moments when Finn finds tonal clarity and sings in his lower register. This sounds like a trip-hop-meets-Pink Floyd exercise in dream-pop.
“Burn Up The Road” This distorted-synth-led rocker also tells us what kind of record this could have been. Finn is a powerful presence and when he hits his marks right, he is greatly capable. The album on the whole could’ve used more of this kind of focused energy.
quicklist: 5title: Natalie Merchant’s “Natalie Merchant” **
text: On her first album in four years, Natalie Merchant delivers exactly the kind of record you would expect. Over the last thirty years, the former 10,000 Maniacs leader has been known for a certain kind of folky altern-a-pop and cuts like “Ladybird” and “It’s A Coming” deliver few surprises. It is evident Merchant is no longer concerned with the charts. No song on here has the kind of pep heard on tracks like “Jealousy” or “Kind And Generous.” This album actually plays it a little too safe, and at times it borders on being boring. You listen to it hoping for a shot in the arm, and a little dose of rhythm like the 10,000 Maniacs classic, “Like The Weather,” but get little reward.
While Merchant is still a capable and iconic presence, this collection lacks the kind of punch it needs to truly be indelible. It lacks energy and drive. The songwriting is potentially there, but the arrangements are somewhat lethargic, thus not encouraging repeat listens.
“Go Down Moses” It is weird how the rhythm of this track recalls both “Carnival” and “Jealousy,” and yet the energy level is turned way down. Nevertheless, with the help of Corliss Stafford, Merchant is able to turn this into a nice chunk of low-key gospel.
“Black Sheep” With its jazzy backdrop and its ominous atmosphere, this is one of the few tracks with any sort of effective lift. It still could use more energy. Had she written this during her Maniacs days, it might have been given a faster arrangement, but even as a subtly crawls it still draws listeners in.
quicklist: 6title: Atmosphere’s “Southsiders” (Deluxe Edition) ****text: If you are going to get Atmosphere’s eighth studio record, “Southsiders,” do yourself a favor and pick up the deluxe version. It adds five cuts that add almost a complete star to this rating. In its 20-song cycle, the deluxe version offers a balanced, multi-faceted song-set from this Minneapolis hip-hop act. Slug still rhymes in a straightforward way that almost borders on spoken-word, but his skill-level is deceptively great. He can say a lot in very few words and he continues to possess a singularly unique attitude. Ant’s beats are tighter than ever. This set is more exciting than their last two records, “The Family Sign” and “When Life Gives You Lemons ...” Really, this is a record that deserves a wider audience than it will probably get. The Minneapolis scene can be artier and more sonically edgy than the hip-hop from the coasts, so oftentimes it gets forgotten by mainstream hip-hop, but Slug fills this record with enough quotable refrains to entertain any isolated backpacker. (He says, “I ain’t trying to sound hungry, but if you lick my wounds, it taste like money,” on “Star-Shaped Heart” and “Whoever taught you to speak your mind, never knew you’d turn out to be an idiot,” on the bonus track “Idiot.”) Overall, the members of Atmosphere have given us an impressive hip-hop record rooted in old-school know-how and not pop pretension.
NOTE: If you want to realize how much the physical CD has declined in commercial appeal, notice that the physical version of this album is housed merely in a plastic envelope with artwork and liner notes. It feels like the packaging was an afterthought, even if they do get bonus points for including a lyric booklet.
“Southsiders” This attitude-heavy title track is a battle-rap-ready assault anchored by a grinding guitar-line. Slug spits venom in the greatest way.
“Let Me Know That You Know What You Want Now” This closer of the main album works as a thesis statement, showing what Ant and Slug do best as a vocal hook asks “Do you want respect or do you want truth?”
“Kanye West” This has been floating around the Internet for a while. Always the clever contrarian, over a smooth, minor-key gospel-meets-acid-rock beat, Slug chants “Put your hands in the air like you really do care!”
“Flicker” Backed by a sweet beat anchored by an acoustic guitar, piano, harpsichord and a bouncy bass-line, Slug pays tribute to a fallen friend.
quicklist: 7title: Santana – “Corazon” (Deluxe Version) ***text: Carlos Santana’s new album “Corazon” often feels like a Spanish-language response to his mega 1999 blockbuster “Supernatural.”
Still a one-of-a-kind guitarist, he surrounds himself with superstars like Gloria Estefan, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Juanes. A large majority of the lyrics are in Spanish, but there are a few cuts in English as well from guests like Ziggy Marley and Miguel. Really, though this record is meant to celebrate Santana’s roots. Pitbull’s clunky reimagining of “Oye Como Va” as “Oye 2014” might be seen as sacrilege to both classic rock and Tito Puente fans and the Diego Torres-assisted “Feel It Coming Back” is unforgivably cheesy, but the overall feeling of the album is positive.
This is the celebration of the man who stands as a forefather of the Latin-rock sub-genre. While this is a blatant, transparent attempt to repeat history and introduce his music to younger fans, there’s no real problem with that. As Santana gets closer to the 50th anniversary of the original band’s formation, he remains a vital, important musical force that has greatly influenced a generation of musicians. This record isn’t groundbreaking in the least, or essential listening for that matter, but it still serves as a worthy reminder of Santana’s musical contribution. However, this collection is nowhere remotely near his early career peak work.
“Besos de Lejos” (Featuring Gloria Estefan) On the deluxe edition of the record, this song appears twice. The second version is dubbed “Beijo de Longe.” Both versions show Santana effectively backing up Estefan in seductive ballad mode. In fact, this is a West-African song that Estefan sings in both its original version and in a Spanish translation.
“Iron Lion Zion” (Featuring Ziggy Marley and ChocQuib Town) This track finds Marley and Santana effectively covering Marley’s father Bob. Within the context, the Marleys’ vocal similarity is highlighted.
“Yo Soy La Luz” (Featuring Wayne Shorter and Cindy Blackman Santana) Wayne Shorter and Santana’s drummer wife take him into Latin Jazz territory effectively.
quicklist: 8title: tUnE-yArDs’ “Nikki-Nack” ***1/2text: tUnE-yArDs’ mastermind Merrill Garbus hits an inventive high-point on her project’s third release. Her soulful voice is her work’s centerpiece, as she often repeats phrases at rapid-fire pace. This is a busy record. At times it verges on being too busy for its own good as Garbus throws in seemingly endless array of clashing sounds together into a furious stew. Her chants and rhythms possess a vague African influence on tracks like “Water Fountain” and “Find A New Way.” Her electro-pastiche verges on jazzy, smooth R&B on “Real Thing” and “Hey Life.” Is this album strange? You bet. “Interlude: Why Do We Dine On The Tots?” sounds like a spoken-word bit from a volume of “Free To Be You And Me” from another dimension. Garbus’ music is challenging, but it has a dense sophistication beneath all the experimentation.
This record is more focused and less sonically polarizing than the previous tUnE-yArDs album, “w h o k I l l.” As she goes on, Garbus seems to be getting an increasing sense of clarity beneath her hasty madness.
“Look Around” This song works the best on the set, because it is the most stripped down, and yet there is something warmly hypnotic about the way she repeats the phrase “always something you can rely on.”
“Time Of Dark” With its big rhythm and its bellowing chorus, “Time Of Dark” provides a groovy, mannered funk, even if Garbus’ lyrics sound at times like she should be doing improvisational pieces at your local coffeehouse. There is something magical going on here.
“Manchild” This is an unusual head-bobbing-inducing track and it closes the record with the right kind of syncopated groove. It is sonically fascinating.
quicklist: 9title: Paws’ “Youth Culture Forever” ****text: If there is a cool, newer band you probably aren’t listening to but should be, it is the Scottish lo-fi band Paws. On their second album, “Youth Culture Forever,” they pick up right where their 2012 debut, “Cokefloat!” left off, working with a blueprint laid out by bands like Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Archers Of Loaf and Pavement. This is dingy guitar-rock taken to its excess, with a raw unadulterated energy that Kurt Cobain probably would’ve appreciated were he alive. This album is short on screamers like the previous album’s “Winners Don’t Bleed.” For the most part this collection is a much more stripped down affair. For instance, the opener, “Erreur Humaine,” begins as a quietly strummed grunge waltz and then erupts in a sea of sound. The loud/quiet/loud dynamics of the nineties live on, and yet this band may also have a bit of influence from power-pop torch-bearers Teenage Fanclub.
This is rusty, riotous noise-rock with occasional moments of gentleness. Between the guitar squalls there are enough hooks and catchy melodies to lure in some of the doubters. It is comforting to know that a younger set of musicians is picking up this experimental, punk-driven dynamic. The Seattle spirit is apparently alive and well and living in Glasgow.
“Someone New” This is a break-neck slice of punk about that upsetting feeling when you see an ex with a new boyfriend or girlfriend. When singer Phillip Taylor wails, “I don’t want to see you with someone new!” you feel his pain.
“Owl Talons Clenching My Heart” This song is grungy, but it shows some restraint in comparison to the rest of the album. It is more in step with the Alice Costelloe-assisted “Cokefloat!” standout “Sore Tummy.” These may be three-chord songs about love, loss and doubt, but the members of Paws show that they are probably equally adept in an acoustic setting.
“War Cry” This nearly 12-minute closer takes up more than a fourth of the record and yet not a moment of that time is wasted. Lyrically, it only has two small, bare verses broken up by sludgy eruptions of sound. At roughly the two-and-a-half minute mark it goes into an extended jam that takes up the remaining nine minutes, but it is a dark exploration in texture, feedback and minor-key fuzziness. In short, this track is epic.
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