Record Release Rundown: The Latest From Muse, Of Monsters And Men, Sharon Van Etten, Tamia, Ash and More

PHOTO: Matt Bellamy, Dominic Howard and Christopher Wolstenholme of Muse perform on stage at BBC Radio 1s Big Weekend Norwich 2015 at Earlham Park, May 23, 2015, in Norwich, England.
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This week veteran arena-alt-rockers Muse continue to march toward the apocalypse on its latest offering, Icelandic sensation Of Monsters And Men return with a second album, singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten hands in a stirring five-song EP, R&B singer Tamia returns to the major label ranks, Northern Irish rockers Ash drop an album for the first time in eight years, Franz Ferdinand and Sparks join forces and make their debut as FFS and Canadian shoegaze/dream-pop outfit No Joy leave a lasting impression. It’s another exciting week with a wide range of releases.

PHOTO: Muse - Drones
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Muse’s “Drones” **1/2

Over time, Muse’s Matthew Bellamy has stopped aiming at imitating Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (see 2003’s excellent “Time Is Running Out” from the album “Absolution”) and has set his sights on trying to be this generation’s answer to Freddie Mercury. Muse’s new album “Drones” opens with “Dead Inside” and that song is laced with Queen-style harmonies.

That being said, “Drones” as an album is an apocalyptic meditation on war and overall destruction, but it continues to take the band in the electro-glam direction it was headed on its last album, “The 2nd Law.” However, it lacks a great single akin to that album’s “Madness.”

Along with the electro-elements also comes a bit of Marilyn Manson and Tool influence to give these songs crunch, but admittedly the riff on “Psycho” sounds a bit like a ham-fisted, stale hard-rock cliche.

This album is essentially a prog-rock musical about how human warfare could lead to our demise. There’s a lot going on here and frankly less would be more. Bellamy is a great vocalist, but he is really playing up his theatrical side here. It sometimes gets to be too much. The whistle and slow-build on “The Globalist” both work quite well, and then Bellamy goes into ballad-mode before a crunching guitar frenzy leads to a separate moment of soaring balladry. The truth is, during this album’s harder passages, it works the best. It is during these moments that it feels like they let go a little and don’t take themselves quite so seriously.

Muse has its intentions in the right places here, but “Drones” still ends up being enough of a mixed bag that it lands on the slight edge of disappointment. Like many of Muse's recent albums, it captures a few moments of magic but cannot sustain that kind of power for the entire set. However, this really does sound like the score to a potential musical even if most of the time it is a little too earnest for its own good.

Focus Tracks:

“The Handler” This is a sludgy, mannered work-out and there is a bit of me that says that this smacks of a Broadway re-envisioning of what a rock band should sound like, but in spite of that and in spite of Bellamy’s sometimes heavy-handed delivery, this track carries all the best qualities this album has to offer. It is heavy on the prog-rock noodling, but it shows Muse to be a band with a high amount of technical skill.

“Mercy” This is a radio-ready alt-rock ballad with a fitting sense of drive.

“The Globalist” As mentioned above, this ten-minute track runs through an amazing range of sounds. Its ambition alone would make it a highlight.

PHOTO: Of Monsters And Men - Beneath The Skin
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Of Monsters And Men’s “Beneath The Skin” ***1/2

Iceland’s Of Monsters And Men easily avoid the dreaded sophomore slump with a second album, “Beneath The Skin,” even if the album lacks obvious highlights akin to “Little Talks” and “Love Love Love” from the band's debut. This is more of an even-toned album, finding a nice balance between mainstream radio pop and artistic flourishes. The delicate orchestral touches to its music are tempered with occasional rock escalations.

Sure, it is tempting to compare Of Monsters And Men's sound to Arcade Fire, but in truth, from what we’ve seen so far, the Icelandic rockers are a more consistent band. It is also tempting to pair them with the banjo-strumming revivalist movement that ushered in bands like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, but it truth, the co-ed back-and-forth vocal interplay between Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson make them sound more like an Icelandic cousin to the Canadian band Stars.

This album is mostly about ballads and often they soar, as with the pounding rise of “Hunger” or the primal-sounding “Wolves Without Teeth.” Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir in particular proves herself to be a real star on the beautiful “Organs.”

Mostly this album provides a nice sigh of relief that the success of its predecessor, “My Head Is An Animal” was no fluke. With “Beneath The Skin,” Of Monsters And Men continues to be an unusual export that the narrow world of American pop radio should continue to accept. This is an enjoyable album that shows more musical depth with repeated listens.

Focus Tracks:

“Organs” This song is beautiful and it has the wonderfully weird chorus of, “So I take off my face / Because it reminds me of how it all went wrong. / And I pull out my tongue / Because it reminds me how it all went wrong. / And I cough up my lungs / Because they remind me how it all went wrong./ But I leave in my heart / Because I don’t want to stay in the dark.” This cartoonish link between heartbreak and self-mutilation is downright Bjork-ian and in the aftermath of Bjork’s excellent “Vulnicura” so is the sentiment. Keep your heart, because in spite of the pain, falling in love is still a worthwhile endeavor.

“Human” “Cage me like an animal. / A crown with gems and gold. / Eat me like a cannibal. / Chase the neon throne.” This album seems bent on personal destruction in the face of some sort of tragedy. It captures the frailty of the human condition and the resilience of the human spirit. Our goals may destroy us, but we are going to still try our hardest to attain them.

“Hunger” Similarly, this seems to be an ode to heartbreak and attempting to move on past a lost sense of love. Again, this has a feeling of rebirth and survival in the face of adversity.

PHOTO: Sharon Van Etten - I Dont Want To Let You Down
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Sharon Van Etten’s “I Don’t Want To Let You Down EP” ****

Sharon Van Etten follows up last year’s stupendous “Are We There” with a five-song EP of leftovers. If there is a decline in quality from these and the songs that made it onto her last two albums, that drop isn’t felt. These five songs stand well on their own with Van Etten’s signature ethereal emotional warble leading the way.

The title track is a sweeping, jangling number while “Just Like Blood” has an organ line that will hit you in an affectingly raw spot. It is actually more the tone of the organ than the riff, since it is essentially chording all the way through the song.

“I Always Fall Apart” is a beautiful piano ballad that allows Van Etten’s voice to shine with its unique versatility. Her built-in hint of vibrato gives what could be an otherwise straightforward song a very emotional reading.

“Pay My Debts” is particularly stark and yet it maintains as warm but admittedly eerie glow as it builds and “Tell Me” is a live take on a track that was originally written at the tail end of the sessions that produced 2012’s also impressive album “Tramp.”

This EP shows Van Etten to be quite an inspired writer. These are songs about loneliness and isolation. The title track is about disappointing the people who love you perhaps without intention.

Really the overall feeling of this EP to me is these are songs about Van Etten’s shifting dynamic. As “Tramp” and “Are We There” have brought her fame, that sudden, higher profile has probably meant changes for Van Etten in her daily life. The fact that this is evident in the emotional nature of her songs proves that she continues to be one of the best and brightest writers working in indie rock today.

I would also like to take this moment to thank Van Etten’s label, Jagjaguwar, for choosing to release these songs as their own rather than using this opportunity as a lame excuse to reissue “Are We There” with “bonus tracks.” Of the latest industry trends, the “deluxe reissue” of still new-ish albums as a transparent way for a label to make a few bucks has become one of the more annoying trends. Rightfully, these songs play well on their own.

Focus Tracks:

“Just Like Blood” It is quite noticeable that this song is guitar-less, giving that dissonant, nearly alarm-like organ extra room to breathe. This song is both starkly beautiful and somewhat unsettled.

“Pay My Debts” This track has a ghostly, ethereal quality. It is a slow, enveloping number, but part of me thinks someone could give it a remix treatment and turn it into an 80s-style electro track.

“I Don’t Want To Let You Down” This is Van Etten at her signature best. This is a glorious anthem of disappointment. The song also contains some nice guitar work from The War On Drugs’ front man, Adam Granduciel.

PHOTO: Tamia - Love Life
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Tamia’s “Love Life” ***

Tamia’s first album in three years, “Love Life,” is actually her highest profile release in some time. After a few years in the indie world, she’s back on a major label, since this is her first release for Def Jam. If you are a fan of the Canadian R&B singer’s late-nineties/early 2000’s work, I have good news for you. This is probably the record you’d expect.

“Love Life” is a capable, enjoyable record. It is admittedly predictable, though, filled with “smooth-R&B” ballads designed for lovers. “Chaise Lounge” is a sensual love song for grown-ups as Tamia alludes to putting children to bed before getting busy by noting “and you know the kids are down.”

“Sandwich And A Soda” has an earthy funkiness, while “Special” has a smooth chord progression hinting at the same kind of feeling as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”-ending ballad “The Lady In My Life.”

No new ground is explored on “Love Life,” but that is not the goal. This album merely wants to offer something smooth and beautiful. It wants to be a 2015 model for this type of record. Occasionally, it hits some minor rough patches as it does slightly with the repeated chorus of “Like You Do” where Tamia sings the clunky chorus, “Ain’t nobody do my body, do my body body like you do,” but for the most part, this is a pretty straight-ahead record. Plus, the bit of echo and sheen given to this album on the whole seems to hint that perhaps Tamia’s been listening to more reverb and digitally-drenched records by modern stars like Jhene Aiko.

To many, “Love Life” will be a welcome comeback for Tamia. She ends the record covering Deniece Williams’ classic, “Black Butterfly.” While Tamia isn’t quite as soulful as Williams, she still delivers an enjoyable version.

While “Love Life” is short on surprises, it still shows Tamia can deliver the goods even when working with an R&B blueprint that has been worked nearly to death. The fact that this album works is a testament to Tamia’s inherent charisma.

Focus Tracks:

“Sandwich And A Soda” This is a smooth, bass-heavy ode to eating after a session of lovemaking. Tamia promises, “I can make you feel good, baby. / And then when it’s over. / I’m gonna fluff your pillows, baby. / Bring you a sandwich and a soda.” It’s a great groove and it is bound to be a hit.

“Love Falls Over Me” This opener is a timeless piece of glowing, electro R&B. This is another possible hit.

“Special” As I stated above, this does remind me of “The Lady In My Life,” but frankly to compare any modern R&B song to a Michael Jackson classic is a great compliment. Plus this song has a very cool keyboard hook.

PHOTO: Ash - Kablammo! (Special Edition)
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Ash’s “Kablammo!” (Deluxe Edition) ****

On its first album in eight years, the appropriately-titled “Kablammo!” northern Ireland’s Ash not only celebrate almost twenty years since its landmark album “1977,” but they also deliver a fittingly explosive collection of fuzzy rock songs. There are a few ballads here and there, but from the one-two punch beginning that openers “Cocoon” and “Let’s Ride” provide, it is evident that this trio is out to deliver the kinds of songs that originally built their name. Sure, this album may not have the shoegaze-esque guitar textures of its 1996 standout hit “Girl From Mars” and it may not be as metallic as its 2004 single, “Clones,” but it isn’t as polished as 2002’s “Candy” either. The emphasis of this album is less on the band’s pop side and more on the rock.

The group has been a trio again since its last album after the 2006 exit of second guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, who had joined the band in 1997. Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray do really well as a trio, but Hatherley really was an asset because it was evident from the records they made with her that she really added to the band's sound. She’s an excellent guitarist. Her blistering guitar-work on the 2002 single “Burn, Baby Burn” combined with her sold background vocal harmonies with Wheeler on that track prove that she was indeed one of the group’s prime secret weapons. That being said, you shouldn’t worry about Hatherley. She’s got a good solo career going. (Her 2009 album, “New Worlds” is particularly worth noting and she can now be heard, too, under her current synth-pop moniker Sylver Tongue.) Her presence in Ash is still missed.

Nevertheless, in the trio form, Ash still brings the rock. The surf-rock-meets-spaghetti-western instrumental “Evel Knievel” speaks to the band’s growing musical maturity, while high-octane numbers like “Hedonism” and “Shutdown” simultaneously elude to the band’s seemingly eternal youth, playing to the best side of pop/punk.

The softer moments on “Kablammo!” reinforce Ash’s versatility as a band. “Moondust” is a gorgeous ballad while the drum-machine assisted “Bring Back The Summer” is a slightly chilled, relaxed offering.

The deluxe edition comes packaged with four extra tracks on a bonus disc. The most notable of these extra tracks is an unsurprisingly spot-on reading of the Kinks’ classic “This Time Tomorrow.” Ash may have come of age during the heyday of grunge, but it is not the least bit surprising that the band fits so well in Ray Davies’ world. A lot of the nineties bands that were in various realms of “Brit-Pop” openly were building on the sounds from the sixties within a post-punk context.

Ash was never huge stars here in the U.S. They never got the credit they were due, really, but “Kablammo!” especially in its deluxe form, shows the band to still be at the top of its craft. If you have ever loved any one of Ash’s records, this is a record you also will find quite enjoyable.

Focus Tracks:

“Cocoon” This opener is a bright, fuzzy piece of banging power-pop and it stands as a defining restatement of purpose for the band.

“Let’s Ride” This too should be a hit with its giant chorus and heavy distortion. The syncopation in the guitar-line during the verses is also a nice touch.

“Moondust” This is a departure from the rest of the record, since it is a highly orchestral piano ballad, but it speaks to the band’s eclecticism. It has a rather impressive string section, as well.

PHOTO: FFS - FFS
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FFS’ – “FFS” *1/2

The pairing of Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand with dramatic, arty, electronic music pioneers Sparks as FFS has been a longtime in the making. The two groups quietly worked together over some time creating what would eventually be this debut as FFS.

Sparks’ work, while groundbreaking at times, has always been an acquired taste and the combination of the two artists may have been a fun exercise. Most critics will probably give this album a pass because of Sparks’ longevity, but let’s be honest, this record offers up a post-punk, disco-cabaret sound that is operatic and dramatic in ways reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan. In short, it has an overwhelmingly irksome, irritating quality. It’s the kind of record that will leave the average listener wondering if this is a serious offering. It is a busy record that finds both Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and Sparks’ Russell Mael often repeating phrases. The results are jarring at times and very rarely actually catchy.

One can’t help to think that this album has a bit of contempt for its audience. The problem is more on Sparks’ end than Franz Ferdinand’s. Kapranos tries his best to summon some David Bowie “Space Oddity” energy on songs like “Little Guy From The Suburbs” and the opener “Johnny Delusional.” Usually problems arise particularly when Russell Mael unleashes his often irritating, sometimes off-key falsetto.

This album isn’t designed for hits. It is meant to be an experiment, working off the friendship between these two acts, but Franz Ferdinand is extremely far removed here from the creative high-point achieved with the band's second album 2005’s “You Could Have It So Much Better.” This is a record designed to be difficult and different under the guise of calling it art. It winds up being a pretentious mess. With lyrical nods to Jean-Paul Satre, Frank Lloyd Wright and Andy Warhol among others, the members of the unified FFS know exactly what they are doing.

While this album has very lofty goals, it fails to deliver. I wonder how many people who will praise this album in print will be returning to it after a month has past. While on some level, I respect what they were trying to do here, this album on the whole is pretty dreadful.

Focus Tracks:

“Collaborations Don’t Work” The title of this track winds up being embarrassingly ironic. Interestingly it provides the album’s best and most catchy chorus and marks one of the few times the two bands stick their landing by achieving something close to worthy.

“Little Guy From The Suburbs” Maybe this works better than the rest of the set because the main focus is on Kapranos and his low, whispered delivery and this song is less smothering than the majority of the set, bringing to mind a bit of a Serge Gainsbourg vibe.

PHOTO: No Joy - More Faithful
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No Joy’s “More Faithful” ****

If you don’t know about No Joy, it's a shoegaze band out of Montreal led by Jasamine White-Gluz and Laura Lloyd. If the band's third album, “More Faithful,” reminds you a little of a love-child of My Bloody Valentine and indie-rockers Violens, there is a reason. Like the previous record, this album was co-produced by Violens’ Jorge Elbrecht, giving it an airy quality underneath the seductive layers of fuzz.

Yes, this album offers a swirling mixture of sounds, with chords getting warped over serene dream-pop backdrops. You get the synth-heavy “Burial In Twos” next to the punk-driven rave-up “Carpo Daemon.” It is that dichotomy between those two extremes where No Joy find its sweet spot. This is shoegaze in the grandest ideal of the genre, hitting an elegant, soft sense of beauty one moment and showcasing the guitar-sound reminiscent of a tuned vacuum-cleaner war the next. But this album captures a weightless sound effortlessly on both “I Am An Eye Machine” and “Moon In My Mouth.”

For people not used to this sound, it may take you a couple listens, but it will win you over. With “More Faithful,” the members of No Joy continue to prove that it is alright to coo and quietly whisper one moment and viciously shred guitar chords the next. This album effectively captures a balance between subtle ambience and utter cacophony. If you consider yourself any kind of shoegaze fan, this album is mandatory listening.

Focus Tracks:

“Everything New” If pop radio currently respected music with an edge, this would rightfully be one of the biggest songs of the summer. It is an inescapably sultry groove with a slight trip-hop tinge and it builds into a gorgeous bit of fuzz-rock. It is a sublime exercise in sonic layers. It might be the single best new song this week.

“Hollywood Teeth” This two-minute rocker shows the denser side of the group’s sound. It’s a thick groove. Throughout, echoes twist and warp creating a sound akin to the Doppler Effect.

“Remember Nothing” This album opener is swirling and disorienting on first listen, but if you give it a few repeat spins it will lure you in. It’s also a good gauge to determine if you will like this album.

Next Week: New music from Ryn Weaver, Slum Village, Third Eye Blind, James Taylor and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Florence + The Machine, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Barenaked Ladies and More.

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