March 30, 2014 -- intro: It is a ridiculously busy this week, with the latest from Shakira, the second offering from Internet sensation Karmin, Canadian rockers Tokyo Police Club, '80s icon Boy George with his first proper album in 19 years, a new mixtape from De La Soul, The Hold Steady and a lost album from Johnny Cash. In addition, jazz trio the Bad Plus records its version of Stravinsky's "The Rites of Spring," D'Angelo releases a live album capturing a performance from 1995, New York art-rockers Liars release their seventh record and the much buzzed about Future Islands release their latest.
11 new releases in all!
quicklist: 1title: Shakira's "Shakira" ***1/2text: Shakira's ninth studio album is a self-assured, self-titled and self-produced set. It is stylistically diverse, blending elements of rock, reggae, EDM and even a stab at country-pop featuring a duet with her fellow judge on "The Voice," Blake Shelton.
By modern-pop record standards, this is downright adventurous, even if it still sticks to conventions. Shakira's voice is also in top form. For the most part, with a few exceptions, it seems as if she has reigned in her occasional operatic yowl. In short, this album exhibits Shakira's strengths quite well. She's best when she has an unusual melody or when the guitars get turned up. At her core, she is, after all, more of a rock singer than anything. Some songs are better than others, but this album stands up as a well-thought-out shift. The experiments, for the most part, pay off, proving exactly why she has long been an international sensation. No doubt this will win her some new fans.
"Can't Remember to Forget You" (Featuring Rihanna) " This single is a vital bit of rock with a ska flavor that suits both women quite well. When the guitars pump during the chorus with significant grunginess, the track is given the level of oomph it demands.
"You Don't Care About Me" This has strong echoes of both Imogen Heap and Gotye and yet Shakira never seems like an imitator here, even if this track's allegiance to "Somebody That I Used To Know" is openly evident.
"Empire" The opening of this song allows Shakira to show the softer, sweeter side of her voice. This is a sweeping ballad which blooms into a full-blown anthem. It plays like an epic movie theme. The Eastern-edges of the melody provide some nice touches.
""Cut Me Deep" (Featuring Magici) " A dubby duet, "Cut Me Deep" has a Latin swagger hidden within its reggae groove. Again, towards the end of the track, the band gets a punk-like drive as it goes into full-throttle mode. Part of me wants Shakira to make a really raw alt-rock record. It would actually suit her well.
"The One Thing" This is a big, anthemic pop-rock song built for playing in stadiums. It's impossible to listen to this without hearing echoes of Avril Lavigne's "My Happy Ending," but Shakira wears this groove well.
quicklist: 2title: Karmin's "Pulses" *text: In the YouTube age, some fads are bound to arise and be given more credence and attention than they deserve. Case and point, Karmin, who after their much-hyped but mostly unlistenable album, "Hello," have now returned with a second full-length, "Pulses." Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan initially got attention for posting YouTube videos of their versions of popular hits, with Heidemann showcasing an ability to deliver a rapid-fire flow. But, let's be honest, if these videos amazed, they did so because they came from an unexpected source. Really, their covers were filled with a winking level of sass that, if you take a few steps back, comes off as shockingly awkward. Heidemann may be able to imitate flows, but she does so with the smug smirk of someone who thinks she is doing something amazing. The duo seems very self-aware. In a way, that ruins any bit of excitement.
On the single, "Acapella," Heidemann plays like a carnival barker announcing tricks. While delivering the chorus chant, she sings, "I'm gonna do it acapella. / Watch me do it in falsetta!" At that time, she launches into a screechy high version of the same track. Moments later (sensing perhaps it didn't quite work) she says, "Never mind, Bring the beat back."
"Pulses" is, at times, an incredibly embarrassing record, and yet it plays in a slightly better way than its predecessor, "Hello." It reeks of pop desperation. Every pop production trick is used. (Auto-tune touches with a dash of synth here and a big chorus there.) It's an extremely calculated display. Songs like "Tidal Wave" and "Night Like This" are strictly pop-by-numbers. The reggae-infused "Gasoline" attempts to be a sugary club-banger, complete with pitch-shifted vocal snippets. "Puppet" takes a banging kick-drum stomp and pairs it with that repeated "hey" crowd sample in the background that you hear on the majority of pop-edged rap records today. Then later, that same "hey" effect is used again briefly on the closer, "What's in It for Me."When given a hip-hop backdrop, Heidemann often delivers her vocals with an affected swagger that she just doesn't pull off. On the title track, she delivers the same verse several times. As a listener, I'm thinking, "Is that all you have?"
They attempt ballads and would have better luck with "Neon Love" if the lyrics weren't so formulaic and contradictory. ("Dropped the call. / Dropped the phone. / All alone / I'm with you.") Heidemann sings, "I never noticed how hot it is under these lights. ... This neon love is destined to die." Is she predicting a popularity pattern? Is she acknowledging that fame is fleeting and that her group's 15 minutes may soon have run its course? Maybe.
The strange thing is, this album doesn't work but it isn't because there isn't talent involved. Heidemann and Noonan can both sing and the production, though formulaic, is passable. But it is all in the delivery and lack of solid material. They stand uncomfortably over boundaries that they don't quite have the tools to cross. They need career advice and a dose of reinvention.
On "Drifter," when Heidemann says, "Diddy money dirty" or slips into a "dirty south" hip-hop accent, she comes off like an awkward poseur. Combined with the shameless pop angling, that will not add up to a lasting career. Until they realize this, Karmin will continue to come off like an over-zealous pop act closing out the theater camp talent show. It feels like they must have viewed Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" as not only the greatest song of all time but also a blueprint for success. In other words, not only is this modern pop's formula-driven rock bottom, it is also the kind of record hip-hop purists feared would emerge once the genre attained mainstream acceptance. It's not that the members of Karmin aren't trying. It's actually that they are trying way too hard.
"Acapella" When all is said and done, "Acapella" stands out the most. Yes, it puts many of the duo's worst qualities on display, but at the same time its chorus is the catchiest thing here, and that is their overall goal.
quicklist: 3title: Tokyo Police Club's "Forcefield" ***text: The members of Tokyo Police Club chose an unusual way to present the third record. At only 33 minutes and 9 tracks, you might consider it slight, especially given the four years that separate it from their previous album, the excellent "Champ." But keep in mind that the opening track is a nearly nine-minute, three-part suite entitled "Argentina.
This album is dancier than its predecessor. In comparison, this feels like a lighter affair. This band plays best when they choose to rock out. The post-Pixies indie-rock edges of "Champ" were worn well. This album still plays quite well, but you will probably find yourself waiting patiently for the guitars to explode into action. When they do, it is a revelation and it makes you wonder why they decided not to make a full-tilt rock record.
Elsewhere, on tracks like "Hot Tonight" and "Through The Wire," they sound like the little brothers of Fountains of Wayne. And when I say that, I mean that positively. This is smart, affecting power-pop. This is an appealing record, even if it doesn't showcase their sound quite as well as before.
"Argentina (Parts I, II and III)" This opening track takes up roughly a fourth of the record, so it works that it actually is a strong highlight. The three parts aren't quite as disjointed and adventurous as it may seem. This is not their answer to Green Day's "Jesus Of Suburbia," but it is a continuously changing cohesive piece. In other words, even though the three parts are plain to hear, they sound like evolutionary steps off of each other rather than elements cut and pasted together. Back in December, the band issued an interesting lyric video for the track, so it is obviously intended to be the record's focal point.
"Gonna Be Ready" The destructive crashing heard at the beginning of the track and during the chorus should've served as the template for more of the record. In some ways, this recalls "Breakneck Speed" and other highlights from "Champ." Leader Dave Monks knows how to handle himself behind the mic when the band revs up.
"Tunnel Vision" This is another rocker, initially set ablaze by a launching bass charge. When the band members show some punky edges, they do themselves some real favors.
quicklist: 4title: Boy George's "This Is What I Do" ***1/2text: The latest offering from androgynous '80s icon Boy George is a surprisingly confident effort full of big songs and eclectic musical tastes. It is clear from the first listen of "This Is What I Do," that it is not intended to be a latter-day side note. This is meant to be a big return and redemption for a once-troubled star.
His voice now has a character-building raspiness that wasn't there in his days with Culture Club or when he famously did the theme for "The Crying Game." George's discography is unusual. He's released a lot over the years when it comes to label compilations, remix records and companion pieces to various side projects but, interestingly, this is actually his first proper album since 1995. So it is clear that he has returned with a mission.
Throughout the set, large production reigns and he finds himself usually backed by what sounds like a gospel choir. And he explores deep subject matter. On "My God," he approaches notions of traditional faith when it comes to both general understanding and geo-political warfare, with the chorus of "My God is bigger than your God. / Put your bombs away. / You need a little more faith. / Don't you know what your heart is for?"
This is a pretty winning set. The odd thing is that with his new rasp, in certain backdrops because of some of his inflections, he doesn't sound unlike James Hunter. This is particularly true of the reggae-tinged "Live Your Life." It's pretty amazing how versatile George can be. He can croon country on "It's Easy" one moment and get enveloped in a cool, dubby haze a few tracks later on "Play Me." This album is particularly refreshing because it feels ready to explore just about any genre under the sun.
The major take-away from "This Is What I Do" is that Boy George still has a lot to say.
"King of Everything" This stately, reverb-accented anthemic rocker can't help but open things on the right track. There's a lot to love here. It sounds immense and its chorus is a winner. But it is the little details that set it fully into the stratosphere. The trickling bits of piano are complimented by the destructive-sounding bits of guitar.
"Video Games" Yes, George covers Lana Del Rey and he does so with a surprising amount of warmth. His version trades the orchestral flourishes of the original for a slide guitar, but I think this version will amaze people as an unexpected gem, nonetheless.
"Make You Feel My Love" I never thought I'd ever hear Boy George cover Dylan, but here we are. No doubt, like "Video Games," he has included his cover in response to the popularity of Adele's version, but his version is winning, as well.
"Bigger Than War" War and peace seem to be big topics here, but this song is notable partly because the melody and George's low delivery recall INXS' Michael Hutchence to a surprising degree.
quicklist: 5title: De La Soul's "Smell the Da I.S.Y. " ****
text: De La Soul seem to be in career-reboot mode, which is excellent to see. They haven't released a proper album since "The Grind Date" a decade ago. On Valentine's Day, they allowed people to download their discography for free from their website in an effort to remind fans of their greatness.
Now we get "Smell the Da I.S.Y." a free mix-tape that pairs re-recordings of some of their classic verses with beats by James Yancey, a.k.a. J Dilla, who was the DJ for Slum Village as well as a key hip-hop producer.
De La Soul are hip-hop legends. Along with A Tribe Called Quest, The Jungle Brothers and Black Sheep, they were part of the Native Tongues collective of the late '80s and early '90s, helping to define and expand the boundaries of hip-hop.
Dilla died in 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday, from complications of a Lupus-like condition, leaving both a void in the hip-hop world and a stack of forward-thinking hip-hop beats. He was one of the genre's true masters, which is why his beats continue to emerge eight years after his death.
Not only is this set a fitting tribute, suiting both artists, but it also adds a fresh spin on the notion of a remix record. The recycling of verses could seem like a cop-out to some extent, but the fact that these songs are given new life within newer context seems surprisingly refreshing, instead. This is a tribute to the group's legacy.
Since 1996's "Stakes Is High," when the group developed a more authoritative delivery style, it has seemed like they have been running away from the early playfulness that made their first three records, "3 Feet High And Rising," "De La Soul Is Dead" and "Buhloone Mind State," such groundbreaking classics. Given that so many verses heard here are from those early records, it is evident that they are no longer running from that part of themselves. By re-exploring the past, the members of De La Soul have rediscovered their true essence.
This is the rightful re-emergence of a classic hip-hop act that most millennials may not know. Without the groundwork partially established by De La Soul, the hip-hop world would be a very different place. Dilla's genre-defying skills as a beat-maker provide a fitting backdrop. Too bad he didn't live to hear this.
This should be just the beginning of the rebirth. On tap, the group also has an upcoming EP, "Premium Soul on the Rocks" where they'll work with Pete Rock and DJ Premier, as well as their proper full-length return, "You're Welcome."
The "D.A.I.S.Y. Age" has returned. Welcome back, guys! You have been severely missed.
"Vocabulary Spills" This is a re-imagination of the "Stakes Is High" track, "The Bizness," pairing the verses with a sparse guitar sample as well as some nifty and agile scratching sample work. This plays much better than the original track.
"Dilla Plugged In" A version of the "3 Feet High And Rising" track, "Plug Tunin'," paired with a jazzy, smooth groove. It is interesting to hear these guys, approaching their mid-40s, spitting verses they wrote when they were 19. They are still every bit the same group all these years later.
"Goes With the Word" A smooth, lush re-imagining of "Potholes in My Lawn," this track gives surprising levels of grace to the jokey original source.
"O'Shut Up" Using verses from "Oodles Of O's," from "De La Soul Is Dead," a bass-heavy groove is augmented by some surprisingly gritty-sounding megaphone-assisted background vocals.
"No More No Less" The "Schoolhouse Rock" sampling, "The Magic Number" is re-packaged here as an inventively bouncy party groove. This is nothing short of amazing.
"Marvin Jaye" An effective blend of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and De La Soul's "Eye Know." Posdnous and Dave effectively maneuver the adventurously trippy beat with a surprising level of ease.
quicklist: 6title: The Hold Steady's "Teeth Dreams" ****text: On their sixth album, "Teeth Dreams," The Hold Steady channel their strengths in the right direction. At their worst, over the years, Craig Finn and company sounded like an overzealous bar band that somehow got a record deal. Finn still sings in a unique, garbled voice, which sets the tone for the record. But there's a Replacements-esque crunch here that gives these songs a driving sense of earnestness. Their usually overwhelming Springsteen influence seems turned down significantly and, for the most part, the production finds the right mix of echo and reverb. This is one of their biggest-sounding records to date. It wallops your ears in a good way and packs some severely satisfying drive. This may not quite be their strongest set of songs to date. (It is close.) But it definitely is their best-sounding record. Mixing Finn's vocals deeper into the mix somehow makes their sound blend together in a more satisfying way than ever before. Sound City veteran Nick Raskulinecz really left his mark here as the album's producer, giving this record a consistent and satisfying glow.
"The Only Thing" As if borrowed from Paul Westerberg's playbook, this sounds like vintage Replacements. I half expect Finn to start singing about his love for Alex Chilton and, yet, this is undoubtedly the Hold Steady.
"Spinners" With a garage-like urgency, this track announces itself with a thunderous beginning. Yes, this is an epic song about working-class wistfulness and dreaming of a better future told through the eyes of a club-hopping woman and her pursuit of fickle men. In lesser hands, this would seem formulaic, but Finn and company make it work.
"Wait a While" The guitars fuzz up this track with some bold punk dirtiness, as if all of their angst is streaming through their amps. When the layers recede for the bridge, there are some warm melodic elements. Finn has always been an effective storyteller, but the bigger sound just gives his songs more power.
"I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" This opener has an excellent title and it makes the most out of the charging dynamic and of Finn's half-singing/half-speaking vocal style.
quicklist: 7title: Johnny Cash's "Out Among the Stars" ***1/2text: This is what's known as a lost album. Recorded in the early '80s, Cash decided to shelve this record and it was recently rediscovered by his son. One listen to "Out Among the Stars" and the reason for its previous lack of release isn't openly apparent. Some songs play better than others. The country-star seduction track, "If I Told You Who It Was," for instance, is downright ridiculous, but mostly this is a reflection of who Cash was at this time. In many ways, this isn't strikingly different from his signature work. June Carter Cash sings two tracks with him, adding more fuel to their epic love story and, ultimately, this set is not the damning career mark that its initial shelving would imply.
"She Used to Love Me a Lot" This is a nice dose of downtrodden Gothic country blues and it plays even better in the stark remixed version that is also included as bonus track on the disc.
"Out Among The Stars" A story-song depicting a late-night Texas liquor store hold-up, this is what great country songs used to deliver. No one tells this kind of tale like Cash.
"I'm Movin' On" (featuring Waylon Jennings) In some ways, this meeting of legends sounds like a rockabilly throwback to Cash's Sun Records beginnings, packed with enough boogie-woogie punch to get your feet tapping.
"I Drove Her Out of My Mind" There's nothing quite like a classic country song about being dumped and buying a car in response as a means of celebration. Whether the car in the song is literal or symbolic isn't apparently clear, but it serves for a clever lyrical device.
quicklist: 8title: The Bad Plus' "The Rites of Spring" **1/2
text: If you are a fan of this forward-thinking jazz trio's other records, particularly the 2003 landmark, "These Are the Vistas," be warned. This is not your typical Bad Plus record. This is their jazz interpretation of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rites of Spring." It's an exercise more clever in concept than practice because throughout most of the set it finds the group exploring different levels of dissonance. When pianist Ethan Iverson pounds his piano with great force on "The Augers of Spring," you can virtually hear the strings snap inside the instrument's mechanism.
Divided up into two movements, "Adoration of the Earth" and "The Sacrifice," this set shows the trio to be excellent musicians and interpreters, even if the end result doesn't provide anything close to an accessible listen. This band built its name by giving a traditional jazz-trio approach a rock edge. Over the years, they've covered Nirvana, Blondie, Aphex Twin, Vangelis and more. Attempting to conquer a difficult classical piece and its movements seems like a logical step forward.
One gets the feeling that seeing them perform this piece and all its intricacies in the live setting would provide more satisfying results. Absent of the spectacle of watching it getting pieced together, it can be a more tedious exercise.
As someone who has loved every album they have released up until this point, this is a bit of a let-down, even if, technically speaking, this is a challenging reading. The source material is quite difficult, after all, and putting it into a loose jazz context was no easy task. This is a rare album that provides a truly difficult listen and yet still somehow impresses with its intricate execution.
"Games of the Two Rival Tribes/ Procession of the Sage" This rapid-fire section sounds like the trio is unraveling at an escalating rate. Technically speaking, this is a meticulously calculated exercise, and yet its dissonance feels at times like low-level "free jazz."
"Second Part: The Sacrifice – Introduction" Iverson takes the lead here and, in some ways, this seems like the most traditional track on the set, even if his playing shows the moody turmoil set up within the context of the piece.
quicklist: 9title: D'Angelo's "Live at the Jazz Cafe, London" ***
text: It has been 14 long years since D'Angelo dropped his last album, the often slow and adventurously woozy "Voodoo." Perhaps in an act of frustration and due to exhaustion in waiting for a follow-up, which, depending on what you read, may be in the works, his record company has decided to dig into the archives and unearth this concert he gave in England back in 1995 just as his first record was breaking. It provides for an effective stop-gap release. In the live setting, he is extremely groove based. After all, the version of "Brown Sugar" here lasts nearly 11 minutes. He is backed by an ace back-up band while he sings and plays keyboard. Three back-up singers are here as well, one of whom is very noticeably Angie Stone.
While this isn't as satisfying as a new album would be, it still reminds listeners of D'Angelo's gifts as a performer. Someday, he will finish that new album. At this point, it seems to be the R&B answer to "Chinese Democracy."
"Cruisin'" On the cusp of the release of his debut in England, he only had an album's worth of material to play with. That means that a sizable portion of this set is cover-based. He chooses well, too. This is a very soulful, nearly seven-minute reading of Smokey Robinson's solo classic. D'Angelo packs as much falsetto gusto into the track he can summon, and the organ adds a warm gospelly element.
"Lady" This nine-minute version is packed with psychedelic soul. It is stretched to its limits, but the intricate details will keep your attention throughout. This is smooth-lovin' neo-soul of the era firmly captured within the live environment.
"I'm Glad Your Mine" This is a slinky, sneaky sounding reading of an Al Green classic, accentuating the track's darker elements. Across this set, D'Angelo proves himself to be a unique interpreter.
quicklist: 10title: Liars' "Mess" **
text: Seven albums in and the Brooklyn band Liars is still impossibly confounding. Coming in 2001 in the same New York boom that brought us Interpol, their brand of dance-rock has always been willfully frustrating. This is more sonic art than it is pop or rock music. It may have some pop and dance elements, but they are usually delivered in a purposely clashing way. Of course, throughout their history the band has had some rewarding moments of clarity. Their self-titled 2007 album and particularly its track, "Houseclouds," come to mind as appealing examples.
Throughout the majority of "Mess," they sound like the Rapture on a dark bender. Leader Angus Andrew's distorted voice bellows over light-industrial-influenced blips and bloops. It often plays like a post-hip-hop answer to Bauhaus without the sense of melody. It is weird for weirdness' sake.
Beatwise, there are some stunning moments, but often Andrew's vocals are distracting. "Pro Anti Anti," for instance, would be much more compelling as an instrumental track.
In the end, you are left with yet another punishingly difficult record. It would be one thing if it was the kind of challenge that felt like a sincere genre-bending stretch. Sadly, it is the kind of challenge that does not encourage repeat spins.
"Can't Hear Well" The one stab at real melody here is delivered over a phaser-affected synth line. Andrew sounds like he is almost underwater. He is muffled as if recorded on a low-budget tape recorder with his mouth too close to the mic.
"Left Speaker Blown" As if an exercise in hypnotic bass texture, this album closer finds a heavily reverbed Andrew singing over a series of low blips that sound not unlike the score to a classic Nintendo game. Only when they keyboard melody comes in over the bass line does the song find its accessible core.
"I'm No Gold" This is one of the album's most clangy tracks, but the beat makes it also the most danceable song on the set, even if it wallows in its own electro-coated dinginess.
quicklist: 11title: Future Islands' "Singles" ****
text: Naming their fourth album "Singles" was a pretty gutsy move for the band Future Islands. But it is a name that fits. Here's an indie band quietly toiling on the fringes, perfecting their unique brand of soulful synth-rock seemingly on the cusp of a really large breakthrough. A few weeks ago, fueled by buzz regarding Samuel T. Herring's unique dance moves and unusual delivery, the band's performance on Letterman became a huge Internet sensation. Herring is a profoundly unique frontman whose raspy delivery can convey a wide range of emotions. This is a winning set from front to back, offering an assortment of sonic flavors.
This album will definitely find its critics, but if you understand the strange hybrid concoction that the band is offering, you'll enjoy it quite a bit.
"A Song for Our Grandfathers" Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if Bobby Womack fronted Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark? It probably wouldn't sound all that different from this track. This is a truly lush, haunting track brimming ethereal warmth. Herring's lyrics have wisdom beneath them and he sings with a world-weary growl. The track opens with what sounds like an angry flock of birds. It's an effective touch.
"Seasons (Waiting on You)" This is the single and a typical example of what can be heard on this album. Somehow, it is an uplifting synth pop song, yet it also has a vaguely chilled energy. Herring's voice on the album version is noticeably less gravely than it was during the Letterman performance.
"Back in the Tall Grass" Herring loses the rasp for a quiet bit of thoughtful new wave with a charging beat. On the chorus, he brings back his soul-style approach.
"A Dream of You and Me" This closer is a pop-driven track with some keen, retro charm. The interplay between the bass and the keys is enjoyable. Again, this is typical of what this band sounds like at the peak of their powers.
Next week: Christina Perri, Cloud Nothings and more.