Record Release Rundown: The Latest From U2, Ryan Adams, Robert Plant and More

PHOTO: The artwork for U2s album, "Songs of Innocence."u2.com
The artwork for U2's album, "Songs of Innocence."

intro: This week U2 dropped an album that we all have if we have iTunes, Ryan Adams released a self-titled album, Robert Plant explores adventurous rhythms on his latest release, Karen O plays us some of her “Crush Songs,” Canadian rockers Sloan return with an adventurous concept album, R&B singer Jhene Aiko offers her second collection and New York’s Interpol release their first album in 4 years. Fall may not have technically begun yet, but the release schedule is back into heavy swing and we have a great deal to discuss.

quicklist: 1 title: U2’s “Songs Of Innocence” **** text: On Tuesday, U2 surprised the masses by giving their new album “Songs Of Innocence” away to everyone with iTunes. (If you don’t know you have it, you do. Just search in your library for it and click on the cloud icon.) This is a wise move in the way that it gets the music out there to as many people as possible, but ultimately it is a horrific move industry-wise since it further lowers the market-value of music. (Not every band can afford to give their music away like this, but too many people expect music to be free these days thanks to the “pay-what-you-want” model that Radiohead started with their 2007 album “In Rainbows.”) Bono knows the dire state of the music industry. That’s why he insisted in a statement on the band’s website that Apple actually did pay for everyone to have a copy.

The good news is that “Songs Of Innocence” is a pretty stellar record, which is a relief. On their two previous records, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” and “No Line In The Horizon” the band seemed adrift. Those albums each had their standout tracks but on the whole it seemed like the U2 brand without that classic urgency. This record is different. Produced mainly by Danger Mouse (with additional assistance from Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder and others) this collection allows the band to make a current-sounding record that still continues in the tradition of their discography.

“Volcano” for instance sounds like a non-political answer to the “War” classic “New Year’s Day,” even if Bono insists on inexplicably repeating the phrase “You are Rock and Roll” during the song’s bridge.

But aside from small complaints, there isn’t really a dud here. (This record doesn’t have anything as disastrous as “Get On Your Boots” thankfully.) This is just U2 delivering a tight, modern answer to their classic sound. The opener “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” allows Bono to give a shout-out to his hero and it fully works, even if it is anchored by the kind of “Whoa Whoa Whoa” chants that have been recently hijacked by lesser bands. That brand of anthemic bellowing has been one of Bono’s trademarks since the days of “I Will Follow” and “Gloria.” He’s allowed to take ownership.

“California (There Is No End To Love)” has great warmth and the digitally-soaked “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” is a throwback to the experimental “Zooropa” and decent but massively misunderstood “Pop.” Lykke Li guests nicely on the album’s closer “The Troubles” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is dense and enveloping. Sadly, stand-out recent single “Invisible” and the Mandela-inspired “Ordinary Love” are nowhere to be found here and their presence would have pushed this album a little further. It looks like they won’t be bonus tracks on the physical version either when it is released on October 13.

This album isn’t quite on the level of “Acting Baby” or “The Joshua Tree.” It’s closer to “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” in the way that it continues and builds on the classic sound proudly and greatly without restructuring the game. Historically, this will hopefully be seen as one of the band’s higher points.

Focus Tracks:

“Every Breaking Wave” This is the best song on the album, grounded by an energy that fuses the sad longing of “With Or Without You” with the shiny electro-edges of “Electrical Storm.” This is a giant single waiting to happen. This is the kind of soaring ballad that helped the members of U2 build their name.

“Cedarwood Road” This bluesy rocker is harder and punchier than expected with a guitar line that sounds like it nods to both Led Zeppelin and the White Stripes. The contrast between these guitar bursts and Bono’s more hushed verses adds to the song’s appeal.

“Song For Someone” This lower-key number stands among the band’s best ballads even if it hits the band’s trademarks rather heavily. But this is this album’s answer to “One” or “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.”

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quicklist: 2 title: Ryan Adams’ “Ryan Adams” ****1/2 text: Ryan Adams’ self-titled album is the 13th studio album he has widely released in a span of 14 years and his first proper album in three years. If you are looking for the country side of this alt-country troubadour, you aren’t going to find it here. This is a focused collection of inward-looking rock ballads. And no, when I say these are “rock ballads,” I don’t mean to imply that they are wispy in the least. These are dense compositions packed with inner turmoil. In many ways, this album plays like a lower-key cousin to his 2003 collection “Rock N Roll.” If this album came out in 1985, it would probably be one of the biggest albums of the year. Of course to match 1985 standards it would probably have to add a touch more reverb and more synthetic-sounding drum tracks.

Really this is a throwback to the time when the nation’s airwaves were still shaking off the last glow of the seventies “AM Radio” heyday, when song-craft was still a valued asset and singer-songwriters still got the glory they deserved. At times this record is a dark, possessive collection thick with thematic demons. The yearning in “Gimme Something Good” and the jealousy heard in “Kim” echo a theme of disgruntled sadness, fueled by a desire to revert to the correct path.

Essentially, “Ryan Adams” the album shows why Ryan Adams the writer and performer is so valued. This is a top-notch collection. Self-titling this record was the right move. It is among his best pieces of work to date.

Focus Tracks:

“Gimme Something Good” This opening track sets the tone for the entire record and it is a song which moves with a gothic, chilling ease. Adams gets bonus points for the song’s bizarrely campy music video featuring actress Cassandra Peterson in her full, classic “Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark” get-up.

“My Wrecking Ball” No, this song has nothing to do with Miley Cyrus. Again, this is another soul-searching ballad where Adams says, “Hey, you’re my wrecking ball. / Would you come and maybe knock me down?” There’s an intimate quality to this track that recalls Springsteen at his quiet best and at the same time this brings back memories of Adams’ previous songs about obviously doomed relationships. “Come Pick Me Up” comes to mind.

“I Just Might” This song revs up like a whispered blues before it softly bursts with a palpable intensity. It feels like it is constantly building up to an eruption which it finally achieves near its end.

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quicklist: 3 title: Robert Plant’s “Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar” **** text: Robert Plant doesn’t scream or shout quite like he did during his Led Zeppelin days anymore. He now sings in more hushed tones and favors more ethereal backdrops. As time goes by, too he seems to be more and more allured by trippier elements. “Lullaby And…The Ceaseless Roar,” his latest album follows many of the trends of his career, in Zeppelin and post-Zeppelin. There are elements of bluegrass thrown in for good measure, with a fondness for Eastern soundscapes anchored by intricate rhythms. Had Zeppelin remained together, this record’s overall sound isn’t probably all that far from where they would have been at this point.

But Plant is set to create something ethereal and hypnotic from the start and he succeeds. Listening to this album on headphones is a consuming experience, especially as you ride a crowded train and make your way through rush hour foot traffic. Plant’s often low-key vocal approach is on the surface a bit of a misnomer. This album for the most part is constantly moving at a frantic pace, providing a sound that is greatly stirring. It’s a forward-thinking collection packed with electro-tinged gravitas. And yet, Plant is still very much blues-based in his approach. This all adds up to one of his most exciting, enjoyable and concentrated solo offerings to date. Plant is still every bit the frontman he was in Zeppelin even if his game-plan has changed.

Focus Tracks:

“Little Maggie” This opener is a great mixture of bluegrass, blues and trip-hop and it stands as the most obvious example of the album’s signature sound.

“Pocketful Of Golden” This is packed with warm, Eastern psychedelic touches and Plant sings the track with loving grace, as if he is reciting some sort of holy prayer.

“Somebody There” This is one of the less trippy tracks. It is more traditional folk rock. Still, drummer Dave Smith’s quiet pitter-patting can be heard in the background. This sounds like a single all the way down to its catchy signature riff.

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quicklist: 4 title: Karen O’s “Crush Songs” ** text: This collection isn’t quite the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ singer’s solo debut. That would be her 2009 soundtrack to Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of “Where The Wild Things Are.” I still contend that that record is a profoundly difficult listen. “Crush Songs” fares better than its predecessor song-wise but it sounds like it was recorded over a rusty telephone line from 1927. It’s over in a blink, too. Its 14 tracks clock in at just 25 minutes. O’s shriek isn’t really suited for this kind of tinny recording, even if she’s been using this effect on her voice since before 2003’s “Fever To Tell.”

Really, this album sounds like it was written and recorded in no more than an hour’s time. The weird thing is, it wasn’t! It was recorded on and off between 2006 and 2010. But these are sketches that don’t sound complete. It sounds like a teenager messing around and not like a finished release. Even the pseudo cover of the Doors’ “Indian Summer” sounds like an after-thought crafted in an apartment bathroom. She rewrites the words to be about Michael Jackson, which is a clever move, but again it gets lost beneath all the slapdash elements.

O can do better than this. Most of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums have their share of key moments and I still think that the “Is Is” EP from 2007 is a mini masterpiece. This however is bizarrely under-cooked and underdeveloped hipster nonsense. If she reduced the effects and actually had allowed it to blossom, it might have been something. The release of this collection is no doubt a response to O’s Oscar-nominated “Moon Song” from “Her,” which itself was a duet with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. But this record is much more raw that that song. Not in a good way. O has a promising solo album in her. This definitely is not it.

Focus Tracks:

“Visits” Over a dinky drum machine that doesn’t even sound like it was tracked separately from her vocals, O sings a promisingly catchy song. At 1:33, it still stands as one of the more indelible moments on the record. It sounds like a demo that would have really popped if it was given a reworking with a full band.

“Day Go By” This acoustic workout shows that O has the chops to do something fuller. This sounds like some vintage outsider folk music. Again, if it were only recorded in a better way...

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quicklist: 5 title: Sloan’s “Commonwealth” **** text: Canadian power-pop band Sloan has never really gotten their due in the States. Starting out as a grungy, noisy art-rock combo and then evolving into power-pop masters, they spent part of the 90’s signed to DGC and being overshadowed by bigger acts. 11 albums in and now signed to Yep Roc, it is evident that they always deserved to be a “bigger act.” In fact, their 1994 sophomore album “Twice Removed” and its 1996 follow-up “One Chord To Another” are rightly considered classics to those in the know.

Always one of the most well-rounded bands, like the Beatles all four members sing and at one time or another front the band. The knowledge of this band-set-up helps inform the unique structure of “Commonwealth.” It plays like 4 EPs playing back to back with each one of the band-members’ songs bunched together. Jay Ferguson leads off the set handling tracks 1-5, Chris Murphy (arguably the most prolific and celebrated leader of the group) handles tracks 6-10, Patrick Pentland fronts 11-14 and Andrew Scott ends the record with the massive 17-minute opus “Forty-Eight Portraits.” Would this album play a little better if they’d mixed up their tracks the way they usually do? Maybe. But compartmentalizing each member’s work does something fascinating. In a way, throughout this record, it feels like four different bands each formed by the same four guys. The structure of this record highlights the band’s versatility in a way that some listeners may have previously overlooked.

Twenty-two years after their debut, they are still reliable, having never released a weak album. “Commonwealth” makes a strong statement both in traditional song-craft and a wish to experiment. The members of Sloan show they have old-school knowhow. They have the kind of chops you don’t see too often in music today. But that has always been the case. If you don’t believe me, see if you can find their incredible best-of collection “A Sides Win” or their mammoth 30-song, 77-minute “Never Hear The End Of It” from 2007. If “Commonwealth” proves anything, it’s that this band is truly worthy and building off of a very classic tradition.

Focus Tracks:

“Carried Away” From Murphy’s portion of the record, this is quite possibly one of the best songs of the band’s career, fueled by a spiky new-wave energy and fused with an orchestral glow. The chorus is extremely catchy as well. Its concept of a cheating lover makes it an interesting callback to the band’s Murphy-led single “The Other Man” from 2001.

“What’s Inside” Pentland hits psychedelic gold here on this track that favorably recalls both the Monkees’ “The Porpoise Song” and the latter half of the Beta Band’s “Dry The Rain.”

“Cleopatra” Ferguson’s gentle tenor is perfectly suited for this upbeat hand-clapper. The song has some nice rhythmic piano work as well.

“Forty-Eight Portraits” Scott’s portion acts as an extended suite and to be fair, Murphy sings lead on a small section, but it is an ever-morphing concoction and it never gets boring. Plus it should win an award for the most creative (and random) use of a sampled dog bark.

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quicklist: 6 title: Jhené Aiko “Souled Out” ***1/2 text: Jhené Aiko quickly follows up her 2013 EP “Sail Out,” with this full-length companion piece, continuing with the chilled electro-tinged R&B that made that collection a standout pleasure. Aiko’s voice is soft and sweet. She rarely sings above a certain range, opting more for a straight-forward tone and a semi-conversational style. Her voice is often covered in effects which may turn some listeners off, but these effects seem like they are there more for the sake of mood than as an Autotune-like aid. You never hear that kind of digital clash that would indicate the “fixing” of a really wrong note. Instead, her vocals are given a watery texture that matches the lush, semi-icy mood of her backdrops. This is ethereal down-tempo chill music disguised as pop and R&B. In a weird way Aiko fits in with the modern EDM-flavored pop landscape.

This is a very subtle record but it is light and airy with a lot of atmospheric touches. It’s safe to say that even though it fits with the pop world, it is unlike anything else out there. Aiko has delivered something unique here which is probably why she has been a sought after collaborator for hip-hop artists like Drake, Common and Childish Gambino. And in the case of both Common and Gambino, she has appeared on their records and they have appeared on hers.

Interestingly, this is also an album that occasionally earns its parental warning sticker, a fact you are actually likely to miss if you get sucked in by Aiko’s honey-soaked tone. This is electro-tinged slow-jam R&B that somehow sounds both retro and futuristic. This is a lush exercise in digital beauty from a performer who shows promise.

Focus Tracks:

“Spotless Mind” This is a really smooth groove which brings to mind chilling on a tropical beach as Aiko sings about a relationship that has ended. Obviously “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” is a huge reference point here. Later on the album, there is a track called “Eternal Sunshine.”

“To Love & Die” (Featuring Cocaine 80’s) This is an elastic electronic-driven track where Aiko sings “We live by the love. / We die by the love.” There’s determination in her voice and the beat has authentic momentum.

“The Pressure” With an echo-drenched “boom bap” style beat, this song really announces itself. The contrast between the imposing rhythm and Aiko’s gentle cooing is effective, especially as her vocals echo as if reverberating from a distant megaphone. Again, this is really smooth.

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quicklist: 7 title: Interpol’s “El Pintor” ***1/2 text: “El Pintor” is Interpol’s fifth full-length and their first as a three-piece following the departure of bassist Carlos D. If you didn’t notice, the title is also an anagram for the band’s name. The New York band still owes a great deal to Joy Division who originated much of the band’s dour sound, but there are flecks of brightness here that make this trip worthwhile. That’s good to hear because the brightest-sounding album, 2003’s “Antics” still stands as the true highlight of their discography. They may be known for minor-key drones thanks to the classic status of their debut, “Turn On The Bright Lights,” but they really shine when they embrace a major scale. One listen to the single “Evil” from “Antics” will prove that right. The shift back to the brighter side is noticeable especially compared with their last two albums that sounded like monochromatic, watered down attempt to re-capture the spirit of their debut.

But like “Antics,” “El Pintor” is awake and alive with bits of experimentation. The band doesn’t seem quite as rigid as they once did and it doesn’t feel like a one-note listen. There are places to explore.

Maybe this has to do with lead singer Paul Banks’ increased exploration of music outside the band (both under his own name and as Julian Pienti) but it is definitely a change for the positive. They also get keyboard assistance from both The Secret Machines’ Brandon Curtis and Robert Joseph Manning Jr. (Note: Curtis co-founded the Secret Machines with his late brother Benjamin Curtis who eventually left the band to form School Of Seven Bells. Benjamin Curtis tragically lost his battle with T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma last December and will be greatly missed.)

The songs on this album simmer in places. There’s still room for improvement. Sometimes Banks can be so deadpan that he kills a song’s momentum as he sort of does on the otherwise spunky, “Ancient Ways,” but overall “El Pintor” provides one of the better song-sets in the band’s catalogue. Maybe losing Carlos caused them to press the reset button. Whatever happened, it worked. This isn’t a perfect record, but they definitely sound refreshed.

Focus Tracks:

“Anywhere” This track has a surf-driven backbone as it bursts into an authoritative stomper. The surf motif is no doubt intended as Banks sings, “See the ocean. / I could go anywhere.”

“My Blue Supreme” This gothic, organ-driven, semi-psychedelic offering offers many different textures in a very short period of time as Banks shows off his falsetto.

“Everything Is Wrong” Perhaps this is the perfect down-trodden title for an Interpol song. This is a fuzzed-out slice of new-wave with some excellently unpredictable beat-work from drummer Samuel Fogarino.

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