Record Release Rundown: The Latest From Weezer, Macy Gray, Johnny Marr and More

PHOTO: Weezer performs onstage during the 2014 iHeartRadio Music Festival at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Sept. 20, 2014, in Las Vegas.
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This week the members of Weezer attempt to reclaim their rock roots, Macy Gray offers up her latest, the Smiths’ Johnny Marr offers up his second full-tilt rock album in two years, underground hip-hop legend MF DOOM joins forces with new rapper Bishop Nehru as NehruvianDOOM, Flying Lotus continues to find a middle ground between electro-flavored-hip-hop and classic jazz and Minnie Driver offers up a collection of covers of some of her favorite songs. This is quite a week for new music, so get ready!

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Weezer’s “Everything Will Be Alright In The End” ****

This record will still be polarizing for sure among Weezer fans. Even in my own circle I’m finding people who strongly dislike it, but it left me with a very warm feeling I haven’t gotten from them in a while.

Everything about “Everything Will Be Alright In The End” indicates a return to form. And yes, from beginning to end, this album showcases the kind of grungy sonic explosions you loved on “The Blue Album” and “Pinkerton.” It helps to have the album produced by “Blue” producer (and Cars leader) Ric Ocasek. Twenty years after first working with them, he helps bring them back to their punchy, crunchy signature sound. This album may be more bubblegum-fueled than their debut, but it feels like the work of the same band.

Rivers Cuomo’s biggest fault has always been his simplistic lyrical approach and yes there are some painfully easy rhyming sections on here, and “Lonely Girl” and the still awkward “Ain’t Got Nobody” may get groans from certain people, but elsewhere he offers up some surprises. On the funky, falsetto dance shuffle, “I’ve Had It Up To Here,” he throws in words like “homogenized” and “mediocrity” into his lyrics. He also doesn’t seem to be writing just straight-forward, bland love-songs this time. “The British Are Coming” is an odd but affecting song about the American Revolution, while “Da Vinci” and “Cleopatra” both name-check the historical figures for which they are named.

This album plays better as a whole than it does in separate parts. It fits together really well and gives a comprehensive view of what the music of Weezer sounds like in 2014. This is a focused effort to win back the original fans who may have given up once they heard “Raditude”’s “Can’t Stop Partying.” No, you’ll never get the lyrical frankness heard on “Pinkerton” again and Rivers still seems slightly guarded in the lyrical realm, but this is just about the best Weezer album you could hope for from this band at this point. It’s quite possibly their best album since “The Red Album.”

The title fits. If they can keep up this pace, maybe “Everything Will Be Alright In The End.” It’s a relief.

Focus Tracks:

“Go Away” (Featuring Bethany Cosentino) Pairing Weezer with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino is an inspired move. This song soars beyond its admittedly run-of-the-mill breakup-themed lyrics to be a sweetly timeless ballad. Cosentino and Cuomo are perfectly matched here, combining their signature styles effectively. This is also an argument for Ocasek to be in the running to produce the next Best Coast record.

“I’ve Had It Up To Here” This song is funkier and more pointed than anything else on the record. It also seems to be about Rivers trying to come to terms with the realization that he needs to not sacrifice his original ideals for the sake of fame. While rock stars singing about being rock stars can usually come off as lame, this comes off well. It’s maybe the most lyrically open song he has written since “Pinkerton.”

“Back To The Shack” An open apology to fans probably in response to “Raditude.” “I’m sorry guys I didn’t realize that I needed you so much. / I thought I’d get a new audience. / I forgot that disco sucks.” This song may take a few listens to sink in, but it really is the centerpiece of the record where the band acknowledges their mistakes and yearns to be the band that used to play “In The Garage.”

Macy Gray’s “The Way” ***

Macy Gray hasn’t released a great album since establishing her career with her landmark first two records. Sadly, “The Way” doesn’t quite offer up the burst she needs, but it fares much better than her last two collections of originals, “The Sellout” and “Big” because it does have a couple of memorable cuts. Still, the space-age reimaging of the retro-seventies soul sound that made “On How Life Is” and “The Id” so enjoyable seems slightly out of reach. Nothing hits the indelible high points of “I Try” or her Erykah Badu-assisted hit, “Sweet Baby.”

But still, she’s got that voice. It’s still a raspy, masterful instrument even if it can’t hit high notes, it’s a one of a kind treasure. It’s the kind of voice you can’t train yourself to get and as she growls her way through the semi-funky, “I Miss The Sex,” you feel the emotion seething underneath even when the tune gets slightly aimless.

Gray is quirky. Perhaps that is an understatement, but she actually put her unique personality to good use on her 2012 covers record, which she released shortly before she put out a full album-length cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book.” Those exercises may have reawakened her sensibilities, since this is her strongest collection of originals in some time. Gray wants to be a classic. You can feel it in every word she delivers. She’s got the goods to be a classic soul singer, but too often she hasn’t had the level of material to maintain the visibility she deserves.

“The Way” isn’t a full turnaround, but it at least begins to forge a path back to greatness. The title track may be about wanting success and happiness in the eyes of sobriety, but it could also be about finding one’s sweet spot creatively. Macy Gray is not surprisingly taking her own unique path.

Focus Tracks:

“Hands” While this doesn’t quite have the lift of anything on the first two records, this is the closest we get to a classic Macy Gray sound. It’s a sunny slice of disco funk.

“First Time” This is a nice ballad, with an effective build. The closest thing this record has to an “I Try,” it also serves as a reminder of how well Gray does with sensitive material.

“Queen Of The Big Hurt” This is old-school, slow-burning Motown-style ballad that comes off as both authoritative and ominous. The string-anchored chorus brings a driving sense of drama.

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Johnny Marr’s “Playland” ****

Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr has wasted no time following up last year’s amazing effort “The Messenger” and “Playland” offers up more peppy, punchy numbers from one of the key sonic architects of eighties British rock. The fact this is only Marr’s third record under his own name is surprising, and it is an argument for more. The guy is on a roll. Considering his jangling guitar playing style was as much (if not more of) a focal point on the Smiths’ records than Morrissey’s lyrics, it should come as no surprise that “Playland,” like “The Messenger “ delivered a highly amped up version of his old sound.

In recent years, Marr served as a temporary member of both Modest Mouse and The Cribs and those experiences obviously have informed these two records. Most of this album is filled with jittery, fast-paced music that pays homage to both new-wave and punk influences. The frenetic title-track for instance would play really well between The Cure’s “Primary” and U2’s “I Will Follow.” Essentially, this is a record steeped in ‘80s and ‘90’s ideals that still sounds current. When he’s not flexing his rock muscles and he slows down on “The Trap,” he has a sound akin to late-period New Order.

This is a busy week for Smiths fans in both good and bad ways. Positively, the band was announced as possibly being in the new class of inductees to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and negatively Morrissey announced that he has had a few cancer scares. (I wish him all the best!) But this record along with “The Messenger” should help to continue to establish Marr as a mighty force on his own. He needs to continue to make these records in rapid succession. He’s definitely tapped into something vital.

Focus Tracks:

“Dynamo” This big power-pop number sounds very informed by Marr’s short time in The Cribs and yet it has a big, enveloping, warm chorus. In a different time when radio still respected rock music, this would have been a huge hit.

“This Tension” With one of Marr’s best riffs on the set, delivered in his signature style, this track leaps out with a sense of urgency strictly on its merits and without beating you over the head. Bassist Iwan Gronow also does some extremely nice work here.

“Candidate” One of the slower-to-mid-tempo tracks on the set, this song allows Marr to experiment more with textural layering. His quietly and subtly haunting riff provides an epic backbone for a highly contemplative piece.

NehruvianDOOM’s “NehruvianDOOM (Sound Of The Son)” ****1/2

If you want reassurance that a classic hip-hop sound still exists at least in the underground, you need to be following MF DOOM’s various collaborations over the last decade or so.

DOOM started in the eighties as Zev Love X, a member of K.M.D. He made a key appearance on 3rd Bass’ hit “The Gas Face.” After his brother DJ Subroc was hit by a car and killed and the group was dropped by their label Elektra, he retreated from the spotlight, only to re-emerge later with his now signature metal mask on his face.

Particularly in recent years he has made his name working on collaborative records with the likes of Madlib (as Mavillian) Danger Mouse (as Danger Doom), Jneiro Jarel (as JJ Doom) and Masta Ace (as MA_DOOM.) Now comes DOOM’s latest collaborative effort with 18-year-old rapper Bishop Nehru. Nehru has been causing a lot of buzz lately. Not only is working with DOOM at such a young age a coup, but it was also recently announced that Nas will apparently executive produce his next record set for release in 2015.

“NehruvianDOOM” (also known as “Sound Of The Son”) showcases the back-to-basics rawness of most of DOOM’s work. The beats have a ripped-from-vinyl feel built off of an earthy, jazz-centric palate. Nehru is skilled enough to hold his own beside a legend like DOOM and yet he isn’t quite as gritty as one might expect, which may be why some wonder why DOOM and Nas possibly see him as the future of hip-hop. Nehru comes off like an optimist on tracks like “Good Things” and “Mean The Most.” He often sounds like he was schooled on the Native Tongues records that De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest made a few years before he was born. Admittedly, his flow may not have the level of flash some crave, but he proves himself to be amiable and more than up for the heavy lifting this album demands.

Admittedly, it is DOOM’s clever, dusty production and beat-work that really puts this collection over the top and makes this a must-listen for any fan of “classic” hip-hop. (His use of sped-up and pitch-shifted voices is reminiscent of Madlib’s Quasimoto alterego.)

As far as Bishop Nehru is concerned, I see why DOOM and Nas have championed him. He may be young but he keeps an old torch lighted. DOOM may have 25 years on him, but that gap in never felt on record. This adds another notch to MF DOOM’s impressive belt. This album may only have nine tracks and barely crack the half-hour mark, but it is well worth a listen.

Focus Tracks:

“Om” DOOM only makes a few vocal appearances on this record, but he provides the anchor for this swaggering, bouncy track. It perfectly announces the partnership and its strengths. The sampled speech throughout about meditation seems strangely inspired, especially since it doesn’t provide the song’s most obvious angle.

“Mean The Most” This sounds like the kind of playfully fun and gleefully happy love jam that De La Soul and Prince Paul would have put on “De La Soul Is Dead.”

“Darkness (HBU)” Over a thick bass-line, Nehru raps about survival and clarity as a pitch-shifted vocal sample repeats “Cruel cruel world. / All I’m seeing is darkness.” A horn sample adds a stomping sense of authority.

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Flying Lotus’ “You’re Dead” ****1/2

Flying Lotus’ music equally combines hip-hop, electronic music and instrumental jazz into a seamless and highly potent concoction. As the grandnephew of Alice and John Coltrane, he’s got the music in his veins and judging from the most experimental passages of “You’re Dead,” he has boundless musical aspirations, bouncing from spaced-out funk to sonic elements that border on prog-rock. In many ways the music here is so varied and eclectic that it is ultimately unclassifiable on the whole, even if it does boast appearances from Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and Lotus’ own rap alter-ego Captain Murphy.

This is a record for people up for anything, which is partly what makes it such a boundlessly thrilling listen. It has the kind of thick experimentation that would’ve made the late J Dilla proud and yet it also could be mentioned in the same sentence as Lotus’ Warp label-mate Prefuse 73.

In many ways this is mind-blowing zone-out music for the electronic age. It’s like the focused digital cousin of the “free jazz” of the past. Most tracks on here hover between the 1- and 2-minute mark, so it feels like a constantly evolving soundscape. This is a masterful work of sonic artistry. And yet…it isn’t the kind of music radio will play.

“You’re Dead” equals and in some ways even surpasses the achievements of Lotus’ last record “Until The Quiet Comes.” That’s quite an impressive feat.

(Note: A word of warning for the easily offended that the drawn album art in the booklet is quite bizarre and slightly graphic.)

Focus Tracks:

“Never Catch Me” (Featuring Kendrick Lamar) At 3:55 this is by far the longest track on the record and Lotus pairs Kendrick Lamar with an appealingly jazzy piano riff. In between verses, he provides momentary sonic freak-outs. But Lamar gives his all, providing verses on par with the highlights of his 2012 album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City”

“Turkey Dog Coma” This instrumental verges on math-rock, providing some densely textural atmospheric touches. It then eventually becomes a jazzy, sax-infused jam.

“Eyes Above” This track is just over a minute, but it takes an initially skeletal beat and a simple tone pattern and immediately morphs them into something more complex as it leads into the next track, “Moment of Hesitation.” The classic jazz spirit lives on.

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Minnie Driver’s “Ask Me To Dance” ***

Minnie Driver isn’t just starting to sing. She isn’t an actress deciding to make a record. Truth be told she was a singing jazz before she was acting and “Ask Me To Dance,” her latest album, is actually her third record following 2004’s “Everything I’ve Got In My Pocket” and 2007’s “Seastories.”

If you haven’t heard her first two records, I encourage you to hear her originals “Invisible Girl” and “Down” before even approaching this set. This disc is different from the other two because it is a complete collection of covers and Driver has good taste in her choices, picking material from Crowded House, Elliott Smith, the Cure, Neil Young, John Prine and others. Her choice of Smith’s work is notable because she knew him. He scored “Good Will Hunting,” after all, and while her semi-countrified reading of “Waltz #2 (XO)” lacks the heartbreaking depth of the frankly untouchable original, it’s still a nice tribute. But most of “Ask Me To Dance” plays in that similar way. It’s nice, but it rarely beats its original sources. Driver can really sing and her voice has personality so nothing truly fails, but many of these songs are perfect in their original versions, so covering them is an uphill battle.

The album isn’t without its awkward moments, either. Driver’s truly strange reading of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” is its own brand of unique oddity. Really this album plays best for those who know the songs in their original forms even if Driver proves herself to be quite a versatile entertainer. Hopefully next time around Driver will return to originals. Original material comes with less baggage and expectation, thus helping her forge her own path in a better way.

Focus Tracks: “Human” This song, originally recorded by the Killers, is perhaps the only song on the set where Driver truly improves on the original. In the Killers’ hands the song was strangely off-putting. Driver’s version effectively streamlines it and makes the awkward grammatical choice in the chorus of “Are we human or are we dancer?” less painfully obvious. “Fly Me To The Moon” Driver may have a touch of a country twang throughout most of this set, but her roots are in jazz and this is a glorious reading of the Sinatra-popularized standard.

“Close To Me” This is a slower reading of the Cure’s 1985 hit, but it keeps all the quirks from the original intact with an ethereal glow that would probably appeal to Robert Smith’s sensibilities. Driver puts her own stamp on this iconic track.

Next Week: New music from Jessie J, a holiday record from Idina Menzel and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest From Thom Yorke, Prince, Lucinda Williams and more.

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