-- intro: This week, Regina Spektor drops a new album. Bon Iver returns with a more extreme electronically-minded approach. We have the second post-reunion Pixies collection. Solange steps further out of Beyoncé’s shadow. Electro-pop singer Banks releases her second full-length. Rapper Danny Brown gives us a chaotic and eclectic new set. And Van Morrison continues to prove his legendary status.
We are now in the thick of the fall-release schedule. There are many great records here, and in the coming weeks there are many more to come. If you are a music fan, this is one of the most exciting times of the year.
quicklist: 1 title: Regina Spektor’s “Remember Us To Life” (Deluxe Edition) ****1/2 text: Regina Spektor’s sixth album, “Remember Us To Life,” has some dark edges and minor-key turns that should bring to mind 2004’s “Soviet Kitsch.” This is in general a darker record than 2012’s triumph, “What We Saw From The Cheap Seats,” but Spektor is always filled with a sense of whimsy even when tackling dark subjects. “The Trapper And The Furrier,” for instance, does not miss a quirky beat as it perfectly uses its title characters as a metaphor for the way the top 1 percent in society openly abuse the other 99 percent.
“Grand Hotel” sounds like something that Wes Anderson should have placed in his film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” whereas “Older & Taller” is a friendly lament on life’s unexpected turns, combined with the lies we tell ourselves. When Spektor proclaims that “’Enjoy your youth’ sounds like a threat,” it really sticks. We are all prisoners of the passage of time and our frailty as humans.
Often, Spektor’s work sounds like it has a deeply classical core. “Tornadoland” has a sweeping quality, as do the expansive “Obsolete” and “The Visit.” “Sellers Of Flowers” shows Spektor’s macabre side as she sings about the flowers for sale at an outside market that will freeze before they are sold.
“Black And White” sounds like a sequel to the “What We Saw From The Cheap Seats” album's standout “How,” while “Bleeding Heart” is a slightly electro-infused ode to isolation and sadness. Spektor continues to show herself to be one of the most insightful and clever songwriters working today. Few artists can achieve her balance of subject and tone.
The deluxe edition of the album features three bonus tracks, “New Year, “ The One Who Left And The One Who Stayed” and “End Of Thought.” These tracks don’t feel tacked onto the end of the record. Rather, they feel like the set’s natural ending.
“Small Bill$” With its upbeat tone and hip-hop swagger, this stands as one of the album’s brighter moments. I go back and forth about whether I think the ethereal and girly “la la la” chorus is nodding to or making fun of Lana Del Rey, but in any case, it provides the album’s most hilarious moment.
“The Trapper And The Furrier” Spektor sings, “What a strange, strange world we live in / Where the good are damned and the wicked forgiven. / What a strange, strange world we live in /Those who don’t have lose / Those who got get given MORE MORE MORE!" What an incredibly succinct way to illustrate the economic disparity in modern society.
“Sellers Of Flowers” This is a reflection on autumnal death. We hope all the roses will be saved and enjoyed, but sometimes the elements win.
quicklist: 2 title: Bon Iver’s “22, A Million” **1/2 text: Justin Vernon’s first Bon Iver album in five years deserves credit for its knack for experimentation. Taking a nod from his collaborations with Kanye West, Vernon turns the once folk-driven Bon Iver into a dizzying electro-display. At the same time, it makes the record sound like an awkward cross between latter-day Coldplay and Future at his most auto-tuned. It’s a strange mixture to say the least.
This 34-minute set flies by in a flash, but while it is sonically interesting, it doesn’t leave very much to hold onto and cherish. This feels like a lackluster collection of compositions propped up with studio effects. It almost seems as if Vernon wants to make the album as alienating as possible. The song titles alone scream that quite loudly and quite clearly. “715 - CR??KS” verges on recalling the greatness of Vernon’s “Blood Bank” EP, but the vocoder effect is turned up way too high in the mix, whereas “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ? ?10 d E A T h b R E a s T ? ?” obscures his falsetto with some messy, downright flatulent synths.
Radically rearranged and stripped of all the tricks, there might be a decent record here, but really this album is sabotaged by its desire to be covered in digital bleeps and glitches. Vernon finds the most success on tracks like “33 “GOD”” and “22 (Over S88N)” where he leaves his own voice minimally covered while dancing around some pitch-shifted vocal samples. The semi-alien-sounding “29 #Strafford Apts” works semi-decently, too. Mostly, however, “22, A Million” feels like a rather pretentious display that misses the point. Many people follow Bon Iver looking for the next “Skinny Love,” a song which is still Vernon’s biggest career highlight. While I applaud Vernon to some degree for not following an expected route, it seems like this record rockets him too far into the abyss with few real rewards.
It could be worse. At least this album is more interesting than the faux-80s “lite” radio impression he gave us on his single “Beth/Rest” from his last album.
“00000 Million” This closer is among the set’s most clear-eyed moments and it will probably be licensed a number of places. But at the same time, it comes off a bit like an electro-infused, watered-down answer to what Vernon already recorded on the self-titled Bon Iver album and “For Emma, Forever Ago.” This is the album’s best moment, but far from Bon Iver’s best moment.
“666 ?” This is also closer to a traditional Bon Iver song. It is an argument for a stripped-down “de-mixed” version of the album to eventually be released.
“____45_____” This bizarre, warping saxophone experiment explores some interesting textures, bringing to mind the likes of Four Tet, even if Vernon’s repetition of “I’ve been caught in fire,” gets to be tiresome. It is still nice to hear him sing in his lower register.
quicklist: 3 title: Pixies’ “Head Carrier” *** text: The last Pixies album, “Indie Cindy” arrived in 2014, a full 22 years after the band initially called it quits. Two years later, I still don’t think that album got a fair shake, given that it actually served as a fitting sonic progression from 1991’s “Trompe Le Monde.” But given the fact that famed bassist Kim Deal had left the group, it was immediately treated with disdain by many of the group’s fans. I miss Kim Deal’s presence in the band, too, but at the same time, I can’t deny that that album’s “Greens And Blues” and “Andro Queen” rank among the group’s best.
Two years have passed and now the group has found its new bassist in Zwan and A Perfect Circle-veteran Paz Lenchantin. Her presence immediately makes the band sound more complete on “Head Carrier,” but the focus of this set is far messier and less compelling. While “Um Chagga Lagga” brings forth Black Francis’ ability to summon oddball flamenco-punk and “Tenement Song” effectively shows the band at its best, there are a few head-scratching moments.
“Baal’s Back” gets weirder, and maybe cooler, with every listen, but while it is trying to recall the greatness of Pixies classics like “Something Against You” and “Rock Music,” it also sounds like an awkward attempt by Francis to fill Brian Johnson’s post in AC/DC.
Lenchantin is a welcome presence and she does a great job leading “All I Think About Now,” which is perhaps an olive branch of sorts to Deal. But at the same time, the song feels like a blatant, halfhearted rewrite of their jaw-dropping classic “Where Is My Mind?” It smacks of trying too hard to please the fans who were somehow put off by “Indie Cindy.”
“Talent” is OK, but it sounds a bit like a merely passable album track from Francis’ “Frank Black” period. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a good record. But that’s all it is. The band members are still finding their balance. Give them an album or two more with Lenchantin, and they will be back in fighting form.
Of course, the level of Pixies’ influence makes the expectations for a new Pixies album impossibly high. A new Pixies album that pleases everyone is about as rare as a new “Star Wars” movie that pleases everyone. The band has an uphill battle, but it is excellent to see them soldiering onward with this second chapter.
“Tenement Song” This song has all the elements of a great Pixies song. Joey Santiago’s guitar work is on point here and it has a nicely explosive center.
“Um Chagga Lagga” While “Indie Cindy” frequently focused on the band’s melodic side, a track like this highlights their unique brand of noisy strangeness. They attack the track with thunderous glee.
“Classic Masher” This is definitely a bright rocker that points out that when Black Francis wants to flex his pop muscles, he can come up with a strong hook.
quicklist: 4 title: Solange’s “A Seat At The Table” **** text: Solange Knowles has always forged very different territory from her older sister Beyoncé. In 2016, there will be listeners eager to compare Solange’s “A Seat At The Table” to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” That does both albums a disservice. While Beyoncé is honing her pop skills and getting increasingly more daring and interesting, Solange is exploring more organic R&B. Beyoncé is obviously setting out to be the biggest pop star in the world, while Solange here is obviously looking to artists like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu for inspiration. The presence of Raphael Saadiq and Questlove in the credits speaks volumes.
Eight years removed from her last full-length studio album and four years since her Dev Hynes-assisted synth-pop EP, “True,” “A Seat At The Table” finds Solange coming into her own and feeling comfortable. She always has surrounded herself with an artier crowd than her sister, and that pays off here with this jazzy set.
“Cranes In The Sky” and the excellent Q-Tip assisted “Borderline (An Ode To Self Care)” bring some earthier textures than expected. Throughout, this set is peppered with interludes to keep the set constantly moving with quotes from everyone from her mother to Master P. There’s also a strong thread of black pride running through the entire set. It is steeped in historical reverence.
This is a vibe-heavy collection. It gets far on its grooves. Solange sings with a soft and mellow vocal tone, often bringing to mind singers like Aaliyah and Corinne Bailey Rae.
“A Seat At The Table” is a firmly grounded set that proves that Solange deserves to step out of her sister’s shadow. “Where Do We Go” slams with authority, while “Junie” finds some surprisingly quirky elastic funk.
With “A Seat At The Table,” Solange truly finds her own voice. This is an inspiring and uplifting collection.
“Don’t Touch My Hair” This groove is anchored by a smooth bass-line and some effective keyboard work. The track is subtle and slick, but at the same time, the horn section adds some great texture.
“Where Do We Go” This is a pounding track that demands respect, but at the same time, there’s something very stately about the piano work here as it blends with some effectively-placed synths.
“Don’t Wish Me Well” Here’s where Solange’s electro-side pays off. You should curl up and spend time in this track’s synth loop. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
quicklist: 5 title: Banks’ “The Altar” ***1/2 text: Jillian Banks’ second full-length album, “The Altar,” isn’t quite as immediate a set as 2014’s epic, “Goddess,” but it follows a similar path. The fact that it lacks a track as strong as “Beggin For Thread” shouldn’t keep you from giving it a spin. If you like chilled electro-pop with subtle, sleek undertones, this is your record.
With a different title “F____ With Myself” would be a sly party anthem, even if it barely goes above a whisper. The song is a single. Hopefully it will still get airplay of some kind. It’s the kind of track fans of Drake’s “One Dance” may also dig.
Throughout the set, Banks’ voice is covered in various electronic effects, but these swell and recede like artistic decorations. As she did on “Goddess,” Banks shows she knows how to artfully maneuver such sonic territory. If you read my Bon Iver review, you'll know that I think Justin Vernon could learn a lot from her use of this technology.
Banks loves to play with slowed-down, sped-up and looped vocal snippets. Listen to the backdrops of “Mind Games” or “Poltergeist” and that becomes quite clear. For the most part, she keeps things at a quieter, softer pace, but on both “This Is Not About Us” and “Trainwreck” she shows she can up her pop and dance thresholds on a dime, while on “Haunt,” she proves she can also really belt without the electro vocal effects.
“Altar” is a fitting sequel to “Goddess,” even if that album offered up a slightly better set of songs. This collection continues to show Banks to be a formidable star on the rise.
“This Is Not About Us” The vocal effect on the verses makes her sound like her mouth is full. That strange digital garble gives way to a chorus that sounds like dance pop from 1985. This song is glorious in its rise and should be a future dance staple.
“Lovesick” This is a sultry bit of “smooth-lovin’” R&B that should please fans of artists like Jhene Aiko. There’s a lot of texture in that bass-line’s atmospheric rumble.
“Gemini Feed” This opener is a commanding entrance for the album. It also works lyrically almost like a title track.
quicklist: 6 title: Danny Brown’s “Atrocity Exhibition” ***1/2 text: With his often over-the-top delivery style and his frequently cartoonish vocal tone, Danny Brown is in many ways a stylistic heir of O.D.B., with flecks of “Woo Hah!”-era Busta Rhymes thrown in for good measure. He doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects. “Atrocity Exhibition” is an appropriate title for an album packed with crude, graphic sexual references and bits about violence and drugs.
Brown is also a sonically fascinating figure because he stylistically has one foot in the hip-hop world and one foot in rave culture. He no doubt has fans on both sides of the fence. The people who enjoy the righteously gritty posse track, “Really Doe,” might find the hyper “Dance In The Water” a difficult listen, and vice versa.
Brown may be really out there in places, but beneath all the sonic chaos, he’s reflecting strongly an honesty about drug addiction on “White Lines.” You wonder if he’s going to be all right after you listen to the album’s opener “Downward Spiral,” which in itself is a truly experimental-sounding piece. On “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” he drops the signature yell to deliver a softer recollection of seeing a friend die.
If you enjoy experimental hip-hop, this record could definitely please you. Genre-wise it is a sonic game-changer that leaves a stronger first impression than 2013’s “Old.” Danny Brown definitely is an unpredictable presence, with his eye on both the future and the past. The presence of Cypress Hill’s B-Real on “Get Hi” seems like an obvious fit.
Brown’s knack for chaos is both his strongest asset and his biggest hindrance. The fact that this album was released by groundbreaking electronic-leaning label Warp pretty much says everything you need to know. This album is both stunning and maddening.
“Really Doe” (Featuring Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt) This is the best posse track I have heard in quite awhile and the most straightforward hip-hop track on the album on the whole. Brown and each of his guests firmly make the most out of their presence on the track. Brown works well and still stands out in a more traditional setting. If he released a straightforward hip-hop record full of tracks like this one, it would be an easy classic. It’s actually admirable that he chooses to go an artier route.
“Lost” This is a quick track, but with its cryptic lyrics and lo-fi production, there’s something vaguely Wu-Tang-esque about its execution, even as a seemingly unrelated horn sample invades the track.
“Tell Me What I Don’t Know” There’s something sobering about hearing Brown rap at a conversational level. He spins an effective narrative over a beat that eventually verges on drum’n’bass.
quicklist: 7 title: Van Morrison’s “Keep Me Singing” **** text: Few performers are as reliable as Van Morrison. Fifty years into his career, he still has that same recognizable voice. “Keep Me Singing” is a reminder of his power as both a writer and a performer. This is a very soft and mellow, jazzy record, but with the exception of his rockier early days, that has always been his sweet spot.
The songs here may lack the ethereal qualities of his peak work, but it is still blatantly obvious that “Every Time I See A River” is from the same source as “And It Stoned Me.”
This album is thick with jazzy ballads packed with wisdom. The seven-minute piano-led “Out In The Cold Again” has a beautiful arrangement. Again, it is Morrison’s deeply resonating vocal tone that really gives these songs sincere emotional heft.
Morrison works his blues muscles on “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword;” he fully commands over a soft organ groove on “Share Your Love With Me;” and he fits well over an orchestra over the moving “Memory Lane.”
Interestingly, the set is back-loaded with more upbeat songs. “Going Down To Bangor” roars with a roadhouse charm, “Too Late” has a strong lift, and the closing instrumental “Caledonia Swing” has an insistent horn section and some lively fiddle work.
“Keep Me Singing” doesn’t find Morrison exploring new territory, really. But it is a solid mood piece from a legend who is continuing to add worthy songs to his repertoire. In the end, this is Morrison just doing what he has always done well.
“Every Time I See A River” This is vintage Van Morrison -- 36 albums in. and he still has that same charm.
“Out In The Cold Again” This track seems suited for snowy street scenes, and Van is able to set a very distinct mood on this extended track that makes the most of its length.
“Going Down To Bangor” This bluesy romp comes as an unexpected but not unwelcome surprise given the context of the rest of the album. Keep in mind, blues has been in Van’s blood going back as far his days with Them.
Next Week: New music from Green Day, Norah Jones, Phantogram and more.
Missed last week's? Get the latest from Idina Menzel, Passenger and more.