Review: The Bangles Latest Album 'Puts Their Whole Career on a Different Level'

PHOTO: The Bangles - "Ladies and Gentlemen... The Bangles!"
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This week, turntable legend DJ Shadow makes a strong comeback, The Avett Brothers release their latest album, The Bangles reissue their earliest work, jazz/R&B singer (and friend of Prince) Kandace Springs releases her full-length debut and Jenny Lewis forms a super-group with members of Au Revoir Simone and The Like. There’s a lot of great music to discuss this week, so keep reading.

PHOTO: DJ Shadow - "The Mountain Will Fall"
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DJ Shadow’s “The Mountain Will Fall” ****

DJ Shadow has spent the last two decades or so shifting with the times. If you are looking for the groundbreaking and break-beat work of his landmark debut, “Endtroducing…” you won’t find it here. Each one of Shadow’s album has had a vastly different sound, from the playful, spacey stomp of “The Private Press,” to the crunk-meets-adult-alternative sound of “The Outsider.” While Shadow’s last record, “The Less You Know The Better…” found him mind-blowingly embracing everything from fuzzy rock to classic hip-hop, aside from a few outliers, “The Mountain Will Fall” is mostly a post-electro, post-dub-step workout. The results are still pretty amazing, from the puzzling “Mambo” to the hypnotizing, Nils-Frahm-assisted “Bergschrund.”

Still, it is probably when Shadow aims his focus back at hip-hop that he will probably gain the most traction with longtime fans. Run The Jewels tear everything apart on the no-holds-barred “Nobody Speak,” while “The Slideshow” (featuring Ernie Fresh) brings us the version of Shadow his early fans are missing. But the beauty of this record is its embrace of lush sonics one minute and unabashed chaos the next. Shadow’s more hip-hop minded fans lured in by the presence of Run The Jewels might find the majority of the rest of this record to be a bit of a slog, but this is an entrancing collection if you are indeed up for the ride.

Listening to a track like “Pitter Patter,” it is evident that Shadow is aiming for modern club sounds, but through his own kaleidoscope. “California” and “Ghost Town” are both epic rapid-fire attacks. If this record isn’t initially one that grabs you, spin it a few more times, even if it isn’t the kind of collection you usually embrace. There is a reason why Shadow quickly became a legend. “The Mountain Will Fall” is both truly bizarre and stunning.

Focus Tracks:

“Nobody Speak” (Featuring Run The Jewels) This is no doubt the album’s focal-point. It pulls no punches. If there is a “clean” version, it is probably vastly different, but here El-P and Killer Mike spit fire, giving us something to chew while we wait for “Run The Jewels 3.”

“Bergschrund” (Featuring Nils Frahm) Chilled synths bounce across your speakers while a slamming beat sets you firmly into a groove. This is truly slick.

“The Slideshow” (Featuring Ernie Fresh) This is a scratchy display of turntablism with Shadow returning to his roots. It hits the sweet spot. In places, it feels like it even recalls “The Number Song.”

PHOTO: The Avett Brothers - "True Sadness"
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The Avett Brothers’ “True Sadness” ***

The second the glossy, hand-clap sing-a-long “Ain’t No Man” begins, there’s reason to worry about the Avett Brothers’ new album “True Sadness.” The Avetts have always been known for to-the-point numbers like the classics “Die Die Die” and “Another Is Waiting.” They have always thrived on their organic sound. Luckily, this ill-advised opener is followed by some keepers, like the perfectly enjoyable, “Mama, I Don’t Believe” and the infinitely stronger, “No Hard Feelings.”

Still, throughout “True Sadness,” that initial first impression lingers. Rick Rubin, who has long been their producer, is still behind the boards, but this is a more polished affair than we are used to hearing from the Avett Brothers, and the electro-acid-rock funk of “Satan Pulls The Strings” is a little too much to handle. Similarly, the canned beat and the synths on “You Are Mine” just don’t mesh with the rest of the track. Admittedly, the funkier approach works more effectively on the title track.

This is still a decent record, albeit with some questionable moves. Their songwriting is still sharp. It just seems like the band is making not-so-subtle moves towards pop-acceptance. There is a sense of loss when the band insists on this approach. The Avett Brothers deserve radio play, but they deserve it in their own alt-country-meets-Americana style. It’s the standards of pop radio that need refreshing, not the Avett Brothers’ sound.

“True Sadness” will still please some longtime fans who pay attention to the songwriting, but it works best without any bells and whistles. Sure, there are some great tracks here, but it is a really mixed bag.

Focus Tracks:

“No Hard Feelings” It figures that this ballad would work the best of all the songs on this set. It strips the band down to their essence. It doesn’t sound like it has any transparent motives other than to deliver a beautiful song.

“Smithsonian” This is the Avett Brothers at their most country. It's a sing-along track but it doesn’t feel forced in any way.

“I Wish I Was” Again, this is another highlight, courtesy of one of the set’s mellower moments.

PHOTO: The Bangles - "Ladies and Gentlemen... The Bangles!"
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The Bangles’ “Ladies And Gentlemen…The Bangles!” ****

Before they were singing “Manic Monday,” ”Walk Like An Egyptian,” “In Your Room” or “Eternal Flame,” The Bangles were a pretty powerful garage-rock band. Originally called “The Bangs,” they released a debut EP that gained them a lot of well-earned, positive attention. “Ladies And Gentlemen…The Bangles” reissues that EP and pairs it with some earlier cuts and extra, choice live cuts. Though this collection was originally released digitally in 2014, it has now been released on CD for the first time.

These recordings don’t sound at all like the early eighties. This is straight-forward sixties-style garage-rock that finds Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, Debbi Peterson and original bassist Annette Zilinskas tearing through some wonderfully psychedelic rave-ups. Listen to “Want You” and hear the band play with a hard-edged vengeance.

The bonus tracks show some impressive moments as well. There’s a stellar, peppy reading of the Warren Zevon-penned “Outside Chance,” which was famously recorded by the Turtles. Most surprising though is the way they tear through Love’s raucous classic “7 & 7 Is” on one of two live cuts to feature then-new bassist Michael Steele.

As the Bangles have continued past their eighties-pop hey-day, their post-2000 releases have hinted at a return to the sound explored here. They got famous embracing the pop machine. (I still say “Everything” is one of the most rewarding pop albums of the eighties and it doesn’t get its due.) But listening to these early recordings puts their whole career on a different level. It also puts their revved-up cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade Of Winter” into perspective.

If you pick this album up and dig it, their proper full-length debut, “All Over The Place” is also highly recommended.

Focus Tracks:

“The Real World” This is perhaps the first truly great Bangles song, and in a perfect world this would get the same respect and airplay of their later, bigger hits. There’s something immediately iconic about the way this song is put together.

“Getting Out Of Hand” This is another key, early single, obviously taking its cues from early Beatles records.

“Want You” This rave-up with its quick backbeat and surf-style guitar line is a stellar slice of vintage, hard-edged garage-rock. It still somehow maintains the band’s signature vocal harmonies.

PHOTO: Kandace Springs - "Soul Eyes"
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Kandace Springs’ “Soul Eyes” ****

Kandace Springs is yet another Prince protégé to further establish herself as a commanding force. “Soul Eyes” is her full-length debut and it finds her mixing jazz and R&B in a classic mold. It’s obvious that Springs looks up to legends like Roberta Flack and Sade, but there are also hints of Diana Krall and Norah Jones here. The presence of Jones-associate and “Don’t Know Why” author Jesse Harris in the credits here further cements the comparison. In other words, this is an album that could be stuck in the confines of the jazz section, but given the right promotional nudge, it could see a wider audience as well.

Springs is listed as a co-writer on a few of these tracks and ends the album with a strong solo writing credit on “Rain Falling,” but it is her interesting choice of covers that also provides a point of interest. She covers Shelby Lynne not once, but twice, tackling both “Thought It Would Be Easier” and “Leavin’” with confidence and ease. (Interestingly, both these songs were originally on Lynne’s 1999 breakout album, “I Am Shelby Lynne.”) She also does a softly funky and soulful reading of War’s “The World Is A Ghetto.” The title-track, “Soul Eyes” is a captivating cover of a Mal Waldron classic. All of this adds up to a very satisfying and promising collection from a very gifted singer.

On “Soul Eyes,” Kandace Springs remains cool and mellow. This isn’t the kind of record that will jump out at you and beg for your attention. It’s a nuanced, warm collection full of positive vibes and spirit. Springs is a singer who should be on your radar.

Focus Tracks:

“Rain Falling” Perhaps the jazziest moment on the album, this is also the collection’s closer, finding Springs backing herself on piano.

“Fall Guy” This is an really impressive ballad with strong hit-potential. In the wrong hands, it could have been over-produced, but this arrangement and reading of the song perfectly matches the song’s organic feeling and its catchiness without sacrificing anything.

“Too Good To Last” (Featuring Terence Blanchard) One of two tracks featuring jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, this is really an easy-going slice of earthy “smooth R&B.”

PHOTO: Jenny Lewis performs onstage during the Rachael Ray Feedback SXSW party at Stubbs, March 19, 2016, in Austin, Texas.
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Nice As F***’s “Nice As F***” ***1/2

Nice As F*** is Jenny Lewis’ new band. Their self-titled debut dropped as a surprise last week. The rest of the band is filled out by Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster and drummer Tennessee Thomas. Thomas is of course the daughter of Elvis Costello’s famed Attractions drummer, Pete Thomas, and she previously played with The Like.

This 26-minute record feels somewhat minimalist in its approach. Often the music just relies on drums and bass with some occasional bits of synth-work. The latter works to great, almost eerie effect on “Mall Music.” All throughout the set, Lewis’ voice is coated in various bits of reverb. This works wonderfully on the standout, “Angel.”

Lewis may be the biggest draw on this album given her acclaimed work both as a solo artist and with Rilo Kiley, but Thomas really makes an impression. Here, drumming is front and center, often giving these songs their most significant grounding.

This record is distantly removed from the polished work found on Lewis’ last triumph, “The Voyager,” but frankly, that is probably the goal. This feels like three friends messing around with spare studio time, so you get loose cheers like “Homerun” and “NAF Theme,” mixed with more developed material. This is a light summer release. It is meant to be fun and not overthought.

I wish this record was longer, but in the end it ends up making the most of a reductionist sound. With this band-name, you might guess that they aren’t hoping for any sort of radio-play, but let’s hope there will eventually be more NAF music on the way.

Focus Tracks:

“Angel” This sounds like one of the most traditionally “finished” songs on the record, and the interplay between Lewis, Thomas and Forster shows them to be an impressively tight unit.

“Higher” This is a really exciting rave-up. Could it use a distorted punk guitar? Yes. But there is something bold about its restraint. It still rocks effectively even with just the bass and drums.

“Door” It almost feels like NAF are trying to get to something primal akin to some of the electro-influenced punk coming out of New York in the late-seventies and early eighties. There’s something immediate and fresh about this set’s minimalist attitude.

Next Week: New music from Blink 182, Bat For Lashes, Maxwell and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Tragically Hip and Mumford & Sons.

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