Reviews: Latest from Kelly Clarkson, Arcade Fire, Susan Boyle and More

PHOTO: Kelly Clarkson, "Wrapped In Red"

This week we have a wide variety of new releases, from the much anticipated new double album from Arcade Fire to Minor Alps, the collaboration between Juliana Hatfield and Nada Surf's Matthew Caws. We'll examine jazz-pianist Robert Glasper's latest album showcasing guests from across the worlds of hip-hop and R&B, and we'll review new Christmas albums by Susan Boyle and Kelly Clarkson.

Plus, we'll go over the latest from growing international pop artist, Yuna. Lastly, we'll review an all-star hip-hop album paying tribute to the late J-Dilla. His younger brother has assembled a group and guests to rap over some of the beats he left behind, under the name "Yancey Boys."

There's a lot to go over this week to suit many tastes, and now each record is rated on a 5-star scale.

PHOTO: Arcade Fire, "Reflektor"
Merge Records
Arcade Fire's "Reflektor" ***

Having won an "Album Of The Year" Grammy for their last album, "The Suburbs," Arcade Fire is currently riding high. While some may think the group is overrated, this Canadian collective has produced some of the more interesting records over the last decade.

"Reflektor" doesn't sound anything like their past work. The downbeat tone of "Funeral" is nowhere to be heard. Similarly, this record doesn't have the reverential energy of "Neon Bible" or the repetitive power-pop drive of "The Suburbs." This is the closest to a flat-out party record Arcade Fire has ever put out, full of freaky dance numbers and extended jams. This might have to do with the album's producer, former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy. The record plays more like Murphy's work. In fact, it plays more like he hijacked it than produced it.

This album is aimed to be as cool as landmark classics by groups like Can or early-period New Order, and it has some truly enthralling moments, mainly, "Here Comes The Night Time," which served as the focal point of the band's captivating, last-minute NBC post-SNL special a few weeks back. This record wants to hit that odd sweet spot between disco and new-wave. It does, but it has its tedious and messy moments as well.

"We Exist" takes a Motown-esque bass-line and slows it down. The track is supposed to sound sleek. It ends up sounding rather boring.

"Normal Person" begins with some messy feedback and an apology; its aim is to make seem like a live performance, but it ends up sounding contrived. The song gets some momentum and almost recovers, but the hook's guitar riff is delivered in a semi-off-key tone.

"Afterlife" is a bright highlight that brings to mind New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle." This should be a huge dance hit if it hits the right channels.

"Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" has some intriguing, rhythmic textures, but throughout, Win Butler's hushed, quivering voice wears thin.

The strange thing about "Reflektor" as an album, is that initially I found it somewhat fascinating. But listening to these 13 songs spread across two discs a second, third or fourth time becomes a chore.

But, at its best, the album plays like the soundtrack to an electro-musical, set in a black-light-hued club. "Reflektor" is a bold, garish display, but too often, its thrills are found in its grooves and not its song-writing. It's a set of well-arranged jams that wow at first, like an instant experience, but upon re-examination, most of the record lacks a concrete core.

When Arcade Fire hit highs on previous records, they were undeniable. "Reflektor" on the surface is a somewhat upbeat record and is constantly moving. On another level it is merely dancing in place. It is by no means a bad record. It has its moments, but it is not the addictive collection it desperately wants to be. It gives you a couple amazing spins and then sets you down.

PHOTO: Minor Alps, "Get There
Minor Alps' "Get There" ****

Minor Alps is the duo formed by Juliana Hatfield and Nada Surf's Matthew Caws. The two have met, notably, twice on record before. Hatfield sang back-up on Nada Surf's excellent "I Wanna Take You Home," which was a bonus track on their album "Lucky." Caws sang backup on Hatfield's "Such A Beautiful Girl" from her masterpiece and current career high-point, "How To Walk Away." In addition, Hatfield covered Nada Surf's "Fruit Fly" on her wonderful, self-titled covers record last year. Since the two have worked so well together in the past and both are seasoned '90s veterans, it should come as no surprise that this union finds great success on "Get There."

Both Hatfield and Caws have spent recent years in a more acoustic realm and they both know how to rock when called upon. Both came up in the no-frills grunge era, initially rocking pretty hard and then discovering some softer terrain with age. They both still rock out occasionally, and this album showcases both sides of the coin quite well, from the vulnerable gentleness of "Buried Plans" to the layered coats of guitar draped over "Mixed Feelings."

Caws' and Hatfield's voices spend most of the album singing in unison. Their voices are perfectly suited for each other. Caws' high, melodic vocal instrument is often paired with Hatfield singing in a low register, sometimes creating a blended tone that isn't immediately recognized as either of them. Both have remarkably clear voices.

Fans in both the Nada Surf and Hatfield camps will find plenty to enjoy here, from the floating majesty of "If I Wanted Trouble" to "I Don't Know What To Do With My Hands," which recalls Neil Young at his grungiest. This is a nice addition to both of their discographies and it is even more impressive given Hatfield's current prolific phase. Not enough people are paying attention, but she has released an album a year for the past few years. Her most recent solo record, "Wild Animals" was just released on Sept. 10.

Supergroups can sometimes be a letdown, but with Minor Alps, Caws and Hatfield bring to the table and combine their best individual qualities into a highly appealing cohesive unit. "Get There" is the work of two of indie rock's most undersung masters.

PHOTO: The Robert Glasper Experiment, "Black Radio 2" (Deluxe)
Blue Note
The Robert Glasper Experiment's "Black Radio 2" (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2

If you don't know, Robert Glasper is a respected jazz pianist who enjoys taking chances and playing with the rules of the genre. "Black Radio 2" is the follow-up to last year's "Black Radio," and like its predecessor it pairs Glasper with contemporary figures from the worlds of R&B and hip-hop.

The first album boasted guests like Erykah Badu, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Bilal and Me'Shell Ndegeocello. This collection has even more collaborations, with Glasper joining forces with Snoop Dogg, Lupe Fiasco, Jill Scott, Norah Jones and others. As one might guess, this falls much more in the R&B realm than jazz purists would expect. These records are guest-soaked collaborative experiments. How Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump wound up singing the hook on the Common-assisted highlight, "I Stand Alone," I do not know. And against all odds, Stump does not seem out of his element.

As you can guess with collections of this ilk, the results are often a mixed bag. But here the successes outweigh the failures.

"I Don't Even Care" has an inspired pairing of Jean Grae and Macy Gray. With her uneven solo output, it's easy to forget that Gray's wonderfully fractured rasp was built for hooks this sadly soulful.

The Norah Jones-assisted "Let It Ride" verges on light drum-n-bass. It's the kind of groove you might find on a Morcheeba record and it speaks to Jones' growing versatility. The early success of her album "Come Away With Me" wrongly painted her into a corner for many listeners. She has infinite gifts to offer as one of the industry's true chameleons.

Bilal and Jazmine Sullivan pack as much soul as they can into "You're My Everything," overcoming the song's otherwise generic smooth-lovin'-R&B vibe. Glasper's key work here makes sure that the song remains sleek and compelling.

Jill Scott submits "Calls," a magical cue with an ever-so-slight reggae drift, recalling the best moments on her now classic debut album. Few vocalists possess such an effortless earthiness.

Dwele puts a butter-soft croon over a hard-hitting, slamming beat on "Worries."

On the flipside, Brandy comes off a little overwhelmed and faceless on the blandly formulaic "What Are We Doing?" and Malcolm Jamaal Warner (yes, Theo Huxtable is here!) gets a little carried away on the Gospel-driven Stevie Wonder cover, "Jesus Children." Warner's spoken word portion is more successful.

Another slight flaw is that when Glasper is left without a guest vocalist, he and his band rely on vocoders and computerized-sounding voices to carry them. This happens on the opening track and his cover of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day," as it did on the first volume's slightly misguided take on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Such vocal effects end up serving up distractions rather than highlights. If you look up Glasper's instrumental take on Radiohead's "Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box" on Youtube, you should know that he is enough of a piano virtuoso to allow the instruments to do the speaking when needed.

Glasper is an inspiring player and overall this volume and the one before it have "sleeper-hit" written all over them, even if they sometimes fall flat. When Glasper finds the right collaborators, it becomes a master class of musicianship, effortlessly blending the worlds of jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

PHOTO: Susan Boyle, "Home For Christmas"
Susan Boyle's "Home For Christmas" *1/2

There's no denying that Susan Boyle is an excellent vocalist with a pure talent and a touching backstory. She's one of the most unlikely and deserving success stories of the recent past.

Almost every October or November since she first made worldwide headlines on "Britain's Got Talent," Boyle has released an album, almost too perfectly aligned with the Black Friday rush to make the best use of her much-touted "mom appeal." This has become too transparent a practice. The fact that this year's album is a Christmas album seems to add insult to injury when you consider that her second album, "The Gift" was half a holiday album as well.

This time, this collection goes all the way, with Boyle's voice giving us versions of standards like "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "The Christmas Waltz" and "The Christmas Song," all of which she delivers well. But it's the strange oddball surprises that throw this collection off its axis, whether it be Boyle's duet with Johnny Mathis on "When A Child Is Born," or the technology-assisted "duet" on "O Come All Ye Faithful" with Elvis Presley, who has now been dead for 36 years.

Such awkward resurrection of the dead seemed strange more than 20 years ago when Natalie Cole sang "Unforgettable" with her father Nat "King" Cole, who died in 1965. Time has not changed that reaction to the practice. In this case, it is less artfully done than it was with the Coles. Elvis and Boyle are backed by a children's choir that seems out of place with Elvis' tone. It screams of a misguided, desperate marketing grab run amok.

Boyle deserves better. She deserves to have songs that are her own so she can create her own image and her own legacy. To stick her with Christmas Album Formula #3 is a waste of her talent. But the people behind her don't seem to care about career development. The focus is firmly based on moving units during the year's busiest shopping season.

The truth is, they should have teams writing a complete album of originals for Boyle, and maybe switch it up a little. Maybe aim for Mother's Day the next time around.

When this album succeeds, it is because of Boyle's voice, but ultimately it comes off as her version of a Christmas album you have heard many times before, by many artists over the last 70 years -- stale on arrival.

PHOTO: Kelly Clarkson, "Wrapped In Red"
Kelly Clarkson's "Wrapped In Red" ***

"American Idol" winner, Kelly Clarkson, who to this day is the show's most notable success with perhaps the exception of Carrie Underwood, has long escaped Simon Cowell and his formulaic team. Yes, sure, she tackles standards, too, like "White Christmas," and "My Favorite Things," but she does so with a unique touch. Her version of "Silent Night" is with Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood, playing up the country side of her fanbase.

But this collection also has its share of originals, like the title track and "Underneath The Tree," both of which recall the past, without repeating it, while at the same time serving Clarkson's unique image well.

And then there are some expertly picked, unique choices thrown into the mix, like a cover of Imogen Heap's "Just For Now" from her album "Speak For Yourself." Yes, that is a holiday song disguised in its original album's context, but Clarkson delivers it well. Such an inspired choice earns her some bonus points.

Yes, her version of the Chuck Berry-popularized "Run, Run Rudolph" boasts some pretty cheesy guitar work, but this collection suits her and shows some versatility.

Like Susan Boyle's "Home For Christmas," this has its cookie-cutter cash-grab moments, and most holiday albums come off as a bit recycled in nature. At least Clarkson here has taken the formula and added a few unique touches. The few surprises make the disc that much more of a satisfying listen.

PHOTO: Yancey Boys, "Sunset Blvd."
Delicious Vinyl
Yuna's "Nocturnal" ****

Malaysian singer Yuna has turned up the level of pep on "Nocturnal." It's not that her 2012, self-titled record was boring. It wasn't. But, if you'll pardon the pun, as an album "Nocturnal" is much more awake and vibrant than its predecessor, allowing the singer to showcase a brighter personality. And while last year's record may have been a satisfactory establishment of Yuna's abilities as a singer and a performer, "Nocturnal" takes more risks and goes for the gold.

If you are unfamiliar with Yuna, she's an electro-pop singer in the vein of Kate Havnevik or Imogen Heap, only she's got an understated, sophisticated quality all her own. Her music is full of international flourishes and unusual instrumentation.

From the "American Beauty"/Thomas Newman-esque clanging that sets off the album's lead track "Falling" to the African-influenced rhythms and guitar work in the album's bright standout, "Rescue," it is evident that Yuna is working from a rich, globe-trotting palate. The album was recorded and mixed in various places around the world, although mostly in the U.S. and the U.K.

The delicately airy "Lights And Camera" has the makings for a low-key hit.

The songwriting on this set is miles ahead of her previous effort. Songs here pop. Low-key verses give way to bigger choruses and it all sticks together in a catchy package.

"Someone Who Can" is breezy, bright dance number, co-written and produced by the Neptunes' Chad Hugo. And it all begins with the warmest, dreamlike, acoustic guitar riff. There's little denying that this record is Yuna's attempt at a crossover stab at true pop. Radio is so closed, this album probably won't boost her airplay numbers, but it should.

"Nocturnal" is a colorful , well-written song-cycle that should win Yuna some new fans. It's an ace collection of pop full of delicate sweetness. Considering Yuna worked with a wide variety of collaborators and producers on this set, it shouldn't hold together as cohesively as it does, but it all adds up to a very beautiful surprise.

PHOTO: Yuna, "Nocturnal"
Yancey Boys' "Sunset Blvd." ****

James Yancey, known better as both Jay Dee and J-Dilla was a hip-hop producer known for his work in the '90s and early 2000's. He most notably was the DJ for Slum Village and worked on the later albums by A Tribe Called Quest as part of the production collective the Ummah.

In 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday, Yancey died of a Lupus-like condition. He was one of those guys who had a reputation for trolling Detroit record stores for classic vinyl to sample. He was constantly making beats, up until the end, working away in a hospital bed. His last proper record, "Donuts," was released on his 32nd birthday, perhaps with the knowledge that he wouldn't survive through the end of the week.

He must have left a lot of beats behind. By my count, "Sunset Blvd." is at least the fifth posthumous collection of Dilla's previously unreleased work. Here his brother Illa J and associate Frank Nitt have allowed his work to serve as the backdrop to an all-star record, saluting one of underground hip-hop's finest fallen craftsmen.

This is a chance for Dilla's collaborators to come back once more and pay tribute, from longtime associates like Guilty Simpson to bigger names like Talib Kweli, Common and De La Soul's Posdnous.

On "Jeep Volume," T3 and C-Minus appear over a dusty sounding beat that sounds like it was built around a dissected sample of the "Hair" song "Let The Sunshine In." Maybe it was his love of vintage vinyl, but Dilla's best beats always had a deep fuzziness to them. In the age of over-zealous pro-tools production, this old-school, grainy quality allowed his work to stand apart from that of his peers.

It's an understatement that Dilla knew his way around a groove. The piano loop that serves as the background of "Without Wings" is an ace slice of jazz. It's odd that this record isn't packaged with a list of sample clearances, but Dilla could chop and loop sounds with the best of them.

Luckily, it is packaged with a disc containing instrumental versions of all the beats. Dilla's work plays just as well in this form as it does with guests spitting rhymes. In fact, with his sampler, Dilla was one of the few figures whose work instrumentally often had the intensity of the jazz and classic soul records he was using as source material. He is greatly missed. But with "Sunset Blvd," seven years after his untimely death, his little brother and Frank Nitt are doing their best to make sure his legacy isn't forgotten.

Next Week: A slew of new releases from the likes of Eminem, M.I.A. and more, plus the return of Luscious Jackson with their first album in 14 years.

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