Reviews: Record Release Rundown - The Latest From Drake, Sting, Kings of Leon, Yoko Ono and More

PHOTO: At left, Drake; at right, Kings of Leon.
Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty Images | Ray Tamarra/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The fall has sprung into action with an onslaught of new releases hitting the shelves. From Drake to Kings of Leon to Yoko Ono, here's a breakdown of what came out this week.

PHOTO: Drake's "Nothing Was The Same."
Cash Money Records
Drake's "Nothing Was the Same" (Deluxe Edition)

Drake's third full-length record is full of incredibly wonderfully chilled beats courtesy of ace producers like Noah "40" Shebib and Boi-1da.

The sound is lush. It's not really a party record, but more of an after-party record designed for the come-down. While this is less of an emo-rap pity party than his last album, "Take Care," Drake himself is still this album's biggest enemy. His signature vocal sound makes him come off almost bored half the time.

And this is even true when his voice gets a little dose of Autotune. When he really takes off with a flow, it is exciting, but it is an all-too-rare occurrence.

He spends too much time getting stuck on autopilot and not enough time actually taking the controls. Take, for instance, the song, "Worst Behavior" where he spends way too much time repeating the phrase, "Mother****** never loved us!" Yeah, it is the chorus, but the words around it seem more like a ramp up rather than concrete verses, so the track basically stands still in spite of its fascinating beat.

Drake was obviously raised on classic hip-hop. He calls a song, "Wu-Tang Forever." As the most famous Canadian rapper getting U.S. attention, he is driven to succeed. But ultimately, this record is full of bravado and flash more than it is skill-based.

There are flashes of greatness here, like when his flow finally takes off on the album's opener, "Tuscan Leather," or the sly R&B groove on "Too Much," but it seems emptier than it should, especially given the intriguing sonic backdrops. Drake may someday rise to the occasion and join the classic hip-hop world of his idols but, for now, he still seems woefully stuck in the glitzy, less-substantial world of pop rap.  In many ways, "Nothing Was the Same" sounds like a missed opportunity even if it does provide some subtle thrills.

PHOTO: Kings of Leon's "Mechanical Bull."
Sony Music
Kings Of Leon's "Mechanical Bull" (Deluxe Version)

Five years ago, the Followill brothers and their cousin finally got some well-deserved mainstream attention with their album "Only by the Night." In the wake of that album's success, they followed it up with the merely adequate "Come Around Sundown."

After touring extensively and a little internal strife between the band members, it was hard to tell what to expect with "Mechanical Bull." But the band comes back charging harder than ever, delivering what could very easily be the best album of their career.

Led by the single, "Supersoaker," this is a mighty set of old-school rockers. They sound a bit like a Southern rock answer to the Replacements or the Strokes. "Rock City" is a timeless hand-clapping gem, while "Temple" is a nifty slice of slightly new-wave-influenced power pop. "Family Tree" has a slick bluesy kick, while "Tonight" is set off by some intriguing rhythmic elements.

Like Ryan Adams' 2003 album "Rock N Roll," "Mechanical Bull" stands as a testament to the enduring power of rock in the way that it delivers a polished, modern, radio-ready collection while at the same time paying homage to the past. In short, there isn't a weak spot here - not even on the deluxe edition with two extra tracks.

PHOTO: Sting's "The Last Ship."
A&M Records
Sting's "The Last Ship" (Super Deluxe Edition)

Sting has long been as frustrating as he is brilliant. He seems to never be content, whether he is obsessively re-recording and rearranging Police songs or switching up his musical style on a whim.

If you were expecting "The Last Ship," his first proper album of new material in a decade to be a straight-ahead journey, think again. This is an accomplished record, but it is also a bit of an unsatisfying mess. What he has recorded here is essentially a musical about a ship, delivered mostly in what can best be described as an Irish brogue.

During slower passages, the denser elements of "The Soul Cages" are brought to mind. The opening title track is typical of the album on the whole, favoring a complex and intense lyrical approach. It's a challenging listen, even it is well-crafted.

There's a sense of relief when "What Have We Got" comes up with a Pogues-esque shuffle.

There are plenty of guests, too, including actor Jimmy Nail and, on the deluxe edition's bonus disc, AC/DC's Brian Johnson, who for once isn't screaming for his life.

While this was probably a worthwhile compositional exercise, one can't help but think, "We waited a decade for this?" If Sting were currently more prolific, this album would be a more rewarding side-step, but considering his last truly great album was "Ten Summoner's Tales," 20 years ago, a record of this nature at this point is bound to disappoint.

It'd be nice if he were to revisit his ska-punk roots but, of course, that won't happen. "The Last Ship" isn't a bad record. It is actually quite well-crafted. It just isn't the album he should've released right now.

PHOTO: Yoko Ono's "Take Me To The Land of Hell."
Chimera Music
Yoko Ono's "Take Me to the Land of Hell"

Sure, Ono will always be a polarizing musical figure, but you can't deny that over the last 40-some years she has created her own art-rock niche. She's one of a kind. Backed by a revamped version of the Plastic Ono Band that now includes Sean Lennon and Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda, her signature quirkiness is now backed by some honestly funky backdrops.

Add impressive guests like Questlove from the Roots and Lenny Kravitz and you get the idea. "Moonbeams" goes from a spoken word piece to an epic caterwauling dance jam. "Cheshire Cat Cry" is honestly groovy, while "Bad Dancer" finds her talking over a beat provided by Ad-Rock and Mike D. of the Beastie Boys.

"Little Boy Blue, Your Daddy's Gone" can't help but recall John Lennon's wonderful ode to little Sean, "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)." The title track is a surprisingly effective piano ballad, while "Shine Shine" possesses a menacing stomp. Ono will never please everybody, but at 80, she is still making her own rules.

Backed by an amazing band, she doesn't have to conform.

If you are open to it, "Take Me to the Land of Hell" is a rewarding, thoroughly intriguing record.

PHOTO: Mazzy Star's "Seasons of Your Day."
Rhymes of An Hour Records
Review: Mazzy Star's "Seasons of Your Day"

Believe it or not, it's been 17 years since Mazzy Star last released an album. Listening to "Seasons of Your Day," there is no indication of the huge gap in time that has passed. Like My Bloody Valentine did earlier this year, the duo of Hope Sandoval and David Roback has simply picked up where it left off. Sandoval's voice is still as soothing and easygoing as it was on Mazzy Star's massive 1993 hit "Fade Into You.

She still rarely sings above a near-mutter, but she is one of the rare vocalists who doesn't need to shout to express range. "California" possesses a minor-key Led Zeppelin-esque sense of menace, while the organ-led "In the Kingdom" stands as a highlight. "I've Gotta Stop" has a great, whisky-soaked, folky stroll, while Sandoval is able to convey an authentic sense of longing on "Does Someone Have Your Baby Now?"

As expected, the album remains in a warm acoustic bluesy realm. The album's title-track is as welcoming as it is spare. Mazzy Star's sound is as unique and timeless now as it was in the '90s. In the time between albums, Sandoval recorded two excellent solo records, but if this album proves anything, it is that these two shouldn't have gone away for so long. It is excellent to have them back.

PHOTO: The 20th anniversary reissue of Nirvana's "In Utero."
DGC Records
Review: Nirvana's "In Utero"(20th Anniversary Edition)

Remember in the summer of 1993 how there were all those stories about how label executives were nervous about the sound of Nirvana's then-forthcoming album, "In Utero?" Thanks to noise-rock god, Steve Albini, the album had an entirely different sound from Butch Vig's much shinier work on "Nevermind."

But both records had their own unique and equally classic flavor. Much like they did a couple years ago, DGC has decided to release a double disc deluxe edition of the album, complete with a newly mixed version, b-sides and live cuts. For any fan of Kurt Cobain's work who felt that panging sense of loss when he died in 1994, this is a must-have, even if you've heard these songs in many other forms.

Even the b-sides will seem familiar to those who purchased the "With The Lights Out" rarities boxed set. But here, they are put back into their context.

As a nice bonus here, Albini's original mixes of "Heart Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" are included. (The original album had different mixes done by R.E.M.'s producer, Scott Litt, who was perhaps called in to make them more "radio-friendly." ) This album is a raw document - Nirvana's last full studio record with all its parts.

The unabashed brutality of "Scentless Apprentice," "Milk It" and "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter," exist side by side with the more melodic "All Apologies," "Dumb" and "Pennyroyal Tea."

This album would perhaps be over-examined for lyrical clues in the wake of Cobain's suicide. But one can't help to think of what would have happened had he lived. There are hints of the future here. The Dave Grohl-led b-side, "Marigold" is a highlight in both its studio version and its more stirring and echo-drenched demo version, clearly foreshadowing the success of the Foo Fighters. In fact, as was the case on the "Nevermind" reissue, the b-sides are just as strong as the album cuts.

Many of these cuts should be getting airplay. The only "rare" cut here that actually received quite a bit of airplay is "Sappy," but that was due to its high-profile (albeit unlisted) inclusion on the AIDS-awareness and relief alt-rock compilation, "No Alternative." Listening to these extra cuts, it seems that DGC missed a great chance to promote these songs more. Some of them are career highlights and belong on future retrospective collections.

NOTE: There is also a super-deluxe version with three discs and a DVD, including Nirvana's episode of MTV's "Live and Loud."  You can also purchase "Live and Loud" separately.

Next week, look for new releases from Moby and Justin Timberlake, as well as buzzed-about debut full-length albums from the band Haim and 16-year-old New Zealand-native Lorde.

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