This week Ryan Adams’ drops his version of Taylor Swift’s album, “1989,” Lana Del Rey celebrates her most dramatic and ballad-heavy side on her third full-length album, Canadian synth-rockers Metric release their latest album, rapper Mac Miller gets experimental while discussing struggles with life, fame and drugs, Rolling Stones-guitarist Keith Richards releases his first solo record since 1992 and Soundgarden/Audioslave front-man Chris Cornell releases a stunning, mostly acoustic album. As we get ready for the beginning of Fall, the record-release schedule is definitely in full-swing.
|Ryan Adams’ “1989” ***|
When Ryan Adams announced he was working on a complete, album-length cover of Taylor Swift’s “1989,” I’m sure a lot of people were puzzled. This is especially true for those who respect the prolific alt-country star but still dismiss Swift as a gimmicky pop star. Swift was excited by this news, saying that Adams was actually one of her influences. And while his influence on her may not be immediately apparent, if you look deeply enough, it does seem to be there.
Adams’ version of “1989” is a fascinating exercise in musical arrangement. He reconstructs these 13 songs and makes them his own. In fact, it is remarkable how seamlessly this album will probably fit in his discography. Swift’s lyrics work well with his voice. This a combination I never thought would be so cohesive, but it works.
It can be a little hit-and-miss. The versions of “Bad Blood” and “Wildest Dreams” are both as great or better than Swift’s originals. But his version of “Blank Space,” for instance in a hushed piece that mutes the pop bombast of the original. “Style,” on the other hand is a revved-up, rocked-up gem with a slightly punk-driven drive. Adams improves “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” whereas “Shake It Off” is reinvented as an ominous blues-exercise that plays like a darker answer to Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” “Out Of The Woods” on the other hand is stretched into a six-minute ballad and Adams has his own way of repeating the chorus that differs from Swift’s original arrangement.
It really becomes evident that Adams is quite skilled at dissecting these songs. Even though some of these songs lose their pop appeal, the underlying darkness in some of Swift’s lyrics is more openly apparent. Even when this album hits a lull, it is still, by nature a worthwhile listen. While this record does not rank among the very best that Adams has released, it is notable for its attention to detail.
Admittedly, I was not knocked over with excitement by Swift’s original version last year. But Adams proves that these songs are versatile. He gives these songs the same deconstructive care he gave Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” 12 years ago in his famous cover. He brings out new colors in each of these tracks. This is a covers album that equals its original source and although it can be uneven, this is an argument for Adams to be one of Swift’s collaborators on her next album. In a way, this record is for all those fans of Swift’s country side who were put out by her pop makeover. Adams gives many of these songs an earnest, folk-fueled twang.
“1989” is the album where Taylor Swift began to get more respect as a songwriter from some unexpected sources. The fact that Adams can reinterpret her songs so easily, indicates she deserves more respect. This album is just the beginning. If Swift continues to have allies like Adams in her corner, she will eventually win over even the most jaded listeners. This record’s mere existence may cause some rightful reassessment of both Swift’s gifts and her legacy.
Now the question is, will Swift return the compliment? It would be interesting if she chose to cover an assortment from Adams’ songbook.
“Bad Blood” The key standout on Swift’s original is also the key standout here. Adams’ reading of this song brings out the sadness and pain within the song by turning the pop stomper into a ballad. And true to the album’s original version, he sings Swift’s original verses and not Kendrick Lamar’s rap verses from single version. (Adams experts will know that he has delved into hip-hop in the past. His silly “Dot Com Rap” used to great you when you went to his website, but now lives (hopefully) forever on YouTube in all its madcap, absurdist glory.)
“Wildest Dreams” Like “Bad Blood,” this sounds like a lost track from Adams’ “Love Is Hell” album and is just as much a standout here as it was on Swift’s record.
“Style” This is a bit of a radical reinvention of the original, but its existence is also notable because this song begins with almost the same chords as Adams’ “Gimme Something Good” from his self-titled album last year.
|Lana Del Rey’s “Honeymoon” ****|
Only a year after her last offering, “Ultraviolence,” Lana Del Rey returns with her third full-length album, “Honeymoon.” The album strips away the rock edges and psychedelic experimentation of that record and leaves a core that has always been at the center of her work. Since she first made a major splash at the beginning of 2012, she has consistently worked with a formula calling back to Nancy Sinatra’s work with Lee Hazlewood, while singing consistently from the point of view of some sort of disgraced, depressed heiress pondering the banality of upscale life.
“Honeymoon” turns down the elements of hip-hop swagger that were present on “Born To Die.” This is mainly a collection of dire, slightly unsettling torch-songs backed by lulling orchestras. Del Rey’s sound is not a sound that modern pop audiences are likely to embrace, which again probably explains her incorrectly maligned “Saturday Night Live” debut. Lana Del Rey is truly unique by today’s standards, but she’s got a formula in place.
As an album, this plays like a more streamlined and focused answer to her debut. This is her most centered effort to date. Single, “High By The Beach” sounds of the same ilk as “Blue Jeans,” but there is nothing here that grates like her debut’s “Off To The Races.” This album is a 65-minute meditation on ethereal, down-tempo reflection. When she sings of the “endless Summer” or beckons her subject to “come to California. / Be a freak like me, too,” on “Freak” one gets the feeling she is like a siren leading a lover to his inevitable demise.
This is an album about chilling out in sunny locales and getting lost in love, but there is a dark undercurrent in all of it. When Del Rey sings, “You’re my religion,” on “Religion,” there’s an inkling of unhealthy obsession.
With “Honeymoon,” Lana Del Rey puts all her charms on the table. This is an entrancingly cinematic record which plays well to all of the character attributes that Lana Del Rey has established in the past. If you weren’t down for her brand of kitsch, you probably still won’t like this record, but at the same time, this is an album that could win her some new fans. She’s effectively toned-down a lot of her more cloying, polarizing qualities without sacrificing her style.
Will this album burn up the Top 40 radio singles charts? Maybe not. But one gets the feeling that Del Rey prefers to build her name as an ethereal chanteuse. This is her most chilled and sedate record to date and somehow that makes it all the more hypnotic.
“High By The Beach” Never has a song about the beach sounded so full of impending dread. This is woozy and serene at the same time, but lyrically Del Rey is singing potentially from the point of view of a woman who is giving up in the face of an ending relationship. Admittedly, it plays to the same kind of fatalism that rightfully earned her some criticism from Frances Bean Cobain last year, but it tells an admittedly dark story in a compelling way.
“Salvatore” This song is about Miami, but with its Italian lyrical touches and its symphonic drama it is full of European sense of intrigue.
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” It is daring of her to end her album with a song that has become iconic in the hands of both Nina Simone and The Animals, but in her own way, Lana Del Rey nails her rendition.
|Metric’s “Pagans In Vegas” ***1/2|
After 2009’s career-defining (pretty much perfect) fourth album, “Fantasies,” Metric released the somewhat less commercial “Synthetica” in 2012, which showcased the same big sound as “Fantasies” without the immediacy of that album’s hooks. “Synthetica” was released around the same time as the band’s collaborative score for the movie “Cosmopolis,” which teamed them with acclaimed composer (and original "Saturday Night Live" band-leader) Howard Shore. All of these past records inform the directions taken on the Canadian band’s new album, “Pagans In Vegas.”
Like “Fantasies,” there are moments of key pop appeal. The single, “The Shade” sounds like a highlight taken from that record, as did the one key standout from “Synthetica,” the beautiful “Clone.” Elsewhere, this record is full of playful experiments that sometimes forsake accessibility for mood. “Lie Lie Lie,” and “Too Bad, So Sad,” for instance have the same sort of drilling intensity of the last album’s single, “Youth Without Youth.” Lately, it seems like leader Emily Haines wants the band to have a more menacing, claustrophobic sound. This has always been in the band’s DNA when you consider earlier singles like “Monster Hospital,” but after the giant, glowing pop statement that was “Fantasies,” they seemed to be on a brighter, area-rock path. Currently their rock side has been noticeably turned down.
There is also a lot of digital fuzz that permeates a lot of the record. It’s of an 8-bit, classic Nintendo world. This is a sound they have obviously been playing with in recent years. After the release of “Synthetica,” the band released an EP called “Synthetica Reflections,” consisting of brief instrumental digitized versions of each track. This is an element to their sound that has obviously lingered into the “Pagans In Vegas” sessions.
The instrumental realm must be a new comfort zone for them as well. This album ends with two instrumental tracks, back-to-back, “The Face Part 1” and “The Face Part II.” It’s a bold move, especially with a band with such strong pop appeal.
No, this album isn’t as indelible as “Fantasies.” In fact both this album and “Synthetica” sound for the most part like conscious steps away from the pop world with the exception of a couple tracks on each. It’s as if they stepped closely to the fire, felt the heat and retreated, only to relegate the fire to an occasional spark.
“Pagans In Vegas” still shows Metric as a still a pop-rock band, but one with artier, loftier goals. They want to play with their dynamics. When guitarist Jimmy Shaw takes the rare vocal lead on “Other Side” it shows further the band’s willingness to mess with their previously proven formula.
This band doesn’t always need to deliver hits. They are more nuanced than most of the current synth-pop crop. This album may not be an immediate pop explosion of a record, but it shows indications of the band’s complex ambitions. They are willing to take risks.
NOTE: The band earns humorous bonus points for thanking the “Inspirational Trifecta” of Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson and Amy Schumer in the album’s liner notes.
“The Shade” This is the album’s one truly explosive single, anchored by a repeated noise that recalls the sound Pac-Man made when he ran into the ghost-monsters. The hook is unstoppable and the song has a really excellent rise. This song has “hit” written all over all of its three minutes and thirty-six seconds. It stands well with previous high-points like “Combat Baby” and “Help I’m Alive.”
“Celebrate” This song has a very different sound for them. Sonically it sounds like something Washed Out would have recorded, but it also kind of sounds like Drake could drop in and do some oddly auto-tuned singing. Placing Emily Haines over this backdrop is thankfully preferable and this would be an excellently chilled single, even if it does sound a bit muted after a song like “The Shade.”
“Blind Valentine” This song finds Haines at her most menacingly deadpan, but it has a nice stomp and a slow-burning build.
|Mac Miller’s “GO:OD AM” ***|
On his third full-length album, Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller is considerably less hazy than his last one, “Watching Movies With The Sound Off.” Miller has a new sense of purpose here. He has more clarity. He jokes at the beginning that he “ain’t saying (he’s) sober” but he’s "in a better place” and that change shows.
His struggles with drugs and his partying past seem to be key subjects on this expansive 17-track set. It’s easy to under-estimate Miller with his often laid-back flow and low-key presence. But every now and then he pulls off a surprise. The dense wordplay he drops between the 2:30-3:05 mark on the Ab-Soul-assisted “Two Matches” puts him a notch ahead of the game. It proves he’s got a flow at his command when he needs to call it into action.
Miller likes to play with woozy, slightly trippy beats which go well with his relaxed flow. However, Miller’s low-octane flow can sometimes work against him. Even though he shows some occasional bits of skill, sometimes he can fade into the background. The moments that stand out on this record tend to be the ones where he switches up his formula.
There are also a wide variety of assorted beats throughout the record ranging from old-school loops to post-Drake electro-exercises. In all, Miller still seems to be establishing himself. He still shows himself to be quite versatile and adept. When he briefly adopts a bombastic shout on “When In Rome,” or brings some attitude to “Break The Law,” it is a momentary wake-up call. As varied as he can be, this album still lacks the kind of jaw-dropping moment that would cement his status as a classic figure, but he has plenty of time to grow and obviously a lot of ambition.
One gets the feeling like Miller is still trying to find his sweet spot as a rapper. He’s got a good confessional flow that doesn’t sound as angry or toxically combatant, but from listening to tracks like “In The Bag” or “Ascension,” it becomes apparent that he is using hip-hop as a form of therapy. He’s either working out his demons, addictions and failures or looking for a sense of direction. When he finds that direction and settles these issues, he’ll be a better and more confident MC. In the meantime, he remains a rapper with talent and potential who occasionally raps about the life of being famous and all the entailed clichés. But there definitely is something deeper underneath the surface.
“Brand Name” This is the first full track on the album, and it serves as an intro of sorts for Miller, discussing the life he leads and his goals. Rapping over a soulful beat, there’s a mixture of dread and determination embedded in his voice when he says, “I’m hoping not to join ‘The 27 Club.’”
“Perfect Circle/God Speed” For some reason, these two songs are together as one nearly eight-minute track. The first part, “Perfect Circle” makes it a highlight with its unpredictable drum-loop and its jazzy piano-chording. Miller sounds like he’s on the verge of falling apart here, but this song is about acknowledging his demons and following the wrong path. The “God Speed” half has much more clarity and about wanting to clean up his act.
“The Festival” (Featuring Little Dragon) Miller teams up with Swedish—alterna-pop act Little Dragon on the album’s closer. He drops one verse, but it is rapid-fire and the beat is full of great warmth.
|Keith Richards’ “Crosseyed Heart” **1/2|
Keith Richards is a great guitarist who deserves his legendary status thanks to more than fifty years in the Rolling Stones, but that doesn’t dismiss the weak spots in his first solo album in 23 years.
Keith was never an excellent vocalist, but his low, Mark Knopfler-like vocal approach isn’t helped by lyrics like, “My babe don’t like me. / But she loves me just The same.” Those lines begin, “Heartstopper,” a really ragged-sounding bit of blues-rock that just sounds like a bit of a mess.
On “Amnesia,” Richards begins the track by muttering, “I ain’t gonna do nothin’. I’m just sittin’ here and I’m waiting until the s--- kicks in.” This all happens before the song morphs into a second-rate, sped-up rewrite of the Stones’ late-period hit, “Love Is Strong.”
Too often on “Crosseyed Heart,” it feels like Richards is treading over well-worn territory that he has covered before with his regular band. The truth is, this feels like the Stones without Mick Jagger and so, a nice mid-tempo track like “Trouble” comes off like forgettable blues-rock when sung by Richards. Similarly, Norah Jones’ duet vocals on “Illusion” really pop and grab your attention in contrast with Richards’ low-volume mutter.
Still, Richards has all the best intentions. The reggae swagger of the Gregory Isaacs’ cover, “Love Overdue” actually works in his favor, but mainly because it is one of the few tracks where he actually sings with an upper portion of his voice instead of growling his way across the track.
Of course, when paired with the right track, that growl can be an asset, as it is on the heartbroken, “Suspicious,” but in all this collection is a bit of a gamble. The spotty nature of this record is a bit more perplexing when you consider a roster of guests that includes Aaron Neville, Ivan Neville, late-Rolling Stones sax player Bobby Keys and one-time Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin.
Even though this album is expertly produced by Richards and drummer Steve Jordan, one can’t help but feel like this collection is a scattershot passion-project with very little aim. For instance, while technically and instrumentally decent, a track like “Blues In The Morning” is just a really lazy bit of songwriting. Richards doesn’t have anything left to prove. He’s obviously not hungry. And even when there’s the slight hint of excitement in his voice, he still feels like he is just going through the motions.
There’s just an incredible imbalance on this album. Richards’ riffing combined with Jordan’s drumming on “Substantial Damage” provide a key moment and yet Richards’ semi-comical, borderline incoherent vocal ramblings destroy that sense of cohesion.
As a guitarist, he still has a great deal of technical skill, but very few of these songs make a lasting impression. Considering Keith’s rightfully legendary status, this album shouldn’t be so forgettable but too often it possesses the right amount of energy with the wrong amount of substance. This record should be considerably more remarkable.
“Love Overdue” As I said above, this is probably the most cohesive tune on the record. But then again, it is a cover of a classic and it wasn’t written by Richards. Still, it is quite a nice version.
“Illusion” (Featuring Norah Jones) Norah Jones brightens up just about any track where she makes an appearance, and Richards has some nice piano work here.
“Goodnight Irene” Covering a well-worn Leadbelly classic, Richards gives this song a surprisingly dream-like texture. Again, though, here’s another highlight that is in fact a cover on an album otherwise packed with originals.
|Chris Cornell’s “Higher Truth” (Deluxe Edition) ****|
Apart from his 1999 solo debut, “Euphoria Morning,” with its slightly Beatle-esque touches, usually when Chris Cornell is separated from fronting a band and left to his own devices, it results in trouble. This has always been an odd phenomenon when you consider what an asset he is on the albums by both Soundgarden and Audioslave. But his solo career hasn’t been nearly as notable or effective in recent years. His awkward, muted rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and his much maligned, synth-driven Timbaland produced album, “Scream” both speak to that point.
But “Higher Truth” is a monumental turning-point for Cornell. The album finds him playing songs that are mostly acoustic. These songs play like lower-key nods to some of his better work. One gets the idea that he really wants to pay tribute to the more earthy side of Led Zeppelin. A listen to a song like “Worried Moon” and you get slight flashes immediately of the interplay between Page and Plant during the Led Zeppelin acoustic songs. Zeppelin is obviously one of Cornell’s biggest influences. They have been from the start. And on his last album, “Songbook,” Cornell even covered their song “Thank You.” And the Zeppelin comparison also carries through to the Eastern, “Kashmir”-like string section on this album’s “Our Time In The Universe.”
This album effectively plays to Cornell’s quieter side. There are no awkward pop concessions. There are no odd production choices made in the name of earning radio play. This is just Chris Cornell as a singer-songwriter, stripped down to his essence. Brendan O’Brien, who produced and mixed the album is also in top form here.
Who would’ve thought Cornell would have something as beautiful and bouncy as “Only These Words” in him or that he would sound so at home singing a soaring piano ballad like the deluxe-only track, “Bend In The Road?” As an album, “Higher Truth” is a reassuring collection which shows Cornell reclaiming his rightful place and living up to his potential as a solo artist. He’s a tremendously gifted vocalist and here he finally gets his solo career back on the right track. This is a stellar collection.
“Dead Wishes” This is an old-school acoustic stomper that builds into a beautiful chorus. Pairing a strong tune with some darker lyrics, there’s a great deal to enjoy here and a lot of sonic layers to explore.
“Murderer Of Blue Skies” This one begins as another acoustic track but builds into something that wouldn’t sound out of place on a the softer side of a Soundgarden record. Cornell really has a great deal of melodic fortitude on this set.
“Our Time In The Universe” This is the closer of the proper album and the deluxe edition also has an alternate version, but with its syncopated drums and its semi-Moroccan accents, it provides for a very compelling listen, thus ending the album on a very high note.
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