Stephen Marley's New Album Mixes Hip-Hop With His Dad's 'Signature Reggae Style'

Plus, Look Park from former Fountains of Wayne, The Amazing and Breanna Barbara.

— -- intro: This is one of those weeks where the release-schedule appears to be taking a little bit of a summer nap. This week Fountains Of Wayne vocalist Chris Collingwood debuts his new project Look Park, Stephen Marley brings along a ton of guests while infusing a bit of hip-hop into his family’s famous reggae sound, Swedish band The Amazing release their fourth album and blues artist Breanna Barbara drops a really psychedelic record.

There is a more than a mere hint of sadness to this album, even if “Stars Of New York” and “Breezy” sound like bright bits of vintage AM-Radio pop. This is miles away from “Radiation Vibe” or “Stacy’s Mom,” and this album really hits its apex during more downbeat moments like “Minor Is The Lonely Key” and “I’m Gonna Haunt This Place.” In some ways this feels like a direct extension from what Fountains Of Wayne did on their most recent and mostly low-key effort, “Sky Full Of Holes.”

While this album inhabits a vaguely sunny, lounge-driven “Lite” universe, there’s a sense of impending doom on “Save Yourself.” This record appears to be under a cloud, even if at times it is darkly comedic in tone.

The debut from Look Park shows once again the Chris Collingwood is one of the industry’s sharpest and wittiest songsmiths. Anyone who has ever appreciated Fountains Of Wayne, will appreciate this record as well.

Focus Tracks:

"I’m Gonna Haunt This Place” This is an eerie waltz. Interestingly, this sounds like something the late Elliott Smith would have covered well in spite of its occasionally jokey lyrics. But, even when this album’s lyrics seem to be winking and nudging, there also seems to be a dead-serious edge that stops the audience in its tracks. This is one of the strongest songs Collingwood have ever written.

“Minor Is The Lonely Key” Again, this song captures a morose energy, albeit hidden within an oddball Western-themed narrative.

“Stars Of New York” This sounds like something Collingwood’s Fountains Of Wayne bandmate, Adam Schlesinger would have put on an Ivy record. There’s something about this song’s breeziness that brings to mind the classic Ivy album, “Apartment Life.” It’s a wide-eyed (perhaps sarcastic) view of New York life and fame.

quicklist: 2title: Stephen Marley’s “Revelation II: The Fruit Of Life” ***1/2text: Stephen Marley’s new album, “Revelation II: The Fruit Of Life” is the sequel to “Revelation I: The Root Of Life,” which was released in 2011. This is actually a pretty stunning and eclectic record, finding Marley effectively mixing hip-hop into his family’s signature reggae style. Just imagine his dad singing over modern club and hip-hop beats. The concept on some level seems blasphemous, but it actually works. Stephen sounds a lot like Bob, so when he sings the song “Babylon,” here, it seems thematically familiar even if Dead Prez come in and drop some rhymes.

Does this album work effectively throughout its entire song-set? No. On “Pleasure Or Pain,” Marley’s voice is coated in so many effects that he is reduced to a mere digital whisper and the auto-tune on “Perfect Picture” brings the song down considerably. But even though it is occasionally rocky, this album still feels impressively ambitious, yet still suited for summer chill-out sessions.

Reggae purists will definitely have issues with this collection, but it's hard to blame Marley for wanting to widen his audience.

Focus Tracks:

“Father Of The Man” (Featuring Wyclef Jean) Marley and Wyclef make the most of this smooth groove. The chorus repetition of “I’m the keeper of the flame” really resonates. Wyclef’s verse, too recalls the heyday of “The Carnival,” even if the mentions of 9/11, Saddam, Uday and Qusay Hussein hit a disturbing note.

“Music Is Alive” (Featuring Pain Killer and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley) This song has a Fatboy Slim-ready big-beat energy. It’s a party-ready head-bobber. It is always nice to hear two Marley brothers together.

“So Strong” (Featuring Shaggy) Shaggy’s delivery is unmistakable and here he and Marley sing over a hip-hop infused Stax-influenced track.

quicklist: 3title: The Amazing’s “Ambulance” ****text: The Amazing is a group of sonic chameleons from Sweden, which many first heard when their Nick Drake-esque song “Dragon” was used in Joe Swanberg’s 2013 film, “Drinking Buddies.” “Ambulance” is their fourth album a quick follow-up to last year’s “Picture You.” The sound of the record wallows in an ethereal, almost shoegaze-y and “dream-pop” atmosphere, although “Divide” sounds like what would happen if Ryan Adams listened to The Cure’s “Disintegration” on repeat and then tried to write a song afterwards and the trip-hop-driven “Blair Drager” sounds like a bizarre cross between Portishead’s darker side and The Kings Of Convenience.

These eight tracks won’t be burning up the charts any time soon. This isn’t a pop record, but it is the kind of album that washes over the mind. This is probably one of the only bands that shoegazers, the folkies and the jam-band set might all appreciate. One can imagine The Amazing developing a growing cult-status. The pensive guitar riff that opens the nearly seven-minute “Tracks” speaks volumes along with the song’s hushed vocal harmonies.

“Floating” almost sounds like a modern cousin to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” Christoffer Gunrup’s often hushed vocals are both lush and comforting.

The members of The Amazing are obviously schooled in classic rock and folk traditions but they have an arty, experimental edge that keeps everything sounding somewhat fresh, breathing new life into older sounds. As a result “Ambulance” is an album that sounds both timeless and new. The Amazing is definitely a band to know.

Focus Tracks:

“Divide” This is just a well-thought out, moody piece of rock that feels like a breath of fresh air.

“Blair Drager” At first listen, the drums on this track take immediate focus. Upon further listening, the vocal harmonies during the chorus will take the breath away. It really is stunning the way this song begins in a very dark, ominous place and then suddenly finds a bit of sunniness at its center. That seesaw effect is a feat of musical magic.

“Through City Lights” This nearly eight-minute ballad is lush, slow and never overstated. Even when some background laughter echoes over the track, its sense of beauty isn’t hurt in the least.

quicklist: 4title: Breanna Barbara’s “Mirage Dreams” ***1/2text: “Mirage Dreams” is Brooklyn blues artist Breanna Barbara’s first major album, but her third when counting the two other albums she previously released on her Bandcamp page. This is a swampy and mysterious collection full of intrigue. Yes, this is more mood music than anything, but frankly if “True Blood” was still on the air, surely something from this album could be placed there.

Barbara’s voice is also rather fascinating, sometimes bringing to mind a mixture of a more upbeat answer to Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval , with a touch of Laura Marling and maybe a hint of Grace Slick. The mumbled and half-spoken lyrics of “Baby Where Are You” draws the listener in, even if on a whim she seems to break off into a madcap whistling break.

What will make this an interesting draw to some, though will no doubt turn off others. This is probably an acquired taste, full of oddball quirks and musical detours. When Barbara begins to howl like a wolf looking at the moon in the middle of the title-track, some will find her performance other-worldly while others will probably turn off the album. But one gets the feeling that she is working at her own uniquely transcendent level. Those kinds of moves are rather daring and give this album edge, thus frightening away the squares and ensuring an unusual path.

This isn’t a record of this time. It sounds fueled by an organ-drenched, garage-rock-brand of psychedelia. This record is woozy and bewitching and it will entrance you if you are open to its sound. This is frequently an exercise in sonic minimalism. Tracks like “Salin’ Sailin’” and “Where’s My Baby” use repetition to their benefit. “Mirage Dreams” can be a hypnotic set. Breanna Barbara is an artist to watch.

Focus Tracks:“Who Are You” This is a no-nonsense blues exercise with heavy breakdowns. Again, this is heavily built with repetition but Barbara’s vibrato-tinged bellowing demands attention. This isn’t typical blues by any stretch but it would probably tear the house down given the right audience.“Nothin’ But Your Lovin” This sounds like a great soundtrack to a whisky-soaked late-summer afternoon. This track has a rev-up that would make both the Black Keys and the White Stripes proud.“I’m Alright” This kind of sounds like a much grungier, more lo-fi, feminine answer to The Allman Brothers Band. Whether that is actually an apt comparison or not is up to your ears, but one can’t deny that this track is deeply rooted in the Southern Blues-Rock traditions of the sixties and seventies.

Next Week: New Music From Fantasia, The Descendants and more.

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