Usher, Mac Miller, Against Me and More Music Reviews

Plus, get reviews of the latest albums from Mac Miller and others.

quicklist: 1 title: Usher’s “Hard II Love” *** text: “Hard II Love” is either Usher’s eighth or ninth studio album, depending on how and if you count 2010’s add-on EP “Versus.” In all, this album is a heavily back-loaded mixed bag of a record, but the excellence of the final five tracks make up for the weaker moments in the first 10. In fact the title track and the downright lush, “Tell Me” redeem the album after the skeletal and weak, Young Thug-assisted “No Limit,” which is just a bizarre shout-out to Master P extended into a full song for no particular reason.

Things get awkward when Usher tries to put on a tougher exterior. He can’t pull off a line like “All I think about is b------,” but on the 54-second interlude “Mind Of A Man,” he attempts to do so. There’s still a slight awkwardness when Usher postures this way. It seems unnatural to him.

Here’s a stray observation: On the bridge between “Need U” and “Missin U,” a female voice says what she finds attractive in a man and it is all about confidence and internal qualities. Then Usher comes in and talks about what he finds attractive in a woman and it is all shallow, physical attributes. Accidentally or not, this says something really interesting about the way we view men and women in our society.

Once the track “Rivals” comes on, (interestingly featuring Future) the album is smooth-sailing straight through the Ruben Blades-assisted closer “Champions.” All of these songs from this point on seem to work because Usher actually seems comfortable without putting on false poses. He’s smooth, and when he’s handed an excellent ballad he runs with it.

This album is merely good and not great, but when it hits its marks, it really hits them, and when it falls flat, it does so with force. Twenty-two years after his debut, Usher still has room to expand and things to learn. But at the same time, “Hard II Love” also proves that at his best he can be a powerful pop force. This collection provides a very rocky path, but it ends up in the right place.

Focus Tracks:

“Tell Me” This is an eight-and-a-half minute, chilled R&B masterpiece. It doesn’t feel that long because you really get lost in the groove.

“Hard II Love” This is a beautiful love ballad. I can’t help but think that Usher must have been listen to dark, emotional records like Halsey’s still tremendous “Badlands” record. This is quite a minimalist track for Usher and he makes the most out of every second.

“Stronger” This is another strong ballad. The track becomes a slamming groove thanks to a trippy beat, a gospel-choir and an orchestra.

quicklist: 2 title: Mac Miller’s “The Divine Feminine” **** text: Mac Miller’s fourth proper album finds the rapper fully out of the haze that coated his second album, “Watching Movies With The Sound Off,” and building off of his last record, “GO:OD A.M.” “The Divine Feminine” is delivered in a tight 10-track, 53-minute set and from the very beginning, it is clear that this album aims to be (and succeeds in being) a musically sophisticated set built on butter-soft grooves. The chilled, jazzy sound of “Stay” and the Anderson .Paak-assisted “Dang” give the album a smooth-sensibility.

This is an album more about mood than anything. Miller is out to create a sensual kind of ambiance, from the heavy-breathing embedded into the beat on “Skin” to the spacy synths that give “Soulmate” its backbone. This is more of a collection of erotically-minded slow-jams than it is a traditional rap record, with Miller half-singing his way through the playlist. Sure, Ty Dolla Sign’s vocoder-assisted singing on “Cinderella” sort of ruins the mood a little, but the beats remain solid throughout, with the album maintaining its integrity even when Miller drops some graphically sexual verses.

“The Divine Feminine” reinvents Mac Miller as an unlikely torch-bearer for “smooth-lovin’” hip-hop. He even sounds alright duet-ing with Ariana Grande on the track, “My Favorite Part,” even if he hits a weird note every now and then. “The Divine Feminine” is a loose, liberating and very surprising album that casts Mac Miller in a new light.

Focus Tracks:

“Dang!” (Featuring Anderson .Paak) This works off some mellow R&B grooves aided by some stellar synths and strong horn-work. Miller can be crass at times here, but this is quite a commanding jam.

“Stay” This works well as a jazzy companion to “Dang!” Miller makes this relaxed groove sound effortless while a trumpet solos and dances over the beat.

“My Favorite Part” (Featuring Ariana Grande) Miller is brimming with confidence here and this song’s playful tone takes it a long way. Grande unquestionably out-sings Miller, but I don’t think that surprises anyone. Miller also deserves credit for not wanting to Auto-Tune his portion of the track and for keeping things sounding real and off-the-cuff.

quicklist: 3 title: Against Me!’s “Shape Shift With Me” ***1/2 text: In comparison with 2014’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” Against Me!’s new album “Shape Shift With Me” comes off as a much more settled affair. By that, I don’t mean sedate. It still rocks with great force and doesn’t shy away from controversy. But the last album dealt with lead-singer Laura Jane Grace’s brave decision to come out as transgender in a biting, gripping, sometimes visceral way. In contrast, this album is more streamlined and full of love songs, protest songs and blazing rockers. (Note: Grace releases her book “Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout” in November, about her experiences.)

This is a surprisingly pop-driven record. It has hooks but at the same time, it brims with a hardcore energy as if equally suited to score both a party and a fistfight. "Boyfriend” is a great pop song with a not-so-radio-friendly chorus and “Crash” has appealing possibilities as well. “Rebecca” takes three-chord punk to blistering levels while the semi-psychedelic “Suicide Bomber” has the eyebrow raising chorus of “I’m clinging tight to your chest / Exploding / Like a suicide bomber.” Against Me! have always been very political so this isn’t a surprise even within the context of a love song.

The truth is, overall, Laura Jane Grace still leads the band in the same way she did in the band’s early days. They still sound like the same band they were, evolving naturally from their original sound. This is very much a pop-punk record, with emphasis more on the punk side of the equation. There’s still an appealingly raggedy tone to their sound.

“Shape Shift With Me” finds Against Me! blossoming quite nicely.

Focus Tracks:

“Boyfriend” With the chorus of “You treat me like a boyfriend. / Some dumb f---in’ boyfriend,” this track brings to mind some interesting questions with its bitter tones. Elsewhere Grace sings, “I don’t want to hang around the graveyard waiting for something dead to come back,” suggesting this is a song about ridding herself of all her old ghosts.

“Crash” This is simply a solid rocker with a solid hook. Again the imagery suggests letting go of old relationships, only Grace doesn’t want to let go, singing, “I’m not a crash-landing. / Let me stay up in your orbit a while.”

“Dead Rats” Again the graveyard imagery returns with a mention of Easter Sunday. With Easter comes rebirth and this tough-as-nails rocker paints a thorough picture. There’s a bit of T-Rex influence in that sludgy guitar riff. This is a celebratory funeral march.

quicklist: 4 title: AlunaGeorge’s “I Remember” ***1/2 text: The second collection from chill-pop-duo AlunaGeorge finds Aluna Francis and George Reid repeating the formula that made 2013’s “Body Talk” a success. The bottom line is that if you enjoyed their work with Disclosure or like-minded artists like Banks, this brand of smooth electro-pop won’t leave you disappointed. It is interesting to hear up-and-coming underground rapper Pell on the album’s opening track, “Full Swing” and the club-ready, Leikeli47-featuring, “Mean What I Mean” seems destined for the runway.

AlunaGeorge cover all the bases on modern electro-pop conventions and they can be quite eclectic in their approach. At its worst, this album can be a little faceless, even if it is full of cool sonic tricks. This is breezy, modern pop by the numbers even if it plays with occasional reggae and glitch-tronica touches. At its best, it provides a semi-euphoric party soundtrack that should please the fans of a number of current electro-minded artists. AlunaGeorge are on the way to establishing their own voice, but they sit firmly on the spectrum somewhere between artists as diverse as Ellie Goulding and Wet.

Still, “I Remember” is a skillfully put-together record. What it lacks in distinctiveness, it certainly makes up for in its execution. This is high-quality radio-ready electro-pop that deserves a wider audience on this side of the pond.

Focus Tracks

“Not Above Love” This kind of reminds me of the albums Bitter:Sweet used to release, fused modern electro sounds. This should be a huge hit with its biting “No thank you” chorus.

“Hold Your Head High” This seems cut from the same cloth as the Rihanna-Calvin Harris collaboration “We Found Love” and the Chainsmokers' and Daya’s hit, “Don’t Let Me Down.” In other words, this is a club-pop smash waiting to happen.

“I Remember” The title track has some excellent vocal-snippet slicing. This creates an effective but unusual climax as Aluna Francis sings about a relationship gone wrong and wanting things to be restored to normal.

quicklist: 5 title: Bad Suns’ “Disappear Here” ***1/2 text: On their second album, California band Bad Suns sound like indie rock from circa 2004. That’s not a bad thing. Essentially, “Disappear Here” sounds like the kind of album that would have been licensed for use on “The O.C.,” sandwiched between bands like the Killers, Rogue Wave and Rooney.

This is appealing bright indie-rock which fuses new-wave and emo influences into something new and fresh. In fact Bad Suns also occasionally bring to mind bands like Sense Field and the softer side of Far. This is an alternative sub-genre you don’t often hear in 2016, which makes cuts like the title track such an interesting surprise.

But Bad Suns want to also bring the party. Upbeat numbers like “Patience” and “Outskirts Of Paradise” border on being a little too syrupy for their own good, but end up succeeding because the song-craft is strong. Additionally, lead singer Christo Bowman knows how to sell a hook, making something that might otherwise be precious quite palatable.

Bad Suns aren’t the most original-sounding band. As I said above, there are bits and pieces of their sound that will remind you of other acts from the past, but “Disappear Here” still provides a rather solid 13-song set. Tracks like “Off She Goes” and the funky workouts “Swimming In The Moonlight” and “Even In My Dreams, I Can’t Win” all sound instantly familiar. This album doesn’t break any new ground, but it still has some satisfying pop-cross-over potential.

Focus Tracks:

“Disappear Here” If you like this title, opening track, odds are you’ll enjoy the rest of the record since it highlights all of the band’s best qualities.

“Love Like Revenge” In one of the album’s most synth-driven, kinetic moments, this track wins. One of the most awe-striking moments is when the admittedly rink-dink sounding synth-trumpets come in and actually propel the song when conventional wisdom would probably make you think they would cause it to sink.

“Violet” This song combines a Bo Diddley-rhythm with an overtly sunny sound. Again, this could be cloying in a lesser band’s hands, but it is grounded in something more concrete.

quicklist: 6 title: Cymbals Eat Guitars’ “Pretty Years” **1/2 text: Cymbals Eat Guitars’ fourth album, “Pretty Years” is a polarizing record. The band works best when the guitars take over, since they are able to get quite a bit of lift and some interesting tones from their amps. You can hear this immediately on the rise on opener “Finally,” or on the Springsteen-nodding rocker “4th Of July, Philadelphia (Sandy).” As a band they should play with the loud-quiet-loud dynamic more often since it is often a source of this collection’s peaks.

Elsewhere the band plays with other textures, sometimes in a compelling but challenging way. The saxophone freak-outs on “Wish,” will either be cool or annoying depending on your perspective and even a pop-driven track like “Have A Heart” has its peculiar edges.

The most telling determiner of if this album is for you is listening to Joseph D’Agostino’s voice. To some, his voice may sound like it is full of rock-cool, whereas to others he may sound like an awkward combination of an impression of Rival Schools’ Walter Schreifels combined and some Springsteen-esque gravitas. He possesses a unique instrument but it is most definitely an acquired taste.

As much as I want to really like this record for its adventurous and playful use of sonics, it is the edgier elements that often bring it down. Many will find this album to be a taxing listen and not in a good way. “Mallwalking,” for instance starts off well and then morphs into a bit of a sonic nightmare, due to its warping synths.

There are some decent songs here like “Dancing Days” and “Well,” which both have potential, but there are flaws in the overall execution. For many, “Pretty Years” will be a bit of a troubling listen, even if there are some positive elements at work just below the surface.

Focus Tracks:

“Dancing Days” This is a slow-burner that works better than anything else on the record. As it blossoms and grows, it takes you on a journey with its captivating synth-work and its big chorus. Again, the momentarily destructive guitar solo adds a fitting sense of flavor. This track needed more of that kind of spark.

“Finally” The explosive guitar work here opens up the album on the right foot.

“Well” This is an indie-rock, new-wave hybrid. Again, there is a lot to like here even though it doesn’t completely succeed.

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