Category: Album review

Album review: Fiona Apple's 'The Idler Wheel ...'

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You learn a lot about Fiona Apple by what she chooses to reveal in the lyrics to her new album, “The idler wheel is wiser than the driver of the screw and whipping cords will serve you more than ropes will ever do.” A songwriter whose greatest flaw is evidenced in the extended title, the Los Angeles singer and pianist has on her latest record ironically offered her most focused, refined and best-edited album in the 16 years since her (one-worded) debut, “Tidal.” 

Over the course of a perfectly sequenced 42-minute album, Apple describes herself as “a still life drawing of a peach,” “all the fishes in the sea,” “a fugitive too dull to flee,” a tulip in a cup, a dewy petal and a moribund slut. These sorts of reveals are nothing new, of course.

Apple, 34, has always been a first-person songwriter unafraid of sharing intimacies and speaking in absolutes. But because this is only her fourth album since 1996 and her first since 2005’s “Extraordinary Machine,” few had any idea of the ways in which she had perfected her craft in the last seven years, or how she’d learned to build songs delicate enough to be beautiful but sturdy enough to support her voice.

Apple’s “The Idler Wheel” is an exquisitely rendered work, with as many thrilling moments of silence and space as with vocal drama. It’s essential 2012 listening for anyone interested in popular music as art. And like all great albums, it’s an encapsulation of all that has come before it as filtered through a singular aesthetic.

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Album review: Neneh Cherry and the Thing's 'The Cherry Thing'

Thecherrything-cover
"I think I'm built to last," sings Neneh Cherry on "Cashback," the opening track on "The Cherry Thing," her cacophonic collaboration that is something of her comeback.

Cherry started her career with the punk-influenced collective Rip Rig + Panic but is best known for her '90s hip-hop career. Her debut CD "Raw Like Sushi" spawned the international hit "Buffalo Stance"; her underrated sophomore CD, "Homebrew," foreshadowed Lauryn Hill's "Miseducation" and is, in many ways, a superior work. "The Cherry Thing" is a seamless fusion of her influences (including her stepfather, the late jazz icon Don Cherry, whose "Golden Heart" is covered here, and whose song "The Thing" gave the trio its name).

With Scandinavian free-jazz trio The Thing (Mats Gustafsson on sax, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten on bass, and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums), Cherry weaves together songs from sources as disparate as the Stooges ("Dirt"), Ornette Coleman ("What Reason"), Suicide ("Dream Baby Dream"), and MF Doom ("Accordion"), creating a thrillingly cohesive collage across genre and mood.

On Doom's "Accordion," there's gleeful menace in Cherry's voice as she intones dementedly brilliant lyrics against a cool bass line. Jarring instrumentation is slowly added to the mix, amping up the vibe of unease. It all evokes a yesteryear jazz club where you never knew what might unfold on stage, and the thrill was in the unknowingness.

"Keep those dreams burning," she gently commands in "Dream Baby Dream," and it's a pungent mantra inside a rumbling, moody dreamscape. The line "I am too tough to die," from Martina Topley-Bird's "Too Tough to Die," is belted against insistent pounding drums and discordant horns, with the chaotic music underscoring the lyrics but also capturing the interiority of the song's protagonist. The collection closes with an especially tender, soulful take on Coleman's "What Reason."

"The Cherry Thing" reclaims the unpredictable outlaw energy and impulses of hip-hop, jazz and punk, organically linking them all. It's a link that is embodied in Cherry herself, at a creative peak, here. Built to last indeed.
 
'Neneh Cherry and the Thing
The Cherry Thing'
Smalltown Supersound
Three and a half stars (out of four)

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Album review: Usher's 'Looking 4 Myself'

With ‘Believe,' Justin Bieber's at top of his vocal game

Album review: Bobby Womack's 'The Bravest Man in the Universe'

 -- Ernest Hardy

With ‘Believe,' Justin Bieber's at top of his vocal game

Justin Bieber's new album ‘Believe' is beautifully sung and deftly adds a Euro-house beat to the teen idol's usual R&B mix.

Bieber6
At this point in his whirlwind career, Justin Bieber's singing ranks among the least important drivers of his fame. More significant in a minute-to-minute sense are his freshly upswept hair (a kind of post-emo pompadour), his exclamatory Twitter feed (“FRANCE!! i see u. thank u!!”) and the many, many photographs depicting his and girlfriend Selena Gomez's support of the Southern California fast-food industry (these kids love their Chick-fil-A). We're talking the nuts and bolts, in other words, of 21st century teen idoldom — the everyday texture of a life lived under the social-media microscope.


Yet if Bieber's voice has gotten relatively short shrift over the two years since he released “My World 2.0,” the Canadian-born pop star's new sophomore full-length serves as a gentle correction: For all its cutting-edge production and grown-up talk of “swag, swag, swag,” “Believe” feels designed primarily to showcase his increasing vocal ability; it might be the year's most beautifully sung recording.

As befits a young man who turned 18 in March, Bieber's voice has deepened from the mall-rat squeak captured in early tunes like “One Less Lonely Girl” and the adorably aspirational “Bigger,” which urged a girlfriend to believe in him “like a fairy tale / Put a tooth under your pillowcase.” (The innocent bedtime fantasy was a recurring trope on Bieber's 2009 debut EP, “My World”: “I know they said belief in love is a dream that can't be real,” he acknowledged in “Favorite Girl,” “So, girl, let's write a fairy tale and show 'em how we feel.”)

That inevitable downward tendency, though, hasn't thickened Bieber's appealingly lightweight tone in new songs such as “Boyfriend” and “Catching Feelings”; the latter, especially, demonstrates how nimbly he can navigate a melody that sounds borrowed from teen-years Michael Jackson.

Jackson's early work is an obvious lodestar on “Believe,” as is “Justified,” the solo debut that Justin Timberlake released in 2002 following his stint with the hugely successful boy band 'N Sync. In “Die In Your Arms,” Rodney Jerkins — one of Bieber's key producers here, along with Adam Messinger and Nasri — samples Jackson's “We've Got a Good Thing Going,” from 1972's “Ben” album; “Take You” evokes the clipped funk of Timberlake's “Like I Love You.”

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Album review: Usher's 'Looking 4 Myself'

UsherLooking

This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

In a 2010 interview, Usher Raymond IV was asked about his then-recently unveiled new hairstyle, a so-called “faux-hawk” that was popular at the time. The multi-platinum, multi-Grammy-winning R&B singer known the world over as simply Usher replied with a bold statement on his work to come. “I'm a consumer of culture and love mixing styles and inspirations, both in my music and my style.” He then said he was working on a new creation that "combines several music genres to create a new sound experience.

“I love that people are talking about the new hair,” he added. “It represents who I am now and the creative movement of Revolutionary Pop.”

Two years later, Usher has changed his hairstyle and survived another messy divorce, and the question now comes as to whether his new, seventh, record, “Looking 4 Myself,” represents his predicted Great Leap Forward into a new realm of revolutionary pop. Few artists, after all, can claim to have created entire new genres, and fewer still are brash enough to say it out loud. Most who claim such a feat — Prince, Elvis, Kraftwerk, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, James Brown, Madonna — behaved as though their innovations were a given and didn’t need to harp on them.

So how revolutionary is Usher’s pop? Is “Looking 4 Myself” a “new sound experience”?

It’s more pop than it is revolutionary, but within its 14 songs are a number of fantastic steps forward (and back, and to the side, and twisting all around), key music that draws on a world of styles permeating pop culture in 2012, including electronic dance music, progressive R&B, dubstep, pop and hip-hop, to create an interesting hybrid pop. At its best, Usher and an impressive team of producer/collaborators, which includes longtime muse Rico Love, Diplo, will.i.am, the Neptunes and Swedish House Mafia, tweak the pop recipe enough to offer surprises. But the album is fat, and any revolution within gets nearly stomped to death by too many 130 beats-per-minute defeats.

“Looking 4 Myself” begins with an Usher benediction, declaration and demand: “Hey, what’s up? This is a jam, turn it up! Play it loud in the club, this is fire, it’s burning me up,” he sings as a hard, jerky beat produced by Black Eyed Peas founder will.i.am. marches forward lock step with synth clusters and the sticky doo-wop melody ripped from Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” The first of many dubstep bass-drops — wobbly, bottom end synth noises as popularized by Skrillex — arrives a minute later, accompanied by beefy, off-kilter bass pound.

Revolutionary? Not so much, but it’s weirder than anything Lady Gaga’s done.

The album gets stranger from there, though, and 13 songs and an hour later Usher has made a convincing case for his revolution, even if it never fully comes to pass.

The strongest arguments on “Looking 4 Myself” are those on which Raymond, 33, steps outside of conventions, and they are legion, even if they’re often overshadowed by the kind of dancefloor bangers currently permeating the pop charts via artists such as Rihanna, Katy Perry, Chris Brown and Lady Gaga.

But then Usher is partially responsible for the recent success of this formula. His early club tracks helped define the ’00s, and it’s hard to imagine the current crop of dance pop without citing the influence of hits like “OMG,” “Yeah!,” and (one of my favorite pop songs of the ’00s) “Caught Up.” On “Looking 4 Myself,” the best of these club tracks is the Danja-produced “Show Me,” featuring driving house synth-claps with a propellant techno rhythm bubbling beneath it. The most predictable, and less successful, are those produced by Swedish House Mafia, the progressive house trio whose beats are easily identified by their patent obviousness.

A number of surprises lurk within, though. “Twisted” is the most disruptive track on the album, and proves that production duo the Neptunes are still able to time-travel back from the future to offer another dose of innovation. The rhythm is ridiculous, the kind that the Virginia team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo are experts at creating. Jim Jonsin’s catchy rhythm on “Lemme See” finds its groove when Rick Ross parks his Lamborghini on the track’s lawn for a cameo. (Pharrell, by contrast, raps of rolling on another kind of vehicle, “20 of us on Vespas and mopeds,” cruising the city and offering a girl a gift of white lipstick.)

The biggest outlier on “Looking 4 Myself” is Usher’s collaboration with Australian progressive electronic group Empire of the Sun on the title track. The song, which features Empire lead singer Luke Steele, is a new wave ditty with a beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hall & Oates or later-period Steely Dan record.

For his part, it’s only natural that Usher Raymond is “looking 4 himself,” as the title suggests. After all, in the 17 years since his debut album, released when he was 16, he’s gone through two very public breakups, the latter of which  (divorce from Tameka Foster) happened in 2009 and fueled the singer’s last album, “Raymond vs. Raymond.” “Looking 4 Myself,” then, is the work of a man, as the slow-burning “Climax” so remarkably lays out, who is no longer married but has love and romance on his mind more than ever.

“I’m looking for myself,” he sings, “all my life I’ve been searching, and somehow I’ve come up empty.”

Then he adds that he’s been on a journey trying to find himself. “And I realized, when you’re not here, half of me is gone. So in order to find me, I have to find you.” Whether he ever finds the object of his desire is unimportant, at least from an artistic point of view. As long as he keeps searching, he’ll always have fodder for new work. And even if he finds her, could a sequel to “Raymond vs. Raymond” be far behind?

“Looking 4 Myself”
Usher
RCA
3 stars

[For the record, 11:55 p.m., June 12: An earlier version of this post said that Usher had divorced twice, but he has only been married and divorced once.]

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— Randall Roberts

Photo: Album artwork from Usher's 'Looking 4 Myself.' Credit: RCA Records

Album review: Bobby Womack's 'The Bravest Man in the Universe'

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"I got a story to tell," 68-year-old Bobby Womack announces at the outset of his remarkable new album, and at first you're pretty sure about the nature of his tale: An intergenerational hookup with producer Richard Russell and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, "The Bravest Man in the Universe" appears to follow recent late-career outings by Johnny Cash, Solomon Burke and Gil Scott-Heron, who also worked with Russell on 2010's "I'm New Here"; the stripped-down music begins as a sobering meditation on regret and infirmity after a life of excess.

But soon Womack, growling raggedly and with a disarming lack of vanity, takes the album somewhere else: In "Love Is Gonna Lift You Up" he sings about the return of hope over a buoyant electro-disco groove, while the beautiful avant-cabaret ballad "Dayglo Reflection" (featuring typically smoky guest vocals by Lana Del Rey) summons a sense of romance that doesn't feel expired or used-up. The result confronts old age without giving in to self-pity. It earns its title.

Bobby Womack
"The Bravest Man in the Universe"
XL
Three and a half stars (out of four)

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Album review: Metric's 'Synthetica'

Album review: Metric's 'Synthetica'
Emily Haines calmly declares at the end of “Synthetica” that she once “wanted to be part of something,” but it isn’t a regret so much as a revelation. Now on album No. 5, “Synthetica” closer “Nothing but Time” is sweetly opulent electro-rock, the grown-up realization that there’s no rush, and a sign the band has moved well beyond its once ice-cold restlessness.

Metric’s lyrical concerns are increasingly philosophical, and the band grapples with big questions with earnestness — and, in the case of “Breathing Underwater,” sometimes overly simple “I’m the wave, you’re the kite” metaphors. Yet Metric has become a consistent source for bang-up melodies, and the title track is all sugary guitars and darting digital effects, having fun with the song’s themes of pop-technology overload.

“Clone,” in which Haines shrugs off her mistakes, presents cheery, Top-40 synths and then tempers them with a languid rhythm. The album’s glittery sheen isn’t always so pretty however. “The Wanderlust,” the album’s collaboration with Lou Reed, is a schmaltzy dud, as Haines amps up the cuteness for her role in this rom-com mismatch.

Focus instead on the frisky, ping-pong groove of “Lost Kitten” and the whirring, melodic, crystallizing atmospheres of “Dreams So Real.” It’s here where the sense of idealism that hovers beneath the album’s surface is brought to the fore, as Haines wonders if she has the ability to persuade listeners to “believe in the power of songs, to believe in the power of girls.” For the most part, that appears within her grasp.

Metric
“Synthetica”
Metric Music International / Mom & Pop
Three stars (Out of four)

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Album review: Alan Jackson's 'Thirty Miles West'

Alan Jackson Thirty Miles West album cover

The difference between Alan Jackson and so many other contemporary country singers is crystallized in “Long Way to Go,” one of the half dozen songs he wrote for his new album "Thirty Miles West" — the first for his new Alan Country Records label after two decades with Arista.

It starts out as the standard-issue country number in which the protagonist decides to run away and drown his heartache in saltwater, sand and alcohol. But Jackson’s smart enough to know that escapism never works for long, and handles it with wry humor: “I got a bug in my margarita/Seems bad luck won’t leave me alone.”

His writing is rarely florid, his singing never needlessly showy; instead, the Newnan, Ga., singer and songwriter has smartly adapted the Randolph Scott man-of-few-words movie-cowboy persona to country music, also evident in his choice of Adam Wright and Jay Knowles’ plain-spoken love song “Nothin’ Fancy.”

There’s nothing drastically different here than what Jackson’s been doing quite well since he first entered the country charts in 1989. Two dozen No. 1 hits later — most from his own pen — he sticks with what works, but never sounds as if he’s simply exploiting a formula.

That’s most bracingly evident in the closing track, “When I Saw You Leaving (for Nisey),” a song he wrote after his wife, Denise, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. Although she’s cancer free now, which leads to the song’s happy ending, the sobering realization of the fragility of life that comes with such news isn’t diminished in the least.

Alan Jackson

“Thirty Miles West”

(ACR Records/EMI)

Three stars out of four

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Album review: The Beach Boys' 'That's Why God Made the Radio'

Album review: Patti Smith's 'Banga'

— Randy Lewis

Album review: The Beach Boys' 'That's Why God Made the Radio'

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One of the more difficult tasks for a critic is to assess an anticipated new work by a legendary act, one beloved by generations not only for its transcendent sounds but the ways in which it helped define an entire region at a key moment in its history.

To wit, the Beach Boys' “That's Why God Made the Radio,” the band's first new album in 16 years and one that celebrates the archetypal Southern California group's 50th anniversary. With 12 songs about life, love and the passage of time delivered through themes that the group has returned to repeatedly over the years — summer fun, perfect moments in the sun and co-founder Brian Wilson's odes to loneliness — the release is a Beach Boys album through and through. 

And though uneven, the group's 29th studio work (including 2011's “The Smile Sessions”) contains a number of elegant, shockingly beautiful moments that not only do justice to and expand on the sound of Southern California in the 1960s but serve as a bittersweet and at times heartbreakingly brilliant coda to five decades in music.

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Album review: Patti Smith's 'Banga'

Patti-smith2

After her National Book Award-winning memoir "Just Kids" greatly expanded her audience, Patti Smith could have done the usual aging-rock-legend safety move: record an album of standards and covers. Except she had just done that with 2007’s "Twelve." Instead, on her first album of original material in eight years, Smith goes back to her notebook and pulls out everything that’s been great about her for four decades -- an encyclopedia’s worth of literary, mythic, historical, religious and musical references; doo-wop ballads; epic guitars and guitar epics; quivering poems in headstand pose -- and some things that are not.

"Banga" (named after a dog in Bulgakov’s "The Master and Margarita" -- reference No. 1) opens with the first of two songs about Europeans’ discovery of the New World. Piano and strings drive the rhapsodic, epistolary "Amerigo." On this and other tracks, Smith sings with more depth, timbre and richness than perhaps she ever has. "April Fool," an invitation to writerly romance, may be the most buoyant pop song she’s recorded. Success has been good to Smith.

Writing and art-making are recurrent themes on "Banga." On "Constantine’s Dream," the second track about voyages to America, Smith tackles the very nature of art -- and the art of nature. Halfway through the 10-minute opus, painter Piero della Francesca shouts this "Horses"-worthy Patti war cry: "Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure/ With a brush and an eye full of light." But the song buckles under historical weight, never quite delivering on its "Land"-like promise. One of the great things about "Just Kids" and Smith in person is her mischievous sense of humor. "Banga" could stand some Puckish cameos.

This is what happens to artists who take risks; not every effort works. But by reaching back to her literary roots, Smith has reinfused her music. Produced by Smith with her longtime bandmates, including original Patti Smith Group members Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty, "Banga" is both a return to form and her best album in many years.

Patti Smith
"Banga"
(Columbia)
Three and a half stars (Out of four)

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Album review: Emeli Sande's 'Our Version of Events'

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Opening with a swirl of strings and beats that evokes the glory days of '90s British dance music (think the underrated group, the Chimes, or a vintage Paul Oakenfold remix), Emeli Sande's debut CD, "Our Version of Events," lives up to the hype that has preceded it from the singer's native U.K. -- where it's been a massive commercial and critical hit. It's filled with finely crafted, expertly produced love songs about complex, complicated emotions (not a single reference to what she bought someone, or what they bought her), as well as songs thickly peppered with social consciousness.

Highlights include "Daddy," about the insurmountable magnetism of a man who's clearly wrong for you. In the hook, when she sings the line, "You're looking like you really like him, like him…," her voice shifts to a sultriness that conveys the erotic pull of this ill-suited man. "Mountains," a love song woven with details of economic struggle; "Suitcase," sung from the perspective of the one who's dumped; and "Breaking the Law," about the lengths to which our heroine will go for her lover; all contain lyrics worthy of Tracy Chapman.

That's not to say the collection is flawless. At times Sande leans too hard on a catch-in-the-throat quality in her singing (as on "Hope" and "Read All About It, Pt. III"). Some lyrics, as on the track "My Kind of Love," are suffused with self-pity that also carries a whiff of unexamined superiority, and at times her songwriting can remind you of that quiet, undeniably smart English Lit major whose work slips from confident to self-satisfied.

The greatest weakness though is that on many of her socially conscious songs (the above-mentioned "Hope" and "Read All About It,") the edges have been buffed away; they're vague and generic enough to be non-threatening, while the listener who sings along can be flattered (or flatter him or herself) that they're saying something profound when they really aren't. But in comparison to the drudge that is contemporary mainstream American pop and R&B, Emeli's folk-inflected soul/pop is Nina Simone and Bob Dylan all in one.

Emeli Sande
"Our Version of Events"
(Capitol)
Three stars (Out of four)

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-- Ernest Hardy

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