Category: Album review

Album review: Regina Spektor's 'What We Saw From the Cheap Seats'

Album review: Regina Spektor's 'What We Saw From the Cheap Seats'
“The piano is not firewood yet,” Regina Spektor declares not long into her new album, and indeed it's hard to imagine this New York City songstress running out of better applications for her instrument any time soon.

On “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats,” her fourth major-label studio set, Spektor uses the piano to anchor a succession of far-flung ditties, including the funky, suite-like “Small Town Moon,” the fuzzily percussive “All the Rowboats” and the deeply affecting white-soul ballad “How.” Her partner here, the producer Mike Elizondo, knows how to help diversify an artist's sound without muddying the mix; he famously de-cluttered Fiona Apple's “Extraordinary Machine.”

Beyond her playing, Spektor holds together the music on “Cheap Seats” with her singing, which even at its most intricately melodic (as in “Oh Marcello”) retains an improvisatory feel, as though she's making up these songs as she goes.

In “Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” — not the Jaques Brel tune — Spektor chews over the phrase “I love Paris in the rain” atop a bouncy quirk-pop groove, while “Patron Saint” finds her stretching “true love” to at least a dozen syllables. Those lyrical snippets tell you that Spektor, like so many songwriters, has romance on the brain. But, as with her unique arrangements, she rarely comes at the topic from the angle you'd expect.

Regina Spektor
“What We Saw From the Cheap Seats”
(Sire)
Three stars (Out of four)

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Album review: Sigur Rós' 'Valtari'

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— Mikael Wood

 

Album review: Sigur Rós' 'Valtari'

Album review: Sigur Rós' 'Valtari'
When the Icelandic experimental band Sigur Rós first emerged in the late '90s, its records felt like worlds unto themselves. Regal strings and brass, guitar noise, percussive bombast and Jónsi Birgisson's now-iconic coo: It all added up to a sound so huge and ethereal that few other bands felt capable of matching it.

Now that anyone with a laptop can make decently epic soundscapes, how will Sigur Rós keep its lead? On “Valtari,” it does it by using all its usual tricks, but in even more evocative and expert ways. The band dipped a toe into sunnier pop vibes on 2008's “Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust” and Jónsi's 2010 solo album, “Go.” But on “Valtari” it's back to the essentials: oceanic buildups, flickers of treated orchestras and falsetto vocal lines that yank heartstrings, even though you know exactly when they're coming.

The lead single “Eg Anda” winds some Velvet Underground-y mangled guitar into gale-force ambience; “Var” crescendos into a quarter-note pummel of stacked noise. But on the whole, “Valtari” is pretty dazed and ephemeral: tracks such as “Varoeldur” and “Rembihnutur” wander in a fog of flittering vocal samples and synth-pad haze. None of it's too far afield from what you'd expect from Sigur Rós at this point in a long career. But when the mood calls for “emotionally devastating long-form ambient maximalism,” there's no need to ever go elsewhere.

Sigur Rós
“Valtari”
XL Recordings
Three stars (Out of four) 

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Album review: John Mayer's 'Born and Raised'

Untitled copy
Whether he likes it or not, five words have come to define John Mayer for many music fans: “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” the title of the treacly 2001 ode to a lover and her “porcelain skin” and “candy lips.” Also out of his control is the suggestion generated by two other words in recent years, “Dear John,” the Taylor Swift-penned hit that many speculate was about the pair’s brief romance.

Swift’s lyrical description of a man with a “sick need to give love and then take it away” introduced Mayer (at least those who believed “John” to be him) to a legion of tweens who didn’t know Dave Matthews from John Mayer from Jerry Garcia, couldn’t tell the difference between Christopher Cross and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Mayer to many became a man who played “dark twisted games” with a delicate 19-year-old flower.

Simply uttering the words “John Mayer” in mixed company (necessary now due to the release of his sixth studio album, “Born and Raised”) will prompt a range of polarizing opinions. Whether it’s the hits on one of his five platinum studio albums stretching back to “Room for Squares” 11 years ago, his funny, self-aware appearance on “Chappelle’s Show” or his charming (and on at least one occasion, drunken) interactions with Ellen DeGeneres, the gestalt of his rambunctious years has made him lovable and/or lascivious tabloid fodder.

The perception, which he enabled at nearly every step of the way, was that he was a man who moved through women like he did obvious metaphors. Combined, Mayer’s charisma, devil-may-care attitude and many talents have run the risk of canceling each other out. For much of the population, the first thing that comes to mind when his name comes up isn’t “really good guitarist” but any number of celebrity foibles in his past (i.e. Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston …).

But that was then, the songwriter and guitarist tells us over and again on “Born and Raised” and during the media blitz in advance of the record. According to Mayer during his most recent appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” he’s a different man now. He quit Twitter. He retreated to Montana after the corrupting pleasures of the big city did a number on him.

Like William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau before him, Mayer checked himself through peaceful, easy rural isolation — and apparently listened to a lot of Laurel Canyon folk rock. Getting called “twisted” by America’s sweetheart Swift will do that to a man.

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Album review: El-P's 'Cancer 4 Cure'

El-P
Throughout the head trip of an album that is “Cancer 4 Cure,” surveillance drones buzz Brooklyn, handwritten notes are left on fallen soldiers and messages of serenity are pierced with choppy beats that morph into gunfire. Is this a current-events record or a snapshot of one’s paranoia? Ace producer and longtime champion of underground hip-hop El-P walks a fine line on “Cancer 4 Cure,” crafting aggression with militaristic precision.

The first solo album in five years from El-P (real name: Jaime Meline), the 12 tracks here are overflowing with pent-up confusion. The characters he inhabits are best confined to our nightmares, more frightening than any horror film because they’re regular folks driven bad.

A tapped cymbal hovers like a vulture on “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word),” where keyboard upon keyboard creates a black hole swirl as an unlikely killer stays stone-faced during a police interrogation. He raps, “I hate you for making me make a man bleed” on “Tougher Colder Killer,” in which an army vet is a prisoner of his own mind.

The spinning synths of “Works Every Time” paint the landscape like lights from a prison watchtower, electronics bubbling like little calls for help. Yet even though he’s offered a “fresh start on a new world,” El-P still finds himself homesick. Maybe it’s simply a case of Stockholm syndrome, but it’s no small feat that the mixed-up, war-torn world of haves and have-nots presented here is as inviting as it is.

El-P
“Cancer 4 Cure” 
Fat Possum
Four stars (Out of four)

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Album review: Best Coast's 'The Only Place'

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Fans concerned that Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno, who perform under the moniker Best Coast, would succumb to the pressure of high expectations can relax. On their sparkling second album, the Los Angeles duo, whose 2010 debut, “Crazy for You,” brought them international sing-along acclaim, offers little evidence that they care about impressing critics or alienating the less commercially-attuned. Personal expectations, however, are another story, as Cosentino throughout the new album dives into hopes both dashed and fulfilled involving love, life and her future with both.

Unlike “Crazy for You,” which was buried under a protective layer of distortion, on “The Only Place” a confident Cosentino stands at the front of the stage, seemingly unconcerned with judgment or ambivalence while she sings. With a voice that strives to hit Neko Case and Martha Reeves territory but which more often than not is in the Belinda Carlysle and Suzanna Hoffs range, Cosentino’s strength as a vocalist doesn't come from pitch-perfect vocal tone, but rather, it lies in how she and Bruno craft solid, three and four minute pop songs that suggest everyone from Buddy Holly to the Crystals to the Bangles without sounding like any of them. Best, there’s a uniquely Californian feel to the album, a gloss that’s not so much of the commercial variety as of the feel-good kind.

Part of that vibe arrives courtesy of producer Jon Brion, whose work in Los Angeles over the past two decades has added a new branch to the archetypical “west coast sound” family tree. Brion, best known for his work with Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Kanye West, Brad Mehldau, and dozens of others – as well as the music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic ode to the San Fernando Valley, “Magnolia” -- sequestered the band in Capitol Studios on Vine over the fall and early winter to make “The Only Place,” and you can hear his influence in the album’s cohesion. There, in the same room where the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, and Green Day made some of their classics, Cosentino, Bruno and Brion set to work making magnetic – and focused -- new songs.

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Album review: Damon Albarn's 'Dr Dee'

Album review: Damon Albarn's 'Dr Dee'
Damon Albarn seems about as busy as a pop star can be. In March the frontman of both Blur and Gorillaz released “Rocket Juice & the Moon,” a trippy Afro-funk disc he made with drummer Tony Allen and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers; next month we’ll see the fruit of his recent collaboration with the great soul singer Bobby Womack. And this summer Blur is scheduled to play a massive concert at London’s Hyde Park to end the Olympic Games.

Given that schedule, you might expect frenzy from “Dr Dee,” the first album issued under Albarn’s name since 2003. Instead, the record opens with the sound of birds and rushing water and grows only more contemplative from there. A studio companion to a so-called “English opera” that premiered last year in Manchester, “Dr Dee” explores the life and work of the Elizabethan polymath John Dee; it features Albarn on vocals along with contributions by Allen, guitarist Simon Tong (formerly of the Verve) and members of the BBC Philharmonic, among others.

As music divorced from image, “Dr Dee” glitters intermittently. “Apple Carts” is as lovely (and bummed-out) a ballad as Blur’s “No Distance Left to Run,” while “Coronation” contains some gorgeously spooky choral singing. But extracting a narrative from these delicate sounds can feel like more trouble than they’re worth — even if you haven’t half as much happening as Albarn does.

Damon Albarn
“Dr Dee”
(Virgin)
Two stars (Out of four)

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Album review: 'OFF!' by OFF!

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Album review: 'OFF!' by OFF!

Off! by Off!

Los Angeles punk band Off! accomplishes an impressive feat on its self-titled debut album (after last year’s collection of EPs): Sixteen songs in under 16 minutes, each a compact, sonic rampage via scream, electric guitar, bass and drum, by four men who understand compressed aggression: Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Black Flag), Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides, lead villain in the film “Suck”), Steven McDonald (Redd Kross), and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes).

In Los Angeles terms, that’s about the span it takes to drive from Vine to Alvarado streets down Sunset Boulevard, with Morris barking out bursts of verses about apocalyptic toxic boxes, false foundations, confusion piling up like trash, Darby Crash, chumps, drones, stone hearts, the Crenshaw strip, the King Kong Brigade (“sprinkling glass on their Happy Meals!”) and the Torrance jail. By the last lines of the album, during the song “I Want One (I Need One),” Morris has declared in all-caps that “I AM THEE HAPPENING” while acknowledging that “inside there’s nothing left, looking down from the 13th floor.”

Whew. But that’s Morris, whose quick lyrical exclamation points have always focused on frustration. What makes “Off!” burn is the band. To say that Coats, McDonald and Rubalcaba are tight is to simplify something incredibly rare: the ability to cram into 50 menacing seconds about five minutes worth of drama and structure without once dropping a beat. Few verses on “Off!” last more than four bars, ditto bridges and hooks. Coats’ chaotic guitar solos burst out and are reigned in within a few spazzy seconds. Choruses hit like skateboard wipeouts.

“My life was saved by Darby Crash,” says Morris in “Jet Black Girls” after he has screamed of shoving a six pack of tall boys down his pants and having “Co Co puffs with Mr. Scratch.” “Immortality calls,” he declares at the end. This is Los Angeles hard-core. Long may it rule.

Off!
"Off!"
Vice Records
Three-and-a-half stars (out of four)

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-- Randall Roberts @liledit

Album review: Rufus Wainwright's 'Out of the Game'

Rufus Wainwright's Out of the Game reviewed

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

One of the best opening lyrics so far this year comes near the middle of Rufus Wainwright’s seventh studio album, “Out of the Game.” Following a stutter-step, loping piano-drum introduction suggesting a Patsy Cline ballad, the singer with a perfect tenor starts with a suggestion: “Let’s meet in a respectable dive/On a somewhat safe street/And have a beer.” Over the next five minutes,  Wainwright offers intimate recollections to an unnamed lover, and one of the best lyrical turns of his career, on an album that follows through on the promise of his 1998 debut and his impressive, if at times uneven, work between then and now.

One of the catchiest and most immediately accessible albums Wainwright, 38, has made, “Out of the Game” was produced by Mark Ronson and features as its backing band the Dap-Kings, best known for its work supporting both Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse. Other guests include Nels Cline of Wilco, Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow and guitarist Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, all of whom steer the Dap-Kings and company away from a retro vibe and toward something much more vivid.

Continue reading »

Album review: Carrie Underwood's 'Blown Away'

Carrie-underwood-blown-away
Seven years after she won the fourth season of "American Idol," Carrie Underwood has been a top-tier country star for long enough that she can advise a friend to "turn off the static on the TV" (as she does in her new album's pep-talky "Nobody Ever Told You") without sounding like an ingrate. Yet if Underwood has undoubtedly established herself beyond the talent-show realm, she's been less successful embodying a persona more complex than Top-Tier Country Star: When Mitt Romney published a playlist of favorite campaign-trail tunes in March, it made sense that the sometimes-wooden presidential hopeful included Underwood's "All-American Girl."

"Blown Away," the singer's fourth album, has been described as a turn toward darkness from a singer who first topped the country chart with "Jesus, Take the Wheel." And insofar as the moody title track finds her willing death-by-tornado upon an abusive father, that's true. (Elsewhere, "Two Black Cadillacs" offers a bleaker spin on the revenge fantasy in Underwood's 2006 smash "Before He Cheats.") Mostly, though, "Blown Away" finds her using her remarkable voice to deliver feel-good bromides like those in the lightly reggae-inflected "One Way Ticket": "Life is like a ride on a party bus," "It matters where you're going, not where you been," "We're headed to a heaven where the beat don't stop." Who knew the victor's circle would be so dull?

Carrie Underwood
"Blown Away"
19/Arista Nashville
Two stars (Out of four)

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Album review: Santigold's 'Master of My Make-Believe'

Santigold
If a rebellion ever comes, someone had better give Santigold the microphone. Her messages, even at their most sloganeering, are coded for the dance floor, and the global approach of her compositions lends them a communal sense of urgency. “We’re the keepers,” Santigold sings near the end of the album, and as the brightly textured keyboards rise to meet the singalong vibe, she drops the bomb: “While we sleep in America our house is burning down.”

That’s as close as Santigold gets to any sort of current-events statement on “Master of My Make-Believe,” her second album and first in four years. It’s a sleek effort, with 11 songs that come in at under 40 minutes, and it opens with a bracing call to arms in “Go!” With help from Yeah Yeah Yeahs members Karen O and Nick Zinner, and production from Q-Tip and Switch, the song is techno-futurism mixed with African beats, and its images of fast food and winter palaces hint at class warfare.

“We know that we want more,” Santigold sings on the more hopeful “Disparate Youth,” in which Zinner crashes her worldly dance party with intermittent guitar strikes. All the while, Santigold dips in and out of genres as if she’s sporting musical camouflage, including the big-beat hip-hop of “Freak Like Me,” the touching balladry of “The Riot’s Gone” and the tribal electronics of “Big Mouth.” Throughout, Santigold never stops playing spin-the-globe, and she also never loses sight of her mission to keep listeners moving.

Santigold
“Master of My Make-Believe”
Downtown/Atlantic
Three and a half stars (Out of four)

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Image: Santigold at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2012. Credit: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times

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