The Weeknd: Beauty Behind The Madness (XO/Republic) It would appear that Abel Tesfaye, the young, very talented artist known as the Weeknd—he gets charged for every “e”—has his finger extended into nearly everything he need to in 2015: The genre—heavily R&B-inflected pop with a boatload of vocal processing; the faces—famous, photogenic guesting pop stars like Lana Del Rey and Ed Sheeran; and a look and feel that that’s unique enough to set him apart from greater and lesser arty types. There are a lot of pop hooks here, conspicuously smooth and appealing production that makes every song go down agreeably, and the occasional lyric snippet—“only losers go to school”—that makes it all worthy of many more than one listen. It’s good, solid stuff, it should resonate very strongly in the marketplace, and it shows an ambition and respect for pop music forms that’s admirable and frankly surprising at this late date. And there are four-letter words everywhere. A fine showing.
Beach House: Depression Cherry (Sub Pop) Working within a rich and comparatively minimal geographic sub-genre—male/female Baltimore-based duos, of which both Beach House and Wye Oak predominate—the former pretty much have it all down on their fifth album. There’s a lot of agreeable sound washes, slightly reverberating vocals that make much of we hear seem agreeably dreamy and romantic, and a sense that the pair that are Beach House—Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally—are not flailing about but quite good at what they do. That sense of self-assurance permeates most of Depression Cherry and makes it fascinating, moody listen that 1) requires repeat listenings and 2) is almost impossible to gauge in terms of when it might actually have been recorded—the early ‘70s, the late ‘90s, next year?—which only makes you want to hear it again. Whatever tradition they might be echoing, it isn’t an overly familiar one, and that’s a good thing.
The Robert Cray Band: 4 Nights Of 40 Years Live (Provogue) A welcome reminder of the worthiness and sheer affability of the much-celebrated “new” blues icon Robert Cray, who’s so new he’s now celebrating his 40th year in the business via this 2 CD/1 DVD package of live stuff and testimonials from famous faces like Keith Richard, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and more. And as he’s gotten older, Cary has not just gotten better, he’s arrived at an interesting place that combines blues roots with Memphis R&B: a tasteful, deliberately spare style that allows his core strengths—superb guitar playing and gritty, soulful vocals—to rise in prominence. As the guest talking heads here emphasize, Cray’s a vital, important 21st Century player—and the remaining music, of which there is much, does all the rest of the talking.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival (Experience Hendrix/Legacy) There is a moment at the midpoint of “Lover Man”—the second track of this very fine recording of Jimi Hendrix live at the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival—where the iconic guitarist lets rip an incredible intricate, stinging, but impeccably smooth string of notes that’s a welcome reminder of his talent as string-plucker rather than an electronic noise/feedback maestro, and it’s an absolute thrill. That someone like Hendrix, who you’d think would’ve been over-documented to oblivion after all these years, can still impress via packages like this must mean that 1) Yes, he was a hell of a player, and 2) There really is still great stuff in the can. And though much of this has been heard via bootlegs over the years, this is a sonically superb recording, it features Hendrix during a fascinating point in his latter-day career—he’s playing with Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell—and it’s the non-hits, the latter-day stuff, that most impresses after all this time. A welcome set that is a polished, entirely appropriate addition to the Hendrix catalog—which has seen its ups and downs over the years.
Foals: What Went Down (Warner Bros.) Those who intently follow the ups and downs and the “personalities” of certain artists—especially as documented by a music press taken to over-dramatizing what is often just barely ordinary—at times don’t seem to grasp the trees for the forest. Meaning that I’m not especially interested in whether Foals lead singer Yannis Philippakis said this or said that, acted this way or that way, etc.—I’m much more interested in whether this new Foals album is, bluntly, simply any good. And it’s very good. It is their fourth album, it is substantial, the songs are strong and hook-filled, and while Foals are a British rock band making records in 2015, they often sound as if they were making records in 1991 or so, and in their case that’s a compliment. Strong stuff by a band getting more and more interesting by the minute.
The Faces: 1970-1975: You Can Make Me Dance, Sing Or Anything… (Rhino) Though the spiel was that Rod Stewart “kept all the good stuff” for his own solo albums—especially his first three—and let the material slide for his simultaneous outings with the former Small Faces—the flip side of that may be that most of those Faces albums didn’t really get the fair shake they might have deserved. And between them—First Step, Long Player, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse, and Ooh La La—those first four Stewart-led Faces albums of 1970-1973 now sound better than they did way back then. Part of it may be that the comparative contributions of those other Faces—Ronnies Lane and Wood, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones—are now better appreciated in context; part of it may be that there will never be a need to hear “Maggie May” again for the rest of our lives. But this set—5 CDs, the last of which collects extras, live things, b-sides, etc,–is a comprehensive and affordable guide to the studio works of the latter-day Faces, which means, bottom line, it would be hard to go wrong here, and you won’t.
Hooton Tennis Club: Highest Point In Cliff Town (PIAS America) Repeated playings in my car—for that is where all the best music gets played—has completely sold me on Britain’s young Hooton Tennis Club, a combo with a great grasp of pop textures and songwriting personality, whose debut album here is nothing but good, through and through. Far be it from me to directly quote from an artist bio—wouldn’t that be the height of laziness?—but “the sound of the summer of adolescence slipping into the autumn of adulthood” is not a bad description, so let’s use it again. Sonically there’s a bit of Teenage Fanclub here and the Pooh Sticks there—could anything be finer?—but the point is, you play this once and you want to play it again and again and again. It is why you like music, so you should hear this.
Future Days: Krautrock And The Birth Of A Revolutionary New Music by David Stubbs (Melville House) Kudos to Brit writer David Stubbs for this well-written and enjoyable look at that very fascinating pop music that emerged from Germany from the mid-‘60s onward and has, for better or worse, become known as Krautrock. Most of the best-known artists are here—Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Faust, Tangerine Dream—and their respective origins and influences are well-recounted by Stubbs, whose enlightened perspective will educate newcomers and satisfy longtime fans who at this late date may actually be more interested in the minor-league players than the comparative superstars that are Ralf and Florian. An excellent contextualization of German Rock, and where you might want to start before wandering off willy-nilly and unguided into the world of Embryo, Birth Control and Floh de Cologne. Recommended.