This week, we get to hear the much-hyped soundtrack to “Fifty Shades Of Grey.” Is it better than the movie itself? From the buzz I’m hearing, it's quite possible. Also Fleet Foxes’ drummer J. Tillman releases his second album as Father John Misty, Ricky Martin releases a new Spanish record, Rhiannon Giddens merges country and soul by paying tribute to her influences and Southern Rock band Blackberry Smoke blur the line between rock and country. It’s a busy, musically-diverse assortment this week.
“Fifty Shades Of Grey” (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack ***1/2
Let me make a couple things clear. I have not read “Fifty Shades Of Grey” and I am writing this a few days before the release of the film, so I have not seen the film yet either. The soundtrack itself is actually on the whole a winning collection of sultry electro blues pop, featuring top-shelf including Annie Lennox, Beyonce and the Weeknd. Where it stumbles is actually the inclusion of older catalog numbers. Songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Beast Of Burden” and Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” may go well in the movie, but on this compilation, they frankly interrupt the overall flow of the collection. The same goes for AWOLNATION’s surprisingly twee-sounding reading of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.”
It’s evident from Lennox’s cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” (also on her album “Nostalgia” from last year) and the Weeknd’s “Earned It,” that the compilers of this soundtrack are using Portishead’s “Glory Box” as a blueprint for its brand of sonic erotica. This is also evident in Jessie Ware’s “Meet Me In The Middle” and even Beyonce’s slower re-reading of her classic “Crazy In Love,” in which the originally quick “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh” portion is converted into slow, raspy, semi-orgasmic moans. (This collection contains a nice remix of Ms. Knowles’ “Haunted,” as well.) The overall tone of these tracks bring to mind strip-teases involving women wearing top-hats and lingerie. (Of course that may be the influence of the Weeknd’s slightly NSFW music video seeping into my subconscious.)
The soundtrack is at its best when it hits that mark and/or narrowly avoids it while keeping the same mood. Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” is not only one of her best songs to date, but it is the only song that sounds euphoric in its sensuality. It sounds like an expression of love as much as some sort of sexual liberation. Laura Welsh’s “Undiscovered” is an upbeat dance number that sounds like it is backed by the sped-up beat of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” while Skylar Grey delivers the extremely strong ballad “I Know You.”
Two slices of Danny Elfman’s score close out the record, showing that this movie that is rumored to contain 20 minutes of sex-scenes may be one of the most exquisitely and carefully scored films to surf the line of soft-core-porn that Hollywood has ever produced. If this soundtrack doesn’t always please, it is the nature of the compilation, presumably meaning to serve the movie over this collection. The truth is, this album is probably better and more satisfying overall than many would expect.
Ellie Goulding – “Love Me Like You Do” – This is a clear standout. It also is quite brighter and less ominous than the majority of the rest of the soundtrack. While most of the rest of the album has an ominous quality mixed in with its sensuality, this song is the only one that sounds happy and downright celebratory.
Jessie Ware – “Meet Me In The Middle” While this song has a sultry strip-tease soundtrack quality, Ware’s soulfulness and the instrumentation also bring to mind a late-night jazz performance at an elegant venue. Still, there’s enough sonic stink on that guitar-line to add a sense of mystery.
Skylar Grey – “I Know You” This is a top-notch ballad on par with her writing work on Rihanna and Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie.” It is haunting, sad and thoughtful at the same time.
Father John Misty’s “I Love You, Honeybear” ****1/2
It is only February and yet it probably a safe bet to say there will be few albums that will rival the dead-eyed, smart-aleck snarkiness on display on J. Tillman’s second offering from his alter-ego Father John Misty. This is a record that pulls no punches and freely overshares with an impressive sense of detail. Tillman writes his protagonists with a gleeful sense of mind-numbing disdain akin to the passing observation of an unaffected, judgmental bystander.
Like this generation’s answer to Loudon Wainwright III, Tillman unflinchingly delivers hilariously dark, sick and twisted lines. On “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” he sings about a newly married couple touching each other for the first time. “I want to take you in the kitchen. / Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in.” With a straight face, many of these songs sound like throwbacks to passed-down folk songs about killers, narcissists and other disreputable souls. Set within a modern, indie-rock context, these songs come off as both shocking and refreshing.
Really this album is a grand work of modern satire. On the self-referencingly-titled “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment," he lampoons one woman for her brazen use of “malaprops” and her incorrect usage of the word “literally” one moment and attacks the elements of hipster culture which lead to forms of cultural misappropriation the next. There’s a winking sense of anger hiding just under the surface of these deadpan folk songs and yet you can tell that in between takes Tillman and his band must be laughing at these densely-woven examples of on-point absurdism. This element was present on Tillman’s first Father John Misty album, “Fear Fun,” especially on the downright outstanding single “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” but on here, this biting element is intensely sharpened. Along with Wainwright, Warren Zevon may also be an apt comparison.
On “I Love You, Honeybear,” Father John Misty paints a dystopian picture full of half-informed know-it-alls and hopeless souls looking for guidance. This album is as unsettling as it is moving, full of nudges and jabs. Few social conventions are safe. In many ways, this album delivers a master-class in playfully obnoxious observations, seemingly chronicling a collective downward spiral into oblivion. This album is an extremely intense gem.
“Strange Encounter” This is a dynamite song, which structurally sounds like the sequel to “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” mainly due to its slapping rhythm. It also has the very ear-catching first line of “Only ever be the girl who just almost died in my house.” It opens up so many excellent, yet unanswered questions.
“Holy S__t” If you know anything about Tillman’s background, he was raised by Evangelical parents and was reportedly not allowed to listen to “secular music” until he was 17. If the song “Holy S__t” is any hint, when the subject of religion comes up, this is his small bit of rebellion against a childhood full of traumatic and isolating experiences in its name. He freely discusses the lasting effects such a childhood had on him. This track not only tackles religion, but a hodgepodge of cultural institutions in a free-form game of extremely artful word-association. This is the stuff that will offend some and amaze others. It may be the second to last song on the record, but it is really this album’s thesis statement.
“Bored In The USA.” Tillman tackles this ballad with wit and sadness. “They gave me a useless education, a sub-prime loan and a craftsman home.” He sings this passage over some cuttingly disturbing canned laughter.
Ricky Martin’s “A Quien Quiera Escuchar” (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2
Ten albums into his solo career and 16 years removed from his “Livin’ La Vida Loca” peak visibility, Ricky Martin still proves himself to be a show-stopping entertainer. “A Quien Quiera Escuchar” is a Spanish-language record showcasing some strong Latin pop. The production may be slick and radio-ready, but the instrumentation is pretty tight and takes some risks. The solo for instance on the hypnotic “Isla Bella,” begins with some excellently percussive Spanish guitar and then blossoms into a massive, horn-assisted workout. This is not an album that rests on the easy clichés. This is Latin pop done well with an equal eye on instrumentation and spectacle.
Sure, single “Adios” plays like an obvious successor to both “Living La Vida Loca” and “She Bangs,” tone-wise, but that can be chalked up to Martin aiming for a signature sound. Some of these songs are clearer winners than others, but overall, this album leaves a positive feeling. It also is a pretty ambitious record, with a guest-appearance from The City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
The most common name that pops up in the song-writing credits in Yotuel Romero from the France-based, Cuban hip-hop group Orishas. As an artist, Yotuel appears on “La Mordidita,” with its interesting mix of flamenco-esque propulsion and modern electro and EDM touches. Martin’s voice is also still in top form. His vocals sound natural on the mix which is rare for any sort of pop these days. He has excellent delivery and always keeps the show interesting.
This album is not game-changing. If you are a longtime fan or otherwise, it isn’t likely to blow your mind, but it shows Martin and his associates can deliver a very good album, keeping with his legacy.
“Isla Bella” This track is a clear highlight, nailing every aspect from the syncopated guitar-work to the build towards the instrumental ending.
“Náufrago” The title, means “Castaway” and this is a sunny, relaxed Tropical groove. The deluxe version of the album includes an acoustic version of this track as well as two other alternate readings of other tracks on the album.
“Mátame Otra Vez” This song, (translated “Kill Again”) is a smooth ballad. What makes this song remarkable is how subtly dubstep elements play during the chorus without intruding or even sounding like a dated fad. The bass-drops slowly murmur in the background as Martin sings. These elements don’t even clash with a muted jazz-trumpet solo over them. This is an impressive feat of both arrangement and production.
Rhiannon Giddens’ “Tomorrow Is My Turn” ****
Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens makes her solo debut with this collection of covers, with T. Bone Burnett as her producer. Giddens is firmly placed in the bluegrass/Americana realm, but she also peppers her music with various other bits of influence. Her voice is extremely soulful, in many ways bringing up associations with traditional blues. She even momentarily journeys into gospel territory. In other words, “Tomorrow Is My Turn” is a throwback to more traditional, roots-driven music.
The album also allows Giddens to pay tribute to her heroes. She covers Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind,” while the title-track is a cover of a Charles Aznavour song which was famously recorded by Nina Simone. “Waterboy” was made famous by Odetta, while “She’s Got You” was a Patsy Cline song. In other words, Giddens effortlessly intertwines the worlds of country and soul in a very compelling way. She’s also got the talent to attack her cover choices with the power they deserve. Her voice can be a soaring marvel. This brand of skill is a rare commodity these days, almost as if Giddens was transported from another time.
“Tomorrow Is My Turn” is a sometimes haunting, always stirring collection of songs delivered with immense care. If Giddens continues with this level of output, someday she will be among someone else’s list of treasured icons. Even though she’s covering other people’s songs, Giddens is definitely worthy of her own spotlight and definitely makes her own mark.
“Waterboy” This is probably the strongest, most impressionable performance on the record. Giddens brings forth the blues with her impressive other-worldly wail. It’s pretty remarkable.
“She’s Got You” This is also quite a strong reading, giving this Hank Cochran-penned classic the depth it deserves.
“Tomorrow Is My Turn” Few singers can compete with Nina Simone, although she is often covered and cited as an influence. Giddens does her best to do Simone proud in this version.
Blackberry Smoke’s “Holding All The Roses” ***
“Holding All The Roses” is Southern rock band Blackberry Smoke’s fourth release and it showcases exactly what you would expect from a modern Southern Rock band. This is a band that obviously grew up on Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top, with enough biker-bar bile to push them ahead of the mainstream pack. Sure, this is predictable and Brendan O’Brien’s production is strikingly slick. In fact often the audio lacquer is put on a little too thickly, causing some of the gnarly edges of the music to be needlessly sanded down, but if you are looking for a modern answer to this genre, this album delivers something that is both reliable and reasonably enjoyable. It may not forge new paths, but it fills a void, offering a harder approach than mainstream country often provides.
Of course, there are bumps in the road. “Rock & Roll Again” is a little too by-the-book and frankly at this point it is a little lame to put the phrase “Rock & Roll” in a song title or a hook. It’s been overdone. But that minor misstep is redeemed by the sludgy guitar work on the ballad “Woman In The Moon.”
Vocalist Charlie Starr delivers his words with a Southern twang, but there is an authentic quality to his drawl and the band’s songs are generally interesting enough to make you want to listen to the words. That’s not to say that sometimes they don’t journey into often explored territory. On “Wish In One Hand,” Starr sings, “If wishes were horses I want to ride.” If you are of a certain age and remember the Spin Doctors’ theme for the show “Spin City,” it was called, “If Wishes Were Horses” and it had the chorus of “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
Sure, Blackberry Smoke may not be completely original and this album does have its share of flaws, but “Holding All The Roses” also has its charms. More than a decade into their career, they still seem like a hungry band and they are firmly on the rise.
“Woman In The Moon” By far, this is the best track on the record. It marries country-balladry with rock fuzz quite well.
“Holding All The Roses” Like their friends the Zac Brown Band, this aims to blur some stylistic lines. The verses are full of down-home handclapping and some solid guitar and fiddle work, before launching into a heavy, head-banging chorus.
“Randolph County Farewell” Sure, this is an acoustic instrumental that only clocks in at 1:17, but in that brief moment of subtlety, it captures something sweet. It’s an excellent track.
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