This week, “Weird Al” Yankovic released the best album of the week (get the full review here), but we also got new albums from singer-songwriter Jason Mraz, legendary curmudgeon Morrissey, Norah Jones’ new trio Puss N Boots, the soundtrack to Zach Braff’s new movie “Wish I Was Here,” Jack Antonoff of Fun.’s new project Bleachers, punk band Rise Against and indie rockers Army Navy.
It’s another busy week with a lot to hear and discuss.
Jason Mraz’s “YES!” *1/2
Thankfully over the years, Jason Mraz has dropped the awkward faux hip-hop swagger that wore him down like an albatross on his first couple albums. Unfortunately, the success of his 2008 single “I’m Yours” made him a mouthpiece for slightly nauseatingly on-the-nose love ballads.
Mraz’s fifth studio album earns some excellent points for its glowing, ethereal sonic tone, but Mraz himself brings these arrangements down with his apologetically sappy songs. The first lines he sings on “Love Someone” are “Love is a funny thing. / Whenever I give it, it comes back to me.” “Best Friend” squanders one of the most authoritative beats on the record by being essentially a saccharine thank-you-note for a relationship. The arrangements here are strong. If Mraz had taken a different and more varied lyrical tone, he might have been onto something interesting.
Sure, his former knack for syncopated wordplay might not have always fit him, but if you re-listen to an early hit like “The Remedy,” it at least was clever and had something original to say. On this album’s laughably-titled “Hello, You Beautiful Thing,” Mraz actually sings that he’s “high on living” and that “it’s gonna be a good day.”
On “Everywhere,” he sings “I’m everything and everywhere,” thus bringing to mind previous hits by Michelle Branch and Vertical Horizon. It is clear that Mraz is not aiming for any sort of artistic growth but rather for a middle-of-the-road, unimaginative, merely satisfactory “lite-radio” realm. Even his capable but pointless cover of Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” comes off as a little too sharply targeted. Elsewhere, the peak of his song “Long Drive” echoes the Lumineers’ hit “Ho Hey” a little too carefully.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against sincere love songs and Mraz probably wrote these songs with the greatest of intentions, but the ending result is rather vapid. There’s a way to write incredible love songs and still maintain a unique edge. “Yes!” is less of an album and more akin to a sonic greeting card littered with tired clichés.
“Hello, You Beautiful Thing” I stand by all my above comments about this song, but if there is one track on here that deserves a repeated listen, it’s this one since it has a pleasant melody anchored by a catchy bassline. It has a sense of pep not heard on the rest of the record.
Morrissey’s “World Peace Is None Of Your Business” **
Morrissey seems especially adrift on his latest record. “World Peace Is None Of Your Business” is a pretentious mess even by Morrissey’s standards. This is sad to realize considering he had come off of three consecutive excellent albums. “You Are The Quarry,” “Ringleader Of The Tormentors” and “Years Of Refusal” all punctuated his signature acerbic wit with a strong pop sense. “Years Of Refusal” in particular, released five years ago possessed a particularly sharp punk edge thanks to producer Jerry Finn, who died suddenly before that album’s release. Finn’s presence could have been used here, for this record is short on accessible, enjoyable moments and plays up more of Morrissey’s polarizing qualities as an over-dramatic operatic grump.
There are moments here intended to provide atmosphere that just waste disc space. “I’m Not A Man” doesn’t really begin until a minute and 36 seconds into its playing time. Before that we hear what sounds like a fan running, someone walking around the studio and several achingly distant keyboard notes. It feels more like a mistake than a calculated artistic move.
With titles like “Kick The Bride Down The Aisle,” “Neal Cassady Drops Dead” and “The Bullfighter Dies,” it is clear that Morrissey’s dour demeanor is king. This has always been a key element to his music dating back to his days fronting The Smiths, but his material has always worked best with a strong, catchy backbone. The absence of such a foundation means a great deal. Before, Morrissey sounded like a pointed cerebral poet. Now he sounds like he crossed the line over to humorless crank. It also doesn’t help that his tone is even more bitter than usual throughout most of the set. Most of the album’s celebratory moments seem purposely drowned.
Naming a flamenco / bossa nova/samba number “Earth Is The Loneliest Planet” doesn’t work. Morrissey comes off as doing self-parody. The overdone backdrop just draws attention to the overly self-aware lyrics.
And yet the album isn’t without a few spare highlights, but the few times this record does hit its marks just remind the listener how good the rest of the album could have been. This album for the most part seems generally overwrought with a clumsy sense of self-satisfaction that it hasn’t earned. It’s a maddeningly slow carnival-ride of a record. It’s all of Morrissey’s drama without the reward. The three albums before this one prove he can do better.
“Staircase At The University” This track acts as the album’s one true saving grace. It’s a beautifully written and performed track amongst the rubbish. This is the one hint of Morrissey delivering material at the peak of his powers. It’s the kind of song that begs to be played on repeat and would place along with his best work with The Smiths. On this album, this track REALLY stands out. It sounds like it was written in a completely different headspace than the rest of the record. The sudden contrast is astounding. This should immediately be released as a single.
“Istanbul” The fuzzy production and mix of this track mask the fact that it is actually a keeper, with its warm chorus struggling for attention under battling synths and chunky guitar riffs.
Puss N Boots’ “No Fools, No Fun” ****
Puss N Boots is a trio formed by Norah Jones, Catherine Popper and Sasha Dobson. Popper and Dobson have both played on Jones’ records before and Dobson has released a string of her own solo albums. Popper has played bass on records by everyone from Jack White, to Ryan Adams to Mike Doughty.
The trio formed a few years back and have been performing around, but “No Fools, No Fun” is their debut release culled together from a mixture of studio and live-cuts. The interesting thing is, the studio cuts pretty much sound like live takes, giving this a strong, organic feel.
Most of the set is made of carefully picked covers with Dobson, Popper and Jones each fitting in an occasional original. For the Jones fans looking for a piano record, you won’t find it here. This is old school country and blues with Jones playing guitar and fiddle. You have to admire her for being such a shape-shifter. This set offers yet another flavor to her growing sonic tapestry.
The covers come from various sources. (Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Wilco, Jeb Loy Nichols and Tom Paxton just to name a few.) The originals sit between them well, proving that these three women can write songs that are just as strong as their inspiration.
“Jesus, Etc” It’s hard to listen to this Wilco song from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” without thinking of the horrors of 9/11. Strangely, the song was written before the tragedy but due to label fights wasn’t released until a few months after. The lines “Tall buildings shake. / Voices escape singing sad, sad songs” seem like an odd bit of foreshadowing. The band has discussed this before and has chalked it up to strange coincidence. Jones’ voice here is sad and sweet giving this song the tenderness and gravity it needs. This is quite a performance.
“Sex Degrees Of Separation” A Dobson original, this country-soaked number is about certain intimate ties.
“Down By The River” (Live From The Bell House in Brooklyn) This Jones-led take on Neil Young’s classic maintains a woozy, bluesy energy and the guitar solo is given extra care.
“Wish I Was Here” (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) ***1/2
The soundtrack that Zach Braff compiled for his movie “Garden State” is now rightly considered a classic on par with the movie it scores. So, this week as we prepare for his follow-up film, “Wish I Was Here” to be released this weekend, we now have a new soundtrack produced by Braff. It goes much for the same vibe as his previous soundtracks for “Garden State” and “The Last Kiss,” even showcasing some of the same artists. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, as the old saying goes. This, for the most part is a cleverly put together collection of warm (mostly acoustic) indie rock.
While “Garden State” had the Simon & Garfunkel classic, “The Only Living Boy In New York,” “Wish I Was Here” features Simon’s “Obvious Child,” which is a pretty popular choice these days considering it is also used as the title for Jenny Slate’s current starring vehicle and is used in that film’s trailer.
There might be issues to pick with this disc. (Do we need two Bon Iver songs, really?) Mostly, however this captures a singular spirit and stands well as a compilation. Sure, it takes the easy route sometimes by picking artists who have famously soundtracked other films like Badly Drawn Boy (“About A Boy”, “Being Flynn”) or Gary Jules (“Donnie Darko”) but sometimes the easiest route ends up being the best route. And you can forgive Braff if the oohed section of Radical Face’s “The Mute” loosely recalls the spirit of The Shins’ “New Slang” which was used as the sonic centerpiece for “Garden State.”
This soundtrack isn’t as diverse as Braff’s previous “Garden State” triumph, and only time will tell if it holds the same cultural weight, but Braff proves for a third time that he can put together a really strong mix.
“So Now What” (The Shins) “Garden State” opened the Shins up considerably to a new audience and so this time around we are treated to a brand new song, capturing James Mercer at his most whimsical. Somehow the track possesses an anthemic sunniness and a layer of underlying sadness simultaneously.
“Wish I Was Here” (Cat Power & Coldplay) If the utter banality of Coldplay’s “Ghost Stories” is enough to make you want to stop reading here, I don’t blame you, but I am asking you to resist the urge. Rest assured that Chris Martin and company are merely used as a backup band and that this is really a chance for Chan Marshall (AKA Cat Power) to shine. It’s a wonderfully contemplative piano ballad capturing the overall spirit of the disc.
“Wait It Out” (Allie Moss) Imogen Heap is still one of the best songwriters in the current landscape and her song “Wait It Out” gets a strong, acoustic reading from independent singer-songwriter Allie Moss. The song is stripped to its beautiful essence.
Bleachers’ “Strange Desire” ***1/2
Jack Antonoff rose to fame as a member of both Steel Train and Fun. In addition he has co-wrote hits for others, notably Sara Bareilles’ hit “Brave.” The inspiration for his latest project came surprisingly while he was on tour with Fun. The end result is actually a more balanced collection than his other current band’s hit album “Some Nights.”
“Strange Desire” is a likable collection of dance and techno-pop anchored by themes of urban loneliness and redemption. The sound fuses the pop and new-wave of the eighties through today’s filter. At the same time, in some ways this plays like a less hipster-driven, less winking alternative to groups like LCD Soundsystem. Antonoff finds a nice balance here between artistic expression, experimentation and pop gold. There’s still a touch of that cloying energy that slightly mars Fun.’s music. It sometimes seems that some of these anthems are a tad forced, in the same way that “We Are Young” was, but Antonoff knows exactly what he’s doing. This is meant to be an enjoyable summer record to blast after a long, difficult week at work. It also has its share of surprises. It shimmers and shines and gets better with each listen.
“I Wanna Get Better” This is this album’s answer to “We Are Young.” This is an escapist anthem with a gigantic chorus where Antonoff sings, “I didn’t know I was lonely ‘til I saw your face.” Call this self-help dance music, if you must. This is all about the cleansing power of partying with friends. Socialization is a key element to sanity.
“Take Me Away” (Featuring Grimes) This airy synth-driven number would have sounded great in the movie “Drive,” and Grimes adds a ghostly response during the chorus. This is just a beautiful track built on impressive use of lyrical layering. At 2:30, it is shockingly brief, but perhaps that is for the best since such brevity nearly assures repeat listens. Grimes isn’t the only high-profile guest on the album. Yoko Ono pops up a few tracks later on “I’m Ready To Move On.”
“Who I Want You To Love” This acoustic guitar-driven closer, quickly shows its psychedelic edges as it morphs into an acid-rock jam with a heavily-pronounced bass-line. This is an inspiringly unexpected way for the album to close and it shows that Antonoff has quite lofty goals that go beyond just hitting the charts. He obviously wants the respect of the critics who listen to music beyond the boundaries of pop radio. I wish this jam got another minute or two to stretch out, but it is an impressive display.
Rise Against’ s “The Black Market” ***1/2
Chicago punks Rise Against issue their seventh album overall and their first album in three years with “The Black Market.” As expected, this is a hard-driving angst-driven set not unlike their previous work. These songs are rally-cries sung and played with great urgency. This group has always been one of the most militant and most politically progressive of the punk bands to be embraced by the major labels and yet with titles like “I Don’t Want To Be Here Anymore “ and “The Great Die-Off” there seems to be a thread of reflection with a slight hint of self-loathing. Like most good punk, this is album is filled with anthems of dissatisfaction with the current systems. Political or otherwise, this is an album thick with general unrest and it rages to the core.
This still has a slight pop-sheen that sets it apart from the punk of the past, but like many of the band’s previous records, it has Descendants’ drummer Bill Stevenson listed as co-producer giving the band continual cred with the old-guard’s embrace. They have always liked to place their melody and wrath in equal balance.
The album’s best moments arrive when the tempos approach a hardcore pace and when vocalist Tim McIlrath’s voice seems to be close to its breaking point. In all, though the album offers few surprises. It’s the kind of album the band’s fans would expect. That isn’t a bad thing. It shows consistency.
“The Black Market” “A currency of heartache and sorrow. / The air we breathe is stale with mold. / To shadows we are slaves / Growing deeper every day / But emptiness is growing so old.” These lines set off this title-track with a dark, dystopian bend as it forges into their signature charge. It could be the most rocking song about the mining industry ever recorded.
“Bridges” The album ends with a charging anthem of political change. At the same time the song wonders if we have made any progress at all. “Sudden Life” This is mid-tempo by this band’s standards. It has an upbeat, life-affirming tone and yet it appears to be a song about dying.
Army Navy’s “The Wilderness Inside” ****
This power-pop band led by Justin Kennedy is offering up their third and most varied release to date. Kennedy was once in a band called Pinwheel with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and Postal Service fame. Kennedy’s voice has a likable, high, distinct tone, hitting a timbre somewhere between Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan and Peter Moren of Peter Bjorn & John. In other words, it is a perfect voice for the kind of pop-driven rock that he creates. His music is always melodic with spare bits of unapologetic pep.
“The Wilderness Inside” has more down-tempo moments than the first two records and that opens up Kennedy’s writing even more. This is the densest, richest song-set this band has ever delivered, with a more contemplative tone. They have long been a bit of an indie-rock secret, in spite of placements on the soundtracks to “Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “The Way Way Back.” "The Wilderness Inside” offers up 10 reasons why they deserve a larger audience.
“Crushed Like The Car” A sad, perhaps post-accident lament full of layered guitar wash and an eventual slightly-go-go influenced beat. This is morose summer beach music with perhaps a touch of some textural influence from The Jesus & Mary Chain.
“Dumb Luck” The guitars recede for a few moments, making room for this groove and atmosphere similar to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” The instrumental textures trade off throughout the song and each subtle change and addition draws your attention.
“Spinning On The Record” This Motown-meets power-punk pounder is more what the fans of the first two records may expect. It’s the kind of upbeat number that is Kennedy’s specialty.
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