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Jenny from the blah: Pop queen sounds bored on Album Eight
At her best, J.Lo combines and energises familiar dance-pop sounds to make music worth getting lost in (in 1999, "Waiting for Tonight"; in 2011, "On the Floor"). On her eighth album, however, she just sounds lost. Beyond summer-anthem contender "I Luh Ya Papi," Lopez supplements flat production from names like RoccStar with forgettable verses from rappers like T.I., claims street cred but offers nothing to show for it and awkwardly seeks cool in third-rate Diplo beats and New York's underground vogue scene. Later, she indulges in puns as shameless as "Expertease" and "bootyful" – though, to be fair, that last one comes from guest star Pitbull.
The master songwriter turns in his strongest tunes in decades
A minute into Willie Nelson's new set of songs – largely self-penned for a change – it's clear the man who wrote Patsy Cline's "Crazy" 50-some years ago has lost neither verve nor cojones. Co-writing with producer Buddy Cannon, Nelson sticks to his wheelhouse: love, heartache, rambling and music-making itself. The vocals remain indelibly creaky against stony acoustic guitar, bright steel whines and dusty harmonica whinnies. "We're a band of brothers and sisters and whatever/On a mission to break all the rules," he sings on the title track – a pledge of solidarity from an 81-year-old outlaw that, even at this late date, rings 100 per cent true.
These Brooklyn guys spent their first three records finding out how many pop subgenres they could fit into a single album. (The answer: a ton.) On their fourth effort, the Mini T's skip the wild swerving for a surprisingly cohesive set of sun-drenched, self-aware, often silly synthpop grooves. Lead single "Used to Be the Shit" is the kind of kiss-off that Vampire Weekend would have written if they'd skipped class to smoke weed on the couch more often; the cutesiness of album highlight "Selfish Girl," meanwhile, contains multitudes. Sure, Cruel Runnings is a bit of a one-trick pony – but, you have to admit, it's a pretty great trick.
"As Always," the first song on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's fourth album, is an enormous-sounding rush of ambient noise, thunderclap snare shots, iridescent guitar beauty and singer Alec Ounsworth guardedly assuring, "Sooner or later I will change/And we will be all right." The mix of rich ambition and shaky optimism defines a band that's traded clattery low-fi post-punk for music that's high-drama and hook-hearty. "Beyond Illusion" sets dazed-angel vocals atop tense dance rock; on "Coming Down," Ounsworth and the National's Matt Berninger go soul-searching. Only Run is an album that rarely seems overblown, even when the songs are big enough to fill a cathedral.
The Melbourne MC stays positive while detailing the dark side of fame on polished third LP
For his nation-wide tour this past February, hip-hop megastar Eminem personally handpicked the local support act from a number of Australian artists who had submitted their music to him.
The person bestowed with the substantial honour of being chosen by Mr. Mathers to join him on the road was 27-year-old Melbourne MC Matthew Colwell, aka 360. It’s not a stretch to postulate that Mathers may have seen a little of himself in Colwell: a rapper who cut his teeth in the underground battle scene before navigating toward more radio-friendly fare and, in turn, blowing up in the mainstream.
The parallels – not all of them positive – don’t end there, either. Like Em, 360’s sudden rise to fame (thanks to double-platinum selling 2011 LP Falling & Flying, home to 4 x platinum single “Boys Like You”) left the rapper a homebound recluse with substance abuse issues, all while a chorus of long-time fans – adherents to some stringent notion of “keeping it real” – were quick to label the troubled star a sellout.
Fully aware of the turned backs of the hip-hop underground and the fickle nature of the pop world, 360 comes out positively swinging on third album Utopia. Opener “Still Rap” wastes no time addressing the haters hoping for a fall: “All these jealous motherfuckers are old now/Saying ‘don’t rap’ and go back to my old sound/ And people saying I’ve sold out/Yeah man I have, when I’m performing for a whole town”. And in case listeners haven’t got the point, it’s all delivered over a slick, widescreen soundscape with a lighters-in-the-air chorus. “Fuck what you think”, indeed.
Like his former tourmate, 360’s songs can be divided into four main categories: the goofy ones laden with bad taste jokes (“Sixavelli”, which hammers home the Eminem comparisons even further by coming with its very own dated Monica Lewinsky gag); the showy ones where technique and flow are on full display (“Eddie Jones”, which deftly channels Watch the Throne-era Jay Z and Kanye West); the downbeat ones where Colwell opens up his wounds (“Early Warning”, which details his brother’s harrowing drug addiction, and the skeletons-in-the-closet clearing “By All Means”); and the stadium-reaching anthems (the fist-pumping optimism of “Give it Up” featuring best friend Pez).
Although 360’s raw honesty and positive outlook are to be applauded, the lyrics veer into overwrought territory as the album progresses, and thematic and sonic terrain already covered is revisited to diminishing effect. A host of marquee names are trotted out to add star value (the Living End’s Chris Cheney, Gossling and Daniel Johns, who appears twice), but it’s some judicious tracklist editing – not guests – that would gift the album extra impact.
Still, Utopia is the sound of an artist unafraid to bare his soul, tackle controversial subject matter (suicide, homophobia, racism, religion and addiction) and be himself, critics be damned. As 360 says on “Speed Limit”, “If you’re not behind me/Then stay the fuck out my way”. It’s a defiant middle-finger that would surely muster a smile from a certain Caucasian MC also known to do things strictly his way.
LA noise-hop trio follow 2013 mixtape with chilling debut
Clipping is what happens when you pair two LA noise artistes with a murderously dark MC. Daveed Diggs’ rapid-fire flow, combined with the minimal electronics supplied by producers Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson, makes for a seriously combustible debut. Unlike likeminded sonic terrorists Death Grips, the aggressiveness is palpable but not off-putting. There’s a playful inventiveness to the way Diggs raps about his “nine to five” over the buzz of an alarm clock on “Get Up”; “Dream” is a post-apocalyptic nightmare with a chorus of whispers; while the female counterpoint on “Work Work” by rising Compton star Cocc Pistol Cree seals the deal. Hip-hop is getting wonderfully weird.
Vancouver punks find new peaks of thrash and fury on LP three.
Vancouver's White Lung barreled into punk fans' hearts with 2010's It's the Evil, followed by 2012's venomous Sorry. They're as furiously formidable as ever on their third LP. Mish Way's damning yowls offer profound ruminations on sex and body image, while guitarist Kenneth William's swift, discordant lashes resurrect the finer aspects of 2000s-era post-hardcore; drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou holds down a steady velocity, pelting listeners with relentless rounds of thrash. At times, the songs bleed together almost to the point of indistinction, but crystal-clear production makes this thunderous album well worth seeking out, even for those who wouldn't be caught dead near a circle pit.
Former White Stripes man goes all out, aurally and vinyl-y
Lazaretto comes with so many gimmicks you’d be forgiven for thinking the music is an afterthought. Vinyl fetishist Jack White went to town with an “ultra LP” version – it plays from the inside out towards the edge; there are hidden tracks you can play on the label itself; there’s a hologram of an angel in the run-off groove.
But enough nerdboy stuff. If you’re just getting the CD, are the songs any good? Yes, as it happens. Away from the White Stripes, White has plunged into so many projects – including the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, numerous collaborations and record production – you would think he knows his days are numbered. On this solo follow-up to 2012’s Blunderbuss, he comes across like a man on a mission, intent on pushing his arsenal of sounds to the limit.
If you were to pair White with a movie director it would be Quentin Tarantino. Both of them are jittery, crazy showmen. You can easily imagine the crunchy riffing and shivering piano trills of the hyper instrumental “High Ball Stepper” or the undulating exotica-inspired organ/vocal interplay of “Would You Fight For My Love?” playing over opening and closing credits for the next QT flick.
Even when White gets more rustic on “Entitlement” and “Alone In My Home”, you can sense the sweat on his lip and swivel in his hips. “Every single bone in my brain is electric,” he hollers in the title track, over fuzzed-out staccato guitar and a whiplash solo that requires a seatbelt. He speaks the weird truth.
Swedish duo aim for bigger sound on third album
Seven years ago, when Swedish sister duo Johanna and Klara Söderberg appeared on YouTube singing a Fleet Foxes song in a forest, they seemed like an adorable one-view wonder. Instead, they've blossomed into an excellent indie-country act, like the Carter Family if they'd grown up on Lee Hazlewood's Cowboy in Sweden and Emmylou Harris. Like 2012's The Lion's Roar, Stay Gold was recorded in Omaha with Bright Eyes producer Mike Mogis, whose Big Sky echo and orchestrations complement sublime drifter poetry like "Waitress Song," where the harmonies tickle God and the lyrics begin, "I could move to a small town and become a waitress/Say my name was Stacey and I was figuring things out."
Solo Pretender kicks against pop-rock divide
Thirty-plus years into her career and finally dispensing with the Pretenders name, Chrissie Hynde still finds herself warning haters not to "fuck with this heart of mine" in that elastic voice. On her delicate and sexy solo debut – actually a joint effort with new writing partner Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John, plus guests including Neil Young and, oddly, tennis great John McEnroe – she does decompress: "In a Miracle" sounds like Aimee Mann after a warm bath. But Hynde can still flash her blade. In the reverb-slashed "A Plan Too Far," she busts one tedious guy down to a hilariously blunt double-entendre: "You're as consistent as a weathervane cock."
Sydney rockers fail to make anything stick on second LP
The long awaited follow-up to garage punks Straight Arrows’ 2010 debut It’s Happening opens with two-chord strum “Introduction”, a sound that’s both simplistic and overly familiar – a description that sums up Rising. They’re traits that can be a positive in the scrappy arena of primal, throwback garage rock, as long as the hooks land and the energy is high. The band succeed at the latter – you can imagine this going down a treat in a beer-and-sweat-drenched club – but only partially succeed at the former, the distorted, unintelligible vocals and studied lo-fi production only partially distracting attention away from songs that blister but rarely burn in the memory.
Moz rails at enemies, mourns old friends on surprisingly strong LP
Being misunderstood is Morrissey’s great joy in life, as he keeps proving in World Peace Is None of Your Business – a much stronger album than fans were expecting at this point. The fantastic title song is a doo-wop rant against cops, governments, armies, etc. Moz doesn’t fare as well protesting Beefaroni (rhymes with “Ah, but lonely”) or mean professors. But he saves two stunners for last: “Mountjoy” is his dear-hero-imprisoned lament for the late Irish writer Brendan Behan, and “Oboe Concerto” resembles the Smiths classic “Death of a Disco Dancer”, as Morrissey mourns the dead companions of his youth, singing, “All I do is drink to absent friends.”
The ex-SoundScan killer figures out how to be an underdog
Earlier this year, 50 Cent slid from the world’s biggest major to an indie deal – a move that, just a few years ago, would have been as unthinkable as Michael Clarke stepping to the crease for a village cricket team. And where the old 50 – the guy who, at his height, loved nothing more than mocking his peers’ failing sales and fading relevance – probably would have ripped Animal Ambition to shreds, less cruel listeners will find much to enjoy. Tracks like “Hold On” and “Pilot” have all the smirking charm of 50’s glory days. At their best, they can even recall his time as a mixtape hustler with a world to conquer and nothing to lose.
Young brothers let the good times roll
Originally released in 1973, the Marcus Hook Roll Band’s only record is famously remembered as the first time Malcolm and Angus Young went into a studio. In truth, however, the album is much more the work of their older brother, George, and his long time partner in crime, Harry Vanda. A month of booze-fuelled sessions resulted in an album of heavy, funky blues, with hints of Steppenwolf and Steely Dan melding into Vanda and Young’s past and Angus and Malcolm’s future. Solid riffing (“Can’t Stand the Heat”), throw-away raunch (“Watch her Do It”) and all-in absurdity (“Ape Man”) combine for a record that reflects the good times in which it was created.
Undercooked ideas stretched thin on disappointing third LP
After making a splash with 2005 debut We Have Sound, Tom Vek disappeared, leaving fans rabid for new music. He resurfaced on 2011’s Leisure Seizure, more “it’ll do” than triumphant return. The muted response seems to have left the Londoner bitter, opener “How Am I Meant to Know” bemoaning “What will they think of me?/This sacrifice isn’t enough/I need to justify everything I do.” The lyrics veer from sour grapes to terrible, and his largely stagnant sound – deadpan vocals, big synths, bigger drums – only occasionally works. On “Trying to Do Better”, Vek sings “What I should do is change it up, to leave my comfort zone.” He should heed his own advice.
Black Keys-approved singer grows up on third album
Six years ago, Jessica Lea Mayfield was a precocious teenager singing simple, sullen country songs about hitting rock-bottom. On her third full-length (and first without Dan Auerbach producing), she’s grown into a world-weary alt-rock dreamer. The set opens with the grungy “Oblivious” and its grown-up passive aggression: “I could kill her with the powers in my mind/But I’m a good humanitarian.” Elsewhere, between tremulous indie textures and slow-core plucking, Mayfield renounces her own childishness (“Unknown Big Secret”) and regrets past indiscretions (“Party Drugs”). Her sweet and sweltering guitar playing and forked-tongue revelations are what 24 should sound like.