Beck – “Colors”

(photo credit: shop.beck.com)Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Colors” “Dreams”

Beck is a literal cornucopia musician – you never know what the next album is going to sound like. And while there’s plenty of other musicians that do the same, they rarely have such big hits as Beck, and rarely do it so alone. Let’s take his 2005 album “Guero” – there’s 11 other credited musicians, but Beck is credited on 20 instruments, and two of those other musicians are credited with spoken word bits and another is credited on “additional sounds.” This album was made with Greg Kurstin, who is credited on veery song along Beck, and almost no one else shows up. Beck has always straddled the line of total outcast – often improvising lyrics in the studio and blending combinations folk, rock, rap, pop, and electronic genres on a whim – and industry favorite, helping to define and cement alternative music more than almost any other artist. On “Colors,” his thirteenth album, he again takes a hard left-turn, this time embracing the pop spotlight he’s so often avoided.

This is Beck’s first album since 2014’s “Morning Phase,” which won a shocking Album of the Year Grammy (an award so much in Beyonce’s favor that Beck’s speech was barely above surprised mumbling, and featured a tongue-in-cheek Kanye interruption). “Morning Phase” was a soft and blissful record, mistaken for somber. It was a direct follow-up to 2002’s entirely acoustic “Sea Change,” with Beck marking the passage of time and the acceptance he has gained since the disastrous break-up that spawned that classic. But the album’s outlook is much brighter than the music seems. And it makes sense that while Beck was working on that record, he was also developing some of the tracks on this album, even though the albums couldn’t sound more different. The tracks on “Colors” are easily the poppiest thing he’s ever done, at least on a full-album scale. This is a straight pop album, and while it isn’t always effective, it is a lot of fun to hear Beck bounce back in an unexpected way.

“Colors” might be the closest thing to a genre album that Beck’s ever done. Even later albums like “The Information” had diversity amongst tracks. This album has big pop beats throughout and, at times, Beck’s return to the pseudo-rapping of his heyday. Radio pop is the one thing Beck really has left to conquer, so it makes sense that at this stage in his career he would attempt it. By this point, he has nothing left to lose and a solid legacy intact. The title track has a pan flute, “I’m So Free” has rapping, “Wow” has both. And every track on this album is inherently catchy and dancefloor-ready. Even at his weirdest, Beck has always mastered catchiness, but here it isn’t hidden behind slide guitar, or robotic noises, or sitar, or whatever else he had laying around.

The album isn’t without downtime, however. Even though it clocks in at 39 minutes, there’s some fat on the album’s bones. Songs like “No Distraction” and “Up All Night” suffer from bland lyrics and the vague catchiness that plague the entire generation of indie music right now, most of whom are imitating Beck in some way. Although Beck’s music hasn’t always been perfect, he’s never seemed like one who would become a victim of his own creation like he does on “Colors.” Also, a weird disappointment of the album is that the whole piece is centered on the song “Dreams,” a guitar odyssey with one of the most memorable bridge sections in any alternative song. But, the song was released a single over two years ago, and has already gone through the whole radio rise-and-fall process and drifted from many people’s radars (not mine admittedly, I love the track). To center the album around this song seems like a cash-out, like Beck admitting that in the two years since he hasn’t been able to craft up something as good.

Still, the album is a fun and accessible, if not forgettable listen. It stands along with “Sea Change” and “Morning Phase” as the most directly cohesive listens in the Beck discography, therefore also making them the outliers. He successfully hides his years throughout “Colors,” pulling off a batch of songs normally reserved for musicians who fell in love with “Loser” in middle school. It’s another new side of Beck: party Beck. And while I hope party Beck doesn’t stick around very long for fear of getting very tiresome, it is a welcome presence. It also makes me ravenous for whatever Beck will have up his sleeve for his next album. But for now, enjoy all the different shades of Beck’s “Colors.”

-By Andrew McNally

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Marilyn Manson – “Heaven Upside Down”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia) Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “WHERE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE” “Threats of Romance”

One of the most predictable things of the early-2000’s was the downfall of Marilyn Manson. After the group’s surprise hit in 1996’s “The Beautiful People” and the subsequent smash of 1998’s “Mechanical Animals,” the controversial facade of the group had to wear off. And it did, resulting in declining sales and popularity. But one of the lesser expected things would be the comeback. After a few albums of water-treading, goth-y nonsense, the group washed away all of their previous controversial conventions for 2015’s “The Pale Emperor.” The album was a blues-metal masterpiece, filled with songs that the eponymous singer sounded like he had wanted to record for years. The band’s follow-up is a more typical Manson album, but one that renews their energy and their goth and industrial influences, while mostly doing away with the dopey-ness that has plagued their lyrics.

This album starts strong – really strong – with “Revelation #12,” a track that periodically uses a police siren as an instrument. Manson’s voice comes through loud and crisp in a way that often faltered in the band’s down years. Really, the album maintains a high energy, especially on tracks like single “We Know Where You Fucking Live” and closer “Threats of Romance.” The band embrace their goth heritage on these tracks, calling back specifically to legends like Gary Numan and former collaborators Nine Inch Nails. The album’s best line may lie in “We Know Where You Fucking Live,” where Manson sings, “We don’t intend to eat the street, the asphalt is the good meat.”

The album has a ferocity to it that hasn’t been seen on a Manson album in some time. The album’s standout track (and the band knows it) might just be “Saturnalia,” a completely engaging and bold track that stretches just one second shy of eight minutes. It allows the band to stretch out into territories they haven’t before, resulting in a fiery, burning track that not only benefits from the length, but represents a tentative change in style. After “The Pale Emperor,” the band seems completely energized to record music that might be similar to what they recorded in their heyday, but on their own, nondescript terms.

And there is a calmness to a few tracks as well. The album’s third- and second-to-last tracks, “Blood Honey” and “Heaven Upside Down” bring in acoustic guitar and more approachable melodies. Manson himself described the album as a soundtrack, where the title track is the end credits. If the album had ended there, it would’ve been equally effective. That said, it ends with the punishingly repetitive “Threats of Romance.”

Still, as with any Manson album, it isn’t without some corny moments. The one-two punch of “Say10” and “Kill4Me” don’t land too well, even with the latter being a single. Although “Kill4Me”is by no means a bad song, with synths balancing the blasts of guitar, it still suffers after the dopey and similarly-titled “Say10,” a track that sounds like the regular album schlock of 1996. Likewise, the stupidly-titled “Je$u$ Cr$i$” doesn’t do anything for the album, just a stupid song with a stupid title, even with a solid beat.

The corniness of a post-98′ Manson album is kind of a cherish as much as a detriment, and this album balances the more silly lyrics with literal punches at the bookends that cement this as one of the band’s better albums. The sudden resurgence with “The Pale Emperor” continues with this album that somehow manages to be bold in 2017. While “Emperor” excelled on outside influences, “Heaven Upside Down” takes the best elements of Manson’s past and reverberates them into a sound that is equally throwback and current. Casual listeners might not be grabbed by an album of this intensity, but Manson fans will surely be glad that an album from the group in 2017 can still maintain such an anxious, monstrous and deafening level.

-By Andrew McNally

St. Vincent – “MASSEDUCTION”

(Photo Credit: Northern Transmissions)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Pills,” “Sugarboy,” “Young Lover”

Annie Clark has big shoes to fill. Her last album, 2014’s “St. Vincent,” was consistently ranked among the best albums of the year, a busy year. The album saw her rise from indie darling touring the festival circuit to playing the season finale of “SNL” and winning a semi-surprise Best Alternative Album at the Grammy’s (ironically, presumed winner Beck also released a new album this week). After all that, “St. Vincent” is my favorite album. Like, ever. All-time. Has been for three years. So “MASSEDUCTION” has high hurdles to clear and, to our baited breaths, it jumps over those hurdles in every way that Annie Clark can think of.

Don’t let opening track “Hang On Me” and lead single “New York” fool you – this is a big album. At 13 tracks and 41 minutes, it packs a whole boxer’s array of punches. Although the opening song is inexplicably lackluster, the album kicks into high gear with the guitar-heavy satire “Pills.” The track’s fuzzy, chomping guitar sounds like an “Actor” lost cut. One of the album’s few disappointments is that this is really the only track where Clark lets loose on guitar, something she still does a little infrequently. But when the album that follows is as good as it is, it’s hardly even missed.

Other standout tracks include “Sugarboy,” with a super catchy and choppy beat that’s sure to rip through audiences in her live show. “Happy Birthday, Johnny” is a slight ballad with some unexpected country slide-guitar, stuck right in the middle of the album. “Savior” is a funky and sexy pop song, but one that includes industrial elements (although he doesn’t have a songwriting credit, the album was co-produced by Jack Antonoff, who cowrote and produced a similar, excellent song on Lorde’s album earlier this year). “Fear The Future” hits super hard after the emotional but slight “New York,” with a deafening sound and incredibly anxious lyrics. “Young Lover,” the tenth track, seems like the beginning of the wind-down as, frankly, the song’s first section is dull. But it transforms into a full-bloomed vocal track, the best of the album and one of the best in Clark’s discography. The album’s final song “Smoking Section” is a satisfying conclusion, with Clark repeating “it’s not the end.” The song’s title and placement might be a reference to David Sedaris’s classic essay “The Smoking Section” – let us not forget that Clark’s debut contained references to “Arrested Development” and MAD Magazine.

“MASSEDUCTION” is not without fault, of course. There are rare moments of downtime, in tracks like “Hang On Me,” “Slow Disco,” and, to a lesser extent, the title track. There is also a palpable lack of guitar wizardry. Although Clark’s guitar pops up throughout, the album generally lacks the riffs designed to pummel live audiences to their core. It’s a confounding stylistic choice for someone who is becoming known as one of the best live acts. Still, audiences haven’t seen these songs performed yet, so who’s to say what Clark has planned (also, she’s just free to record whatever she wants, maybe she’s just tired of guitar).

Although not her best overall, this album stands as easily the most cohesive record in the St. Vincent discography. It has the fewest amount of skippable tracks (there’s only two that I’d even consider and I’ve *just* listened to it), it has everything from anxious noise about the future to industrial-funk to genuinely beautiful ballads to satire about the medical industry. I’ve written (in a few places, extensively, sorry) about the impact that Clark’s 2012 collaborative album with David Byrne, “Love This Giant,” seemed to have on her confidence as a performer. That newfound confidence shines throughout this entire record, front (back?) and foremost with that album cover. Clark has always been an interesting songwriter, but this album continues her trend of pushing listeners out of their comfort zone with the frequent genre changes and occasionally uncomfortable lyrics.

This album is a borderline-masterpiece, if not one outright. Although it lacks specifically-standout songs like all of her other albums (“Rattlesnake” & “Birth In Reverse,” “Cruel” & “Surgeon,” “The Neighbors” & “Marrow,” “Now, Now” & “Your Lips Are Red), it works as a huge cohesive unit that really doesn’t have much time to cut. It’s a challenging pop album, asking the listener to accept satire, sorrow and directly sexual lyrics amidst their catchy music. This album feels like all of the highs, lows and middles that Clark has been living since and possibly before her last album. This album was likely going to be the one that people really judged Clark on. Her last album is, for all intents and purposes, a breakthrough – so the eye was on what she would do with the exposure. And if this album is what Clark can do under the pressure, then it’s safe to say we’re welcoming in a new legend.

-By Andrew McNally

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2018 Nominees: Betting Odds

If you’re a total dork like me, you feign a lot of interest in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The inductions and the decisions made by the voting staff have been questionable at best, often focusing on big names over quality names even after years of complaints (Television has never been nominated? Okay). But it’s still interesting to see which acts get picked for their permanent place in the record books. This year’s nominee list has been released and – like last year – it sets the record at 19. What makes this process fun is that the Hall has no set number of yearly inductees, so anywhere from 1 to all 19 acts could garner enough votes. This means that no act is safe (well, one is, but we’ll get there), and that makes for some prime betting odds. So let’s dive in to all 19 nominees and whether the act deserves inclusion and if they’ll get it in 2018.

BON JOVI –

(Photo Credit: Like Totally 80's)

Odds Of Inclusion: 3:1. Bon Jovi has never been popular with the critics, and has always been divisive with the fans. Even though they retain fans like Springsteen does, the people that dislike Bon Jovi tend to have a strong, negative stance. Normally, this would be a tough sell. But, the Hall also has a yearly popular vote winner, which is how Journey got in last year. I would expect Bon Jovi to grab this popular vote.

Should They Be Included: No.

KATE BUSH –

(Photo Credit: theodysseyonline.com)

Odds Of Inclusion: 10:1. The Hall has been chronically cold to solo, female vocalists. Whitney Houston isn’t even in. Bush stands a chance as one of the most successful artists in British history, but her popularity never fully translated in America. Her famously reclusive life also doesn’t translate well into American celebrity culture. She is deeply respected in the music community, but given that this is her first nomination after 15 years of eligibility, it looks like a tough hill to run up.

Should They Be Included: Absolutely. Bush has one of the best voices in pop history, one of the best singles (1978’s “Wuthering Heights”) and one the best pop albums (1985’s “Hounds of Love”) ever recorded. Get her in.

THE CARS –

(Photo Credit: nnjazzykat.wordpress.com)

Odds of Inclusion: 6:1. They’re clearly not a priority, and their output was relatively small, which hurt their chances. But, they’re nominated for the third straight year, so someone wants them in desperately. With only one guarantee this year, it might be their chance. It might be just what they need.

Should They Be Included: Yes. Although their music sounds tame these days, they had a string of hits that helped define new wave and alternative music as well as music videos. They had their hands all over the beginnings of alternative music. Ric Ocasek would again help change alternative music in ’94 when he produced Weezer’s legendary debut.

DEPECHE MODE –

(Photo Credit: Vimeo)

Odds of Inclusion: 8:1. Like The Cars, Depeche Mode were big factors in early alternative music. They helped define and dominate synth culture of the 80’s. And unlike many of their peers, they maintain an active presence, release albums regularly (including a decent one this year), and remain a popular live act. But, the Hall tends to focus away from synths, and Depeche Mode rely on synth for every song. So it’s a tough sell.

Should They Be Included: Yes! But I cannot recuse myself from bias on this one – I absolutely love Depeche Mode. But they should be in for their long string of hits, and their classic “Violator” album, a shining star in alternative music. I mean, they’re a synth band that got covered by Johnny Cash. That’s something.

DIRE STRAITS –

(Photo Credit: Ultimate Classic Rock)

Odds of Inclusion: 6:1. Many of this year’s nominees are relatively safe choices (save two), and Dire Straits represent one of the more musically talented, classic rock oriented safe choices. The Hall is still devoted to classic rock, even as they run out of bands, so Dire Straits have a decent chance. They’re also a band that transitioned well into 80’s, MTV culture, which adds points. I wouldn’t call them a definite, but they have a good shot.

Should They Be Included: Sure? I’m not gonna lie, I don’t know anything about Dire Straits.

EURYTHMICS –

(Photo Credit: Billboard)

Odds of Inclusion: 4:1. Although often unfairly reduced to that one song that gets stuck in your head for days, Eurythmics were still crucial for 80’s alternative music in the same way Depeche Mode were. They were a pop powerhouse, with Dave Stewart writing classic after classic. Annie Lennox’s celebrity persona and continued, successful solo career can’t hurt, either. They’ve never been nominated in their 12 years of eligibility, but I have faith in their inclusion.

Should They Be Included: Yes, maybe not as much as some other nominees on this list, but yes. Are you ever disappointed when they come on? I’m not.

J. GEILS BAND –

(Photo Credit: Billboard)

Odds of Inclusion: 10:1. J. Geils Band has a string of hits in the 70’s and 80’s that started as partytime blues/funk and ended as big hair ballads. They were one of the only classic rock bands that figured out how to do the 80’s, and recorded arguably their best music in that period. That said, with no legendary albums and hit-or-miss critical reception, their inclusion would be purely on the basis of inducting a classic rock group.

Should They Be Included: Airing on the side of no. In the grand scheme of things, they simply didn’t bring anything new to the table. They had more than a handful of great hits, but that isn’t enough to secure a nod. And Peter Wolf’s onstage rants now just sound sexist instead of cool. “Whammer Jammer” rules, though.

JUDAS PRIEST –

(Photo Credit: Amazon)

Odds of Inclusion: 12:1. Judas Priest are one of the most important, successful and longest-running metal bands in history. You’d think that would be enough for inclusion, but it’s not. Black Sabbath and Metallica remain the two metal bands in the Hall, and that likely won’t change this year. The Hall likes hits, and although Judas Priest had some, they aren’t as recognizable as “Paranoid” or “Enter Sandman.” Still, a metal band close to entering it’s fifth decade together is extremely impressive.

Should They Be Included: Absolutely. Like Depeche Mode, I’m a real big fan, so take this with some salt. But their early, behind-the-scenes work helped cement metal as a genre. They didn’t get the credit Sabbath and Deep Purple got, but they also didn’t hit their stride until “British Steel” in 1980. Still touring, releasing albums and raising hell to this day.

LINK WRAY –

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone)

Odds of Inclusion: 15:1. Rock and roll wouldn’t be what it is today without Link Wray. Although Wray performed a variety of genres, he is best and most importantly remembered as a near-sole pioneer in guitar distortion. His 1958 song “Rumble” was banned in multiple cities, despite being instrumental. Even in 2017, the song still cackles and bludgeons. By this point, though, he is so far removed from today’s popularity that he is seen as a lost relic, not someone whose influence still reigns.

Should They Be Included: Yes, unequivocally.

LL COOL J –

(Photo Credit: Twitter)

Odds of Inclusion: 10:1. One of the more interesting career shifts in this year’s nominees goes to LL Cool J. The once fiery and extremely influential rapper is now known as an actor, as a very longtime cast member on NCIS: Los Angeles, and as the host of both Lip Sync Battle and (frequently) the Grammy’s. His general, genial public persona softens the hits he once had, which makes his inclusion more difficult. That said, he is the only solo rapper nominated this year, and his influence on the genre is still palpable.

Should They Be Included: Yes, not necessarily this year but, yes.

THE MC5 –

(Photo Credit: Perfect Sound Forever)

Odds of Inclusion: 12:1. The fire and brimstone of the MC5 was a tough sell in 1968, because of their controversial lyrics and loud music that brought on the rise of punk music. Unfortunately, their extremely limited output makes them a tough sell for the Hall as well. Although they raised punk alongside The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, they were derailed early by controversy.

Should They Be Included: For sure, punk’s politics might not exist without them.

THE METERS –

(Photo Credit: RateYourMusic)

Odds of Inclusion: 12:1. The Hall has been relatively kind to funk, and rightfully so. The Meters were originators of funk music, but unfortunately they never enjoyed the success of some of their later counterparts. It’s a tough sell in a crowd of easy, big name artists. They’ve also been nominated multiple times since their eligibility a solid 24 years ago. Still, the Hall could pull through for a great funk group.

Should They Be Included: Yes, their influence on funk continues to this day.

THE MOODY BLUES –

(Photo Credit: Discogs)

Odds of Inclusion: 4:1. The Hall has been chronically cruel to prog rock, but the Moody Blues mostly shaped the genre and managed to have a whole bunch of radio hits. They’ve been eligible since ’89 and have never been nominated, but their inclusion this year is a definite possibility.

Should They Be Included: Yes, they pioneered prog rock and concept albums almost single-handedly. They layed-up to Pink Floyd who dunked with their ideas. They were phenomenal songwriters and even a quick run of their greatest hits is an engaging listen.

RADIOHEAD –

Odds of Inclusion: 2:1. They’re a definite. As the greatest rock band on the planet and one of the greatest all-time, it would be a shock for them not to get in on their first year of eligibility. If they had stopped after “OK Computer” they would still get in, but their run of eight straight amazing albums (disregarding only their mediocre debut) is entirely unprecedented. Sure, they’ve only had one true hit, but there are only a handful of wasted tracks across nine albums of material. They’re also the definition of ‘critical darling.’ Look forward to their entirely uninspired performance at the ceremony, for a prestige they actively do not want.

Should They Be Included: Yes, ful stop. Again – they’re one of my favorite bands, so the bias is strong. But almost no other groups have had the run that Radiohead has and continues to have, with eight straight unbelievable albums and one of the best and most unpredictable live shows on the planet.

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE –

(Photo Credit: AllMusic)

Odds of Inclusion: 8:1. Rage Against the Machine practically defined the anger of 90’s music, even over grunge bands. Although they only released four albums, the group’s completely politically-charged rap-rock resonated hard with the frustrations of a difficult decade. Having one of the greatest and most unique guitarists in rock history doesn’t hurt, either. Fun tidbit that either increases or harms their chances at induction – Tom Morello is one of the Hall’s voting members. It’s entirely possible he nominated his own band.

Should They Be Included: Yes, maybe not on the first go, but yes. Rap-rock gets the rightful bad rap it deserves (no pun intended), but RATM really never had a bad song across their four albums. They’re one of those groups that had a totally unique sound, and the fact that it resonated with the radio not only once but across all four albums is a huge shock. Their crossover should deem them eligible in the future, if not this year.

RUFUS WITH CHAKA KHAN –

(Photo Credit: AllMusic)

Odds of Inclusion: 20:1. Basically DOA. That Chaka Khan has been nominated solo and not gotten in speaks to the chances of her original group, Rufus. The fact that Whitney Houston remains uninducted dooms her frequent collaborator. Still, Rufus put out some great music, and their nomination is not undeserved. They are all absolute funk legends.

Should They Be Included: Yes, frustratingly so. Like Chic, they seem to be one of those funk legends that the Hall can’t form an opinion about. But if they can’t even induct Whitney Houston then Khan’s future in the Hall seems dim.

NINA SIMONE –

(Photo Credit: Albertine)

Odds of Inclusion: 4:1. Interest in Nina Simone has spiked over the past few years, after the popular documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?”. She was eligible for the Rock Hall on their very first year, a whole 34 years ago, and she hasn’t been nominated before this year. This normally would be damning, but she will likely get in on her first nomination.

Should They Be Included: Of course.

SISTER ROSETTA THARPE –

(Photo Credit: BBC.com)

Odds of Inclusion: 25:1. I have to put Miss Tharpe, deeply unfortunately, as the long-shot of this year’s nominees. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, virtually unknown to the general public, invented guitar rock almost completely alone. She took gospel music and added elements of R&B and rock n’ roll to it, crafting a (then) completely signature style that would be used by thousands afterwards. Her role as a black woman who came front with guitar-heavy blues music was obviously oppressed. You often hear of the black artists who ‘actually’ invented rock and roll – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. Sister Tharpe, who came before them, was the real ‘actual.’ Unfortunately, her total lack of presence in culture and the fact that she passed 45 years ago basically doom her from induction.

Should They Be Inducted: She should’ve been inducted on year one.

THE ZOMBIES –

(Photo Credit: Discogs)

Odds of Inclusion: 8:1. The Zombies were one of the weirder stories out of the classic rock era. Mostly known for their hit “Time of the Season” these days, they actually had an extremely limited output, releasing only two albums during their original 60’s run, but four since 1991. They were also victims of an incredibly interesting scheme that saw random musicians touring under their name, two of whom would later form 2004 inductees ZZ Top. Of the few actual classic rock bands on the ballot this year, they have a solid chance, if not a great one.

Should They Be Inducted: Probably. Even if they only released two albums in their original procession, “Odessey and Oracle” is one of the greatest albums of the classic rock era. That alone justifies them.

Well thanks for playing along and I hope you don’t bet real money on my picks, because I don’t know what I’m talking about at any point in time. But let’s see how these odds hold up during Radiohead’s performance/no-show early next year!!

 

Susanne Sundfør – “Songs For People In Trouble”

(Photo credit: last.fm)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “The Sound of War,” “Undercover”

Susanne Sundfør, more than most people in music, understands the concept of a human voice as an instrument. She also clearly understands that she possesses one of the most operatic and resounding singing voices around, which she uses on full display on her sixth album. Her previous two works, 2012’s “The Silicone Veil” and 2015’s “Ten Love Songs” used heavy doses of strings and synth to create rich, dichotomous harmonies that played equally off her beautiful and sometimes pained vocals. On this album, though, she lets her voice create part of the harmony rather than acting as the knife that splits those harmonies apart. The album is much, much softer, often consisting of just Sundfør’s vocals and acoustic guitar, with an occasional wind instrument.

Although the album does have some prominent features, many tracks are just Sundfør, accompanying herself on guitar or piano (often acoustic guitar). Acoustic guitar is an instrument that has felt intentionally left out of her music on prior albums, so the immediacy of it on “Trouble” signals the shift in sound, as well as working as an ode to her natural talent.

As expected, the lyrics are often dark and planted in the concepts of personal issues, relationships and conflicts dying unresolved. More so on “Trouble” than on past albums, it’s easy to let Sundfør’s voice wash over as a separate instrument, to disregard the words for the emotion they’re reflecting. The album’s softer tone also brings out the true qualities in her vocals – she doesn’t have to overpower any instruments, she’s just belting because she feels the song requires. The only track where this doesn’t necessarily apply is lead single “Undercover,” a track that has the instrumentation and vocals build together rather than separate, and where Sundfør sounds even bigger than she does elsewhere. It’s the album’s best example of a ‘put your headphones on and get lost in it’ type song, akin to “Accelerate.”

In many respects, “Songs For People In Trouble” is the polar opposite (and answer to) “Ten Love Songs” (a personal favorite album of mine). “Trouble” only allows itself to go off the rails twice, on “The Sound of War” and it’s immediate follow-up, the title track. “War” starts as innocently as many of the album’s other tracks, gorgeous and soft, before giving way to a more drone finale. The title track cements the album at the halfway point, and it’s first half is spoken-word poetry performed by Andres Roberts and avant-garde.

The album does twist its way into the final song (and second single), “Mountaineers,” which has the only actual official feature, a bold duet with John Grant. It’s a song that is as inquisitive as it is engaging, and doesn’t feature Sundfør until a ways in. But, in keeping with traditions of ending her albums on big, bold notes (check “Your Prelude” and “Insects,” songs with enormous sound to them), the song feels like driftwood caught in the rest of the album’s waves. Even for the album, it’s a complicated and risky song, one that pays off more with each listen.

“Trouble” is standout, tempered pop, accentuated by touches of music that only occasionally become heavy touches. Sundfør again uses her voice as an instrument, dominating songs like “Reincarnation” while stepping aside for things like an extended flute solo in “No One Believes in Love Anymore.” Although the sound is almost jarringly different from her more recent works, it recaptures the leveled sound of her earlier career without losing any of the ambition and emotional haunting of her more synth-based songs. “Trouble” is quiet and daring, another ten song collection that leaves the listener cold, a little shaken but still asking for so much more.

Queens of the Stone Age – “Villains”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Head Like A Haunted House,” “The Evil Has Landed”

Whenever Josh Homme is involved with a new project, it’s always telling to look at who he has chosen to surround himself with. Although the band’s current line-up has stayed mostly intact since the “Era Vulgaris” days of a decade ago, Homme’s albums have always reflected those around him. He’s worked with everyone from Dave Grohl to Iggy Pop to John Paul Jones to Lady Gaga to Elton John, and often reflects back on them. This album, though, has no features – not even Mark Lanegan. It only takes one person out for a spin, but that person is Mark Ronson. Ronson met Homme while producing Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion,” which Homme guests on. Ronson is known for his diverse collaborations, often wringing the best possible work out of acts like Bruno Mars, Mystikal and Amy Winehouse – but a hard rock band like Queens of the Stone Age was still a bold choice to produce.

QOTSA really thrust themselves in a new direction on “Villains,” their seventh album. Their first six albums, though all different, set a template for the band that gets largely demolished here. Gone are the hard-rock crunches of “Sick Sick Sick” and the blunting tempo changes of “Song for the Dead.” Instead, we get (mostly) some danceable rock. Quite frankly, “Villains” sounds like the meeting point between Ronson and QOTSA that we were expecting. Opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” really sets the tone, with an almost silent intro that leads to a midtempo, synth heavy beat that’s a far distance from “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” The party hits its peak halfway through the album, on “Head Like a Haunted House,” a disco-y track with an almost circus bassline that gets so party that it becomes a little draining.

Regular ol’ grinding QOTSA still works their way into the album, too. “Domesticated Animals” is an exploration into what it’s like to play the same three chords on repeat for over five minutes and, as far as QOTSA album tracks are considered, it’s as successful as you might expect. The album’s best track (and second single) “The Evil Has Landed,” is the only song that actually features the all-out one-chord guitar attack we love from QOTSA. And, as the album’s penultimate track, it comes as a prodigal return. Closer “Villains of Circumstance,” a song that’s existed in the QOTSA canon for at least a few years now, lets some of Homme’s deeply underrated vocals shine (although the song does die out on a disappointing finale).

Unfortunately, there is some dead weight. QOTSA have never really been a band to attempt slow songs, and on “Villains” we find out why. “Fortress” starts with promise but hits a real sour tone when the pace never picks up. Also, “Un-Reborn Again” is a track that starts out as a ton of fun, but well overstays its welcome. 6:41 isn’t exactly a foreign length for a QOTSA song, but at the four-minute mark I was already finding myself waiting for the end. Even if the new, upbeat turn is refreshing, there is a lack of the guitar bashing we expect. “Villains” feels like a balanced effort that doesn’t quite make the correct scale at times.

All of that said and done, Mark Ronson producing a Queens of the Stone Age release is an equally wild and understandable effort, and it’s pretty full of jams. This album might not have any of the best QOTSA songs – and they exist on every album – but it is mostly consistent throughout and certainly stands out as their most unique effort so far. The band might not ever put out another “Songs For the Deaf,” but this content is more than acceptable. Just don’t take so long next time.

-By Andrew McNally

Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Everything Now,” “Creature Comfort”

I recently read an article that called Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” one of the best rock songs of this century so far, and I don’t doubt this for a second. Arcade Fire’s perfect debut album “Funeral” helped energize the brewing indie revolution by adding a full, baroque sound. While bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beat them by a few years, they were championing a much more straightforward, guitar-driven approach. Unfortunately, that revolution came to a halt, and many of the genre’s best broke up or should’ve broken up. Arcade Fire were an exception until this point, finding ways to combine some current form of music zeitgeist with the general bleakness and storytelling of their indie background.

Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, they’ve always been a conceptual band, and each of their albums exists (very intentionally) in different spaces. Their first album is a bleak baroque tale of a town where only kids survive a snowfall so bad that it covers houses. “Neon Bible” is a Springsteen-tinged ode to America’s Bible belt. “Reflektor” is a sad dance party, accentuated by James Murphy and David Bowie (!). None of these are concept albums – just albums centered a relative narrative idea. Their idea for “Everything Now” (a tongue-in-cheek title, given the band’s patience in between releases), is one of a band that has hit a huge stature and is afraid of disappointing. This isn’t the first time a band has done this – Queens of the Stone Age attempted a similar idea on their last album “…Like Clockwork.” Foxygen did a similar thing on “Star Power.” It’s just that this idea….isn’t a very good one. There are many different routes that the band could take, from deep introspection on how fame changed their personal lives, or an intentionally messy album that doesn’t do any narrative justice. But they chose the option of being the band that disappoints with a boring album.

The worst part about this is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a conscious change. “Everything Now,” produced partially by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter (along others), feels like a natural progression to “Reflektor.” The album feels like the characters on that album have grown up more and made peace with their surroundings. So while the music of this album might feel intentionally lackadaisical, some of the other elements feel unintentionally so. Front and center is Win Butler’s vocals. The man has historically gelled into whatever the song needs. As I write this, “Modern Man” is playing. Butler’s voice in this is timid and reserved, especially compared to the high-volume of “Rebellion (Lies)” or the shout-y section of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” On this album, though, Butler mostly meanders through his lyrics like he doesn’t even care that he wrote them.

And maybe he doesn’t – because on the whole the lyrics are pretty terrible. They sing repeatedly about the somewhat vague concepts of ‘infinite content’ and ‘everything now’ (which make up 5 of the 13 track titles), loose terms about the availability of music on the internet. Lyrically, the band is trying to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard, knowing all of their competition in the world. They’re throwing in a satirical white flag. So to hear such limp lyrics throughout is disappointing in both concept and reality. “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” share the same lyrics, and they shouldn’t, because they’re all centered on a corny line. “Chemistry,” though one of the stronger tracks, also has corny as hell lyrics. So does “Signs of Life,” a song where Butler at one point literally raps the days of the week (yikes!).

This album is by no means a complete waste. The title track is dance-pop gold (though, as with “Reflektor,” they make the mistake of putting the best track early and releasing it as the first single). “Put Your Money On Me” takes a long time to build, but once it does it hits a climax more complex than the other tracks. Régine Chassagne has her moment on “Creature Comfort,” easily out-singing her husband. “Chemistry,” too, is pleasant – though it would be more pleasant if it was a different artist. There are undercurrents of new wave on this album, especially on “Chemistry” and “Signs of Life.” Butler’s rapping on the latter is reminiscent of Deborah Harry’s ‘rap’ verse on “Rapture,” although Harry’s was much more of a ‘time and place’ thing. The title track, as dance-pop as it is, also feels a little ripped from ’78.

But elsewhere, the album is just a big dud. Chassagne’s spotlight moment on this album comes on “Electric Blue,” a song so painfully dull that it took me two tries to listen to. “We Don’t Deserve Love” sets itself as the standout, and while it does have some of the album’s better lyrics, it’s a long dud that never does anything to grab the listener. Some of the album’s best points come in the intro/outro/interludes, which is telling. The punk blast that is “Infinite Content” is on par with their chaotic early days, but it’s only a fleeting memory, one that gets taken over by an immediate country-reworking of the same song.

It’s also telling that I can’t pick a pinpoint critique to go on about. Arcade Fire are one of my favorite bands (I mean this), but this album is just a burned-out fuse top to bottom. There is no energy, corny lyrics, and tepid vocals. Nothing that Arcade Fire is known for is done on display here, it’s just a dull dance-pop album start to finish. The band – which still has more members than most bands – rarely alters between a few chords throughout the album. There just doesn’t seem to be anything inspired at all here, and if it’s all part of the image of the album, then it is not successful. Either way, it’s a misfire. This album won’t damage the love that I have for the band, because their music has helped me in ways that I can never explain. But it’s also completely forgettable from start to finish. The fact that the last track resets back into the first one is a kind of ironic poison, that is has to live in its own prison of mediocrity. This isn’t a water putting out the Arcade Fire, but it is a rekindling. This album will never stand up to the ones that came before it; to those who still derive a lot of pleasure from it, the more power to you. I’m seeing them in September and I hope these tracks translate better live. But for now, we’re left with a big pile of nothing.

-By Andrew McNally