MisterWives – “Connect the Dots”

(Photo Credit: Has It Leaked?)Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Drummer Boy,” “Oh Love”

43 minutes, Photo Finish Records

MisterWives’ sophomore album is blunt in its mission statement – color. The album’s title is “Connect the Dots,” along with the bright cover of partially colored-in animals. One of the album’s better tracks is titled “Coloring Outside the Lines.” This is all important to note for two reasons – indie and alternative bands always have to conquer the notorious sophomore slump, where they must prove themselves more than a one-trick pony; and the indie scene which birthed the group has almost completely faded away. Mumford and Sons got electric and boring, and stalwarts like Grouplove, Three Door Cinema Club, and countless others have mostly failed at adapting to the recent trend of darker, more political music. So by setting up this identity of color – something the band has always had plenty of anyways – it gives them that personal tick to succeed in 2017.

Of course, it takes more than color – it takes the music, too. I wrote about this band’s first album and my experience finding them playing an opening gig in some carved out Manhattan bar. That album, as you can tell, is also colorful (with our animal friends making an earlier appearance). “Connect the Dots” doesn’t exactly stand up to “Our Own House” in an immediate way, although it certainly doesn’t make this a bad album. The difference lies in the diversity of the tracks. “Our Own House” had a freeing sense of ambition, in that the band easily blended sounds and emotions into a relative whole. “Connect the Dots” is, as the title maybe unintentionally implies, a simpler album. It is more straightforward indie-pop, with few digressions.

One of the album’s more interesting tracks is the opener, “Machine.” New fans who may have heard “Reflections” on the radio may be surprised by the song’s seeming appropriation of latin music. Singer Mandy Lee even sounds like Shakira at points. (It’s maybe not the most appropriate thing, but we’re all just letting Drake get away with way worse). After that track, though, comes “Chasing This” and “Only Human,” two perfectly enjoyable but largely interchangeable indie songs that half-halt any momentum built by “Machine.”

One of the great things about “Our Own House” was the ways in which varying members got featured. Lee’s amazing voice obviously carried “Reflections,” but other tracks got to shine instrumentally. The band feels more collective here, which in many alleys is a plus. But it also means the songs sound less individual than before, and it shows through much of the album. MisterWives have crafted the perfect kind of innocent, often optimistic brand of indie-pop that is never corny, always enjoyable, yet mostly just passing. And that’s what most of this album is – very pleasant, perfect for warm days and small gatherings, and not a whole lot more.

“Out of Tune Piano” is one of the album’s better songs because of, well, the out of tune piano. It lumbers up and down during the verses in a bouncy tune. The last two tracks are also effective. “Oh Love” is a hectic blast of ‘everything we couldn’t turn into a full song,’ that winds through a pace that’s pretty breakneck for indie music. The closer “Let the Light In” might spend too long building, but the big payoff is worth it regardless.

Lee’s voice, the domineering force of the band, is both centered in the middle and also placed at the same volume as everything else in a way that lets her physical voice shine through but muddles the actual lyrics in the music. Still, there’s some beautiful lines throughout. The one that stuck out to me was in “Coloring Outside the Lines,” where Lee sings “They say that time slips away when you’re having fun / That’s why you said ‘let’s change our lives to a dull one.'”

So, “Connect the Dots” is ultimately a standard indie album. The band has the advantage of Lee’s powerful vocals, and their use of color in and out of music. If you’ve ever seen a picture of this band, they look like a very specific type of subgroup, of the people who go to Coachella, take some molly, rap along with black rappers but also are genuinely good people. I cannot say how accurate this is, but it’s the real vibe the album gives off. MisterWives sound like they’re having a lot of fun in the studio, and even if that fun doesn’t always translate to the listener, it can still be enjoyable. The indie rebirth phase has almost completely checked out, and it leaves bands like MisterWives out in the cold. But it shouldn’t take away from the fact that they’re a solid, fun group making some effortlessly joyous music.

-By Andrew McNally

Alicia Keys – “Here”

(Photo Credit: Consequence of Sound)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “The Gospel” “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv”

It’s safe to say that usually, when you hear an Alicia Keys song, you know it’s an Alicia Keys song. She hasn’t changed her format much since 2001 – because she hasn’t had to. Be it 2001 or 2013, put Alicia behind a piano and let her sing and it’s worth a listen. Alicia Keys could sing the Articles of Confederation and it would sound incredible. Over five albums, Keys proved again and again that she is a vocal and musical powerhouse, and has dominated R&B and pop-crossover since the dawn of the century. But, as any casual fan has probably noticed, it was time for a change.

2016 has seen an absurd amount of black artists put out works that focus on the state of black America today, albeit loosely or directly; Keys joins ScHoolboy Q, Beyonce, YG, Kanye, Vince Staples, Young Thug, De La Soul, and even just today, Common, in releasing an album that focuses on what black America is going through right now. With Keys, it is obviously not as upfront as, say, ScHoolboy Q, but it hits harder than you would ever expect Alicia Keys to. The album’s front half is one long piece, with songs transitioning into skits and back, weaving through life as a black American.

Keys starts strong, after an intro, with “The Gospel,” an ode to growing up in New York. It’s a tough song. It starts off innocently enough, with just Keys and piano, before she starts rapping over rapid-fire drums. By all accounts, it never strays from being a Keys song, but couples that ‘sound’ with staccato drums and honest lyrics about a poor life. The follow-up, “Pawn It All,” complements the ‘universal’ of “The Gospel” with a personal story that still feels universal. In it, she sings “I would give you everything / Just to start my life over again,” which feels far more introspective, but still touches on a moment that most people have either experienced or at least felt. After “The Gospel,” it’s tough not to hear in terms of black Americans feeling despair at the current state.

The next two non-interludes are two very differing tracks, “Kill Your Mama,” easily the most abrasive song title in the Keys canon, and “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv.” The former is a short track of just Keys and acoustic guitar, with some powerfully violent lyrics. The latter is a lengthy, winding song that makes a constant, casual reference to the Fugees amidst its loose feel. The track registers at over 6 minutes, and goes through rhythmic changes not necessarily common to the Alicia Keys songbook.

From this point on, it is safer to say we get some Keys standards, although she does spend the entire album coming out of her comfort zone. This album’s “Girl On Fire” is called “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” and is anchored by the excellent line, “When a girl can’t be herself no more, I just want to cry for the world.” Another highlight is “Work On It,” which uses the idea of background vocals in an energetic and catchy way.

Even with the album’s more “traditional” songs, there is a feeling of uncertainty, a feeling of change. It is painfully apparent that this is a different Alicia Keys – one ready to tackle social issues. I listened to this album on Spotify, where I had this album’s cover – of her, seemingly shirtless, an afro stretching past the frame, standing to the side, in the same shot as the cover of her last album, 2012’s “Girl On Fire,” where she stares straight, in a dress and straight hair, staring forwards. Both are black & white. It seems like Keys is making a reference to who she was in 2012, to note that that’s not who she is in 2016. This album really takes on a tremendous amount of weight, a weight not expected or asked of Keys, but a weight that so many black musicians are bearing in America right now. “Here” is a frank, diverse-yet-direct piece of political art from someone who has usually had the luxury of staying away. If Alicia Keys can’t help, who can?

-By Andrew McNally

Beyonce – “Lemonade”

(Photo Credit: honourmymystique.com)Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Freedom,” “Formation”

Beyonce’s previous album, one of the only albums that I’ve felt deserved a self-title, was a masterpiece ode to love, sex, celebrity and family. And it’s release was revolutionary, the kind previously reserved to more predictably innovative acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. So expectations were high coming in to her next album, and although we’ve gotten an entirely different album than what we expected, it’s every bit as good, if not better, than expectations.

“Beyonce” felt like she was opening the doors into the private life of her and Jay-Z, into a world we shouldn’t really be hearing. The album was like we were all the winners of a Golden Ticket, getting a brief look inside the magic world of music’s most powerful couple. Well, this album also feels like something we shouldn’t be hearing, but for the opposite reason. “Lemonade” is full of personal clapbacks aimed at Jay, with the lyrics stopping just short of specifically telling us he’s cheated, and with whom (it was Becky with the good hair, who is supposedly Rita Ora). It is an emotional and personal roller coaster, with as much revenge as regret. Jay-Z might be one of the richest and most powerful men in entertainment, but no one can wrong Bey and get away with it.

There are memorable lines across nearly every song on “Lemonade.” She wastes no time in addressing the issue, on the ballad opener “Pray You Catch Me,” singing “You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath.” On the follow-up “Hold Up,” she laments being in her position, saying “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” before deciding that she’s already been jealous, so she’s choosing crazy. Indeed, the album might feel a little crazy, with nearly every song serving as a very public response to a very private issue. But it also serves as part of the album’s identity, as an ode to black women. Anyone can – and should – listen to “Lemonade,” but it isn’t an album designed for everyone. There’s no proper radio bangers, and it’s intentional. If there were, we wouldn’t all be listening to the message. By developing her own marital problems, she addresses issues of women, occasionally black women, and puts them in a context that’s often pushed against in media. It’s been an interesting trend over the years, as Beyonce has voluntarily become a voice for black pride. This continues here in just about every context – musically, lyrically, historically and visually.

If she sounds frustrated on the first two tracks, then she’s totally over it on the next two. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” has some of the album’s most blatant lines – “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy / You can watch my fat ass twist, boy / As I bounce to the next dick, boy” – that quell any notion that she has been singing from a fictional POV. She wrote a diss track about her own husband. I mean c’mon, that’s incredible. And it drags onwards into “Sorry,” which is not an apology for anything (nor should it be). “Now you wanna say you’re sorry / Now you wanna call me crying” she sings, holding it over Jay’s head. Elsewhere, on “Sandcastles,” she laments, “I know I promised that I couldn’t stay / Every promise don’t work out that way.” The album’s best line goes to “Love Drought”: “Nine times out of ten I’m in my feelings / But ten times out of nine I’m only human.”

Musically, the album is kind of all over the place. It needs to be, it highlights Bey processing a terrible thing and going through a range of emotions. What this album successfully tries to show is that, at the end of the day, she’s as human as the rest of us. She might sound justified, only to come off as too angry or too forgiving, because she’s not perfect.

The collaborators and co-writers are key to understanding the diverse music. She often reflected the styles of her collaborators on her self-titled album, namely Drake and Jay. It was done then because of the album’s secrecy. On “Lemonade,” it is done out of appreciation. The album is about appreciation – of yourself but more so, of others. And if the lyrics are multi-faceted, so are the collaborators. Jack White nails an appearance on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a blues-rock tune. “Freedom” is about black pride and is easily the most intense track, unsurprisingly featuring Kendrick Lamar. James Blake pops up on an interlude that is really just a James Blake song. The Weeknd turns “6 Inch,” a song about identity, into one of the album’s smoothest. She reflects all of their styles out of appreciation for their own work. Animal Collective and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs get songwriting credits for lyrics taken from their songs (on “6 Inch” and “Hold Up,” respectively). And “Hold Up” features co-author credits from EDM superstar Diplo and indie singers Ezra Koenig and Father John Misty. Going even further, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Jerome “Doc” Pomus & Mort Shuman, Burt Bacharach and “Prisoner 22” show up in the sample credits.

The music is as much of a journey as the lyrics, with all of the above artists contributing their own sounds. “6 Inch” is sultry, “Forward” is an electro-ballad, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a blues-rock kicker, and “Hold Up” sounds like what a Beyonce song written by indie singers would sound like. “Daddy Lessons,” one of the only songs about something other than her husband’s infidelity, starts with a New Orleans jazz sound before transitioning into an ode to her father, with a country-esque backdrop (taking in her Houston heritage). It sits right at the album’s midpoint, a standout that shows how divisive the album’s feel can be. And early single but visual-album afterthought “Formation” sounds (and looks) like New Orleans.

This was an album that no one was expecting, about an incident that we had only ever speculated about. But it’s an album we need – an affirmation for women who have been cheated on, and a call to arms for black women around the world. It’s not like black pride and feminism are new topics for Beyonce, far from it. But it’s the personality she’s decided to mold herself into that has allowed her to become such a powerful force in the world socially. The music has helped that, too. We don’t know what’s in store for the Jay/Bey marriage, but given the quality and rapidity of his music lately – or lack thereof – she may have just driven a nail into the coffin of his music career. And she did it with one of the albums of the year.

-By Andrew McNally

Rihanna – “ANTI”

(Photo courtesy of Roc Nation Records)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” “Higher”

After months of teasing, delays (and rumored Adele delays), fights over the rights to the songs, and non-album singles, Rihanna’s long-awaited 8th album “ANTI” is finally here. It’s her first album since 2012 – by far the longest break in her career. Her first seven came out between ’05 and ’12, with ’08 the only year without a release. Even if it was delayed, the launch was haphazard; she dropped the Drake-duet “Work” as a single, and someone at Tidal accidentally put the whole album up. So this afternoon she released the whole thing for free. It was the same mistake that Kendrick Lamar went through with “To Pimp a Butterfly,” except that this album more relates to the haphazard way it was released.

The disparity between “FourFiveSeconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” hinted that “ANTI” might have a mixed feel to it. The former song was a somewhat tender and unexpected triplet with Kanye and Sir Paul McCartney. The latter was minimalistic, but brutal and throne-grabbing (and made our list of the ten best songs of 2015). And indeed, “ANTI” bathes itself in ideas, never fully committing to any of them. The album’s midsection is the weak point. “Desperado,” “Needed Me” and “Yeah, I Said It,” are all tracks that meander through basic rhythms, feeling unfinished and unrelated to anything else going on. Likewise, Rihanna’s lyrics don’t always complement her changing musical styles. They’re also relatively inconsistent, although she can still make simple drug songs sound exciting.

There are glimmers of greatness on “ANTI.” “Consideration” and “Woo” are both great scratchy, dancehall tracks. And the 6:37 “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” an unexpected cover of the Tame Impala song from last year, is a fully-realized, dreamy journey that improves on its source material. After that track, the album closes on four songs closer to ballads, most of which could have fit on earlier Rihanna albums, but all of which are great. Closer “Close to You” has a particularly affecting piano line.

There’s only two guests on the album, both effective. Rihanna plays off of SZA very well in opener “Consideration,” and “Work” is another notch in the Rihanna/Drake collab canon. Another note is standout “Higher,” which clicks in at just one second past two minutes, but is one of the best vocal songs she’s ever delivered. It’s a moment, a quick one, of sheer vulnerability from the normally zipped-up singer.

The problem with “ANTI” is that her intentions are unclear. At times, she wants to go in new directions and at others, she’s content doing what she’s been doing. The album would be stronger if it committed more fully to any of its ideas, but instead it meanders and becomes very inconsistent. The scratchy tracks are my personal favorites, but there are different takeaways from the album. It is as inconsistent in quality as it is tone, and although the production is great (with a long producer list), it feels like a partially-finished puzzle. Rihanna is trying to change her musical path, I think that’s been obvious for a little while, so whatever comes next could be more complete. But this album, her first without any real bangers, feels like a bad idea with many good, small ideas inside of it.

-By Andrew McNally

Grimes – “Art Angels”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Flesh Without Blood,” “Kill V. Maim”

Grimes has never been known by one genre. She’s sometimes included in witch house, but she defies one of the basic principles of the genre. Her stage name – Claire Boucher, offstage – is short and easy to remember. “Grimes.” Template witch house artists do the opposite, names that can’t be found on Google. Like M△S▴C△RA, or ///▲▲▲\\\ (pronounced ‘Horse MacGyver’), or oOoOO. Her new album, her fourth, is predictable only that we’ve come to expect anything we haven’t heard from Grimes before. “Art Angels” is, more than anything, a pop album.

“Art Angels” is a very mixed album. As always, Grimes blends many influences and ideas to create a wholly original, bastardized sound not unlike the baby on the cover. It isn’t as consistent, this time around, although the high points are just as high as ever. The album takes a much more conventional format, overall. This might be due to Grimes famously scrapping the album she was working on last year because she felt it was “too depressing,” keeping only “REALiTi,” an altered version of which shows up here. Something about the album feels familiar, in the song structures, as if Grimes was leading us by hand into a dark forest but keeping us from being afraid.

Generally, the album’s better songs are the ones that have density and energy. “Flesh Without Blood” is one of the catchiest songs of the year, regardless of lyrical content. There are catchy tunes throughout. “Easily” is a dancy (if not somewhat lacking) song. “REALiTi” and “World Princess, Pt. II,” although similar, are both exceptional and engrossing late-album bangers. “SCREAM,” which heavily features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, is also an excellent track.

“Belly of the Beat” might be the album’s lowpoint, a largely acoustic track that might sound better if there was a different artist’s name attached to it. Some of the ‘lighter’ songs are disappointing. “California” borders on being too poppy, especially as it’s placement as the first real song, after the intro “laughing and not being normal” (which is a great track, while we’re on it). It centers itself as a lyrical ode, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before.

Still, you have to pride Grimes on trying new things. She’s included just about everything she can into her music, and she’s even made conventionality work for her. “Art Angels” tells us that, yes, Grimes can occasionally do wrong. But even when she does, she’ll right it on the next song and she’ll still sound great when she does. Her vocal screams – you know the thing she does – permeate the album, breaking up the songs from being too radio-friendly (“California” lacks them, and suffers because of it). It’s also impossible to ignore the power she holds. Grimes learned how to play multiple instruments after recording her last album, the near-perfect “Oblivion.” She does everything herself now. After realizing that only men were being allowed to use the production equipment for her music, she’s begun producing herself. Now she writes, performs all music, produces, choreographs shows and designs the album art and videos. And the video for “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” is really something. And although she defies all genres, she’s generally lumped in with electronica music, which is chronically male-heavy. Grimes can release albums that aren’t perfect, and it doesn’t really matter, because she can tell young girls listening that they can do this, too. It’s why the collaboration with Janelle Monae makes sense – they’re two drastically different artists, but they’re both energetic, genre-bashing feminist singers.

Sorry. Went on a little tangent there. But Grimes is an incredibly important musician, and even if this album is frustratingly inconsistent, it could stand as her bid for greatness. “Flesh Without Blood” probably isn’t going to pick up any radio play, but it’ll gain more new listeners than “Genesis” or “Go” did. I’m worried about her next projects, that Grimes scrapped an entire album and ended up with an album like “Art Angels,” which flirts with greatness but rarely gets to it. But, she remains one of the most interesting artists in music today, and the album works well enough for the listener to forgive the sagging moments. “Art Angels” works because Grimes makes damn sure of it.

-By Andrew McNally

Lana Del Rey – “Honeymoon”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “God Knows I Tried” “High By the Beach”

It is 2015, and Lana Del Rey has nothing left to prove. She has two successful albums, a unique voice, and a controversial SNL appearance. So where is the sultry songstress to go next? “Honeymoon” sees the singer retreat into character, simply spinning tales of seductions gone right and seductions gone wrong.

Lana Del Rey’s major debut “Born to Die” helped establish her as a strong singer, and one with a Bond girl-like aura. Last year’s “Ultraviolence” helped build up her persona as a Hollywood classic sob story plucked from time. So on “Honeymoon,” she reconciles these two works, and lets her voice alone carry the album.

Indeed, trying to pick out her best vocal song on “Honeymoon” would be no easier than just throwing a dart at the tracklist. Her voice, powerful but restrained, dominates every track on the album. She coolly draws the listener in, like a scent drawing in an animal in an old cartoon. And suddenly, we’re trapped, ready to either join her or listen to her talk about others that didn’t join her. Del Rey’s voice is easily the strongest aspect of this album, to the point that reviewing the music is irrelevant; if you’ve heard lead single “High By the Beach” then you’ve heard the most musically interesting song on the album.

“Honeymoon” does suffer from a problem that her first two albums skirted around, and that’s repetition. This album is repetitive to a fault, every song engineered the same way like the old club singers used to do. The two exceptions are a weirdly misplaced reading of a T.S. Eliot poem, and a cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” The album takes a few listens before tracks soak up individually, which is not something to say of her first two (especially “Ultraviolence”).

Still, “Honeymoon,” once given time to air out and set itself align, is quite a pop album. Del Rey has settled into her pop persona remarkably well. Between her three major release albums, she’s established both a voice and an identity, and has set herself aside from any contemporaries. Each album has its own being, with fault, but each is strong. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more of the same from Del Ray soon, but then again, it wouldn’t be surprising to see something totally different, either.

If you like this, try: Nico, the film “Sunset Boulevard”

-By Andrew McNally

Madonna – “Rebel Heart”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Living For Love” “HeartBreakCity”

Madonna’s new album has a song called “Bitch I’m Madonna,” so, what more do you need?

As we’ve settled deeply into this digital age, there’s been a feeling of resentment about the blending of music and technology, spurred on largely by Thom Yorke, Bjork, and others that don’t see the value of platforms like Spotify, and by the likes of U2, who have no idea how to harness technology to any sort of advantage. The elders seem to think that they’re outdated, and that their further output won’t be able to hold up amongst the music of younger acts. But there’s plenty of musicians fighting against the aging – like Madonna. On “Rebel Heart,” her 13th studio album, Madonna shows no signs of aging, instead standing with and against modern acts like Nicki Minaj, Diplo and Kanye, including them in the album and shoving them under her career in the process.

Madonna’s previous album, “MDNA” was lackluster. It couldn’t find the formula to match Madonna with EDM. On “Rebel Heart,” she’s learned to just be herself and let everything fall into place around here. Indeed, the album’s strongest songs are the ones where Madonna just powers through the dance music around her. On “Living For Love,” “Ghosttown” and “HeartBreakCity,” her voice dominates over all, and although they’re not always the most immediately enjoyable songs, they’re the ones with the longest staying power.

Generally, the bigger the ideas are on this album, the worse they’re pulled off. “Iconic” is the most high-concept song, a track that features Chance the Rapper and, uh, Mike Tyson. Tyson is a voiceover in the beginning, Chance is wasted in a forgettable guest spot, and Madonna herself is lost in the EDM-y overproduction. It’s a big track, one that’s immediate fun, but leaves a bit of a sour taste. “Bitch I’m Madonna” is like that too – it’s a great track overall, but it’s aided by Diplo and Nicki, and Madonna gets lost in the beats. This isn’t something that happens consistently, just on a few tracks, but it highlights the tight line Madonna walks as a 56 year old pop singer.

But, more often than not, “Rebel Heart” just works. With track titles like “Illuminati,” “Holy Water,” “Joan of Arc,” and the aforementioned “Bitch I’m Madonna,” we’re seeing a side that’s showing no reservations. She hasn’t calmed or grown weary in her years; this is the same performer we had in the Sex days. Her voice and her persona haven’t lost an edge, even going so far as to call out everyone in pop culture today on “Illuminati,” from Steve Jobs to Bieber to ISIS. Madonna is back out for blood, and it feels more natural than it has in a long time. “Rebel Heart” may not be a masterpiece, but it’s one of the better pop albums of the year so far.

-Andrew McNally