Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber have taken divergent paths since their once-and-for-all breakup.
Last month Gomez released “Rare,” a dark yet hopeful album informed by her mental health issues, broken relationships and other mature themes. This month, her former beau Bieber released “Changes,” which is essentially about nothing other than his saccharine relationship with his wife, Hailey.
A decade after his hit “Baby,” with the chorus “Baby, baby, baby, oh,” Bieber puts out the single “Yummy,” with the chorus, “Yeah you got that yummy yum, that yummy yum, that yummy yummy.” And his lack of lyrical growth is matched by his seeming lack of emotional investment in “Changes,” a compendium of 17 sketchy, interchangeable songs, sparsely arranged trap numbers about Bieber’s blissful relationship.
With its silky sexual vibe, “Yummy” is one of the better ones, eclipsed only by the mesmerizing melody of an “Intentions” featuring Quavo. Other more memorable tracks include the airy and unapologetic romance of “All Around Me,” the lightly pulsing and unapologetic romance of “Habitual” and the quivering sensuality and unapologetic romance of “Come Around Me.”
Bieber makes booty calls (“Available”) and offers care (“I’m a psychiatrist, let’s talk about it,” he sings on “Take It Out on Me”), yet he’s really not doing much here besides luxuriating in euphoria. For their part, the producers also take the subtle route, and the guest artists – including Travis Scott, Post Malone and Kehlani – sound bored.
Perhaps the ultimate goal for “Changes” was to create a bunch of foundation songs that could be developed into remixes and fleshed out with additional guest vocals. Or perhaps that’s just being generous.
Either way, “Changes” is great for background ambiance, but a buzzkill in the foreground.
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
Green Day is there for you
Green Day (of all people) delivers the 2020 album we need in “Father of All …”
It’s a quintessential Generation X offering – observant with a defeatist edge but hilariously sarcastic – and like many Gen Xers themselves, it navigates a path to appease adjacent generations as “Father of All …” is deferential to Baby Boomer genres like 1960s/1970s rock and punk but authentic and restless enough to strike a chord with millennials. Meanwhile, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, 47, could well be the father of Generation Z upstart Billie Eilish as he submerges himself in the uncomfortable pain and desperation of his lost youth.
Produced by the band and Butch Walker, “Father of All …” is refreshingly brisk and unexpectedly breezy, as contagious as most anything Green Day’s ever done.
The careening title track sets the tone – “I got paranoia, baby, and it’s so hysterical,” sings Armstrong, who goes on to be an imperfect member of society, whether he’s awkwardly pitching himself to someone who might be out of his league on the twisting “Meet Me on the Roof,” romanticizing nerds on “I Was a Teenage Teenager,” mocking his own willingness to conform on “Take the Money and Crawl” or empathizing with the addled in suburbia on the slow-roast “Junkies on a High” – “Subdivision smile, drink it in, dumb it down, suck it up.”
By contrast, Green Day whips out irresistible short blasts like “Sugar Youth” and the whirring jaunt “Fire, Ready, Aim,” where ah-ah-ah-ah’s soothe Armstrong’s agitation as he seeks retribution on a liar.
Sonic highlights include a “Stab You in the Heart” that echoes early Beatles at their feistiest until it flips to an interpolation of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and a stomping “Oh Yeah!” that borrows the chorus from Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)”; the latter finds Armstrong sinking into generalized cynicism with “I’m just a face in the crowd of spectators … Got my money and I’m feeling kinda low.”
Listeners may have feelings of déjà vu in the oddly uptempo doom of closer “Graffitia,” which hinges on the refrain “Are we the last forgotten,” but even if we’ve heard it before, we ought to hear it again.”
“Father of All …”
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Kesha takes conflicting turns
It’s hard to figure out how to label Kesha, and her new “High Road” makes it clear she doesn’t want to be defined.
More than a decade ago she portrayed herself as a hard-partying rapper/singer, playfully hedonistic and a little trashy, with an irresistible spirit. But by the mid-2010s, her career stalled while she battled an eating disorder and took on her producer Dr. Luke, accusing him of abuse and violating business practices. In 2017 she bounced back as a very different artist, a serious and powerful belter on the album “Rainbow,” the release of which was preceded by the moving single “Praying,” about grace and perseverance.
And now with “High Road,” Kesha is, surprisingly, back in festive mode, “Hungover as hell, like 2012” she sings on empowering single “My Own Dance,” where she claims she can be both “the party girl and the tragedy.”
The hodgepodge release is all over the map, excessive and often sounding dated as Kesha teams up with Big Freedia on the blowout “Raising Hell,” proudly and defiantly drops f-bombs on “Shadow” and attempts to undress her lust target on the video-game-effects-backed “Birthday Suit.”
By contrast, she has a poignant take on growing up without a dad on “Father Daughter Dance,” profiles a soured relationship on “Resentment” (“I don’t hate you, babe, it’s worse than that”), and on the tenderly wry “Cowboy Blues” Kesha finds comfort in ukulele while she ponders “Did I miss my one true love?”
Elsewhere, “High Road” weaves from the tribute to open relationships of “Kinky” to her childlike declaration “I’m over adulthood” on “Potato Song (Cuz I Want To),” and the release spins off into a sappy “BFF” and a couple of ill-fitting country closers, “Chasing Thunder” and “Summer.”
Ultimately “High Road” is too long of a journey with too many detours, and Kesha often sounds contrived.
She’s still fun, though.
Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5)
Stauber extents his weirdness on EP
Jack Stauber might best be known for the bizarre mini-songs he posts on YouTube – strangely philosophical numbers, usually less than a minute long, presented in cartoonish voices accompanied by a toy box of instrumentation and supported by videos featuring claymation, animation and other visual trickery. They are nostalgic and childlike, but there’s also something disturbingly adult about them, the kind of thing that might have surfaced on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” back in the day.
Stauber also periodically takes these weird little ditties and refashions them into pop-conforming lengths. And something about these more traditional durations make his novelty songs more conventionally infectious.
His new EP “Dinner Is Not Over/There’s Something Happening/Keyman/Cupid” is his latest compilation of extended songs.
Dealing lines like, “I’ve tasted dying, and it tasted good,” Stauber drifts through the casually spacey and informal synth-jazz ambience of “Dinner Is Not Over,” which expands the 38 second original song into a 4:40 version thanks in part to a vampy bridge. Meanwhile, there’s a demented Cars-like sound to “There’s Something Happening” as Stauber gives voice to a cast of characters in a calliope of churning effects.
The layers of keyboards and playful air of “Keyman” are surprisingly similar to a club-worthy electronic dance song, though the lyrics aren’t: “Disciplinary, and it’s all kinda scary/If I jingle my keys, don’t call me ‘keyman,’ please.” Also, the pretty instrumentation of “Cupid” weaves a disturbing version of a lullaby, underscored by, “Oh circumcise my love for you/It’s far too vapid and aimless!”
It might be a peculiar hook, but it’s effective.
Jack Stauber’s Micropop
“Dinner Is Not Over/There’s Something Happening/Keyman/Cupid”
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
La Roux mellows out with synth-pop
La Roux’s Elly Jackson complains that everyone wants her to do another “Bulletproof,” the 2009 breakthrough hit that stands as her act’s high-water mark.
She adamantly refuses, and La Roux’s new “Supervision” noticeably lacks any of “Bulletproof’s” vitality.
That said, the songs of “Supervision” cruise along on a similar, if slower, early-synth-pop vibe as “Bulletproof,” and they merge to create a lulling atmosphere.
Jackson sings and plays keyboard and guitar on the release and gets a bass and programming assist from Dan Carey. As a result, “Supervision” simmers with hints of funk and soul, though the predominant driver in the mix is keyboard-based retro-pop.
The sound is comforting in the ironically titled “21st Century” as Jackson is anchored in the 1980s singing, “Better settled down than playing games through gritted teeth.” And in the subsequent soothing groove of “Do You Feel,” she asks, “Do you feel like a man in the morning? But do you feel like a woman at night? Don’t you realize it’s all just nothing?”
And so it goes, Jackson with her vague lines gliding along in gentle arrangements, from the lightly pulsing “Automatic Driver” to the wobbly kiss-off “International Woman of Leisure” (“Oh, you want me to go? Oh, it’s my pleasure”) to the modestly shimmering, “Everything I Live For” to the sensually easygoing “He Rides.”
Naturally Jackson sounds detached when she sings, “I don’t wanna feel anything for anyone anymore” on the mellow “Otherside,” yet she sounds remote on almost all of “Supervision,” and her unhurried pace culminates in the ridiculously long “Gullible Fool,” which brings the release to a lifeless end.
Jackson may not want to do another “Bulletproof,” but it might help keep her audience engaged.
Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5)
Tomlinson debut reflects tragedies
Louis Tomlinson gets a bit lost in the middle of the road on his new “Walls,” the last solo album from a One Direction singer.
Tomlinson had tragic reasons for the delay: His 43-year-old mother, Johannah Deakin, died of cancer in 2016, and his 18-year-old sister, Felicite Tomlinson, died of an accidental overdose in 2019.
“Walls” is informed by those deaths, most notably on the heartbreaking “Two of Us,” a piano-based stand in poignancy that finds Tomlinson, voice cracking, leaving a message on his late mother’s voicemail “so I’m not alone” and later vowing, “I’ll be living one life for the two of us.”
It’s perhaps the most wrenching song by any of the 1D guys, but Tomlinson doesn’t win many other superlatives for “Walls,” which deals out more standard pop-rock fare on the rest of the album.
The release does have a solid beginning, first with a moderately infectious retro-1990s-flavored “Kill My Mind” followed by the ebb-and-flow of an alternately gentle and grand “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart.”
Yet “Walls” cracks under the weight of its mainstream aspirations as the album wears on, with Tomlinson traveling the well-worn path of standard songs about relationships, nondescript arrangements that ricochet between acoustic and electric. Whereas the other 1D men have veered into more adventurous directions (with varied success), Tomlinson’s songs aim at a generic central point where 1D’s fans might be now, taking few risks.
It’s never terrible and there are highlights, from the sweetly unassuming “Habit” to his attempts at esteem-boosting on “Perfect Now” to the brightly hued rock farewell “Only the Brave.”
Yet ultimately it feels like Tomlinson isn’t fully developed as a soloist. He’s had obvious reasons for slowed growth and can turn it around with time. But for now, he’s not there.
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
Pet Shop Boys warm up “Hotspot”
The Pet Shop Boys have been settling into their chilly, synthetic skin for a long time, revealing that their guarded mystique during the 1980s wasn’t much of a facade, though the U.K. duo’s new “Hotspot” feels especially honest.
Lead vocalist Neil Tennant is 65 now, and his themes of wistful nostalgia, escapism and hope feel lived in more than contrived on the Stuart-Price-produced release (Price’s third for the duo in the past 8 years).
On opening track “Will-o-the-Wisp” Tennant catches a glimpse of a long-ago paramour at a Berlin train station – or perhaps he was more of a one-night stand or even just a could-have-been-a-one-night-stand. Supported by a sprawling dance arrangement, Tennant is swept by bittersweet memories of the man as an adventurous scamp and wonders if he’s now married to a woman and living a conventional life. But in a poignant turn, he finds himself musing, “You’re such a handsome thing … I’m still longing for your touch.”
Berlin and sentimentalism surface again in the subsequent gauzy ballad “You Are the One,” and later Tennant is adrift in the romance of “Only the Dark,” and giddy with the celebratory vibe of “Wedding in Berlin”: “A lot of people do it/Don’t matter if they’re straight or gay/We’re getting married because we love each other.”
Yet the cynical and dryly humorous Tennant is never far away, taking a sideways glance at “Happy people living in a sad world” (on the whisking “Happy People”), getting a wry chuckle at a lonely and antisocial man who “doesn’t feel that he has any sex appeal” on “I Don’t Wanna” and vowing to bid goodbye to a relationship in the Bacharach-esque “Burning the Heather” before ending the song with a sweetly optimistic final offer.
Price works with instrumentalist Chris Lowe to keep “Hotspot” soundly within the Pet Shop Boys aesthetic – apart from the percolating party anthem diversion “Monkey Business” – infectious, if occasionally drowsy.
However, it’s the surprisingly warm Tennant who sells “Hotspot.”
Pet Shop Boys
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
After missteps, Cora hits stride
Paige Cora sounds like a work in progress on her solo debut “Instant in Time,” but the influences of iconic stars such as Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and David Bowie billow through the mix as Cora shows flashes of brilliance.
Based in Fort Erie, Ontario, Cora and her band sound loose and a bit unfocused on “Instant in Time” – quite at odds with the painstakingly methodical style of Bush, who has made every note count for her cult-like following.
Yet stray diversions are apropos for Cora, who is a nebulous spirit with a clear voice and an elusive persona.
The style is likewise hard to pin down. Cora plays keyboards with support from strings, a combination that creates a chamber-pop foundation for her swooning, folk-flecked singer-songwriter concoctions – a graceful setting for the earthy drama of “Stray Balloons” (where she sings, “You hid behind the walls you built so no one captures you”) and a dreamy context for “The Good Side of Desire.” But an electric guitar jag gratuitously escalates “The Good Side of Desire” out of its giddy bliss, and a similar uncomfortable arrangement twist disrupts the good vibe of “Bicycle Bells.” Plus, the release’s title track is an unmitigated mess, a dabbling in bland blues and soul that staggers from Cora’s affectedly slurry enunciation as she contrives lines like, “I’m gonna live it up like you want me to.”
Fortunately, she hits stride midway through “Instant in Time” and coasts to a satisfying conclusion.
There’s an inescapable woozy allure to “Facing the Grace,” and the subsequent “Long Goodbye” is cushioned in electricity and punctuated by an irregular rhythmic flow as Cora pivots to a near-conversational delivery of observations like, “Funny how we box ourselves in.” “Echoes” follows with soothing charm and lulling nuance.
Then Cora’s mystique is in full force on closer “Forest Pine” as she conducts a ritual of sorts and promises, “Yes, I will return you to the lost northern wind, and yes, I will stop pining for you.”
That strong finish more than compensates for the earlier missteps.
“Instant in Time”
Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5)
Selena Gomez cuts deeper on ‘Rare’
Selena Gomez has never sounded more like her bestie Taylor Swift than she does on her new “Rare,” but Gomez’s catchy songs dig into deeper subtexts than where Swift usually goes – echoes of physical and mental health issues and her time in rehab. And there are also several rather obvious references to her protracted and complicated relationship with Justin Bieber.
The beauty here is that despite the weighty topics, Gomez sounds light and personable on “Rare.” For instance, the sonic density of past slow hits like “Good for You” and “The Heart Wants What It Wants” is shed here for the clean and genuinely touching survivor’s ballad “Lose You to Love Me.” And even though the dance track “Vulnerable” is layered in electronica, Gomez sounds organic as she dissects a boomerang relationship.
The genre styles also include the glitchy R&B of “Look at Her Now” and the playful, albeit low-key, pop of “Ring.” Plus the release shifts down into a subdued mode for the last run of songs.
Yet more than anything else, the lyrics define the release, establishing Gomez as someone who has moved out of darkness and matured as an artist. The lively Latin vibe of the dance track “Let Me Get Me” is a therapeutic celebration where she declares she’s got “no self-sabotage, no letting my thoughts run/Me and this spiral are done.” She’s likewise self-affirming in “Rare’s” compelling title track, and even if the plucky “Fun” is generally inconsequential, she drops in wry lines like “You get me higher than my medication.”
Unfortunately, “Rare” slides into a late malaise with a few nondescript numbers, including the off-kilter “Crowded Room” and the drowsy filler “Kinda Crazy,” before it rebounds with the stylishly meditative self-exorcism “Cut You Off” and hypnotizing “A Sweeter Place.” And despite the clunkers, Gomez has never sounded more interesting.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Halsey’s appeal flashes to surface
As much credit as Halsey deserves for not simply caving in to typical pop tropes about hackneyed relationships, her new “Manic” is like a confessional that doesn’t say much.
The New Jersey native is an enigma, a bold-sounding vocalist who seems to be everywhere lately. But for all her blustery drama, and regardless of her distinctive cartoon-adjacent voice, there’s something cold and insubstantial about Halsey.
“Manic” isn’t a series of songs as much as it’s a collection of ideas that sometimes take the shape of songs, like her brooding hit single “Graveyard.” If these tracks were born in her psyche, then her mind is lost in a murky otherworld of somber electronica and struggle.
That’s not necessarily bad – “Clementine” is a post-apocalyptic piano folk-horror number, “I Hate Everybody” shrugs off self-destructive behavior in striking minimalism (“I’m my own biggest enemy … My friends are all getting bored”), and “You Should Be Sad” finds a Dolly-Parton-sounding Halsey seething in a neo-electro context, “I’m so glad I never, ever had a baby with you ’cause you can love nothing unless there’s something in it for you.”
But what to make of the rote bumping ballad “Without Me” or Halsey’s struggle “to love myself” on “Still Learning” or relentless search to find her salvation on “929”? Then she’s emotionally needy at 3 a.m. on the rockish “3am,” a shameless drag on her friends that sheds little light on motivations to be her friend in the first place.
Although Halsey and Alanis Morissette are kindred souls on their collaboration “Alanis Interlude,” Halsey’s sequel with Suga/BTS on “Suga’s Interlude” – a sequel of sorts to the BTS/Halsey hit “Boy With Luv” – is little more than flaccid filler.
Until Halsey fleshes out her performance personality, she’s going to be a semi-obscured star.
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
Twin Atlantic blends tension, sensuality
Twin Atlantic frontman Sam McTrusty and his band bring the tension to the group’s new “Power,” even when they’re in a good frame of mind – and that’s what you want from an alternative band, an act that can keep an audience on edge even while everyone is celebrating.
For instance, McTrusty was inspired by meeting his wife for the “Power” track “Novocaine,” which charges out on a grainy, galloping rhythm, infectious and danceable, as he serves lines like, “If I’m nothing, you’re it all.” Yet the Glasgow-based Scottish band’s track carries an air of sweeping melancholy in the romance, a twist that gives a bittersweet flavor to the infatuation-themed song.
Twin Atlantic tempers “Power’s” passion with a sensual stylistic bent not typical of most alt-bands – picture a blend of modern Depeche Mode with hints of Prince, which kicks off the crunchy opening cut “Oh! Euphoria!”
Elsewhere, McTrusty beckons in the buzzing energy of “I Feel It Too,” “Just use my body, know somebody out there’s loving you,” while in the epic staticky drama of “Barcelona,” he sings, “I’ve had enough of ‘Clockwork Orange’ living” and notes, “I may be lost, but I believe in living for love.”
Yet “Power” gets darker for “Ultraviolet Truth,” which opens with warped distortion and an effect of a distant PA system before the rhythmic hypnosis takes over as a brooding McTrusty sings, “I’ve been wasting all my youth.”
Curiously, Twin Atlantic packs three awkward cuts at the end, as if the band didn’t want to throw them out or display them, so they buried them instead. As a result, the release jaunts through the rousing, but fractured, rattle of “Volcano,” sags into the joyless march of “Messiah” (where McTrusty sings, “When all is lost, I’ll be found/Sick from your religion”) and spins out on an apocalyptic closer with “Praise Me.”
It’s a weird way to power down “Power,” but at least it makes it easier to let them go.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Smoke Fairies magically disconnect
One listen to the tandem voices of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, and it’s obvious they were born to sing.
But they have an unusual way of applying their talent.
The London-based duo also known as the Smoke Fairies mesmerize with their harmonizing, their deep, textured tones and clear delivery similar to the stuff of classical singers.
Yet on their new “Darkness Brings the Wonders Home,” produced by Phil Ek, the women pit their voices is an electric blues/alt-rock foundation. It’s a gritty context far removed from a more obvious fit like chamber music or airy folk, as if these fairies got mired in a Louisiana swamp and were forced to play for their lives.
This isn’t new for the U.K. act – check out their sobering 2015 Christmas album “Wild Winter” – rather it’s a distinct and effective signature.
The moody “Darkness” echoes the 1990s in the electric resonance of opener “On the Wing” and the teasing and taunting of the claustrophobia-inspiring “Elevator.”
But their journey isn’t a simple chug through rock grime. The husky voices chill in the slowed-down “Coffee Shop Blues” as they sing, “tangled in Spanish moss, the weight of time, shifting” and complement the heavy “Out of the Woods” with, “When are you going to come out of the woods, just like you always do?”
By contrast, there’s whimsy in the mix of “Don’t You Want to Spiral Out of Control?” and hypnotic charm in the ooh-ooh-based backing vocals of “Left to Roll” and infectious chorus of “Disconnect.”
However, the mystique of “Darkness” is best exhibited by the duo’s cynical edge, as on the biting “Chocolate Rabbit” that goes, “You’re like a chocolate rabbit/You’re hollow inside/You leave me unsatisfied.”
“Darkness Brings the Wonders Home”
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Brothers of Metal play hard
Brothers of Metal’s new “Emblas Saga” is everything it should be from the Swedish metal band.
It’s bruising, cathartic, steeped in mythology and so over the top it’ll give you a nosebleed.
“Emblas Saga” is powered by triple guitarists and triple vocalists and awash in Norse lore from the opening symphonic/cinematic “Brood of the Trickster,” with a spoken-word introduction about an “unholy union fulfilled.”
As the “Emblas Saga” story plays out, we learn of a monstrous serpent with “eyes glowing red in the dark on the ocean floor” (on “Powersnake”), a vengeful wolf who will have a “bloody feast” (on “Chain Breaker”) and a god who is the “shaper of the greatest winds a Viking’s ever seen” (on “Njord”).
Ylva Eriksson is the lone woman in Brothers, and her melodic vocals stand starkly in the rote cacophony, a soothing (and often folk-like) respite from the histrionic testosterone-fueled antics of male vocalists Joakim Lindback Eriksson and Mats Nilsson, who both growl and bray and bellow
The guitar-powered soundscapes find the band of soldiers mustering the strength and courage to unify and seize their fates, fighting to the death if need be. At times “Emblas Saga” is unavoidably cheesy – 1980s pop hair bands are close relatives to these brothers – and adults might feel the plotlines are speaking to a younger audience, yet a similar mentality is behind most comic-book-hero movies and “The Game of Thrones,” so why not?
This rock fantasy is about being brave and banding together with similar “warriors” – “When we believe we are but one, we come together.” It’s a terrific message, though listeners might want to give a pass to triumphant closing track “To the Skies and Beyond,” with the declaration “Glory be to the chosen ones!”
High drama is one thing, but schmaltz is unforgivable.
Brothers of Metal
Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5)
Deserta motivates with ‘Black Aura’
New Age performers were among the first prolific adopters of electronica music, a union from decades ago that can still be heard in today’s trance, ambient and chill subgenres.
Deserta frontman Matthew Doty folds into the mix elements of alt-rock shoegaze and pop for his new “Black Aura My Sun,” yet at its core, the release is soaked in hypnotic electronic intensity.
As foreground music, “Black Aura My Sun” could be the ideal soundtrack for a meditative session; as background music, it will serve to steady the air and calm the nerves.
Although the release sounds like a conventional, albeit well-crafted, collection of atmospheric music, Doty quietly breaks from form. Like super-quietly, as with his subtle-to-the-point-of-subliminal vocals, often so faint that the lyrics are hard to decipher. Then there’s the rhythmic drive of “Monica,” a propulsive buzz that tacitly underscores the tone with a 1980s pop glow. There’s also a wobbly rockish anchor of sorts to “I’ll Be Gone” as “Black Aura My Sun” goes on a blurry dark bender.
However, the release mostly feels untethered, life-affirming in the wash of synthetic layers of opener “Save Me,” vibrant in the nebulous humming flow of the billowy “Paradiso.”
Doty comes to the surface from time to time: “Hush now, don’t you cry/Don’t worry about tonight,” he sings to open the swirling guile of “Be So Blue,” while in the grim beauty of ethereal closer “Black Aura,” he asks, “Hold me in your arms one last time.”
Nowhere is Deserta more persuasive than on “Hide,” an epic slowdive that is all-consuming with intoxicating lushness – a track that might sound the most familiar on “Black Aura My Sun,” but it’s also the most satisfying.
“Black Aura My Sun”
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Harry Styles is a natural star
Harry Styles pushes further into his post-One Direction solo career with a calm and confident “Fine Line,” the sophomore follow-up to his first-rate 2017 self-titled solo debut.
Still only 25, Styles shows the signs of a classic star on the new release – the star anyone familiar with 1D knew he would become. He builds on the retro-California-pop-rock vibe of “Harry Styles” with recurring references to summer and fruit and the intoxicating effect of love. Psychedelia and funk are part of the sonic mix now, and instead of echoing older stars (“Harry Styles” brought to mind Elton John and Jackson Browne, among others), on “Fine Line” he simply sounds like Harry Styles.
The release is a slow-burn, a stylish and soulful dive into level-headed romance from the mature optimism of the sprawling driving song “Golden” to the reassurance in the sparse title track that closes the release. There’s complex sweetness here, embedded in the timeless pop-infused flirtations of “Watermelon Sugar,” dovetailing with the melancholy of “Cherry’s” Americana and swirling through the hallucination of “Sunflower, Vol. 6.”
And “Treat People With Kindness” is a shocking choir-backed sing-along, a throwback to Up With People-level open-heartedness, hokey but absolutely charismatic coming from Styles.
He’s turning into quite the crooner, too, though Styles doesn’t yet have the emotional weight of a veteran troubadour. But he’s not trying to be an old sage. The singer is comfortable in the mix and the music suits him. Plus even if some of the lines are lame, there are great ones. So listeners who wince at the stale “I’d walk through fire for you” line of “Adore You” will be rewarded with a “strawberry lipstick state of mind.”
Fans should expect “Fine Line” to grow on them. It isn’t a hook-loaded drive into instantly rewarding boy-band pop, it’s a self-assured saunter that gets more flavorful as it ripens.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Lawson Rollins brightens winter blues
Now that he’s gotten into films, Lawson Rollins may be employing the cinematic trick of transitional technique by releasing his toasty-aired “True North” in the dead of winter.
The world music guitarist, based in San Francisco, broke from form about a year ago with “Dark Matter: Music for Film,” an effective 25-track collection of songs Rollins recorded for a film that existed only in his mind. He also scored his first real movie, the horror film “Stay Out Stay Alive,” which was released in late 2019.
Rollins is back in his jazz-influenced world music groove with “True North,” playing his go-to nylon string guitar, as well as slide and electric guitar, keyboards and drum programming.
The instrumental release defies January with its hot bursts of electricity in the kinetic “With the Wind,” the Western-evoking roll of the “True North” title track and the aptly titled organic cut, “Perpetual Notion.”
Meanwhile, “True North’s” central tracks are like its molten core, starting with the shimmering “Bluewave Bossanova,” a rhythmic churn of crystal clean notes that would be a perfect soundtrack to finding a hidden beach on a sunny day. And you can practically hear ice clinking in cocktail glasses with the subsequent, and sensual, “South Beach,” which infuses Latin nuance into the cozy mix. “Full Sail” follows with the suggestion of an open-sea excursion as Rollins glides over the arrangement with a purposeful display of his dexterous play.
“True North” shifts into a lower gear as it approaches its final destination, with the languid sweetness of “Yearning to Know,” the subdued textures of “Nostalgia” and the insomnia-busting ballad “In the Shadows.” And then he rebounds with closer “The Winding Road,” a fluid and up-tempo track to shake off the cobwebs.
Rollins can’t make summer materialize, of course, but at least “True North” will help offset January doldrums.
Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5)
Veridian powers up for ‘NoVella’
U.K. band Veridian deals a satisfying blast of angsty rock with the bracing new EP “NoVella,” exploring the mental malaise of modern life and finding hope to persevere.
Guitarist Robbie Everett drives the band’s bracing sound, which isn’t particularly imaginative, though it’s a well-executed concoction that swings from the pop-punk of “Halo” to the Goth-flavored “Easier” to the propulsive “Curtains” to the ebb and flow of “Friends” to the fetching closer “Pavement.”
Meanwhile, vocalist Simon Jackman is the band’s distinctive vocalist, amping up his octane for “NoVella’s” more electric moments and dialing in to embellished melodicism when he’s in the spotlight.
Jackman’s relatable emotional struggles are Veridian’s best selling point. On “Halo,” for instance, he sees the fabulous lives that strangers on social media claim to have, and he, too, wants “everyone I know to think I’m living out their dreams.” Instead, he only feels triggered by all the boasting posts from those he doesn’t know, leaving him collapsing under the weight of envy, insecurities and loneliness.
Jealousy also dominates the escapist-themed “Curtains,” where he sings, “I count the beautiful people and wonder why can’t they be me.”
Fortunately, he finds comfort on the swooping “Easier” – “You know what they say, it’s not going to get easier/But you make me feel a little better.” And in the back-and-forth of “Friends” he dreams, perhaps unrealistically, of a balanced relationship.
Veridian closes with an invitation to a trap, Jackman presenting himself as a weak-willed, self-pitying guy who might never change yet also singing, “I need you to come make everything OK.”
Whoever takes up such an offer will inevitably feel angst of their own, but that’s life.
Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5)
Stabbing Westward lives again
With a flurry of releases from 1994 to 2001, Illinois industrial rock band Stabbing Westward joined acts like Nine Inch Nails, the Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy to bridge the gap between early techno/electronic rock and modern electronic dance music.
Their sound split the difference between aggressive rock and aggressive electronic music – edgy, with driving rhythms and big beats … a style that has fallen out of favor with the more sedate pop sounds of today.
Stabbing Westward reunited in 2016 after more than a decade on hiatus, and now they’ve released their first new music since their breakup – a “Dead and Gone” EP that serves as a fond nostalgia trip for Y2K industrial rock.
The title track is an instantly rewarding appetizer, crackling with menacing electricity, thumping beat and an oddly soothing electro-percolation as frontman Christopher Hall rides the storm with a chilling chorus. A “Stoneburner Remix” of “Dead and Gone” appears later on the EP, and it’s a deconstruction of the original that dissects the arrangement and extracts the flow from the mix, creating a messier environment.
“Crawl” counters the dominant propulsive tone of the EP with a music-box intro that builds into a power ballad of sorts, with Hall’s melodic line “I would crawl on my hands just to be with you” coming across as hostile affection.
The EP also includes “Cold,” a sprawling, mystical soundscape suitable for a rave as Hall plaintively taps into the refrain “How did you get so cold?” A dance mix of the song closes out the EP on its highest note, juicing the grind to underscore Hall’s revelation: “When I whispered I love you, you froze and said nothing at all.”
There’s nothing like a bulldozing groove to propel rage and indignation on a dance song. And it sounds as good now as it did 20 years ago.
“Dead and Gone”
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
‘Jackboys’ habitually keeps it high
Travis Scott’s “Jackboys” is an efficient EP, a trap-saturated roll through seven tracks with a solid slate of featured vocalists hanging out, if occasionally going through the motions.
The opening cut stands out, a remix of “Highest in the Room” that wobbles through a warped rhythm as Scott comes in, addled and woozy, with lines about uncertain thrills, escapism, danger and love/lust – all keyed to the refrain “Hope I make it outta here.” Rosalia and Lil Baby join the mix, both of their vocals modulated to the hilt, which would be aggravating in many contexts, but absolutely works in the altered-state atmosphere of “Highest in the Room.”
Otherwise, Jackboys shuffles the mood with shifting atmosphere and rotating vocalists. Don Toliver is dramatic, both in the weirdly compelling aural paralysis of “What to Do?” (“Please don’t make the wrong moves, ’cause my weapon (is) cocked”) and in the soulful groove of “Had Enough,” which also features Quavo and Offset.
Meanwhile, Pop Smoke is all charisma on “Gatti,” his throaty low growl an intriguing counterpoint to what sounds like an inside-out arrangement built on compressed air.
Also, Young Thug glides along to the snake-charmer effects of “Out West,” a playfully filthy song that would be sensual if it weren’t so over-the-top explicit.
There’s only one other track apart from an inconsequential instrumental interlude – a “Gang Gang” that is simply off-putting, from the vapid lyrics (delivered by Scott and Sheck Wes) to the dragging pace and hallucinogenic atmosphere to the self-aggrandizing tone.
It’s a bad trip, but the only truly low point among the highs.
Jackboys and Travis Scott
Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5)
“UR Fun” overcomes stumbles
Kevin Barnes says the latest release from his of Montreal project, “UR Fun,” was inspired by Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual” and Janet Jackson’s “Control,” though that’s just his crafty way of saying the release follows some traditional pop structures (hook baiting, dance rhythms) with a 1980s kick to the arrangements.
His true inspiration seems to be his relationship with Christina Schneider (of Locate S, 1), who appears with him on the track “Gypsy That Remains,” a giddy and rather twee celebration of romantic feelings: “I love myself when you touch me.”
To be sure, of Montreal navigates through ample cheesy touches, lo-fi production and periodically weak vocals from Barnes, missteps akin to rolling “UR Fun” in the aural equivalent of bargain-bin glitter. It doesn’t help that he intones an ersatz Johnny Rotten/Bob Dylan hybrid for the clanging “St. Sebastian” or bumbles through a ramshackle Beatles-styled castoff with “Carmillas of Love.”
Still, the sum of “UR Fun” is greater than its parts. First track “Peace to All Freaks” – which is more General Public than Cyndi Lauper – is an upbeat romp tied to wry lines like “Don’t let’s be cynical” and “If you’re dead inside, you don’t really age.” The Prince-tinged “Polyaneurism” finds Barnes struggling with a non-monogamous relationship (“Something about open couples doesn’t feel real serious”) and “Get God’s Attention by Being an Atheist” is an undulating whirl through soft pop trappings and a big grainy chorus.
Meanwhile, of Montreal saunters in its trademark psychedelia on “Deliberate Self-Harm Ha Ha” (where Barnes tries to decode the assertion that “having boundaries is abusive”), and the exhilarating “Don’t Let Me Die in America” is a gripping alt-rocking panic attack and checklist of bad cities to meet your demise.
Sure, “UR Fun” can be clunky at times. But that’s part of the appeal.
Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5)
The Acacia Stain disquiets with doom
The Acacia Stain’s new “It Comes in Waves” may be too difficult a listen for many – and not because the metalcore sound is hinged to thrashing guitars and Vincent Bennett’s vocal-cord-shredding monster-voice delivery.
It’s the message that might be too much to bear.
“It Comes in Waves” is a single-themed, seven-track release that might as well be a single half-hour song. Track titles have nothing to do with lyrics; instead, each song title represents one word that ultimately spells out “Our only sin was giving them names.”
The “them” in question is gods. The Acacia Stain challenges the notion of deities from any kind of religion or mythology, the idea that these figures – ghosts, figments, aliens – are created by humanity to hold dominion over humanity and that their rules (interpreted by humanity) must be abided by and never challenged.
It’s a sweeping indictment that challenges belief systems across cultures and throughout time.
But however you feel about the message, the presentation of it is compelling, a searing concept album dispatched by a band that’s been at this for 19 years.
The group’s metallic crescendos are enthralling, if completely expected, yet it’s the quieter spaces built into the songs that carry the most drama – uneasy effects that crackling with static and stray voices and sound something like the world deflating and falling in on itself, like a cold death rattle or at least the settling sounds of an apocalypse.
Skeptical of “creatures from beyond reality offering ecstasy” and quick with doom-filled lines like “Gravity is life pulling us to the grave” and “The staircase leads to nowhere,” Bennett concludes “Only the dead know.”
It’s angry, depressing and a mad rush of adrenaline. Even if you aren’t buying it.
The Acacia Stain
“It Comes in Waves”
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Dog in the Snow glistens with glory
Dog in the Snow’s “Vanishing Lands” is like a study in anachronistic futurism.
Creator Helen Ganya Brown musters an electronic-based style that has snaked through popular music (and cinematic scores) for decades. And unlike other revivalists, Brown sounds like she could be in the 1980s with “Vanishing Lands,” a contemporary of the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Lene Lovich and Missing Persons.
She captures the grim, melodic essence of Siouxsie Sioux, the eccentric whims of Lovich and the not-quite-human aura of Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons. Dog in the Snow’s sonic palette is likewise retro, broadly gothic and fitfully danceable, and spiked with an electric energy befitting a more neurotic (i.e. more modern) time.
The Brighton-based daughter of a Thai mother and Scottish father is outward looking on much of “Vanishing Lands,” composing a sprawling and improbably synthetic tale of the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s (“Gold”) and lifting from the opening line “If we take precious things from the land, we will invite disaster” into an escalating chaos built on manic drums.
Yet she’s also brooding, singing like a gruesome siren on the lonely epic “This Only City,” giving way to high-strung hypnosis in a claustrophobic swarm of voices on “Bloom” and discovering a vein of optimism in the pulsing rumble of closer “Dark.”
Also, Dog in the Snow soars with a surreal foghorn-meets-stomping-chorus on “Light” and an alarmingly invigorating anxiety attack on “Dual Terror.” Plus “Icaria” stews in a deceptively calm opening gurgle, its wonky ingredients becoming increasingly agitated in her aural cauldron.
It’s all part of an exhilarating spell echoing the past but appropriate for 2020.
Dog in the Snow
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Reynolds offers a dollop of an edge
Sometimes it seems as if cancel culture might ruin the careers of most comedians. What if subjects that are acceptable today fall out of favor in a year or two? How can comics with an edge protect themselves if the pendulum keeps swinging toward increased scrutiny of material?
Gareth Reynolds seems to have a good strategy with his debut standup release, “Riddled With Disease.” The co-host of the popular podcast “The Dollop,” Reynolds is more of a storyteller than a joke teller, and the way he grazes potentially taboo subjects makes them seem a little safer. … At least for now.
Fat jokes? Sort of, but Reynolds tells them in a self-effacing context of being an overweight child himself, with his mother feeding him delusions that he doesn’t have a weight problem.
Also, fans will recognize Jose, the Mexican cat who is smarter than Reynolds, plus there’s a wry Magic Johnson joke about the NBA legend’s name more than his medical condition. He also breezes through a bit on racism, and as to the escalating homeless crisis in Los Angeles, he says there are 65,000 of them, “and that’s just actors.”
But the takeaway here isn’t Reynolds teetering on acceptability, it’s his deft handling of quirky material, which he conveys with charismatic fast talking and energy. He tells of going to a Foghat concert where none of the actual members of Foghat played, and he blisters the NFL for its excessive marketing, wondering if players will one day give up their birth names and take on the names of sponsoring products.
Best of all is his showcase routine about the worst social media abusers – narcissistic gym rats, obsessive parents, filter junkies, foodies, those who play out their relationships publicly and more.
And he ends by asking his audience to follow him on social media.
“Riddled With Disease”
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Solo Liam Payne lacks direction
Not everyone in a boy band is meant to be a solo superstar.
Take Liam Payne, for instance. He was more the glue for One Direction than the star attraction, relatively uncontroversial and anonymous. But without his bandmates on his new “LP1,” he sounds lost and ill-defined.
The bloated 17-track release was assembled by an army of songwriters (including Ed Sheeran, Ryan Tedder and Charlie Puth), features several guest vocalists and hops around the genres, mostly settling on a dark pop-electronic sound that was popular four or five years ago.
Payne is often a nondescript passenger in the mix, a decorative cherry in the cocktail who tries to fire a little carnal indulgence into the brew as he sounds like a watered-down Justin Bieber or not as watered-down Shawn Mendes.
Apart from some embarrassing lyrical passages, “LP1” isn’t terrible. It’s just that Payne doesn’t push himself and as a result, the release doesn’t really go anywhere.
At least the track “Tell Your Friends” stands out with catchy refrains piercing through the subtle arrangement. Also, the singer warms up in the Zedd-built EDM of “Get Low,” and he musters an improbable bounty of charisma on the Latin-leaning “Familiar” featuring J. Balvin. Plus, there’s a bittersweet closing holiday piano ballad, “All I Want (for Christmas).”
And for those who want a sexy Payne, he gets a little nasty at the Hard Rock Hotel on “Rude Hours,” festishizes bisexual women and orgies on “Both Ways,” and winks at an ex who can’t give him up on “Bedroom Floor.”
That’ll be enough to satisfy some, but others won’t find “LP1” worth the long stretches of indistinct vocals, interchangeable tracks and Payne’s perpetual game of hide and seek with his personality.
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
Chainsmokers seem low on ‘Joy’
The Chainsmokers have been rolling out songs for their new “World War Joy” through most of 2019, and now the complete release is finally out with the final four tracks added to the package.
But if you’ve heard one Chainsmokers songs, you’ve pretty much heard them all.
The guest acts (featured on eight of the 10 “World War Joy” songs) do switch out, so that helps differentiate the tracks, like when blink-182 swings by for the sentimentality and sarcasm of the new “P.S. I Hope You’re Happy” or when 5 Seconds of Summer kicks in with bitterness on the previously released “Who do You Love.”
But the sonic style is largely the same from song to song, and there’s even redundancy among many of the guest vocalists, mostly of whom are women singing in interchangeable production-modified downcast tones.
The Chainsmokers – Drew Taggart and Alex Pall – have surged to the top rung of American DJs thanks to their sleek blend of electronic-steeped dance music, accessibly dialed down and blended with organic pop and rock. And they know how to bait a hook with memorable riffs and refrains.
Yet for all of their carefully crafted atmosphere, there’s something foul in the Chainsmokers’ air.
“World War Joy” is addled by its attitude. There’s an attempt at a balanced view of relationships, but the romance feels smarmy and forced while the darker moods are anchored in cynicism and entitlement. So though there’s seemingly little sincerity when the hero of “See the Way” is surprised to discover his emotional boundaries have left him melancholy (“It takes a little distance to make you see the way”), and “The Reaper” feels almost gleeful with lines such as, “I pull the trigger just to show her that I need her.” There’s also a layer of self-pitying irresponsibility on “Kills You Slowly” when our guy gets drunk, screws up and shrugs it off with “I do things I can’t defend.”
So it’s surprising on the guest-less “Push My Luck” when Taggart swirls his raspy voice into a disarming come on: “Did you say that you got nothing else to do?/Is it OK if I stay, ’cause I’m dying to.”
Hope he doesn’t blow it.
“World War Joy”
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
Let Teejayx6 give you career options
Teejayx6’s “Black Air Force Activity 1” is packed with gangsta rap themes as the Detroit upstart carries on about his law-defying career and boasts of the readily accessible women, drugs, weapons and materialistic goods his lifestyle brings.
But Teejay Witherspoon is far more sophisticated than what rappers were doing 30 years ago, and his victims are generally less sympathetic than those who got caught in the old-school gangsta rap crossfire.
Teejayx6 elevates the “scam rap” genre from the vague braggadocio of others to a step-by-step instructional on getting fake IDs (he’s still a teenager), accessing the dark web, generating fake consumer accounts and duping America’s biggest companies to bring in tons of merchandise and cash.
It’s illegal and immoral … but who wouldn’t get a thrill in seeing their phone company get scammed?
Teejayx6 gets away with it thanks to his skillful vocal flow, be it in the comedic, whispery delivery of “Spotlight,” the overlapping whoosh of lines of “Dark Web” or the hilarious (and un-PC) back-and-forth “Dynamic Duo 2” with guest Kasher Quon as the two riff off each other with rapid-fire one-upmanship.
The rapper’s ace is humor, whether he’s giving a tutorial on how to be a scammer with “Swipe Lesson 3” or cruising alongside the flexible, club-friendly bass of “Work Out,” which ends with him scamming a gold digger and ending the song with a wry, “then I drove off.”
It’s all kinds of wrong, but persuasively escapist as our clever anti-hero make the qualified boast, “I was always good at math, I was never good at psychics” and later adds, “I just got 90 iPhones out of Missouri.”
Try not to be jealous.
“Black Air Force Activity”
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
“Fall & Fixture” foils convention
Daniel Loumpouridis was all of 17 when he got his first songwriting credit – “It’s Strange” recorded by Louis the Child featuring K. Flay, which went on to become a streaming hit, a featured song on Netflix’s “Dear White People” and part of an advertising campaign for Nissan.
A few years later and Loumpouridis only doubles down on the quirk of “It’s Strange” with his solo album “Fall & Fixture,” which is submerged in eccentric sonic stylings that solidify into a distinct sound, if also an illogical one.
The tracks of “Fall & Fixture” wryly flow into each other: “Not December” segues into “November,” “Voicemail” segues into “Email,” “pleasedon’t” segues into “callmeback.” And production plays a starring role, whether it’s grating, throbbing, sluggish or disconnected and floating through space. Plus, the vocals are ridiculously overmodulated, which proves to be a signature for Loumpouridis, for better or worse.
Thematically, “Fall & Fixture” is straightforward on the surface, though complicated underneath, the musings of a man struggling to process basic emotions while dragging his offbeat show through a carnival built on quicksand.
It often feels alluring – subdued in the sedate “Softlight,” in the slumber of “pleasedon’t” and in the lilting duet with Leila Sunier, “Mind Up.” Yet Loumpouridis also musters anger and anxiety for “Voicemail,” an irresistible rhythmic anchor for “Erin in the Ocean” and an absorbing air for the march of “What’s the Matter.”
And sometimes, “Fall & Fixture” is just too much, self-indulgently overprocessed on “Version of You,” for instance, and juvenile on a “Not December” that asks, “Are you down to run around?”
Given the jarring twists, muffled vocals and staticky turns, “Fall & Fixture” shouldn’t work as well as it does. But Loumpouridis has great instincts for dropping in a catchy hook or rewarding diversion at just the right time.
“Fall & Fixture”
Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5)
Rejected songs unite on Villagers EP
When Conor O’Brien was assembling his 2018 album “The Art of Pretending to Swim” for his Villagers act, he cast aside a handful of songs – something artists do all the time.
But this year O’Brien came back to four castoffs and decided that though they didn’t make sense for “Swim,” they work together for a concise EP, which he assembled for “The Sunday Walker EP.”
O’Brien explains in a press release, “it turns out they had their own story to tell,” adding the “lost songs” are “songs of loss and songs of realization. Songs of empathy and isolation.”
The music of “Sunday Walker” is quieter than most of “The Art of Pretending to Swim,” weighty yet dignified in tone as O’Brien goes on a brief soul-searching journey, turning up more problems than he solves in the mix of meditative arrangements.
The songs alternate between acoustic-guided airy folksiness and ethereal soundscapes as O’Brien vaguely expresses himself. In the lush dreaminess of “Did You Know?” he sings, “He can feel the love just trying to get in, but he won’t know how to take it” and adds, “We just need to be retrained.”
Gentle washes of strings flow over the title track like waves of hypnotic exotica, O’Brien noting, “Been lost before … but never like this,” while bird calls serve as backing vocals on “Adora Venera,” where O’Brien shifts from what seems like a spoken sermon to a soft and heavenly speak-sing. Meanwhile, the bass has more resonance on closer “Note to Self (For Michael),” where O’Brien sings, “You won’t learn to love if you don’t learn to love your tears.”
Ultimately “The Sunday Walker EP” is roughly 17 minutes of beautifully framed grim thoughts, with ample gorgeous strains and just enough hope to wrap listeners in an enticing embrace.
“The Sunday Walker EP”
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Girl Ray only hints at Ariana Grande
Fans of the North London lo-fi pop trio Girl Ray may have been alarmed that the group was influenced by the likes of Ariana Grande and Beyonce for their new “Girl,” but there’s little chance the release will rocket them into America’s pop mainstream.
Apart from production sheen and light echoes of R&B, Girl Ray hardly sounds anything like their influences. And that’s how it should be from the savoir faire trio that seems too cool for the Top 40.
If anything, North London friends Poppy, Iris and Sophie sound more like a throwback to 1980s acts such as Tom Tom Club and Kid Creole’s backing vocalists the Coconuts as well as 1990s acts Luscious Jackson and Ivy – counterprogramming to conventional radio with enough oomph to bubble onto the charts despite themselves.
The trio are bonded as comrades and they’re wry with the lines. And lead vocalist Poppy’s delivery has the suggestion of a French jazz chanteuse. Or Italian. Or Brazilian.
The intoxicating atmosphere of the title track and the funk-kissed jangle of “Show Me More” are appetizers for a “Girl” that eventually glides into the percussive drive and gentle slapping rhythm of “Just Down the Hall,” where Poppy sings, “I never feel so sad as when you say goodnight.” Then in the barely-there ambience of “Let It Go,” the women harmonize their ahh-ahh’s alongside flute before Poppy concludes, “I just think of you when you walk away … maybe you should stay.”
Despite the enchantments, which also include the simple allure of “Friend Like That” and the eccentric reggae/Asian meditation “Beautiful,” Girl Ray tends to get lost and indecisive in the mix, their artistic vision stuck in a fetching limbo that perhaps would benefit from a clearer direction.
But given the woozy send off “Like the Stars,” maybe their aim was intended to be mysteriously indistinct.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Music educator finds his groove
Jesse Goldman puts on an impressive one-man show as Moozika! on “Moove to Moozika!”, a collection of family friendly, “city-based adventure songs” on which he plays every instrument as he whirls his audience through 12 genres in a breezy half hour.
The Brooklyn music educator incorporates the voices of some of his students, and together they sing in a mix of English and Spanish as lifts off from its sludgy title-track opener into a playful free-for-all of styles and sounds.
Goldman spends most of track “Moose on the Loose” on the run … at least until the lumbering escapee critter falls asleep and our hero has to tippy-toe his way away. Elsewhere, Moozika! hitches to an invigorating rhythm for “Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro,” romps and stomps across the carnivalesque whimsy of “Burro,” chugs along to the electric blues-rock foundation of “Roly-Poly Train” and billows through the easy piano jazz of the recipe-centric “Supa Dupa Soup.”
There’s also a crafty, hypnotic house-music dance track, “Wave Your Scarf” and a booming urban pop cut, “Brooklyn Baby.”
Goldman isn’t much of a classic singer – his voice is nasal and uneven, which is serviceable for his comical demeanor but can be a little – off – as on the strained lullaby “Sleep My Child,” which is almost unsettling with its instability, despite the nice acoustic guitar.
Still, the vocals ultimately prove charming, if imperfect, and Moozika! is an endearing journey all the way to the percussion-infused farewell, “Hasta Luego.”