Monthly Archives: June 2016

Sound ‘Round: Fifth Harmony / Maren Morris

Exuberant youth with limitations

Fifth Harmony – 7/27 (Epic)

Fifth Harmony - 7-27I know, I know. How can we believe their claims of independence when they are propped up in part by a team of A-list producers and songwriters composed almost exclusively of men? The answer lies in another question. How many opportunities are afforded to women in the music biz in the first place — to say nothing of other business ventures? At the end of the day, ladies gotta pay rent and there are far less glamorous ways of doing so than climbing the pop charts. So when they sing a lyric as simple as “This is the life,” know they nonetheless understand such a quip’s liberating power. While last year’s debut finds inspiration in the women who went before them — Mariah, Oprah, Michelle Obama — this sequel concerns self-empowerment. That’s not to say they’re always champions of a cause. “Work From Home,” written by six men, relegates them to domestic bliss where the man is the breadwinner and power broker in the bedroom. The hooks are decidedly more consistent than the political intent. They’re precise, economical, and unrelenting. Still, it all sounds too familiar and piece-milled. How can a song with five co-writers (“Squeeze”) do no better than ape a Sugar Ray melody? They deserve a bigger bang for their buck. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “That’s My Girl” / “Not That of Kind of Girl” / “Write On Me”

Maren Morris – HERO (Columbia)

Maren Morris - HeroYou already know her story — a teenage virtuoso hustles the hometown bar circuit before venturing to Nashville to test her mettle on Music Row. She swapped performing for songwriting, penning verses for Toby Keith and Kelly Clarkson before saving the best tunes for herself on this major label debut. Less honky-tonk and more southern rock, this Dallas native follows the Miranda Lambert school of thought that covets lyricsm over genre conventions. So it’s no mistake “My Church,” a music-as-redemption song that tips its hat to Hank and Cash, was written in L.A. She prods country’s power structure once more on “80’s Mercedes,” inverting the macho-truck swagger of bro culture for the freedom of a convertible. Those same dumb boys serve as comedic foils on songs that showcase her jokes. “Rich,” plays up the if-I-had-a-dollar conceit about a habitual liar and “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry,” knows otherwise when it comes to Mr. L-O-S-E-R. But Morris’ many strengths evaporate during the second half with an overabundance of ballads that mute her humor and ups the melodrama. A pity, really, as her wit and melodicism melts into platitudes and slush. What could have been an impressive debut turns into a turgid night at karaoke. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “My Church” / “80’s Mercedes” / “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry”

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Sound ‘Round: Tegan and Sara / Gwen Stefani

Love is all they need

Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death (Warner Bros.)

tegan and sara - love you to deathAlbum number eight isn’t their best, but posterity could make it the most important. The sisters Quin are compelling for constructing pro-gay anthems that rarely address their lesbianism. Both understand love is an unbiased emotion. It is neither L, G, B, T nor straight — it simply is. Able to grasp that profound truth, their approach says, “Right, we love women, big deal.” That mentality continues, but with an emboldened sense of pride. Where verses were once gender neutral and ambiguous, the intent is obvious. “Boyfriend,” concerns a woman who possesses the commitment issues of a high school quarterback, and “BMU” finds Sara forsaking the hetero pageantry of marriage. “I love you / I don’t need a ring to prove that you’re worthy,” she sings. The songwriting blossoms even if the production is stunted. Chart-whisperer Greg Kurstin polishes their glam-pop dreams and stadium-made choruses. But the music lacks the sparkle and surprise of 2013’s Heartthrob, wherein they went global by swapping emo guitars for dance-hall glitter. If anything, this demonstrates once more that youth is wasted on the young. But it also provides optimism, escapism and joy for its target market — including people like those murdered in Orlando. This ain’t just pop music. It’s protest art with a beat. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “BMU” / “Stop Desire” / “Boyfriend”  

Gwen Stefani – This is What the Truth Feels Like (Interscope)

gwen stefani - this is what the truth feels likeThe best No Doubt song is “Simple Kind of Life,” where a then-31-year-old Gwen Stefani contemplates trading fame and fortune for motherhood and stability. It’s the most touching and human moment from a band that relished the cartoony excess of late 90s post-grunge. 16 years later, Stefani is a mom three times over, divorced from alt-rock hottie Gavin Rossdale and dating Blake Shelton’s beer gut (ugh). Naturally, her first solo album in a decade reconciles the depression of a dream defeated with the new-car-smell of a fresh start. Along with producer Greg Kurstin and Swedish songwriting duo Mattman & Robin, she delivers the most cohesive set list of her career. What makes this record click are songs that view romance with a sunny-side-up disposition. The giddiest moment is “Make Me Like You,” a contender for single of the year wherein Stefani relents to an unexpected love that compliments her resolute heart instead of saving it. The hooks come steady and easy through the first seven songs before she overplays the role of the bitter ex, bogging down otherwise buoyant music with trap beats and enough melodrama to make Miranda Lambert chortle with vindictive glee. The pitfalls are predictable, but consider this the surprise album of the year. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Make Me Like You” / “Where Would I Be?” / “Used to Love You”

Sound ‘Round: Bombino / Konono No. 1

Exploring two of the many shades of African groove

Bombino – Azel (Partisan)

bombinoOmara Moctar lived and died with the riff on 2013’s “Nomad,” a well-enough record produced by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach that imported his Saraha blues stateside. This follow up finds Moctar once again working in exile from his war torn Nigerien roots, recording in Woodstock, New York with producer Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors). His refugee status syncs with his nationless Tuareg heritage and lends passion and sensitivity to songs that wish peace and reconciliation upon a region that is a hotbed of bloodshed and extremism. The guitar licks once again reign supreme here but are allowed more room to navigate. Where Auerbach kept a tight leash on Moctar’s axe-wielding ways, Longstreth allows the auteur to by and large do as he pleases. The result is less formality, more jam and a familiar level of melodicism — how those three facets blend together depends on the listener. As for me and my Western ears, they gravitate to a soft tenor that holds its own against the album’s six-string star. The standout is “Inar,” with the English subtitle “If You Know the Degree of my Love for You.” Though the lyrics are in a foreign tongue, they’re delivered with such elegance he could sing about his guitar collection and you’d believe every word. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Inar” / “Akhar Zaman” / “Timtar”

Konono No. 1 – Konono No. 1 meets Batida (Crammed Discs)

kononoA first time collab between an innovative act turned patriarchy and a producer whose chops bolster the music from the bottom up. Konono No. 1 is the name for the long-running group founded by likembé virtuoso Mingiedi Mawangu in 1960s Congo. With the elder Mawangu passed away, his son Agustin leads the band’s refurbished version. Batida is the stage name for Pedro Coquenão, a Algerian-born A/V nerd raised in Portugal. What the former lacks in percussive savvy, the latter provides in spades. Where the younger producer sees a shortfall in variety, the prodigal son doesn’t mind sharing what his old man instilled in him. Each of these eight tracks ride on an ocean of beats — syncopation and polyrhythms find their stride and hold on to infinity. The little vocal accompaniment that is present serves only to support the grooves, often playing the role of counterpoint to native percussion while modern electro gadgets keep things steady. Topping the whole thing off is Agustin’s sturdy showmanship on the likembé, which chimes and resonates with glee. Whether this plays as a soundtrack to a block party or political rally, it will mesh perfectly with whatever atmosphere it permeates. It’s not hard, folks. Beats, beats, beats. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Bom Dia” / “Nlele Kalusimbiko” / “Tokalanda”