By Chris Moore:
Producer: Dan Grech-Marguerat
Released: May 4, 2012
Rating: 3 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “You Are Young” & “Sovereign Light Café”
For better or for worse, it has been confirmed time and again since their debut that Keane is a good song. Strangeland continues the trend, and though there are certainly a handful of standouts, the first three tracks set the tone and pace for what is left to come. There are other piano-based bands that have released more innovative material – Jukebox the Ghost, for instance – and why Keane has taken the leap to such tremendous fame and success (five consecutive number one albums, among other achievements) is still a mystery to me.
Rize of the Fenix (Tenacious D)
Producer: John Kimbrough & John King
Released: May 11, 2012
Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “39” & “Classical Teacher”
What was the first sign Tenacious D are back with a new album and ready to rock? The penis, testicles, and wings of fire on the cover were pretty much a dead giveaway… It would be easy to dismiss half-rock/half-comedy duo Jack Black and Kyle Gass as merely aimed toward shock value and vulgarity, but even a superficial reading of their work reveals serious musical talent and an expansive vocabulary of stylistic and cultural references. Rize of the Fenix doesn’t quite rise to the level of mastery set on their 2001 self-titled debut, but it would be difficult to imagine any album recapturing the raw hilarity of that record. Instead, Rize presents high-adrenaline rock and roll from start to finish, with some interesting tangents and very funny sketches filling in the transitions. It all culminates in the funny, beautiful “39,” a song that conjures Bob Seger at the peak of his popularity with, of course, some vulgar descriptions added to the standard fare for good measure.
Ten Stories (mewithoutYou)
Producer: Daniel Smith
Released: May 15, 2012
Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Grist for the Malady Mill” & “Cardiff Giant”
With Ten Stories, mewithoutYou offer a taste of what albums once offered with more regularity: a concept album that involves music, lyrics, and artwork in the grander scheme of its vision. In this case, the “ten stories” are ten tracks that unfurl the tale of a train crash involving a traveling circus in 19th-century Montana, a story cycle inspired by a book that lead singer/songwriter Aaron Weiss read before the making of Ten Stories. What is brilliant about mewithoutYou’s latest release is not any one piece in particular, but the manner in which all the components come together: the uncommonly interesting, strong lyrics voiced loudly and with a sense of urgent abandon as appropriate to the subject matter, coupled with carefully orchestrated music that moves smoothly between soft and serious and loud and nearly unhinged. All in all, the listening experience ends up being like what I imagine it would sound like if Neil Young set out to make a hardcore record.
Born and Raised (John Mayer)
Producer: John Mayer & Don Was
Released: May 22, 2012
Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Something Like Olivia” & “Queen of California”
After stepping back into familiar soundscapes for 2009’s Battle Studies, Mayer has switched it up again, this time donning a cowboy hat and experimenting within the country genre. As could be expected from a popular songwriter working within this genre, Mayer’s work drifts in and out of the predictable yet does not confine itself to the current standards of the genre. The result is a steady helping of pleasant, even pretty songs that amount to an easy listen. You won’t find anything groundbreaking here, but you will find a steady stream of songs that clearly belong together. Mayer experiments with a reprise of the title track, something he hasn’t implemented previously. There are standouts, such as the upbeat, catchy “Something Like Olivia” and the solid album starter “Queen of California.” Throughout, the quality is fairly steady, strengthened by stronger tracks (“Shadow Days,” “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”) sprinkled amongst the more lackluster fare. At times, there is a feel which can only be traced to an early-seventies Dylan sound, a comparison made all the more tempting by Mayer’s nod to the Bard in one line (“if you see her, say hello”). Overall, this won’t be considered a great effort at the close of Mayer’s career, but it is a solid installment in his catalog.
Once Upon Another Time [EP] (Sara Bareilles)
Producer: Ben Folds
Released: May 22, 2012
Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Sweet As Whole” & “Lie To Me”
Once Upon Another Time works well as an EP, though I could scarcely imagine an entire album at the pace and tone offered by this effort, though I imagine that is the point of, and perhaps the best reason for, recording an EP in the first place. As could be expected from any effort with both Sara Bareilles’ and Ben Folds’ respectively impressive creative stamps upon in, Once Upon Another Time offers a strong and creative sequence of tracks. It starts off as low-key as can be with the largely a cappella title track and slowly building to the drum-backed frustration of “Lie To Me” before backing off to the simpler yet catchier piano-driven tones of “Sweet As Whole” and the final, expansive song “Bright Lights and Cityscape.” “Sweet As Whole” is the clear standout and stands as perhaps the clearest marker that this is indeed a Bareilles/Folds collaboration: it is pretty and heartfelt yet emotionally wrought and catchy and largely rendered in the base, vulgar language of informal speakers of English. It seems at first to clash with the sound of the music or even the EP as a whole, but, after a few listens, one should be hard-pressed not to sing along with this perfectly placed climax of the EP.
Magic Hour (Scissor Sisters)
Producer: Scissor Sisters, Calvin Harris, Stuart Price, Alex Ridha, & Pharrell Williams
Released: May 25, 2012
Rating: 4.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Year of Living Dangerously” & “San Luis Obispo”
Just when it seemed that the Scissor Sisters outdid themselves with the outstandingly fun Night Work (2010), they return a mere two years later with an album like Magic Hour, an album that artfully experiments with juxtaposition: of modern and classic sounds, of expansive gems and singles waiting to happen, and of seriously rendered lyrics and what can only be described as a mixture of funny and vulgar. The list of standout tracks would be longer than the list of songs that fall short, what with tremendous work like the lush, gorgeous “San Luis Obispo,” the foot-stomping, fist-bumping “Baby Come Home,” and the richly textured “Inevitable.” “Let’s Have a Kiki” is no throwaway and, in fact, begs a sing-along. And, of course, there is what seems to be the heart of the album, the thesis that drives the work around it: “Year of Living Dangerously.” All in all, the Scissor Sisters have outdone themselves again and continue to make some of the best, most innovative and engaging music of their generation.