This week alt-rock icons The Jesus and Mary Chain release their first proper album in 19 years, Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon drops a new solo album, James Blunt aims for a comeback, Pavement member Spiral Stairs releases his first album since 2009 and pop-singer Betty Who releases her sophomore album.
The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Damage and Joy” ***1/2 Scottish rockers The Jesus and Mary Chain last released a proper album back in 1998. Of course, the Reid brothers managed to stay relevant over those 19 down years thanks to music licensing and reissue campaigns. Their 1985 classic “Just Like Honey” famously closed out the iconic ending of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation,” probably picking up a lot of new fans in the process. In 2008, they released both the excellent new song “All Things Must Pass” on the “Heroes” soundtrack and the four-disc rarities compilation “The Power of Negative Thinking.” Mostly, they watched their legend and status grow as shoegaze and noise-rock icons, occasionally going on tour. On most levels, “Damage and Joy” is the kind of record you want from the Reids. It doesn’t sound like a return after a long break. It sounds like a bizarrely seamless continuation considering their last album, “Munki.” A new version of “All Things Must Pass” appears here as “All Things Pass.” This record mostly finds the brothers building on their past successes. A few tracks find them working with female duet partners, bringing to mind their Hope Sandoval-assisted “Sometimes, Always.” It helps that they have found fitting voices with the likes of Sky Ferreira, Isobel Campbell and more. They also routinely continue to frighten away the squares with songs like “Presidici (et Chapaquiditch),” which like their single “Reverence” takes a jab at the Kennedys, and “Simian Spit,” begins with the somewhat unsavory lines, “I killed Kurt Cobain. / I put the bullet through his brain / And his wife gave me the job / ‘Cause I’m a big, fat lying slob.” Such moves will maybe cause some uncomfortable groans, but from the very beginning of their career with every aspect of their image (even down to their name), JAMC have always had fun poking the bear and unflinchingly attacking sacred taboos. At this point in their career, such moves can serve as unsettling and unnecessary distractions. They begin “Can’t Stop the Rock” with the line “Shame on United Nations” and set up “Los Feliz (Blues and Greens)” as a love letter to the Los Angeles neighborhood, with a chorus of “God bless America. / God bless the U.S.A. / God lives in America. / In the land of the free. / Wishing they were dead.” Of course, any hint of positivity is always met with an immediate left turn. Longtime fans however will expect this approach as a signature move. This is a collection that finds the band members sticking to their guns in both the best and worst ways. There are quite a few notable moments here, particularly the slow-burning “War on Peace.” The fact that the Reids openly continue to court controversy without fear makes this a challenging, occasionally troubling but simultaneously thought-provoking listen. Focus Tracks: “All Things Pass” The version on the “Heroes” soundtrack is slightly better, but this is a song that stacks up well next to all the rest of their classics. “War on Peace” This is kind of a slow song to put as the second song, but it works because it has a strong build and some excellent harmony work. “Black and Blues” Sky Ferreira shows up on this warm, foul-mouthed and bluesy surprise that mixes lush textures with a caustic lyrical approach. In other words, it hits the band in their sweet spot.
Raekwon’s “The Wild” ***1/2 Raekwon’s newest album doesn’t quite offer the same high as 2015’s “Fly International Luxurious Art,” but it still mixes the old Wu-Tang style grit with some unexpected touches. Like just about any Wu-adjacent project, this isn’t for the easily-offended. The sparse, raw jam “Nothing” tells a particularly menacing tale. This collection also has some guests you’d never expect to be on a Raekwon record. CeeLo Green appears on “Marvin,” which tells Marvin Gaye’s life-story, while Lil Wayne drops by on “The Corner” and Andra Day sings the hook on “Visiting Hour.” This is a long way from the original lo-fi RZA productions from the early Wu records and it doesn’t quite maintain the classic feeling of the iconic “Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx.” Of course, his last album was also removed from those roots and yet this is also not as commanding or as sparkling as that record. What we have here is simply a reliable, more than decent offering that shows that Raekwon can switch up his sound from time to time and still maintain a consistent energy. He and Ghostface Killah remain the most reliable Wu-Tang members who tend not to disappoint. Listening to a lyrical workout like “M&N,” a song jam-packed with alphabetical word-play, and it is evident that Raekwon’s skills are still as sharp as ever. Sure, this album may contain a few too many brief “skits” that needlessly clog the tracklist, but at its core, this is a somewhat standard offering with a few really notable surprises. While the guest-list may raise some eyebrows (G-Eazy???), Raekwon is still not compromising his image to sell more records. Maybe that speaks to his overall power as a performer and to the commanding shadow that the Wu-Tang legacy casts. “The Wild” has its strong, key moments even if it doesn’t completely blow the roof off of the place. Focus Tracks: “Marvin” (Featuring CeeLo Green) I’m not sure what triggered Raekwon to want to tell Marvin Gaye’s story (over a sample of his work no less), but he does so effectively. It makes you wonder if a long-rumored biopic about his life will ever see the light of day. “Nothing” This shows Raekwon at his raw essence, telling vintage street stories over a subtle beat. “M&N” (Featuring P.U.R.E.) Remember listening to Wu-Tang records and trying to figure out complex lyrical passages for possible meanings? This exercise in alliteration is a throwback to those days.
James Blunt’s “The Afterlove” *** James Blunt needs another hit the size of “Beautiful.” He needs another big, international success. That polarizing, semi-stalker-y anthem propelled him to stardom and still follows him around. On his first album in three years, “The Afterlove,” he actually seems to be embracing his current status. On the opener, “Love Me Better,” he sings “I saw you standing outside a bar. / Would’ve said ‘You’re Beautiful,’ but I’ve used that line before,” essentially tackling the elephant in the room head-on a mere 40 seconds into the album. While on “Lose My Number,” he’s playing the role of a jealous person asking “Did You Lose My Number?,” spelling out an obsession over a musical backdrop that sounds like the offspring of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and the Gotye and Kimbra hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.” The Sheeran comparison seems especially apt. Not only does Sheeran contribute as one of the many famous co-writers and guests on this album, but often times Blunt comes off like an older, wiser answer to Sheeran, only without the embarrassing, groan-inducing forays into hip-hop. Yes, he’s got an unusual voice, but his high, occasionally raspy vocal tone is quite distinctive and versatile. In fact, one could say that he’s covering the more mature end of Sheeran’s audience, but he’s more consistent than Sheeran as well. The torrid hotel-room affair with a married woman that is described on “Don’t Give Me Those Eyes,” gets a musical backdrop that sounds like a 21st century answer to Air Supply, while “Bartender” sounds like a polished pop hit waiting to happen. The slightly too shiny “California” also sounds catered to modern pop radio. This is a targeted attempt to get Blunt back on top, especially when you see Ryan Tedder in the various production credits. This is merely a good offering. It’s not a record that will change the world, but Blunt proves himself to be worthy. You actually end up feeling sorry for him when you hear the song “2005,” which is actually about the success of “Beautiful” and how he loves and hates that song simultaneously. Sometimes monster hits don’t do their authors any favors. It’s safe to say that James Blunt deserves another chance and another shot at the big time. Focus Tracks: “Bartender” This sounds like his key to another monster hit, especially with its relatable sentiments, observational lyrics and party-style atmosphere. It also has a pretty winning guitar-riff. “2005” A hit song can be a double-edged sword. He sings, “All I do is apologize for a song I wrote in 2005.” “Lose My Number” This is an unsettling but strong slice of pop. Again, it aims him firmly in pop radio’s sights.
Spiral Stairs’ “Doris & the Daggers” **** Nineties indie-rock fans know that Spiral Stairs is the pseudonym for Pavement’s Scott Kannberg. While he is not as famous as Stephen Malkmus, Kannberg did write key Pavement classics like “Date W/IKEA” and “Kennel District.” “Doris & the Daggers” is his first solo album in eight years. It’s a record that seems to have been in the works for a while. Reading the liner-notes, the songs have a 2015 copyright date. This is also a better and more assured album than its predecessor, with Kannberg finding his footing as a solo artist. There’s a bold, atmospheric power-pop sound to this record with the big, bright “Dundee Man” and “AWM” both sounding like an American answer to Echo & the Bunnymen. Kannberg keeps his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, so while these songs sound pretty painstakingly crafted (especially considering the Pavement work) he definitely adds a few zingers along the way. The story of birth and raising of a daughter in “The Unconditional” is ear-catching, not only for its lyrical detail but also because it is hard to determine what elements to take and not take seriously. “No Comparison” has a tightly-wound, semi-new-wave-driven party bounce, while “Exiled Tonight” makes the most of a shiny, almost shoegaze-toned guitar riff. “Angel Eyes” is a fiddle-assisted bit of country-rock that sounds like an upbeat answer to Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. “Emoshuns,” with its rousing chorus, sounds vaguely Pavement-esque, with all the implied silliness that that possibly entails intact. “Doris & the Daggers” is a fun record that shows that the nineties ideals can mature quite well. One hopes that Spiral Stairs will get the attention he deserves and will be given a chance to shine in his own glow outside of Pavement. Focus Tracks: “Emoshuns” This is a song that just builds and bursts at its center. It might not sound that way at the beginning, but when Kannberg’s voice lifts there are some great rewards. “The Unconditional” This is interesting for the reasons above, but it also has some strong horn-section work. “Angel Eyes” This is a real winner with strong classic-rock and country-minded roots. Again, the lyrics are winking at you a bit.
Betty Who’s “The Valley” **** Australian singer Betty Who’s second album refines the glossy pop shine of her 2014 debut, “Take Me When You Go.” While that album played like a spiky modern club-pop spin on eighties shininess, “The Valley” has softer and gentler textures, honing its focus to make her more ballad-driven side. The a cappella opening title-track and her gentle, spot-on cover of Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever” emphasize her soft voice. Of course, the way this album is produced, her voice really demands your attention. That being said, it isn’t like this isn’t an uplifting record. “Free to Fly” (which features Warren G) and “You Can Cry Tomorrow” both sound like commanding pop hits that are likely to get the party started. Even the downright bizarre “Some Kinda Wonderful,” with its sing-song-y, half-spoken breakdowns and digitally tweaked synth riffs has its own unusual stomp. (It may take a few spins to absorb, but those weird touches pay off in the long run.) Betty Who is best when she is given a ballad like “Wanna Be,” which has a cool rise and some synth-driven nostalgia all embedded in its core. At heart, “The Valley” is a warm, left-field pop surprise that combines a knack for hooks, some sonically experimental touches and Betty Who’s winning delivery. This is a record that should do well if it gets the audience it truly deserves. Focus Tracks: “Wanna Be” This is destined for coolly-lit dances. It sounds like it belongs in the background of a prom scene of a teen movie. (I mean that in the best John Hughes kind of way.) It’s an emotional ballad with a bright, booming apex. “You Can Cry Tomorrow” This is another slick dose of pop. Yes, it is about heartbroken, drunken depression and dancing away the pain, but it sounds like a blast. “The Valley” This is under two minutes but it makes an insanely strong impression. It brings to mind Kate Havnevik and Imogen Heap in the best ways. Next Week: New music from Bob Dylan, Aimee Mann and more. Missed last week’s? Get the latest from Depeche Mode, Spoon, Drake, and more.