Album reviews: Smith Westerns, Kanye West, Mavis Staples and more
Little in this Chicago quartet’s history up to this point would suggest the Smith Westerns to be capable of making the kind of music one hears on "Soft Will."
Sure, the band’s previous two albums displayed a knack for blending catchy melodies with 1960s-influenced echoey garage-band guitars, but, from the beginning, "Soft Will," due on Tuesday, immediately launches us into a completely different realm.
This splendid musical world contains stunning melodies, lighter-than-air vocal harmonies and carefully crafted arrangements working together to create tracks of rarefied beauty.
Guitars still play a role, but not a dominant one. Piano and synthesized orchestrations contribute equally as much, bringing a sense of stateliness and grace to tracks such as "Fool Proof." When guitar finally does take the lead during that song’s coda, it serves as a well-thought-out counterbalance to the rest of the arrangement.
Even "Best Friend," the album’s most guitar-centric tune, floats instead of stinging, gliding along on a gossamer melody and entrancing vocals.
Tracks range from the impossibly lush "Varsity" to the somewhat edgier jangle of "Glossed." Fortunately there is just enough grit — barely — in the band’s playing to keep the whole enterprise from drifting off into the dream-pop ionosphere.
Just when Kanye West’s tabloid-titillating stunts and outlandish verbalities make you ready to finally bail on him, the Chicago-born rapper drops a game-changing bomb like "Yeezus" that turns him from sap to saint in a single 4/4 beat.
The 10-track set — executive produced by Grammy Award-winner and early rap pioneer Rick Rubin — is bona fide next-level, high-concept hip-hop, an adventurous amalgam of EDM, industrial rock, vintage Chicago acid house and cutting-edge drill music, with dashes of Jamaican dancehall and classic soul thrown in via samples of Nina Simon’s "Strange Fruit," Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s "Bound" and vocal hooks by Charlie Wilson ("Bound 2") and Frank Ocean ("New Slaves").
Declaring himself "a monster about to come alive again," West kicks things off on a characteristically confrontational note with "On Sight" and "Black Skinhead," two of "Yeezus’" three collaborations with Daft Punk (though the latter also cops Marilyn Manson’s "eautiful People" beat).
For all of its sonic ambitions, in fact, "Yeezus" is downright minimal, from its length (just over 40 minutes) to jarring arrangements that at times employ nothing but beats and, at several junctures, jar the listener by shifting into fuller musical snippets.
Lyrically, West is characteristically irreverent, unapologetic and attitudinal, filling the songs with chest-thumping braggadocio, racial politics, persecution complexes and flippant references (the American Parkinsons Disease Association is already clamoring for an apology). But in West’s world, as he raps, "it’s leaders and it’s followers." He’s always led with his chin, and he’s not about to change that now.
Mavis Staples and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy certainly did good things last time out, on 2010’s Grammy Award-winning "You Are Not Alone," and there’s no attempt to change much on its follow-up.
The tone is again rootsy, earthy and gospel reverential — if a bit darker this time out — and amidst Tweedy’s careful handling, especially on the choral vocal arrangements, Staples slays versions of Low’s "Holy Ghost" and Funkadelics’ joyful "Can’t You Get to That," as well as late father Pop Staples’ soul-lifting "I Like The Things About Me." And she fills Tweedy’s "Jesus Wept" with raw, yearning emotion.