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.
It’s a somewhat different kind of sonic church than Staples Singers fans might be used to, but it’s certainly another rich, ecumenical experience.
New & Noteworthy:
Amon Amarth, “Deceiver of the Gods” (Metal Blade) • Former Candlemass singer Messiah Marcolin guests on the ninth studio album by the Swedish death metal group.
August Burns Red, “Rescue & Restore” (Solid State) • The Pennsylvania headbangers ramp up the aggression on their sixth album.
Big Star, “Nothing Can Hurt Me” (Omnivore) • This 21-track companion to the documentary of the same name features previously unreleased versions of some of the Memphis group’s classic songs.
Bosnian Rainbows, “Bosnian Rainbows” (Sargent House/RLP) • The full-length debut by the new band founded by At the Drive-In/Mars Volta alumnus Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.
Chthonic, “Bu-Tik” (Spinefarm) • The Taiwanese metal band return to Swedish producer Rickard Bengtsson, who also helmed 2011’s “Takasago Army.”
Natalie Cole, “En Espanol” (Verve/Universal) • Cole taps into the bi-lingual heritage of her father, Nat King Cole, and duets with Andrea Bocelli on the classic “Besame Mucho.”
Forever The Sickest Kids, “J.A.C.K.” (Fearless) • The Dallas punk rockers move to a new label and debut a couple of new members on their third studio album.
Havok, “Unnatural Selection” (Candlelight) • The third album by the Denver thrash metal quartet features new bassist Matt Leon.
India.Arie, “Songversation” (Soulbird/Motown) • The earthy singer-songwriter co-produced her first new album in four years, recording the 16-track set in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Jane’s Addiction, “Live in NYC” (UMe) • The iconic group’s new concert CD and DVD captures the quartet in the Big Apple during 2011, accompanied by airborne dancers and trapeze artists.
Alicia Keys, “VH1 Storytellers” (RCA) • The R&B/pop diva talks about some of her favorites — including “No One,” “Fallin’” and “Girl on Fire” on CD, DVD and Blu-ray.
Bob Marley, “Legend Remixed” (Island/UMe) • The reggae great’s greatest songs are overhauled here by sons Ziggy and Stephen as well as Z-Trip, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and others.
Bret Michaels, “Jammin’ With Friends” (Poor Boy) • The Poison frontman loads his latest solo effort with pals such as Jimmy Buffett, Mark McGrath, Miley Cyrus, Loretta Lynn and members of Aerosmith, Kiss, Def Leppard and, of course, Poison.
Willie Nile, “American Ride” (Loud & Proud) • The American songwriting treasure funded his latest release through PledgeMusic.com.
Palms, “Palms” (Ipecac) • The debut outing by the new group formed by deftones frontman Cino Moreno and three members of the fellow metal group Isis.
Royksopp, “Late Night Tales” (Late Night Tales) • The Swedish electronic duo is the latest act to take part in this adventurous mix series, stirring together songs by XTC, Thomas Dolby, the Little River Band and more and including its cover of Depeche Mode’s “Ice Machine.”
Scorpion Child, “Scorpion Child” (Nuclear Blast) • The debut outing from the headbanging Austin, Texas, quintet that will be part of this summer’s Rock Star Energy Drink Mayhem Festival lineup.
Skillet, “Rise” (Word/Atlantic) • The Christian hard rockers from Memphis experiment with a few new styles and flavors on their ninth album.
Slum Village, “Evolution” (Ne’Astra) • The Detroit rap troupe gets help from pals Jazzy Jeff, Big Pooh, Blu and Mobb Deep’s Havoc on this 12-song set overseen by co-founder T3.
Transplants, “In a War Zone” (Epitaph) • The third studio set from the all-star punk group featuring blink-182’s Travis Barker, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and Death March’s Rob Aston.
Various Artists, “Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle” (Nonesuch) • Rufus and Martha Wainwright lead this tribute to their late mother, which also features Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones and others, with proceeds going to the Kate McGarrigle Foundation.
Wale, “Gifted” (Maybach/Atlantic) • The Washington, D.C., rapper’s third album is filled with guests, including Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Wiz Khalifa, Cee-Lo Green, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz and ... Jerry Seinfeld!
Susan Werner, “Hayseed” (Sleeve Dog/Thirty Tigers) • The heartland singer-songwriter reflects on her Iowa farm roots and American agriculture in general on this conceptual set.
Yellowjackets, “Rise in the Road” (Mack Avenue) • The veteran jazz fusion group starts a new era with the departure of co-founder Jimmy Haslip and the arrival of Felix Pastorious.
From The Vaults • Allman Brothers Band, “Brothers & Sisters 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” (UMe); Merry Clayton, “The Best of Merry Clayton” (Ode/Legacy); Dio, “Magica (Deluxe Edition) (Niji); Steve Earle, “The Warner Bros. Years” (Shout! Factory); Jerry Garcia Band, “Vol. 2-Garcialive: August 5th 1990” (ATO); Moody Blues, “Timeless Flight” (UMe); Swimming Pool Q’s, “1984-1986: The A&M Years” (Bar None); Sylvester, “Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits” (Fantasy); Train, “California 37: Mermaid of Alcatraz Tour Edition” (Columbia); Bobby Whitlock, “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way: ABC-Dunhill” (Future Days)
Soundtracks • Chris Tilton, “Fringe: Season 5” (Varese).