Entertainment

Alabama Shakes, Shawn Mendes and the Foos on Blu-ray top this week's new music

By Darryl Sterdan, Special to Postmedia Network

Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes

ALBUMS OF THE WEEK

Alabama Shakes
Sound & Color


Don’t mess with success. It’s a cardinal rule in business. But in case you hadn’t noticed, Brittany Howard and her Alabama Shakes are artists and not corporate executives. So, instead of following up their acclaimed smash-hit 2012 debut Boys & Girls with a soundalike sophomore set of Hold On rewrites, the singularly awesome singer-guitarist and her bandmates have done the unexpected: They’ve thrown caution to the wind and let their freak flags fly. On the 12-song Sound & Color, the Shakes paint outside the stylistic lines with a more expansive instrumental palette, looser song structures, trippier arrangements and multi-dimensional sonics created with producer Blake Mills. While their approach is still rooted in the southern-fried garage-rock, blues, gospel and soul that got them where they are, now they’ve tossed everything from Princely funk and psychedelia to strings and vibes into the mix. And of course, Howard’s acrobatic force-of-nature vocals are still the star of the show, though now she spends a little more time crooning tenderly like Billie Holiday than rattling the rafters like Janis Joplin. When you put it all together, Sound & Color might not be as instantly irresistible as Boys & Girls — it’s a little light on punchy, propulsive rockers and a little heavy on drifting ballads, for one thing. But there’s no doubt it’s an album that stands up to repeated listening — not to mention one of the more ambitious and adventurous sophomore discs in recent memory. That’s what you call being successful on your own terms.

RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)

Mobile users, please click here.



Lee Harvey Osmond
Beautiful Scars


We are all products of our environment. Even Tom Wilson. In his own weird way. The Junkhouse rocker-turned-rootsy Rodeo King continues his interior monologue on his third LHO outing, retracing his steps and displaying his wounds (physical and psychic) with the growling grace that has become the gentle giant’s stock in trade. But surprisingly, for a guy who spends so much time with Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing, he sounds more like the musical love child of Dr. John, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen here. Credit his Cowboy Junkie collaborator Michael Timmins, who wraps Wilson’s Zen-biker musings and mutterings in warm, comforting layers of lumpy noir blues, flute-fluttered lounge jazz, rustic fingerpicked folk and noisy indie-roots twang-clang. For optimal results, administer daily.

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

Mobile users, please click here.



VIDEO OF THE WEEK

Foo Fighters
Sonic Highways DVD/Blu-Ray


Sometimes, context is content. This is definitely one of those times. As an album, Dave Grohl and his Foo Fighters’ eighth studio effort Sonic Highways was decent, if unspectacular. But as a TV show, it was outstanding. For those who aren’t up to speed: Equal parts travelogue and rockumentary, the high-concept HBO miniseries followed the band as they recorded the SH disc in eight American musical hotbeds — Nashville, Austin, D.C., Chicago, New Orleans, L.A., Seattle and New York. In each city, the band wrote and cut one song over the course of several days, with Grohl basing his lyrics on conversations with noted local musicians, some of whom play on the tracks. Every episode ended with a full lyric-video-style performance of that week’s tune. Like a great album, the episodes keep you coming back for more, disclosing new connections and nuances with each visit — so now that the series is out on DVD and Blu-Ray, scoring it is a no-brainer. Sure, you could probably just watch it on-demand. But then you wouldn’t get the 150 or so minutes of bonus footage. That includes nearly two hours of outtakes from the recording sessions, with the musicians and producer Butch Vig recording, overdubbing, goofing around and occasionally jamming on classic rockers (including a few bars of Nirvana and a Roky Erickson classic during their Austin visit). There’s also more than half an hour of unaired anecdotes from Grohl’s chats with Dan Auerbach, Dolly Parton, Joan Jett, Joe Walsh, Chuck D, Billy Gibbons, some guy named Barack and others. Among the burning questions posed (and answered): Which NOLA legend’s hoodoo-voodoo persona turns out to be an act? What country artist was the first man to get Parton “all stirred up?” Which Motown legend did Walsh meet inadvertently peeing on the wall in the Record Plant bathroom? What American musical icon all but snubbed the president (who couldn’t have been happier about it)? And which Foo Fighter is clearly in need of a prescription for Ritalin? (OK, that last one isn’t mentioned, but it’s clearly wind-up-monkey drummer Taylor Hawkins.) Ultimately, it’s those entertaining detours that make Sonic Highways an even more enjoyable trip the second time around.

RATING: 4 (out of 5)



BOX SET OF THE WEEK

Johnny Cash
American Recordings I - VI


Johnny Cash went out on top. And Rick Rubin is the man to thank. In 1994, when the country legend had been written off by the rest of the music industry, heavyweight producer and label founder Rubin — better known for working with the likes of Beastie Boys and Slayer — offered Cash a deal. And a shot at musical redemption. Over the next several years, they created some of the Man in Black’s most critically hailed works by paring his sound down to the bone to showcase his well-deep, weathered voice and guitar. And they introduced him to a new generation of fans by having him pepper his originals and standards with covers of everyone from U2 and Beck to NiN and Soundgarden. Now, their six albums together — four released during Cash’s life and two posthumous entries — have been reissued on heavyweight 180-gram vinyl with their original inner sleeves and liner notes and collected in a black cloth-covered slipcase. There’s no book, no DVD, no poster, no pictures, no download card; just seven slabs of vinyl, three chords and the truth. Which is probably just how Johnny would have wanted it.

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

NOW HEAR THIS

Shawn Mendes
Handwritten

Six seconds ain’t long. But it was enough time for Toronto teen Mendes to win fans on Vine, and parlay that into a major-label deal. Judging by his debut full-length, he plans on hanging around far longer. While the ballad-heavy set clearly caters to the swooning girls that anchor any pop idol’s fanbase, his impressively strong and soulful vocals — augmented by mature songwriting and production — wisely aim higher, positioning him closer to Sheeran than Bieber. If he can survive fame without becoming an annoying butthead (a big if), the kid can write his own ticket.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)



Dwight Yoakam
Second Hand Heart


More guitars, fewer Cadillacs, and as much hillbilly music as ever. Which is just as it should be. Veteran singer-guitarist Yoakam’s 15th studio album could just as easily pass for his 14th or first — its 10 twangy tracks boast the same casually comfortable blend of old-school Nashville country, Bakersfield honky-tonk and Sun rockabilly; the same dashes of ’60s folk-rock and jangle-pop; the same yodelling yelp and down-home drawl; and the same grounded songwriting and authentic Music Row production. That ain’t second hand; it’s vintage.

RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)



Flo Rida
My House


Nobody is going to accuse Flo Rida of being too prolific. Or too self-indulgent. The hip-hopper’s last few releases have been little more than glorified EPs and singles, and his latest effort takes the same all killer, no filler approach. Its seven expertly crafted, ruthlessly commercial cuts efficiently tick off multiple boxes on his to-do list, toggling between rap, pop, R&B and dance while welcoming VIPs like Robin Thicke and Chris Brown — all over the space of 23 fat-free, fun-loving minutes. You won’t spend a long time in Flo’s house, but you’ll want to visit more than once.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)

Earl Sweatshirt
I Don’t Like S---, I Don’t Go Outside


Hanging around the house is one thing. But sitting inside all day with the blinds drawn, getting drunk and high by yourself while missing your granny? That’s a whole ’nother deal. But it’s where we find Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt on his sophomore album. Short and bittersweet, this introspective half-hour sets the troubled rapper’s angst and anger over darkly ominous, starkly paranoid and claustrophobically woozy tracks. You can’t help but be compelled. Though you might also wonder if he might be better off putting down the blunt and going out into the light.

RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)

Wire
Wire


Can pop be subversive? It can if you’re Wire. For this self-titled 14th studio album, the long-serving (and notoriously intransigent) post-punk icons let leader Colin Newman’s penchant for melody and clarity take the forefront, upstaging — but not completely obliterating — the heady concepts, tensely terse arrangements and abrasive experimentalism that define their work. In the process, the influential British quartet balance beauty, brains and brawn, forging the latest in a long line of intriguingly individual albums. With that going for it, who needs a title?

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

Mavis Staples
Your Good Fortune


The spirit still moves her. And moves her forward. At 75, gospel legend Mavis Staples continues to take creative risks that reap rewards. The latest: Teaming with Son Little for this EP. The Philadelphia future-soul artist gives Staples another artistic makeover, contemporizing her earthy vocals and heavenly melodies with cutting-edge sonics and production — but without diluting her message or artistic integrity. Praiseworthy indeed.

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

Matt & Kim
New Glow


Cute can only get you so far. But for Matt & Kim, that’s far enough. The Brooklyn indie-pop couple maintain their relentlessly upbeat assault on their fifth DIY disc, setting another set of brightly bleeping synths, determinedly goofy lyrics and endlessly exuberant choruses against big bouncing beats and bold brassy horns. If fun fun fun is all you look for in your music, you’ll be right at home. But if you’re looking for substance to go with that silliness, you might wish they had opted to grow instead of glow.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)

Halestorm
Into the Wild Life


Success hasn’t spoiled Halestorm. But it hasn’t improved them much either. After charging into the mainstream with their 2012 album The Strange Case Of … and Grammy-winning single Love Bites (So Do I), powerhouse frontwoman Lzzy Hale and her boys up the ante on their third album with fuller production, sharper hooks and bigger choruses. But they still haven’t fixed their unfocused songwriting: Like Strange Case, this 15-song affair switches jarringly between alt-metal grinders, arena-rock anthems and turgid power ballads. Bigger isn’t always better, kids.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)

Plain White T’s
American Nights


They’re back to their old selves. In a couple of ways. Returning to the freedom of an indie label after breaking up with their major label — and jettisoning the conceptual silliness that marred their circus-themed 2010 Wonders of the Younger — these Illinois journeymen return to what they do best: Writing bouncy, bittersweet and occasionally Beatlesque pop-rock ditties about being in love (or the lack thereof). Granted, nothing on this fairly generic seventh album captures lightning in a bottle like Hey There Delilah. But all in all, it seems they’re off to a pretty good restart.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)

DRKWAV
The Purge


Is it jazz? Is it electronica? It is funk? Is it psychedelia? Is it post-rock? Is it fusion? Is it improvisation? Is it composition? The answer to all of the above is yes. And no. But the very fact that you can’t wrap your head around it is why you should wrap your ears around this groundbreaking and compelling instrumental collaboration between Seattle sax rebel Skerik, prolific keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Adam Deitch. It’s the perfect soundtrack for that bizarre little movie that keeps playing in the back of your mind.

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

Nellie McKay
My Weekly Reader


Prong
Songs From the Black Hole


There are two sides to the cover-tune coin this week. Heads: Singer-songwriter McKay’s disarmingly sweet remakes of ’60s gems by everyone from The Beatles and Kinks to Country Joe and Frank Zappa. Tales: Veteran NYC power trio Prong’s precision-drill metal versions of post-punk fare from Killing Joke, Hüsker Dü, Butthole Surfers, Bad Brains and more. You win either way.

BOTH: RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)

Apocalyptica
Shadowmaker


Consistency doesn’t have to come with compromise. Too bad Apocalyptica don’t seem to see it that way. The Finnish cello-metal outfit’s eighth album (and first in five years) is their first to feature a sole vocalist: Former Scars on Broadway and Slash vocalist Franky Perez, whose arena-rock vocals give these tracks a unified front — albeit a generic one. Even worse: Too often here, the band has diluted its sound to match, trading the thrashing speed and bombastic intensity of old for moodier, more commercial fare. Ultimately, they’re a shadow of their former selves.

RATING: 2.5 (out of 5)

IN THE PIPELINE

April 28

Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo, 35th Anniversary Tour
Blur, The Magic Whip
Braids, Deep in the Iris
Zac Brown Band, Jekyll Hyde
Eric Clapton, Forever Man
Everclear, Black Is the New Black
Martin Gore, MG
Josh Groban, Stages
Insane Clown Posse, The Marvelous Missing Link (Lost)
Natalie MacMaster, Donnell Leahy
One, Mew
Robert Pollard, Faulty Superheroes
Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld, Never were the way she was
10,000 Maniacs, Twice Told Tales
Tracey Thorn, Songs From The Falling

darryl.sterdan@sunmedia.ca
Twitter: @darryl_sterdan


Reader's comments »

By adding a comment on the site, you accept our terms and conditions