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New Releases: Wale, Mavis Staples, Lori McKenna, India.Arie, Transplants & Serengeti

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Wale. (Raglin/Getty Images)

Wale. (Raglin/Getty Images)

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Every Tuesday, Dan Weiss runs down the week’s new full-length music releases, from charting hits to more obscure depths, the underrated and the overrated, from a critical pop fan’s perspective.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Lori McKenna  Massachusetts (1-2-3-4 GO!)
It’s a shame that the major-label talent behind 2007’s amazing Unglamorous, which roped in Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on backup, is relegated to an indie that doubles as a record store for one of the best country albums of the year. Her grittiest yet, too: “You ain’t worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name,” McKenna sneers on the opening “Salt,” which also surveys a hole in the drywall. On “Make Every Word Hurt,” she demands a clean break with no second guessing (“why should my tears change any word of this?”). This is far from the “peanut butter on everything” domestic bliss of “Unglamorous” and every bit as tuneful. Imagine the detail-heavy Taylor Swift of “Mine” and “Dear John,” all grown up with five kids and hoarsened voice. She should do a song called “44.”

 

Wale  The Gifted (Maybach Music/Atlantic)
Is there anyone in rap that feels slimier to listen to than Wale? He rose off a wacko-Kanye mixtape built around Seinfeld where he wouldn’t shut up about how meta he was and how much he knows, to someone who wasted a Lady Gaga collab, before selling his soul to Rick Ross and shoving his way to No. 2 by downplaying how much he knows (and wasting Miguel). On his third album, he shows interest in buying his soul back but blows it on bland samples and expensive cameos instead. At least on the single “Bad” (a “My Chick Bad” redux that wastes Rihanna on the remix), he employs a sound almost as annoying as him: doors creaking. You come away from the long-brewing and unfunny Jerry Seinfeld outro wondering if what Wale loves about him is having a career “about nothing.”

 

Mavis Staples  One True Vine (ANTI-)
Blame Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, whose second album with the legendary Staples singer kicks off with a tune from Low (yes, the Sub Pop-signed one) and actually kind of blunts the edges a bit. What genre is this? Alt-country-gospel-soul-GRAMMY-fusion? On 2006’s We’ll Never Turn Back, Ry Cooder gave Staples actual funk from the tasteful sparseness of her indie-label comeback and she brought in actually moving songs, anthems actually, from the Civil Rights movement she was there for—you’d never heard “This Little Light” swagger like that before. Tweedy’s slippery-if-predictable guitar and his 17-year-old son’s deft drumming fill out One True Vine six years later, as do mostly lyrics about God: “Woke Up This Morning With Jesus on My Mind,” “Sow Good Seeds,” etc. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the highlight is a George Clinton copyright that ignores the Lord altogether: “Can You Get to That,” the same tune Sleigh Bells sampled for “Rill Rill.” If only Sleigh Bells produced.

 

Serengeti  Kenny Dennis LP (Anticon)
Now that Ghostface has come up empty for two LPs (ignore what Complex says, his run from Ironman all the way through Ghostdini is incredible), it’s safe to say Serengeti’s the greatest character rapper in the world. Although his two most recent records are kinda esoteric themselves. One was Saal, a sung/spoken/acoustic thing from earlier this year with bits of introspection gleaning in the fog, then there’s this, the fourth appearance of his brilliant Kenny Dennis character and by far the darkest. There’s no one-paragraph way to explain Kenny; mixed-race rapper Serengeti plays a white, suburban Chicago sports fan-dad type (albeit with no kids), a wife he loves dearly (who’s left him at least once) and raps about his simple pleasures from the Bears to O’Doul’s to Swanson Chicken to Brian Dennehy’s espionage films. On two of four (!), all excellent (!!) Serengeti records last year, Kenny revealed that he used to be a rapper himself, peaking in 1993 when he was signed to Jive and had beef with Shaq. Dive into the rabbit hole (which you should do) and it’s hilarious, off-the-wall stuff. This is the first inessential Kenny release though, which is a shame for the title—start with the real Kenny Dennis LP: 2008’s online-only Dennehy (Lights, Camera Action). Here, a new character named Anders “Ders” Holm narrates while Kenny’s relegated to background yelling, as on his fitful “50th Birthday,” when he goes off on a friend-of-a-friend in a Shaq jersey, while other oddities find Kenny mumbling about “punks” in a fixated whisper. It’s engaging stuff and no one’s done anything like it before, unless Eminem’s “Kim” counts. But actual songs are in short supply here.

 

India.Arie  SongVersation (Motown)
A four-time GRAMMY winner (out of, wow, 21 noms since 2002) unbeknownst to most Frank Ocean supporters, they’d get more out of Jill Scott or Jaguar Wright. Arie’s catchphrases have gotten a little better than when she proclaimed to not be the average girl from your video: “Somebody’s got to raise a bar” and “Your love is like cocoa butter on my heart.” But no good writer would give an abomination like “songversation” its due, much less as a title. Frankly, she’s wrong about not being average.

 

Transplants  In a Warzone (Epitaph)
You’ll wish Tim Armstrong or Rob Aston had anything substantive to say about “civil disobedience” as the title track promises, or at least some meaty rage, but Rancid was never quite a slogan band to begin with. (When we sang along with the irresistible “Timebomb” or “Roots Radicals” or “Bloodclot,” did we know what they meant?) The only time the bizarre Transplants project has ever made anyone sing along was for Blur-esque woo-hoos over “Diamonds & Guns,” otherwise known as the amazing piano hook hijacked by Garnier Fructis. On their third album with Travis Barker, they downplay the awkward rapping (and unfortunately, Barker’s enticing drum-n-bass challenges) and bash out one of Armstrong’s most conventional records ever, without his gift for nuance or Matt Freeman’s world-class bass noodling. Like the other Transplants records, it’s much better on paper.

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