New Releases: Neneh Cherry, Schoolboy Q, Beck, St. Vincent, The Notwist, Skaters
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: Neneh Cherry – Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)
Can we bestow upon Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) some kind of fellowship or genius grant yet? From his own career peaks Beautiful Rewind and greatest-electronic-album-of-all-time candidate Pink to his sublime hands-off production on dabke king Omar Souleyman’s perfect bar mitzvah rave soundtrack Wenu Wenu last year, his gloriously spacious, yet dry and upfront production on the “Buffalo Stance” maven’s true indie comeback album the first great release of 2014. Neneh Cherry sings, scats, jazzes, raps and totally Yoko Onos out over Hebden’s rattling blend of mic-on-the-rimshot snares and drum ‘n bass and a little bit of collapsing jazz. And when there’s a grand exception to both the no wave style and the sometimes illegible melodies, it’s Robyn with both on “Out of the Black.” I’d lying if I said the barrel-rolling percussion of “Cynical” two tracks earlier wasn’t just as hooky, with only drums tying her to the terrestrial earth. Your move, St. Vincent.
Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron (Top Dawg/Interscope)
This Kendrick Lamar cohort’s major-label debut listens as good as good kid, m.A.A.d city, though Kendrick is smarter, more talented and more songful. His friend Quincy Hanley (aka Schoolboy Q) traffics closer to the underachieving stoner-rap that mars talents like Earl Sweatshirt and disguises shams like Mac Miller. But what was vague and attenuated on his lauded Habits and Contradictions two years ago actually earns the word “phantasmagoric” here, netting samples from the Chromatics and Portishead, with appearances from 2 Chainz and Tyler, the Creator, even Mike WiLL Made It, synthesizing Danny Brown’s demented clown voice and Pusha T’s scary-autobiographical “Who I Am” when he singsongs “I stopped selling crack today.” Yet it’s more rollercoaster ride than trip to the movies, which is still more than one can say for his peers’ inertia.
Beck – Morning Phase (Capitol)
Is this lower-stakes orchestral better than Sea Change, or is it just impossible for Beck to disappoint us now? If it’s the latter, it’s because the wayward-Scientologist-hipster-folkie has spent more than a decade dulling our senses, veering dangerously close to picking up the mantle for Most Boring Artist in the World. Since boring can so easily shift into pretty though, this transformation—and from what, anyway, Modern Guilt?—is his most listenable record in some time, sweetening the textures of Sea Change into more legible, edible nuggets with lifesaving harmonies and a worthy classic-rock closer with the unmemorable title “Waking Light.” Cheer up, you don’t even remember what the closer of Sea Change sounds like.
St. Vincent – St. Vincent (4AD)
The weirder she gets, the weirder we wish she’d get. The more she shreds, the more we want her to shred. The closer she gets to writing direct, the closer we wish etc, etc, etc. St. Vincent is more there-there from a one-of-a-kind talent, who sounds like she builds her synths out of Legos and her lyrics out of McSweeney’s, with the snappy “Birth in Reverse” the best thing she’s ever done, and a few worthy, even funky(!) follow-ups: “Bring Me Your Loves,” “Digital Witness,” “Regret,” “Rattlesnake.” Meeting us halfway is more than we can say for Beck these days. But after four albums and one David Byrne horn jam of too-little consequence, she’s exhausted from trying to distract us from the half-great album she should be making. St. Vincent could at least outsource it to Neneh Cherry.
The Notwist – Close to the Glass (Sub Pop)
Weird band, The Notwist —German laptop and guitar tinkerers who welded both to their most cohesive online success on Neon Golden, the same year that Beck became a born-again softie. On their Sub Pop debut they present both their best sound effects (the reversed and re-reversed tabla that intros “Close to the Glass,” an assortment of bluesy bleeps to finish “Run Run Run,” the roughhouse Kevin Shields guitar homage in “7-Hour-Drive”) and their best-ever tunes (haunting “Steppin’ In,” pretty “Casino,” falsetto road-rocker “Kong”). But these are oil and water, rarely in the same place—except, ironically, on the fidgety “From One Wrong Place to the Next.” Riffs and laptop squirts come and go without connecting to the rest of the songs, especially not Markus Acher’s permanently tranquil vocals. They used to sound like a well-textured variation of everything else that was out there. With the landscape having permanently changed toward bedroom -blowout EQs and R&B-prog settings, they sound refreshingly like a genre that never existed, that even they couldn’t get quite right.
SKATERS – Manhattan (Warner Bros.)
Neither saving nor relocating rock, SKATERS’ first EP was called Schemers and they play the Strokes game with lazy, filtered vocals and overheated distortion (not to mention a title like “To Be Young in NYC” and their Big Apple album title). But mess with their sequencing a little—turn the final two songs “This Much I Care” and “Nice Hat” in that order, into the first two, and you’ll hear quicker energy and meatier hooks than they themselves know how to harness, before, not after, they settle down into the midtempo catchiness of “Miss Teen Massachusetts,” the perfect Futureheads-style herky-jerk pop of “Schemers” and the excellent Joe Strummer reggae of “Fear of the Knife.” They’re most charming on “I Wanna Dance (But I Don’t Know How).” If they learn where to explode, they could be a compelling threat indeed.