On the Record
Write About Love
Belle and Sebastian
Scotland’s twee-meisters continue to forge a sound that moves far afield from the somber pop of their first albums. Oh, this album still has plenty of dour emotional moments, but the music elevates the evolution heard on The Life Pursuit to another level. The band is now as comfortable crafting slightly-askew, 1960s-style pop as anything, e.g., in the could-be-a-Kinks-outtake “I’m Not Living in the Real World.” Even the more contemplative (i.e., classic Belle and Sebastian) “The Ghost of Rockschool” adds trumpet and flute to create a richer sound that only helps to underscore the song’s sad-but-wistful tone. At times, the band cuts it a little close, and ends up sounding like the modern rock and pop acts they’ve inspired over the past 15 years. Then again, even Belle & Sebastian-by-numbers (the opener “I Didn’t See It Coming,” for example) is better than plenty of the music from groups inspired by this band.
Mark Ronson and The Business Intl.
I was happy to leave the 1980s behind, but at every turn, I seem to be reminded of how “cool” the decade was supposed to be. It wasn’t. Still, at least Mark Ronson recognizes that the cool doesn’t come from hairstyles or leg warmers, but rather from the decade’s generally-odd mixture of pop music, where power ballads could sit side-by-side on the top of the charts with Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” On Record Collection, Ronson and his bandmates put together a driving collection of not-quite-sound-alike pop and dance tunes that are, more often than not, fun and memorable. That can come in the guise of the driving vocals on “You Gave Me Nothing”; the off-kilter synthesizers on “Glass Mountain”; or the Prince-like funk of opener “Bang Bang Bang.” Ronson works with a bevy of guests here, but in the end, it’s all about his own odd-but-engaging vision.
To All My Friends/Blood Matters
Atmosphere’s double EP thingy—really, in my world, 12 songs and 41 minutes equal an album, but oh, well—finds the local Hip-Hop act exuding supreme confidence. And why not? The group, which has been riding high for years, only goes from strength to strength here. Atmosphere always has been about ground-level, blue-collar rap. The characters here are obsessed with everyday problems: getting to work on time, wondering if the car will start, or where the money is going to come from to pay the bills. Even pieces that explore the darker side of life (“The Major Leagues”) describe a low-level, shady deal. Economic issues are present throughout—again, not a surprise—as the collision between a dream life and the reality of living day to day. That comes into perfect focus on “Freefallin’,” where the dream to quit a worthless job runs into the knowledge that plenty of folks would love to take your space.
John Legend and Roots
Leave it to John Legend and the Roots to make a throwback socially-conscious soul album. After all, both Legend and the Roots have built their reputation on high-class musical stylings that are out of step with the modern currents of R&B and Hip-Hop. Musically, much of Wake Up! sounds like a lost Marvin Gaye album, with strings and soulful backup singers riding behind the funky beats. That the Roots are the rare Hip-Hop act playing their own instruments is certainly a bonus here. Other moments sound more modern—especially the rapping—but even then, a nice bit of analog grit gives the music more traction than the rarified, perfect air of most modern cuts. Legend has a strong, soulful voice that he twists and bends to a song’s needs. The selections—old and new—are strong throughout, with the highlight a stunning version of Bill Withers’s cutting Vietnam-Era track “I Can’t Write Left Handed.”