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Kimbra, 'The Golden Echo'
Rating: Our Rating
After the global success of "Somebody That I Used to Know," her Grammy-winning duet with Gotye, Kimbra could have worked with anyone; on "The Golden Echo," it feels like she worked with almost everyone. Along with producer Rich Costey, her collaborators include members of the Mars Volta, Muse, Foster the People, and Silverchair, as well as John Legend and Bilal. Having so many guests with so many different backgrounds could have resulted in a scattered mess, or pushed Kimbra out of the spotlight, but her sense of adventure puts her signature on even the most kaleidoscopic moments. Chief among them is "90s Music," a hyperactive collage that pays homage to TLC, Aaliyah, and Nirvana in its lyrics and to Timbaland and Missy Elliot in its sleek beat. It shows just how far Kimbra can push the boundaries and still have something resembling a pop song; the answer is "pretty far," considering that a brass band, a hook that sounds like a radio station ID, and a modem-like synth also make appearances. Though it doesn't sound like anything else on the album, it provides "The Golden Echo's" statement of purpose, reflecting how effortlessly she hops from the trap-inspired minimal R&B of "Goldmine" to the lush balladry of "Love in High Places." Kimbra's debut album, "Vows," hinted at this audaciousness, but for all the musical territory it covered, it never felt like it had a center. Here, she sounds much more in control as she borrows from Prince, Michael Jackson, and others who knew how to spin their wildest flights of fancy into chart-topping gold. The King of Pop's drummer John "J.R." Robinson even plays drums on the winning "Miracle," which fuses disco, funk, and Motown together with a glossy briskness that keeps it from sounding retro. However, based on the many Prince homages like the erotic, high-drama opener "Teen Heat" and the funky "Madhouse" -- which also nods to Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract" -- Kimbra's favorite color must be purple. Songs like these make it clear why she and Janelle Monáe are friends and collaborators; less directly, Kimbra's sultry playfulness also recalls Roisin Murphy. Like those artists' work, her mashups always feel fresh while borrowing from the past: thanks to its undeniable chorus, "Nobody But You" would be a hit in the '90s or the 2010s, while "Carolina"'s hooks, sugar-rush melody, and processed harmonies suggest a Fleetwood Mac from the future. The album loses some energy on its ballads, reaffirming that Kimbra's boldest moves are her best. Still, it's pretty remarkable that all of her quirks and ambitions come together on these songs so seamlessly and consistently. An album that just becomes more engaging with time, "The Golden Echo" lives up to its name: it refashions the best of what came before it into something alluringly modern and a lot of fun. - Heather Phares, All Music Guide

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Wiz Khalifa, 'Blacc Hollywood'
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Stoned immaculate with a self-professed monthly weed bill of ten-thousand dollars, Wiz Khalifa isn't the type of rapper to make clear-headed, well-defined albums, but his fifth studio effort gets back to serious, sullen business often enough that it almost has a theme. It almost has a key track, too, since the midtempo "Still Down" finds Wiz doing an inventory and listing all his million-dollar blessings with some appreciation, while some venom is thrown at those irresponsible fall-behinds (he calls them "p---- ass" you-know-whaters). Wiz got his slice, then settled down and checked out as "Just bought a real home/Me and my watch: real stone" leads to stories of smoking pounds back at the crib, while elsewhere, "Hope" opens with Hendrix-styled guitars and the sounds of a strip club VIP room turning into the set of Caligula while the hook goes "Hope you got thousands in your pocket/Cuz she ain't lookin' for love." It's doled out like a mantra, since this is the album where getting stoned comes with some paranoia, or at least, some distrust. "True Colors" with Nicki Minaj is pop-rap polish plus an anthem for those who like to see their friends go green with envy, and if Wiz's "y'all don't deserve me" attitude means he'll soon quit the game, he's not going to retire without leaving some worth-proving bangers. "We Dem Boyz" is a knucklehead club juggernaut, from its title to its drippy, Auto-Tuned hook, while "KK" is the sound of "Black & Yellow" meeting the Three 6 Mafia with Project Pat and Juicy J as guests. Then there's the soaring "House in the Hills" featuring Curren$y and "Stay Out All Night," which comes packaged in a beautiful, laid-back yet lush Dr. Luke production, but the isolationist themes are back, as well-healed cocooning and selective guest lists seem the only way to deal with this world of haters and losers. Still, clamping down and checking out rarely sounded as good as it does on "Blacc Hollywood," and sometimes it's even Greta-Garbo-"I want to be alone" good. Get on social media, sneer at some friends, and use this as the smug soundtrack. - David Jeffries, All Music Guide

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Imogen Heap, 'Sparks'
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Nearly three years in the making, "Sparks" is an ambitious concept album from Imogen Heap. Almost all of the 14 songs find their origin in short, brief aural snippets of found sounds, audio that is almost buried in the finished form on "Sparks" but nevertheless gives the album a skittish, otherworldly feeling. Often, the record dances on the far side of elliptical: not only are the rhythms simultaneously skeletal and elastic -- sometimes they barely seem to be there -- but the melodies aren't direct, so it takes a while for this album to sink in. Sometimes, it seems like a spacier, chillier counterpart to tUnE-yArDs; it's not as dense in its arrangements or allusions but it is cerebral and worldly, refusing to take a direct route when a detour will do. As such, it sometimes walks the line between close listening and a wash of sound, but it's intriguing from whatever angle it is approached. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide
 
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Various Artists, 'Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited'
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As the '60s became a time of deep socio-political change and upheaval in America, the country music establishment wasted little time establishing itself as the voice of the "silent majority" who wanted to live in a quietly conservative nation (as opposed to the loudly conservative point of view that would arise in Nashville in the '80s and onward). One exception to this was Johnny Cash, who was often moved to speak out in favor of justice for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. One of Cash's first and most powerful statements in favor of human rights was his 1964 album "Bitter Tears," a song cycle that dealt with the way Native Americans had been wronged throughout United States history, and remarkably, one of its most powerful songs actually became a hit single -- "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," drawn from the true story of the Pima Indian soldier who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II, only to face brutal racism and succumb to alcoholism after returning home. To honor the 50th anniversary of Cash's album, producer Joe Henry has assembled Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's "Bitter Tears Revisited," a collection featuring a handful of noted folk and country artists covering the songs from Cash's landmark album. The tone of "Look Again to the Wind" is gentler and more thoughtful than Cash's original album, largely due to the artists involved -- while Cash's voice was legendarily strong and dark, the vocalists here include Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Nancy Blake, and Bill Miller, whose performances are heartfelt but less physically imposing than what Cash delivered in 1964. In addition, producer Henry has aimed for a sound more intimate and atmospheric than that of the originals, dominated by acoustic instruments and the often stellar picking of David Rawlings. But if this album is more subtle, the best work here is moving and eloquent stuff, especially Gillian Welch on the opening cut "As Long as the Grass Will Grow," Kris Kristofferson putting all of his gritty authority into "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops sounding sweet but strong on "The Vanishing Race," and Steve Earle having a grand time dishonoring the dead on "Custer." Ultimately, "Look Again to the Wind" is more about the fine songs on "Bitter Tears" (most written by Peter LaFarge) than Johnny Cash, but these performances certainly honor the courage of Cash, who was willing to speak out for Native American rights at a time when it was an issue that barely registered in the public consciousness. The issues raised on "Bitter Tears" are still relevant, and "Look Again to the Wind" reminds us that art can still speak eloquently about the best and worst parts of the human condition, and it's well worth investigating. -- Mark Deming, All Music Guide

 

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Tank, 'Stronger'
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Durrell Babbs was rolling as smoothly as ever in 2014. "This Is How I Feel," his fifth album, had gone Top Ten, while the product of his collaboration with Tyrese and Ginuwine, as "TGT," debuted at number three and was Grammy-nominated for Best R&B Album. Though his adequate and sometimes brow-raising sixth album might seem fittingly titled, it's more descriptive of his career than of the content. "Stronger" itself, one of his best ballads, regards perseverance and devotion, yet "Last Ditch Attempts" would be a more descriptive title for an album with desperate expressions like "I'll come to his house and help you pack your bags" and "'Cause I'm praying now/I give to the homeless now." On "If That's What It Takes," Babbs takes it to a new level by declaring "I'll carry your baby, do that nine months of pain," like he wrote it while watching that episode of "The Cosby Show" where Dr. Huxtable has an off-the-wall dream after eating a hero sandwich. Through much of Stronger, Babbs relates how much he needs his woman, and how much she means to him, over soft and glistening slow-jam productions from the likes of Young Fyre, James "J-Doe" Smith and Eric "Bluetooth" Griggs, and Jerry "Wonda" Duplessis and Shama "Sak Pase" Joseph. The uptempo songs are highlighted by the opening "You're My Star," with Kelly Rowland present in the background, while "Dance with Me" and "I Gotta Have It" -- the latter the album's lone song about a short-term fling -- are more throwback in nature, offering light disco-funk. The relatively relaxed "Missing You," a more explicitly referential track, is a '70s Marvin Gaye homage built on a rolling, horn-accented groove with a subtle reference to "Distant Lover." It's more convincing than any of Robin Thicke's Gaye tributes. -- Andy Kellman, All Music Guide

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Smokey Robinson, 'Smokey & Friends'
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Smokey & Friends seems like it's as much an "American Idol" judges and mentors project -- or a sequel to Randy Jackson's Music Club -- than a celebration of Smokey Robinson's career. Produced by Jackson, Smokey duets with his guests on fresh versions of popular compositions he wrote during the early '60s through the early '80s, popularized by Smokey himself -- with and without the Miracles -- or other artists, namely the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. The array of vocal matchups alternates between suitable and, yeah, peculiar. For an instance of the latter, Steven Tyler wails, screeches, and ad libs all over "You Really Got a Hold on Me" while Nicole Scherzinger, a prominent background voice, takes a reverent approach that verges on solemn. Not only is it a poor matchup with Smokey's typically sweet and steady delivery, but it's the song where the recording method -- the vocalists didn't record together -- is most obvious. Smokey gets the best results with the veteran R&B women, Ledisi ("Ooh Baby Baby") and Mary J. Blige ("Being with You"), while pairings with the likes of Elton John ("The Tracks of My Tears") and James Taylor ("Ain't That Peculiar") are livelier than expected but forgettable. The noteworthy guests aren't limited to singers. Among the backing musicians are Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, John Mayer, Cornelius Mims, Jim Keltner, and Jackson himself. The instrumental support is mostly middle-of-the-road adult contemporary R&B without any conscious attempt to sound retro. One deviation -- "Get Ready," where Smokey is joined by Gary Barlow -- slathers modern dance-pop coloring to dismal effect. Compared to the originals, or even the better covers released during the intervening years, these versions are pleasant if sterile. Had everyone recorded together, the set would have at least benefited from some unforced spontaneity. -- Andy Kellman, All Music Guide

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Dr. John, 'Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch'
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Dr. John's "Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch" is a collection of songs by and associated with fellow New Orleanian Louis Armstrong, one of the handful cats who put jazz on the map in the early years of the 20th century. Finely arranged by trombonist and co-producer Sarah Morrow, all of these 13 tracks feature guest stars and a great band. Dr. John goes right to the heart of Armstrong's music, opening with "What a Wonderful World," with a vocal intro by the "Blind Boys of Alabama" and trumpeter Nicholas Payton as a soloist. It's an illustration of just how much he "enjoys screwing with a good song." Though the song is oft-covered, this is likely the very first time it's been done as pure NOLA funk, with drummer Herlin Riley popping all over backbeat. "Mack the Knife," with Mike Ladd and Terence Blanchard, may start with a monster syncopated jazz-funk vamp, but the seeming distance in the exchange between the two vocalists feels unbridgeable. "Tight Like This" done with a slow, Afro-Cuban groove, features with Telmary and Arturo Sandoval. Unfortunately, Dr. John is all but absent and the tune suffers for it. "I've Got the World on a String" is a swinging, bluesy duet with Bonnie Raitt, with Pancho Sanchez dropping a sweet undercurrent of conga. "Gut Bucket Blues," a punchy, swaggering funk number, features a killer horn break from Payton. "Dippermouth Blues" is a driving, fat, front-line horn number, starring James "12" Andrews, while "Sweet Hunk O' Trash" is a wonderful duet with Shemekia Copeland that recalls the good-natured back and forth that Armstrong and Billie Holiday displayed on their 1949 version. Dr. John's distorted RMI keyboard solo takes it to -- and over -- the margin. Anthony Hamilton's vocal on "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" is smooth as silk atop a soulful, contemporary jazz chart. It's followed by two selections with the McCrary Sisters. The first "That's My Home," is an easy R&B stroll with Wendell Brunious on flügelhorn. "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" is a stirring trad gospel arrrangement with Ledisi as Dr. John's duet partner. "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" is gorgeous NOLA souled-out R&B with Blanchard and the Blind Boys of Alabama. The closer, "When You're Smiling" is a greasy second-line read with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band that sends this set out romping. Though a couple of cuts fall short of the mark, and the set may have a few too many guests, "Ske-Dat-De-Dat" is a solid tribute to Armstrong. It does take chances and almost always pulls them off thanks to Dr. John's signature blend of musical imagination, wit, and savvy cool. -- Thom Jurek, All Music Guide
 
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