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Inside Music: New This Week
Ariana Grande, 'My Everything'
Rating: Our Rating
When "My Everything" arrived as the summer of 2014 drew to a close, it was clear that Ariana Grande was poised to be the reigning pop diva of the mid-decade. Possessed with greater vocal chops than any of her peers -- her effortless runs revealed the limitations of Katy Perry and Rihanna -- she luxuriated in her debt to Mariah Carey on her 2013 debut "Yours Truly," working mainly with Babyface to re-create the vibe and feel of the '90s. On "My Everything," Grande takes a decisive step into the future, breaking away from Babyface so she can bring in a host of modern producers -- Max Martin, Shellback, David Guetta, Benny Blanco, Ryan Tedder, Darkchild, and Pop & Oak among them -- not to mention a parade of guest stars highlighted by Iggy Azalea, A$AP Ferg, the Weeknd, Childish Gambino, Zedd, and Big Sean. All this suggests Grande is resolved to inhabit her time, which is true. She remains anchored in '90s soul on "My Everything" -- and it's hard to deny her love of Mariah, although Ariana rarely indulges in the high-flying melisma that's her idol's specialty -- but there are serious EDM flourishes and a facility with hip-hop, something that's showcased via the countless cameos that eat up the midsection of the album. At times, all these performers threaten to overshadow Grande because, for as skilled a singer as she is, her precision isn't necessarily charismatic; she seems determined to hit her marks and her diligence leaves plenty of space for her guests to suck up the spotlight, whether it's Iggy swooping in on "Problem" or the Weeknd on "Love Me Harder." Often, these cameos are used as flair -- not dissimilar to the washes of analog synths, the "I'm Coming Out" sample on "Break Your Heart Right Back," or stuttering EDM beats -- on songs that keep focus on the melodies Grande delivers with exacting grace. Ultimately, this emphasis on song is to the benefit of "My Everything." Perhaps Grande doesn't embody the songs the way an old-fashioned diva would, but she functions as a likeable pop ringleader, stepping aside when the track calls for it and then unleashing a full-throated wail when it's her time to shine. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide
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Brad Paisley, 'Moonshine in the Trunk'
Rating: Our Rating
Ambition got the better of Brad Paisley on 2013's "Wheelhouse," coaxing him into the briar patch that was "Accidental Racist" -- an ill-conceived cross-cultural duet with LLCool J which generated a flurry of headlines that camouflaged how the album straight-up flopped on country radio. "Wheelhouse" was Paisley's first record since "Play" not to go gold, and even that is misleading because that 2008 effort was an instrumental album and those never sell in large numbers; subtract that from his stats and the 2013 record achieves the ignoble status of his first-ever album not to reach gold and, perhaps more importantly, his first not to generate a number one single. Paisley slyly alludes to this slump, singing "I guess I've been in a dry spell, but that's about to change" on "Crushin' It," the opening track of his 2014 album "Moonshine in the Trunk," a phrasing that suggests his dip in sales lasted longer than a year -- which, in a way, it has. His sales started decreasing around the time of the open-hearted, far-ranging "American Saturday Night," so perhaps it's no surprise that he's attempting to turn back the clock on "Moonshine in the Trunk," stripping back all his experimentations and declining every detour so he winds up with a record that could function as a de facto sequel to 2007's 5th Gear. Moonshine in the Trunk is all gleaming steel, hard edges, sleek rhythms, and power ballads, state-of-the-art modern country that doesn't dare make a big deal of any of Paisley's eccentricities outside of his squealing guitar. Restless guy that he is, Paisley doesn't quite abandon every one of his quirks: specifically, he plays around with rhythm, setting "Crushin' It" to a thumping disco beat, pushing "River Bank" along to a stuttering syncopation, and underscoring "Limes" to an electronic loop. These dance-friendly beats go down smoothly because the emphasis is on the twang of the Telecaster and Paisley's drawl, signatures as prominent as his sense of humor which also surfaces on "Moonshine in the Trunk" -- quite genially on "Going Green," a wry tale of a redneck choosing to sacrifice for the sake of the environment, and quite nastily on "High Life," where a bunch of white trash sue their way toward millions. No matter how much he rhapsodizes about the logos across the caps in this great "Country Nation," these two novelties suggest where Paisley's sympathies lie: he's too smart, too worldly to pander to his base, so he'll take sly jabs and disguise his wide-eyed futurism within the nostalgia of "American Flag on the Moon." Most of all, he's savvy enough to know when to play it safe, which he does throughout "Moonshine in the Trunk," turning out high-octane, highly enjoyable songs about trucks, water, speed, and making out with girls who don't realize they're beautiful enough to be a model. This is, for want of a better word, his wheelhouse, and while he may not be leaving his comfort zone here, "Moonshine in the Trunk" proves his strengths remain mighty potent. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide
The New Pornographers, 'Brill Bruisers'
Rating: Our Rating
Some bands aim for a grand, widescreen sound when they go into the studio, but the New Pornographers refuse to be satisfied with anything short of 3-D IMAX, with their songs accompanied by thundering drums, massive cascades of keyboards, towering vocal choruses, and chugging, percussive melodies that power it all. It would be easy for the New Pornographers to sound absurdly ostentatious if it weren't for the fact there's a fiercely beating heart in the midst of their music, and at their best, the indie supergroup seems to be having a grand time constructing their walls of sound. 2014's "Brill Bruisers" is a suitably grandiose follow-up to 2010's "Together," and the fact it took seven different recording studios to assemble tells you something about the album's sonic ambition, but A.C. Newman's tunes are graceful, clever, and catchy despite their size, like a blimp that easily floats with the breeze, and the vocals from Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar, and Kathryn Calder bring both drama and passion to this music. (Bejar's three songs seem a good bit more compact than Newman's, especially the lean and paranoid "Spyder," but even that finds room for a manic drum break and some wailing harmonica). As is this group's habit, "Brill Bruisers" is lyrically cryptic, but while there seems to be a dour edge to most of the verbiage, the music is usually upbeat when the melodic hooks take hold, and with Kelly Hogan contributing guest vocals on four tracks, this singing powerhouse sounds more impressive than ever. If you have a grand desire to take on the world and want a suitable indie rock soundtrack, "Brill Bruisers" will certainly do the trick, and if this isn't the best effort to date from the New Pornographers, it most certainly doesn't disappoint. -- Mark Deming, All Music Guide
Shovels & Rope, 'Swimmin' Time'
Rating: Our Rating
Not unlike their 2012 breakthrough album "O' Be Joyful," Shovels & Rope's second album for Dualtone, 2014's "Swimmin' Time," suggests Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst bought some privately published guidebook on "How To Write and Records Americana Music Like The Professionals" and have carefully followed the template to the letter. The arrangements have the correct balance of rootsy acoustic flavors and messed-up electric noise, the melodies are steeped in tradition but have a self-consciously clever indie rock edge, and the lyrics deal with the usual themes of natural disasters, human failings, small town eccentricities, and our land's checkered past. But if there aren't a lot of surprises in terms of theme and approach, "Swimmin' Time" confirms that skill of execution is Shovels & Rope's saving grace -- Trent and Hearst are both fine vocalists, and sound truly splendid when they lay out some rough, sweet harmonies. The duo also took on most of the instrumental work on these sessions, and they generate a commendably swampy groove, even when they lay on a fistful of overdubs to fill out the melodies. And just because these songs follow paths that have been traveled many times before by many other acts doesn't change the fact Trent and Hearst can come up with a really good one every once in a while, such as the ragged but romantic "Pinned" and "Mary Ann and One Eyed Dan." You've almost certainly heard other acts do what Shovels & Rope do on "Swimmin' Time" plenty of times; the difference is, this duo can do it better than most, and that's enough to keep them going until they're capable of developing a more unique personality to call their own. -- Mark Deming, All Music Guide
Ty Segall, 'Manipulator'
Rating: Our Rating
It's not exactly a secret that Ty Segall has been allowing his inner popmeister to take the spotlight with greater frequency as his solo career has gained traction, and with 2014's "Manipulator," he's delivered one of his most satisfying fusions of pop songcraft and rock & roll snazz. The album opens with the title song, a glorious Brian Wilson homage built around vintage keyboards, but on most of the tracks, Segall's guitars take center stage, and while the expected buzzy chaos is still a major part of his sound, the acoustic textures of "The Clock" and "Green Belly," and the dueling electric/acoustic lines on "Don't You Want to Know (Sue)," show that his picking can be neat and precise when he wants it to be (and the former suggests he's been listening to his old T. Rex albums). When Segall does stomp on the fuzzbox and let rip on rave-ups like "The Crawler" and "It's Over," he's still capable of making his guitar howl like a wounded dinosaur, but the songs here rely far less on lo-fi noise, and the potent grooves of "Mister Main" and the string-laden melodies of "Stick Around" are '70s-style wonders, not dependent on 21st century noise to connect. Ultimately, it's the chunky, elemental melodies of numbers like "The Singer" and "Feel" that make "Manipulator" so satisfying, and the production is just dirty enough to make the most of Segall's guitars, while still allowing the finer details of the performances to shine through. "Manipulator" is a reminder that Ty Segall knows his rock & roll, but he knows a lot more than just that, and this '70s-inspired madness results in one of Segall's best and most pleasurable efforts to date. -- Mark Deming, All Music Guide
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