Common - Nobody's Smiling

Common noted that this album's title references Eric B. & Rakim's "In the Ghetto" -- more specifically, the song's recurring sample from the duo's "I Ain't No Joke." More symbolic, if beneath the surface, is the use of Curtis Mayfield's grim and pointed "The Other Side of Town" on album opener "The Neighborhood." While Nobody's Smiling was inspired by the tragic condition of Common's hometown of Chicago, its incorporation of a relevant-as-ever song from 1970, recorded by a Chicagoan in Chicago, is an acknowledgment of how inner-city struggles are a constant, not a trend. Fervent throughout, Common deals out some of his hardest and heaviest rhymes. No I.D. strengthens his partner's work with rigid, reverb-heavy productions -- from the mechanical pings of "Speak My Piece" to the juddering drums and probing keyboards within the title track -- without approaching the harshness of the Yeezus tracks to which he contributed. On "Kingdom," something like a weathered "Jesus Walks," the rapper and the producer are at their most moving, with the protagonist attending a funeral and plotting revenge, unable to connect with the concept of faith: "My whole life I had to worry about eatin'/I ain't have time to think about what I believe in." Common places the most directly biographical track, "Rewind That," at the end of the album's standard edition. The second half, where he traces his friendship with J Dilla, involves some brilliant storytelling, and perhaps the only moments during the album's sessions when Common cracked a smile while recording. It's a touching finish to the rapper's best album since Be. ~ Andy Kellman,


Mastodon -- Once More Round The Sun

Once More Round The Sun was produced by Nick Raskulinecz, best known for his work with Foo Fighters and Rush. The sound Mastodon pursues here draws inspiration from the '70s, without remotely being an exercise in nostalgia. There is one notable exception; it's deliberate and obvious: "The High Road" boasts unapolgeting Thin Lizzy worship, albeit ambitiously updated. (Who better?) Its verse/riff structure weds Lynott's rhythmic sensibility to Mastodon's dynamic aggression. The anthemic chorus melody and harmonies, and twinned lead guitar roar, were trademarked by Lizzy's Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham long ago. "Chimes at Midnight" is intense, fueled by a mammoth chugging riff. It lets the "drop D" freak flag fly, with a near-shouted vocal, harmonic chorus, and spacey six-string interludes. "The Motherload," with its swaggering guitar heroics, is a wound-out yet nearly hummable prog melody, with a relentless bass and snare attack. "Aunt Lisa," with its knotty guitar intro, contains processed vocals, a series of rising and falling key changes, and the Coathangers guesting -- cheerleader style -- in a chanted vocal chorus à la Faith No More's "Be Aggressive!" There are also some substantive guitar pyrotechnics in the extended solos in "Halloween" and "Ember City," which, due to their imagination and focus, add dimension to them as songs. "Diamond in the Witch House" is a sprawling, nearly eight-minute closing jam. Neurosis' Scott Kelly and his menacing growl guest as it lumbers, trudges, and lurches ever forward (longtime fans will likely dig this). Once More 'Round the Sun furthers what Mastodon began on The Hunter: expanding their music past metal's rigid borders -- even with its many subgenres -- toward an integrative hard rock that doesn't leave metal out. The songwriting, playing, and production here are inspired, kinetic, and far more accessible than ever before. ~ Thom Jurek,

CSNY -- 1974

Big bucks were the reason the CSNY 1974 tour even existed. Efforts to record a new album in 1973, their first since 1970's breakthrough Déjà Vu, collapsed but manager Elliot Roberts and promoter Bill Graham convinced the group to stage the first outdoor stadium tour in the summer of 1974, with the idea that CSNY would test-drive new material in concert, then record a new studio album in the fall, or maybe release a live record from the historic tour. Neither happened. The group cleaved in two upon the tour's conclusion and the live tapes sat in the vaults until Graham Nash decided to assemble a box set of the tour just in time for its 40th anniversary in 2014. Nash and producer Joel Bernstein -- the driving forces behind the excellent new millennial archival CSN reissues -- culled the best moments from the nine recorded shows, sometimes cobbling together composites, then assembled the whole thing as a three-CD set designed to replicate the mammoth three-hour sets the quartet played in 1974. That very length indicates how there was room on the 1974 tour for every aspect of CSNY, giving space to sensitive folk, woolly electric guitar jams, hits, and unheard songs. Several of those new songs showed up on albums by CSNY in various permutations, while a few -- mostly written by Young -- never got an airing outside of this tour, so the first official release of "Love Art Blues," "Pushed It Over the End," and even the throwaway Nixon jape "Goodbye Dick" is indeed noteworthy. But what makes CSNY 1974 a substantial chapter in their legacy is how it captures the band in full flight just as its moment is starting to slip away. Stills and Young play with the burly force they channeled into Manassas and Crazy Horse, providing a startling contrast to both the sweetness of disc two's acoustic set and Crosby's excursions into the haze of If I Could Only Remember My Name. Hearing the band pull apart as its members come together is simultaneously thrilling and enervating because Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young remain locked in a battle to outdo one another; it's fascinating to hear them spar, but also draining. Nevertheless, that messy competition is why CSNY 1974 is a vital addition to their canon. Tales of CSNY acrimony are legend, but this rancor rarely surfaced on record. Here, those brawling egos are pushed to the forefront, with all the pretty harmonies operating as an accent to the main event.    ~Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Allmusic

Got A Girl -- I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now

In a project spawned on the set of the the 2010 film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, San Francisco mega-producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Deltron 3030) and winsome actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead deliver their playfully cinematic debut, I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now, under the name Got a Girl. Another well-known, boy-girl indie pop duo of the late 2000s featuring a much-adored actress immediately springs to mind, but aside from melodic hooks, Got a Girl share little musical ground with the folky She & Him. They instead rely on a cocktail of '60s French pop, café jazz, psychedelia, and Bond-esque lounge, shaken (not stirred) and served in the chilled martini glass of Nakamura's classy soundscapes. For her part, Winstead's whispery, dulcet voice offers plenty to like, matching well with the type of retro luxury-pop style the duo has adopted. There has been no shortage of artists pairing classic lounge with modern samples and beats over the years, and throughout this debut you can pick out strains of similar-minded forebears like Pizzicato Five and early Goldfrapp. At times, the album, with its movie-themed packaging and big, dramatic orchestral samples, feels a bit like a theme exercise. Still, Got a Girl put their own stamp on this hybrid with finely crafted tracks like the low-key "Close to You" and the sweetly romantic "Last Stop." The uptempo "There's a Revolution" is also a hooky standout, and throughout the set, Nakamura's distinctive beats are in keeping with some of his classic work. Overall, this is a generally charming debut with a very stylized sound and some solid material within. ~ Timothy Monger,


Bob Mould -- Beauty & Ruin

There is a tension within the title of Beauty & Ruin, Bob Mould's tenth solo album, a tension that can also be heard in the music. Written and recorded in the wake of the death of Mould's somewhat estranged father, Beauty & Ruin is a heavier album than its predecessor Silver Age in both emotional and musical terms. Where that 2012 record was a reaffirmation of his strengths, a happy reclamation of all the blaring, candied punk-pop rush of Sugar, this digs deeper, finding room for the churning introspection of Beaster and a bit of the furious mania of prime Hüsker Dü. This versatility is confirmation that his 2010s band, anchored by bassist Jason Narducy (formerly of Verbow and now of Split Single) and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, might be his most accomplished supporting group ever, able to follow him through the storms and settle into the aftermath. Although this opens with the slow, grinding "Low Season" and eventually winds its way to the bright, open "Forgiveness," most of this record is devoted to turmoil, as Mould comes to terms with his impending mortality -- hanging over him through both the passing of his dad and his own middle-age -- by drawing sustenance from his signature combination of crystalline pop and molten noise. As loud as this gets, what matters is the subtleties of tone: Silver Age felt like a positive reclamation but Beauty & Ruin is somber, feeling sober even at its most joyous moments; "I Don't Know You Anymore," "Tomorrow Morning," and "Hey Mr. Grey" are fueled by ebullient hooks but what they deliver is clutched and coiled, hinting at the intensity of New Day Rising even when there's no denying Mould isn't attempting to reclaim his youth at all. This self-aware mortality is the trump card of Beauty & Ruin, as Mould neither denies his youth nor his age; as he explores his pain, he finds emotional and musical narrative to tie his past to his present and the results are powerful. ~Thomas Erlewine,

Jolie Holland -- Wine Dark Sea

Singer and songwriter Jolie Holland has immersed herself in the love of various American music since the very beginning of her career. From country and folk to blues, gospel, jazz, and 19th century parlor songs, she has always translated these forms with uncommon depth and understanding in her uniquely revealing songs. That said, Wine Dark Sea is somewhat of a departure. Her players -- two drummers, three additional guitarists (all of whom often play simultaneously), and reeds, winds, and bass -- come from the more experimental side of New York's music scene. They ramble, stab, and clatter through these energetic, visceral arrangements that rely as much on her elliptical musical direction as they do improvisational acumen. It's a raw, often raucous presentation, balanced by Holland's mature poetic vision and her continued exploration of American musical forms. She effortlessly links them, one source to another, as seemingly disparate performance styles are filtered through a universal language, the love song, and all 11 tracks here are just that; Holland's are filled with tenderness, ferocity, fearlessness, and unfettered desire. Elizabeth Cotton meets Jimmy Reed and the Velvets in "On and On," with spiraling, scorching guitar breaks inside a bright melody and choogling tempo. Stephen Foster comes toward James Booker in the lovely ballad "First Sign of Spring." John Lee Hooker's house rent boogie drives "Dark Days," but it's informed by Blind Willie McTell's melodic sweetness, even as screaming, fragmented guitars push at the margins. "Route 30" is a strolling country blues; its subtle twists and turns nod at Hank Williams. No one has ever covered Joe Tex like Holland. His "The Love You Save" is performed in duet with Chanticleer Tru, strained through Memphis soul and Albert Collins' Texas blues.  Holland's vocal drips with emotion like honey from her lips. Her creative investment in experimental music to further her reach on Wine Dark Sea takes her deeper and wider than any place she's been before. Holland not only delivers her most intuitively crafted and realized collection to date, but she expands the boundaries and possibilities for American roots music in the process. ~Thom Jurek,


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