Giorgio Moroder - Déjà Vu

By the time Giorgio Moroder released Déjà-Vu, the world was as ready as it could be for his return. His work on Daft Punk's Random Access Memories was the most vivid reminder of his influence on decades of dance music, but artists such as Goldfrapp and Chromatics ensured that his brand of atmospheric disco and synth pop was nearly as in vogue in the 2000s and 2010s as it was in the '70s and '80s. Despite its name, Déjà-Vu isn't entirely a blast from the past; instead, Moroder splits the difference between making contemporary-sounding dance music and reviving disco. Sometimes he combines those impulses, nodding to his roots while shaping them into 2010s dance-pop: "Wildstar," which features Foxes (who has also worked with Zedd), is one of his best fusions of old and new. He sounds most nostalgic on the album's handful of instrumentals, such as "74 is the New 24," which feels like a time capsule full of vocoders, arpeggiated synths, and windswept drama. However, Moroder spends most of Déjà-Vu collaborating with 21st century pop singers, a move that's both logical and risky. Some of his most memorable music came from working with pop vocalists who had well-established personalities (or personas that he helped create), and that holds true for most of these songs. On "Back and Forth" -- the closest Déjà-Vu comes to greatness -- Kelis' commanding, just-gritty-enough vocals help Moroder recapture and update the glamour and drama of his definitive work. "Diamonds" makes the most of Charli XCX's frothiness on one of the album's most inspired pairings, while Sia and Kylie Minogue's respective contributions on the soaring title track and crystalline disco-pop of "Right Here, Right Now" are just as engaging. Despite its unevenness, at its best Déjà-Vu is an entertaining return from a dance music legend looking to translate his style into something that isn't overly familiar. ~Heather Phares, allmusic.com

 

Ghostface Killah -- Twelve Reasons To Die II

Coming hot on the heels of Sour Soul, Ghostface's collaborative album with Toronto jazz band BadBadNotGood, this second 2015 LP reunites the Wu-Tang rapper with film composer Adrian Younge and acts as a sequel to the pair's critically acclaimed 2013 release, Twelve Reasons to Die. "Here's twelve more reasons to die!" Ghost declares on "Return of the Savage," giving up the album's alternative title, although Younge's music alone would alert fans that this is the sequel, as '70s funk and that era's Euro-slasher film soundtracks continue to frame the rapper's story of Mafioso warfare. The gritty electro found on "Powerful One" and the eerie-crossing-into-indie sound of "Resurrection Morning" widen the spectrum ever so slightly, while most everything else sounds like Curtis Mayfield and Ennio Morricone were genetically spliced together, and judging from Ghostface's enthusiasm and heightened inspiration, that's just what the rapper ordered. What's new and improved this time out is guest star Raekwon, who "plays" Lester Kane on the album, a mob boss gunning for the Killah's Tony Starks character with the aim of becoming his arch rival. The two bosses meet, Kane trumps Stark, and then Stark takes a personal journey before a rematch ensues -- with all the rest being spoilers, but the important thing is how well these two Wu brothers play off one another, sounding more in tune than on recent official Wu-Tang efforts. Fine choices like Vince Staples, Lyrics Born, and Bilal fill in the middle bit, while RZA drops in with some comic book narration whenever the story needs to speed up. Like the films Superman 2 and Aliens, the concept LP Twelve Reasons to Die II meets, and for action junkies exceeds, the high standard set by its predecessor. ~David Jeffries, allmusic.com

Neil Young -- The Monsanto Years

Old folkie that he is, Neil Young harbors a soft spot for songs as protest, and The Monsanto Years is full of them. Where he often railed against war, here the purported target is the agricultural company Monsanto, a firm that, among other things, specializes in genetically modified crops, but Young uses that as a pivot to rage against all manner of modern outrages. Apathy among the populace, avarice among corporations, and cultural homogenization provide the throughline on The Monsanto Years, and while the weathered hippie takes some time to lay down his electric guitar and breathe, this isn't a mournful album like Living with War, his W-era missive. This is a raging record and to that end, Young hired the Promise of the Real, a ragtag outfit led by Willie Nelson's guitarist son Lukas, to approximate Crazy Horse's lop-legged lumber. Usually it works: the group roars not with righteousness but with their own glee at making noise. Plus, the Promise of the Real is adept at the softer side, too, so they ably follow Young, laying down the electric and harmonizing in a fashion reminiscent of an unwashed CSN. Young is blessed with a younger, wilier version of his old compadres and that suits his tunes, which feel comfortable yet have a bite. Young uses his sturdy footing to lash out at what he perceives as destructive forces -- to our dinner tables and social fabric -- and if the individual message may wind up fading like yesterday's newspapers, the music will keep The Monsanto Years burning bright.  ~Stephen Thomas Erlewine, allmusic.com



Various Artists -- Nina Revisited...A Tribute To Nina Simone


While the year 2015 saw the release of three films inspired by the maverick and icon Nina Simone, Nina Revisited is attached to the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, a loving tribute itself, but also a painfully honest one. This possible soundtrack takes a more abstract route while offering the same love and reverence, and it's also an almost-solo album from Lauryn Hill, the driving force behind six of the album's 16 tracks. A traditional and stately take on "Feeling Good" is the obvious pick for the artist, but her bold and vicious delivery of "I've Got Life" is equally as grand. Her "Wild Is the Wind" is elegance with an edge, while "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" is surprisingly spacy but solidly built, and with Robert Glasper's name among the album's producers credits, the backing band is expectedly red hot. Glasper surrounds Mary J. Blige with a tight and small R&B band on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and they make the song sound rightfully huge, and on the other end of the spectrum, there's Usher going full Michael Jackson as he turns "My Baby Just Cares for Me" into a sweet "The Girl Is Mine"-soundalike. The jazz-rap gift of "We Are Young, Gifted and Black" (Common and Lalah Hathaway), a funky and furious "Sinnerman" (Gregory Porter), and a reggae take on "Baltimore" inspired by the Tamlins version (Jazmine Sullivan) display how Simone's influence is felt far and wide to this day. Add a closing number from the artist herself and this free-form tribute becomes a fine and soul-lifting celebration. ~David Jeffries, allmusic.com

 

Sun Kil Moon -- Universal Themes

Universal Themes is the follow-up to Sun Kil Moon's 2014 album Benji, which unexpectedly became one of the most critically acclaimed albums of that year. Like that album, Universal Themes is extremely autobiographical, with songwriter Mark Kozelek spinning yarns about friends, family, his childhood, and other life experiences, with frequent references to boxing, music, films, television, and food. Lyrically, Universal Themes isn't as heavily fixated on death as Benji; instead, there are more songs like "Ben's My Friend," wherein Kozelek sings about his experiences traveling and playing shows. Opener "The Possum" does both, intertwining a story about an old dying possum with an anecdote about hanging out with Justin Broadrick before witnessing an incredible concert by his band Godflesh.  There's also plenty of lighter, more joyous recollections, such as Kozelek's memory of receiving his first guitar, and a multitude of stories about the best times of his life spent with family and friends. Most of the album's eight songs hover around nine or ten minutes in length, and there are stretches of spoken monologue rather than singing. Musically, Kozelek plays almost all of the instruments himself, other than drums from Steve Shelley and guest appearances by bassist Alex Schwartz and keyboards by Chris Connolly on one track each. A few of the songs rock out more aggressively than any of Kozelek's previous work, and he practically barks out "With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry." As with all Sun Kil Moon albums, Kozelek produced the album himself, and his arrangements remain inventive and gorgeous; the lengthy songs are layered, multi-part suites that frequently switch tempos, drifting off into ethereal passages or graceful tarantellas before snapping back to the driving rhythm framing the story at hand. Like Benji, Universal Themes is a challenging listen, and some might view it as Kozelek's most indulgent album yet. But his brilliant musicianship and guitar playing combined with his fascinating storytelling skills ensure that his music is as poignant and life-affirming as ever, and the album is yet another success in his remarkable catalog. ~Paul Simpson, allmusic.com



Ratatat -- Magnifique

So much of Ratatat's appeal lies in what it doesn't do: On the band's fifth album, Brooklynites Mike Stroud and Evan Mast built sleek, propulsive instrumentals using a spare palette of guitars, synthesizers and simple percussion in such a way that the music sounds both triumphant and understated. These are rock instrumentals that needn't overcompensate for their lack of words; they don't strain to be heard or scramble to stand out, but instead convey coolness that seems effortless.

What Magnifique — Ratatat's first album since the more experimental LP4 five summers ago — lacks in showy flamboyance or wholly surprising sounds, it possesses in breezy smoothness that proves versatile. The first single, "Cream On Chrome," has the most overt zippiness to it, but even it never works up a sweat or wastes a breath. When Ratatat kicks up a few '80s-style hard-rock guitar solos in "Pricks Of Brightness," they function as some of the most easygoing heroics you'll ever hear.

Elsewhere on Magnifique, the duo's instrumentals seem suited to accompany mixed drinks at a beachside restaurant: At several points in "Drift," Ratatat calms down enough to emit a noise that closely resembles a cat's purr, while "Supreme" sways softly such that it attracts a chirping bird. If Magnifique unfolds like a snappy summer movie, "I Will Return" is there at the end to burble euphorically over the closing credits, even going so far as to promise a sequel right in its title. Here's hoping so. ~Stephen Thompson, npr

 

 

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