Bloom – Beach House
Beach House is an excellent dream pop band from Baltimore that started getting significant buzz with their last album, Teen Dream (they had that title first, Katy Perry!). Bloom largely follows the philosophy “don’t mess with a good thing”, but there are significant differences from Teen Dream. For this album, Beach House decamped to west Texas to record, and it sounds like the sweep and grandeur of their surroundings crept into the music. Leadoff track and single “Myth” sets this tone, with singer Victoria Legrand’s breathy vocals soaring at perhaps their highest heights to date over epic, swelling waves of guitar and synthesizer. In fact, “epic, swelling waves of guitar and synthesizer” is a pretty good description of most of the album, but that’s definitely not to say that the songs all sound the same. Beach House does a great job varying the mood and dynamics from track to track, delivering a record that is compelling, captivating, and beautiful from start to finish.
Start with: “Myth”, “Lazuli”, “Wishes”
Born and Raised – John Mayer
John Mayer is back! I was largely disappointed with his last effort, Battle Studies – the songwriting sounded unfocused to me, perhaps understandable given his highly publicized, ah, distractions – but he completely rights the ship on Born and Raised. This album is infused with a rootsy, soulful sound that leans towards country and Americana where Continuum leaned to blues rock. The sound perfectly complements the lyrics, which point to a calmer, more peaceful Mayer, who sounds like he has overcome many of the demons that landed him in the tabloids numerous times over the past few years. This is perhaps best illustrated on “Shadow Days”, where Mayer sings “I’m a good man with a good heart, had a tough time, got a rough start, but I’ve finally learned to let it go” over a steady drum beat and peaceful slide guitar. Only he knows if those words are true, but given the contentment and peace that seem to pervade this album, I believe it. Another favorite of mine is “Something Like Olivia”, with Mayer’s bluesy electric guitar recalling the best moments from Continuum and the lyrics singing the praises of Olivia, who though taken, Mayer finds a good model for what he should be looking for. (And of course, because of his tabloid past, you gotta wonder if he’s talking about Olivia Wilde and we’re about to get another round of headlines here.) It’s great to see John Mayer back at his best, because he’s one of the most talented musicians we have today.
Start with: “Queen of California”, “Shadow Days”, “Something Like Olivia”
Heaven – The Walkmen
The Walkmen’s last album, Lisbon, is absolutely fantastic and one of my all-time favorites. If I was doing my favorite albums of 2010 list over again, it would without a doubt be in the top 10. (For the record, so would Dr. Dog’s Shame, Shame and LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening; Sleigh Bells’ Treats would be honorable mention.) Lisbon was influenced and inspired by a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, as well as Elvis music. Go figure, right? This, combined with the fact that the Walkmen could have best been described pre-Lisbon as a gritty post-punk band, made for a really interesting and excellent album. The follow-up to that album, Heaven, is not as great, but is still pretty good. As every review of this album will tell you, the Walkmen are getting older, and this album exudes the happiness and reflection that comes with moving into new stages of life. On some of the songs the practical meaning of this seems to be that the band is just less energetic. Thankfully though, this isn’t the case on all the songs, and there are several outstanding tracks: “Love Is Luck” and “Heaven” are, in my opinion, the best songs on here and stand up well to any of their previous work. Even some of the slower, more laid-back tunes, like the short homage to their love of old country music, “Jerry Jr.’s Tune”, are well done and enjoyable. Unfortunately, a few of the songs just never quite come together, which is surprising given that no song on Lisbon could be described that way. And producer Phil Ek, whose work I actually admire, doesn’t seem to be a great match here. The band talked in interviews about how exacting he was, how he made them do things over and over until they got it right, how he made them actually tune their instruments, etc., which they were grateful for and described as a good thing – but part of the Walkmen’s charm has always been how ramshackle and ragged their music can sound, and Ek’s attention to detail kind of rubs that out here. All in all though, I don’t want to sound too negative – the Walkmen hold a special place in my heart and this really is a good record. It’s hard not to compare it to Lisbon, but that’s not totally fair, and when looked at on its own the stronger tunes stand out and make this an overall satisfying listen.
Start with: “Love Is Luck”, “The Love You Love”, “Heaven”
And last but not least, those who know me know I couldn’t go without saying anything about . . .
Listen Up! – Haley Reinhart
. . . my celebrity crush, Haley Reinhart. She won me over completely on American Idol last season because of how effortlessly and charmingly different she was from not only all the other contestants, but from what the Idol powers-on-high seem to want in their contestants. Her voice is incredible and unique, full of soul and grit and power, and this album does a fantastic job of channeling all her strengths and quirks into a batch of bluesy, soul-infused pop tunes that have a ton of personality. Reinhart co-wrote all but one track, and even though a couple of tunes in the middle are a tad snoozy, overall the songs are excellent. The only real minor complaint I have is B.o.B.’s appearance on “Oh My!” – he sounds like competition a little out of place, but to be fair, the more I’ve listened to it, the more in tune I’ve gotten with it. All biases aside, this really is a good album, not just for a former Idol contestant but for anyone.
(And man, that album cover . . . the typography is excellent. What, where did you think I was going with that?)
Start with: “Liar”, “Wasted Tears”, “Keep Coming Back”