'X' Rated And Proud Of It!

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Ed Sheeran: X (Atlantic) There’s a school of thought holding that today’s biggest biggest pop stars should be as visually striking as they are musically memorable. In purely literal terms, that’s completely so here. But is it a compliment? Brit songwriter Sheeran, red-headed and oozing pure guy-next-door friendliness, returns Stateside with an album likely to sell by the boatload—like him, it’s upbeat, friendly, clever almost to the point of pain, and defiantly non-innovative. Kind of boring, but that’s OK. It goes down easy, it’s a guy and a guitar, there’s a backstory here that involves young pop stardom, intercontinental relationships with famous musical celebrities, and, as is his style, there’s “rappish” wordplay that sounds slightly clever now but will sound increasingly sillier in the weeks to come, though thankfully somewhere in here he informs us that he’s “not a rapper.” All told, there’s nothing here less than pleasant, Sheeran seems an all-around young, rockin’ dude with lots of livin’ to do, and whoever informs his business decisions really ought to point out that naming his albums + and X consecutively will, if only in terms of metadata and ease-of-search, affect his gross $ and £ receipts significantly.

[Related: Ed Sheeran Previews New Album at iHeartRadio Release Party]

Various Artists: Jersey Boys—Music From The Motion Picture And Broadway Musical (Rhino) It is an admittedly jarring mish-mash of popular culture that brings together the music of one of the ‘60s biggest pop groups who enjoyed an unexpected ‘70s comeback (the Four Seasons) as part of a successful Broadway musical and now a motion picture directed by a former ‘50s TV and film star (Clint Eastwood)—but, if a new generation gets to hear this fabulous collection of tuneage, and ideally goes out and seeks the original pop classics recorded by Frankie Valli & company, and maybe even enjoys the filmed/scripted melodrama of Jersey Boys, who’s to say anyone loses anything? Band like this and, say, Tommy James & the Shondells are fascinating for that aspect of American rock critic culture that effectively writ them out of the picture in most accounts years after the fact, even though their prominence alongside the Beatles and Rolling Stones was—just look at the charts—inarguable. A nice memento here, but get the real records first, no?

Peter Frampton: Hummingbird In A Box (Phenix Phonograph) In some ways Peter Frampton could not be better situated professionally: He’s been involved in '60s teen-popdom via his early band the Herd, rocked exceptionally well while in Humble Pie, established himself on an entirely new commercial level via his Frampton Comes Alive days of superstardom circa the mid-‘70s, was let down slowly—but not slowly enough to impact his steady flow of fine records—and then, rather than burn out, or fade away…he simply continued. And as albums like this one indicate, he’s been doing a fine job of it. A mini-LP, constructed for the purposes of the Cincinnati Ballet, Hummingbird is fresh-sounding, sophisticated stuff; Frampton plays and sings as well as ever and, to his credit, his continually looking forward—rather than backward, for there’s quite a story there, to be sure—only solidifies his status as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s lifelong major players. Excellent stuff here.

Small Faces: There Are But Four Small Faces (Deluxe Edition) (Charly) Speaking of Humble Pie, this is also the week that Britain’s massively massive teen pop stars the Small Faces receive the best showing yet of the American album debut There Are But Four Small Faces—originally out here in 1967, and bearing their biggest U.S. hit, “Itchycoo Park,” but still, culturally speaking, arriving well after their UK initial impact date. I’ve got more than a few versions of this, but this sounds great: 2 CDs, stereo and mono, bonus tracks, newly remastered under the supervision of original Faces Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones, and intelligent U.S.A.-oriented liner notes by Ken Sharp—which is no small thing for any late-coming American fans trying to figure out why most other Faces reissues proclaim the band superstars but few people around here have actually heard their music. An excellent reissue, driving home the need for every major rock’n’roll act to have their catalog remastered and reissued one last time—no duplication, no redundancies—so that fans can, this very last time, buy the definitive editions and be satisfied. As they say: fat chance.

Selwyn Birchwood: Don’t Call No Ambulance (Alligator) Recently issued by the distinguished blues label Alligator and garnering repeated plays in this household is the remarkable debut album by young guitarist/singer Birchwood--a powerhouse player and emotive performer whose work respects blues tradition but could not be more contemporary. From Orlando, Florida, Birchwood made an early ally of Texas bluesman Sonny Rhodes and at 29 has already made his name onstage opening for artists like Buddy Guy and Robert Cray. His band, his material, and both his skilled guitaring and soulful vocals are the essence of fully-formed; Birchwood is a major player, the sort of artist that assures his blues-devoted label many more years of prominence to come, and most importantly, a damn fine listen through and through. Highly recommended.

Phish: Fuego (ATO) Given that Phish have in the course of over 30 years established themselves so much so as being one way or another—a great band, a live band, a prolific band, a band that really needs to be seen, another generation’s Grateful Dead—and not so much as hitmakers—the guys who had that huge smash in 2003, say--it might be wise to simply sit back and give ‘em a fresh listen. And doing that, Fuego, the band’s first studio album since 2009’s Joy, sounds surprisingly good, fresh, capable of being enjoyed for what it is rather than viewed as part of a 30-plus year career plan and—with the help of well-known producer Bob Ezrin—pretty right now and substantial. The smart money says: give it to a teenager who’s never heard of Phish and everybody—Phish included—might be surprised at what happens next.

Phox: Phox (Partisan) A brief mention for the excellent self-titled debut by Baraboo, Wisconsin’s very own Phox, which, as names go, is certainly impressive as that of the band’s hometown. A melodic, well-arranged set highlighted by the memorable vocals of lead singer Monica Martin—smooth, mellow, sexy, intelligent, warm, etc.—and a consistent mood that permeates every track here. This seems like an actual albumrather than a collection of singles, and Phox seems like an actual band rather a random collection of players gathered together to make music that might generate significant airplay/streams/video spins. They are good, and it’s still early days for them. Let’s see what happens next.

Deanna Bogart: Just A Wish Away (Blind Pig) It struck me earlier when listening to Selwyn Birchwood’s excellent Alligator Records set that both that label and San Francisco’s Blind Pig are fascinating examples of companies that are determinedly pursuing authentic music styles—be it blues, R&B, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll or all areas in between—and regularly documenting them via releases just like this one. Deanna, a multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, sax, vocals), offers up a very solid set via this fourth Blind Pig effort, with fine songs, an excellent, well-pedigreed band of players, the sort of energy that has populated her work for years—she played with Root Boy Slim in the mid-‘80s, no less—and the sort of authentic enthusiasm for music that is absolutely contagious. Massive pop hits? No way. But very reassuring for long-term music fans nonetheless.

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