Train: Bulletproof Picasso (Columbia) It is no small wonder that Amazon gives this album and V, the latest by Maroon 5, its “Frequently Bought Together” designation: Both are polished, almost scarily perfect examples of commercial pop music—tightly honed melodies, perfectly arranged harmonies, and not a wasted note anywhere. Yet while the Maroon 5 album has an unmistakable sense of near-focus group calculation behind each song’s catchy twist and turn, Train—good ol’ Train, who’ve been around for 20 years or so—simply seem to have blundered into something good. As in: You could not ask for a more innocently commercial album if you tried. With its opening trio of songs—“Cadillac, Cadillac,” radio hit “Angel In Blue Jeans,” and the title track—the San Franciscan band roars unerringly through an upbeat, innocent sense of good times, pop formulas be damned, and the result is joyous, carefree fun that sounds better with each listening. Kudos to producer Butch Walker and the band itself—who, in 2014, are wisely letting the music, and not the image, do the talking.
Chris Brown: X (RCA) Is it just me, or does the cover of this thing imply that Chris Brown is a dead guy? Or that he’s listened to a lot of Ed Sheeran? If there were no preconceived notions about the type of guy Chris Brown is—if his name weren’t in the news nearly every day, if he weren’t associated with the sort of unpleasant things he’s come to be known for—this album might be seen as a star-studded, rhythmic tour-de-force. And with its everpresent processed vocals, and those sort of deviously catchy hooks you can buy when committees of songwriters pen your material, yes, it is all smoothly professional and slickly appealing. But when Brown sings what are intended to be clever lyrics—as in “Your body’s an isosceles/ And I’m just trying to try angles”—the uphill battle he faces, in terms of being taken seriously/in good humor/sympathetically, just leaps right out at you. “Drunk Texting” and “Body Shots”—really? It’s going to take a long time for him to be heard as a music maker instead of the worst kind of newsmaker—and in his case, perhaps predictably, X does not mark the spot.
Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: Juice (Indirecto) When acclaimed electric guitarist John Scofield joined forces with the marvelously eclectic and keyboard-y Medeski, Martin Wood for his A Go Go album back in the ‘90s, nobody expected collaborations like this two decades later. And yet here we are: With its minimalist cover evoking the likes of the psychedelic ‘60s and stripped-down Peter Max, we’ve got versions of “Light My Fire,” “Sunshine Of Your Love,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” a song called “Juicy Lucy,” and an overall ‘60s Brit-jazz Brian Auger/Wynder K. Frog feel that, happily, could not sound fresher or brighter in 2014. Unexpectedly good, compelling stuff.
Flyleaf: Between The Stars (Loud & Proud) While they have always been a very interesting hard rock band—oddly exploring that peculiar region where metal and Christian Rock coexist—Flyleaf were maybe most notable in their early days for the seriously striking vocal contributions of Lacey Mosley (now Lacey Sturm), whose memorably controlled shrieking on their 2006 single “I’m So Sick” was one of the most striking performances that ever took place at the Yahoo studios. She’s since departed and continues to work in the Christian rock field; an interesting character, yes. But Flyleaf has done well with replacement Kristen May (formerly of Vedera), who joined the band in late 2012 and sounds fully at home on the band’s fourth album. Hard-driving rock , capably sung by May, expertly produced by Don Gilmore, and—as was the case from their earliest days—deliberately and aggressively avoiding metal clichés whenever possible. Good for them.
The Turtles: The Turtles 45 RPM Vinyl Singles Collection (FloEdCo/Manifesto) Now more than ever before—when all is files and all is streamed and everybody can theoretically hear everything—owning physical music objects has become a statement. And in the scheme of things, considering the history of rock ‘n’ roll, what could be the most aesthetically pleasing means to collect the works of ‘60s hitmakers the Turtles? Maybe via this boxed set of 8 singles—16 songs in all—that are 7 inches in diameter, spin at 45 revolutions per minute, and are how most people first heard “Happy Together,” “She’s My Girl,” and “Elenore” back in the ‘60s. Extremely difficult to quibble with the music here, but considering that collectors might want a little more than generic sleeves on their singles (which aren’t technically reissues, as the a-side/b-side matchings are new), and that head Turtles Flo & Eddie, known for being witty speakers and writers, offer nothing contextually new here, a little more bang for the buck might’ve been called for. But in the scheme of things: We could do much worse.
Nick Mulvey: First Mind (Harvest) One of this year’s finest new releases, First Mind introduces Brit songwriter Ulvey to the States with quite the buzz: It received a Mercury Music Prize nomination, as did his former band the Portico Quartet back in 2008. He’s quite good, heard here in a subtle singer/songwriter musical context that at times evokes the works of José González or Damien Jurado and will similarly draw listeners in. Sophisticated and intricate stuff; Mulvey sounds like a major player in the making, and as introductions go, this is fine indeed.
Jesse Winchester: A Reasonable Amount Of Trouble (Appleseed Recordings) We’re fortunate that the late Jesse Winchester had enough time to create this quietly wonderful album, released this week and likely to have the same staying power as his very first, famous 1970 set. His skills as a songwriter, conspicuous from the beginning, are amply evident here via such songs as “Ghosts” and “Just So Much,” and as a vocalist—the unexpected soulfulness he provides such familiar hits as “Rhythm Of The Rain” and “Devil Or Angel” borders on the remarkable. Expertly produced by Mac McAnally, featuring classy players like Jerry Douglas and Jim Horn, and with liner notes by Jimmy Buffett, the album is one of those labors of love that isn’t just good, or a warm, sentimental send-off—it is unabashedly great and deserves your hearing.
Camera: Remember I Was Carbon Dioxide (Bureau B) It is difficult not to admire German band Camera purely for giving their second album this name—Gary Numan does get better with age—but, that said, there’s their actual music, also worthy of genuine affection. Sure, there are nods to both Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” and much of Neu! here, but there’s also less of an emphasis on stasis—of standing beautifully still—and more on a forward, driving pulse. It’s inspiring, it’s great driving music, and as whoever penned their bio rightly put it, “You can still call it Krautrock, if you must.” Just call it something.