Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems (Columbia) Given the enormity of his work and the duration and consistency of his output—he’s been making stunning albums since his first, back in 1967, and that’s only part of what he does—it’s difficult not to over-praise Leonard Cohen. And here he is, offering up a spotlessly produced studio album—only his 13th, mind you—just days after his 80th birthday. And like literally all of his others, it is expertly produced (this time by Patrick Leonard), crafted without a wasted note or excessive lyric, and about as wry and knowing in its vocal delivery as any artist out there could ever be. Popular Problems oozes with the Cohen persona, so how could that be less than great? Still, there is the issue of Cohen’s voice; it was never a remarkable instrument (as he acknowledged in his own “Tower Of Song” over a quarter century ago), but its range has diminished over the years and now seems to dwell in territories perilously close to spoken-word. Cohen is of course a poet, so that’s not an altogether unpleasant prospect–and with his being juiced up in the mix with conspicuous female vocals, as per usual, you’d be hard-pressed to think of Popular Problems as anything but an album of songs. Still, like latter-day Lou Reed, the thrills and joy one might derive from his work are often directly related to his past accomplishments rather the work at hand. It is artful, it is polished, and in the future, it will be referred to as “late-period” Leonard Cohen. Which is better than most everyone else–but still.
The Drums: Encyclopedia (Minor) And here’s the third album from the Drums–that very remarkable band with its scatter-shot pedigree of names including Goat Explosion and Elkland, and its magical and still underexposed second album Portamento, which with its still-stunning track “I Need A Doctor” was among 2011’s finest works. Having lost a member and now comprised only of founders Jonathan Pierce and Jacob Graham, the Drums are still fascinatingly good, blending rhythm, absurdity, sexuality and weirdness in surprising and sometimes unprecedented ways. While Encyclopedia is a tad less listener-friendly than its predecessor, there’s a lot of depth and subtlety at work here, and “Let Me” in particular stands out as exquisitely Drums-like—meaning, unusually, it appears to have borrowed from no one else at all and, like the Drums themselves, is refreshingly unique. In 2014, that borders on the freaky. Excellent stuff.
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek To Cheek (Streamline) Perhaps you’ve been at gatherings where an elder family member wanted to show how much they still loved music by proudly pulling out their latest purchase. Bless their hearts, no? Last time that happened here was with Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company–released in 2004, a massive seller and Grammy-winner, featuring Charles with a huge array of stellar guests including Elton John, Natalie Cole, Norah Jones, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, and Willie Nelson. The album played all day long one Sunday afternoon, pleasing a multitude of generations and serving its purpose. This will likely do the same: Fine, late-era Tony Bennett, now 88, and an appealing, non-gimmicky, completely functional Lady Gaga, singing standards in a straight-up jazz context. It’s less likely young Gaga fans will decide Bennett and jazz are hip than older Bennett fans will embrace young Ms. Gaga, who on this memorable album cover eerily evokes the Casablanca Records disco era in its prime. (That she sings “Lush Life”’s opening lines “I used to visit all the gay places” certainly helps.) But as a straight-up contemporary pop album—or, in Grammy-speak, a Traditional Pop Vocal album—this will win fans, win awards, and likely win a place in some households that haven’t seen “new albums” in many years. Call it a win-win.
Gary Clark Jr.: Gary Clark Jr. Live (Warner Bros.) There’s something strangely feel-goodish about a musician making a name for himself purely because he plays well—and, of course, something strangely retro at the same time. In a way that pegs the highly skilled Gary Clark Jr. perfectly: He’s a superb guitarist, a fine singer, a compelling live performer—as this 2-CD set makes clear—and an all-around ray of hope in a world gone mad for marketing, social media and viral videos. The big deal here, at least to those who are paying attention, is that Clark’s coming to us via intergalactic media combine Warner Bros. rather than, say, the distinguished Alligator or Blind Big indie blues labels, which means either that 1) They smell money, or 2) The world as we know it is now folding into itself. I vote for choice two, and am entirely energized by Clark’s powerhouse playing, which in 15 songs or so manages to make Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” sound fresh and, with all that audience cheering going on in the background, is genuinely stimulating. A fine showcasing, much needed to further establish this man’s credentials as a live powerhouse.
Lenny Kravitz: Strut (Roxie) Lenny Kravitz’s rise to fame in the late ‘80s and ‘90s was noteworthy, as the man seemed to synthesize all that was good about popular music—the rock stuff, the R&B stuff, the one-man-in-a-studio stuff—but in an entirely non-clinical way, and he connected. People bought his records. Since then his fortunes appear to have risen and fallen with his ability to pull out a tasty melody or two; he’s had his issues. He left longtime label Virgin Records and released Black And White America on Roadrunner Records in 2011, an experience he recently told Billboard “couldn’t have been more wrong,” and is now on an indie label named after his mom. Cool! The point? Well, this new record actually 1) sounds great, 2) rocks with regularity, 3) systematically starts with drums on nearly every track, and 4) may be the most memorable thing he’s recorded since I can’t remember! Throw in its straight and quite catchy cover of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby,” and Strut seems the first Kravitz album in ages likely to appeal to more than an overpaid focus group. Good for him.
Laetitia Sadier: Something Shines (Drag City) In a world where overexposure has now become an inevitability for nearly any human being of note, how refreshing that people such as Laetitia Sadier exist. The French-born singer best known as an integral part of tasteful minimal-rockers Stereolab, Sadier has pursued her career in other contexts, whether with splinter-group Monade or on her own. She’s on her own here, her third solo album, and she still evokes the stuff she’s always excelled at: minimalist yearning, sounding French-like, early ‘60s jazz chorale ensembles, minor keys, and lyrics that are quite personal, should one care to listen. She’s very good, and I’d call her an acquired taste if I thought that didn’t have negative connotations. Good, sweet stuff.
The Smashing Pumpkins: Adore (Super Deluxe Edition) (Virgin) It’s worth remembering that in the mid-‘90s the Smashing Pumpkins were considered very much a world-class band: Their unique synthesis of things art-rock, grunge, punk, and excessively nasal sounded quite refreshing back then. And had this record—originally released in 1998 as the follow-up to the hugely successful Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness—been released in this zestfully overblown, 6-CD configuration, it’s likely many minds would have been blown. But no–Adore was dug by critics, but despite its high initial charting (No. 2), it soon fell off the charts, the band starting unraveling, and what once seemed like an unstoppable dynamic powerhouse—that would be the Pumpkins—gradually but very visibly unwound. But that was long ago, and now the arty ramblings of Billy Corgan, in all their excess, don’t sound anywhere near as unlistenable or screechy as you might expect. The Smashing Pumpkins seem like an art-rock band whose albums can be proudly filed next to box sets by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes, an entire decade now seems like a bad dream, and all’s right with the world.
Status Quo: The Frantic Four’s Final Fling (earMUSIC/Eagle Rock Entertainment) There is something sweet and appropriate about holding in hand a vinyl pressing—2 LPs’ worth—containing the final live appearance of legendary Brit rockers Status (and that’s pronounced “state-us”) Quo. Together since the ‘60s, transforming from a quasi-psychedelic band with “Pictures Of Matchstick Men” into an astoundingly popular boogie-rock band in the ‘70s, the band continued indefinitely, with only minor personnel changes. This disc captures what many consider to be the “ultimate Quo lineup”—Francis Rossi, Rick Parfitt, Alan Lancaster, and John Coghlan—reunited and performing at their apparent last gig ever, at Dublin’s O2 Arena this April. For those who grew up with the band, likely a momentous event; for those of us Stateside who watched their international popularity in wonderment, it is no less charming for its sentiment.