Imagine Dragons: Smoke + Mirrors (KIDinaKORNER /Interscope) While they are not the most staggeringly inventive rock ‘n’ roll band in history, Las Vegas’s favorite sons 1) do indeed play rock ‘n’ roll and2) sell records, too. This is not a small thing, as that genre appears to be commercially weaker than ever, and I can’t name a band member here for the life of me. Which means that it is the band’s music, and not their faces, or personalities, that resonates with the mass audiences. And this is good. Were it not for two absurdly high-profile TV stunts—their recent Target-sponsored commercial “gig” during the Grammys, and last year’s non-spontaneous “mash-up” with Kendrick Lamar—these guys would be perceived as up-and-comers who are getting more sophisticated by the minute; now, they are “the man,” commercially speaking, and must pay those dues, though they’ve done no wrong. This is a pretty solid, surprisingly diverse sounding rock album—not a tuneless screech-fest by any means—and a record the band should be proud of. I would imagine anyone who now scoffs at Imagine Dragons would not realize this music was actually theirs, were they to hear it—which signifies a critical triumph worth pondering. This could have been a shambles, and it’s anything but.
José González: Vestiges & Claws (Mute) Very hard to believe it’s been a full seven years since the last solo album from Swedish singer-songwriter González—but since the man never really went away, between his work with Junip and other collaborations, consider this a further reaffirmation of the man as a solo artist. And this album is wonderful. Occupying that peculiar nether region between Nick Drake, Ben Watt and Milton Nascimento but sounding entirely his own man—yeah, that old, familiar place—González specializes in warm, personal music and lyrics likely to resonate among deeply sensitive humans who favor minor keys. Hey, that’s me! A beautiful, well-crafted album, Vestiges & Claws seems a further reaffirmation of José González, solo artist--and will likely find a small but intensely appreciative audience. Which in 2015 is something to strive for.
Elle King: Love Stuff (RCA) It’s taken a while for this album to arrive—and this I know because we captured a great performance of King singing “Ain’t Gonna Drown” at South By Southwest two years ago and were asked to “hold it” a few weeks until the debut album featuring it emerged. Well, er, two years later, this is it. Back then the young singer/guitarist was a gutsy, bluesy vocalist who evoked an odd combination of Etta James, Amy Winehouse & maybe Bonnie Raitt, and here, officially, she still is. That it took so long, and that she is bolstered with a top-level batch of production collaborators including Jeff Bhasker, Mark Ronson, Jacknife Lee, and Eg White, means that somebody way high up in the food chain really believes in her commercial viability—not an especially wacky notion—and is doing whatever is possible to ensure it. Luckily, she’s good, she’s fun, she evokes eras long past but still sounds modern, and, best of all, seems wholly genuine and not an artificial construct. Good for Elle King.
Estelle: True Romance (Established 1980 Inc.) Appealing from the get-go in the mid-2000’s due to her perfect merging of R&B and rhythmic British pop, singer Estelle has consistently released top-notch, ultra-intelligent material that oozes atmosphere. With a backpack filled with impressive friends and business acquaintances—Kanye West, John Legend, David Guetta, Robin Thicke—her own personal accomplishments might at times be overlooked, but as this very strong new album, her fourth, makes abundantly clear: Estelle has the goods completely on her own. She’s a Grammy winner, she’s got a role on the Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, and on tracks like “Make Her Say (Beat It Up)” and “Time Share (Suite 509)” here, she’s pretty much setting up her own rules and following them. Subtle, but consistently excellent stuff.
Carl Barât and The Jackals: Let It Reign (Grand Jury) From a career standpoint, being part of a semi-legendary band that royally rocked but spiraled conspicuously downward due to sex/drugs/rock’n’roll/excessive coffee might be good for a starting point--but for the talented Mr. Barât, once part of England’s Libertines, it might not be the best way to pursue a solo career. That the man’s new band emerges scant months before the upcoming Libertines “reunion” album is due—or so it is said—might therefore take the wind out of perceiving Let It Reign as the beginning of a long and fruitful Carl Barât and The Jackals recorded catalog. Amid the occasionally dopey plodding, which at times recalls pre-Casbah Joe Strummer at his most bellicose, there’s that same palsy-walsy sense of drunken rocking that made the Libertines so appealing—but without Barât’s former squabbling partner Pete Doherty, the tension necessary to make it all work simply isn’t in evidence. Fans will be thrilled, those less interested will, as always, wonder what the deal is with that thing on top of the “â.”
Kate Pierson: Guitars And Microphones (Lazy Meadow Music) Anyone who lived life during a certain time frame and loved music all the while can’t help but feel some warmth for Kate Pierson--the colorful vocalist who with Cindy Wilson took the B-52’s to extraordinary vocal heights in their day until the band’s Fred Schneider gleefully brought them plummeting downward. Who could not like this woman, this voice, this hairstyle? And while there is much to like on this album—production by Ima Robot’s Tim Anderson, songwriting collaboration from executive producer Sia—without the outsized pulsating dance rhythms that made the early days of “Rock Lobster” and “Give Me Back My Man” so memorable, Pierson here seems more like a theatre singer, a cast member, and whatever irony there may have once been in her work—who knows, maybe there never was any—is barely in evidence. Sometimes a lyrical nostalgia-fest (the title track), sometimes an exercise in audience cultivation (“Mister Sister”), Guitars And Microphones means well and evokes something. But not unbridled joy. And maybe it was supposed to.
The Amazing: Picture You (Partisan) Amason: Sky City (Fairfax) It would be the height of Ugly American-ness to review these distinguished groups and their fab new albums together merely because 1) Both bands are Swedish, 2) Both have names that are, let’s face it, not exactly phonetically dissimilar, and 3) Each features a different member of the ultra-groovy Dungen. But if the names Miike Snow, Little Marjorette, Granada and Hajen mean anything to you—and at least one of them ought to—and you like pop music that combines pop hooks, psychedelia (Amazing) and the occasional whiff of mid-‘70s Fleetwood Mac (Amason), you should really like both of these. Refreshing, non-formulaic stuff that touches all the right places, then vibrates.
A Place To Bury Strangers: Transfixiation (Dead Oceans) Must pay my respect here to upbeat noise-rockers A Place to Bury Strangers, the New York combo who have crafted their finest album yet with this, their fourth, and absolutely have peaked with its stunning closing track, “I Will Die”--which with its static, random clipping and occasional inaudibility, precisely evokes the peculiar sounds one might hear on an AM radio driving cross-country in the mid-‘70s if one were having a nervous breakdown and questioned one’s one existence. Kudos, dudes!