I don’t know how to explain it, but somehow Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift has become my favorite thing of the week.
As I’m sure you all know, Adams decided – because this is often the kind of thing he decides – to cover Swift’s entire 1989 album in his own style. I’m writing these words before the album comes out, but it will be available by the time you read them. The above-linked track, a delightful acoustic-rock version of “Bad Blood,” is all I have to go on. But I think Adams found the heart of this song, and gently coaxed it out. If the rest of this weird little detour is as well-considered as this tune, I’ll be happy. Meanwhile, I’ll just play “Bad Blood” again. And again.
UPDATE: I’ve heard it all now, and it’s pretty great. More next week.
Adams has had a lot of competition for my attention this week – I bought 11 new records on Friday, and I’m expecting to buy 12 more next Friday. The first two weeks of October should bring about the same. There’s no way I can listen to and review everything coming out over the next month, so I’m going to pick as many as I can and write as few words as possible to cram as many reviews together as I can. As I’m sure even the most casual of readers has realized by now, brevity is not my strong suit. So we’ll see how this goes.
The connecting thread this week? All five of my subjects have been around for a pretty long time, doing what they do. Let’s see how that’s worked out for them.
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I’ve been worrying about the new Slayer album.
Not in the same way that I worry about my cholesterol, or about my mortgage payment, or anything like that. But worry just the same. Slayer is justly revered among metal fans for being one of the Big Four from the ‘80s (along with Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax), and for influencing pretty much every speed metal band that came after them. Their catalog is one of the most consistent in metal, for good or ill – you know what you’re going to get with Slayer.
To expand on that: Slayer has always been the most rock-steady of the Big Four. Where Metallica and Megadeth slowed down and went commercial and Anthrax tried to fit in with the alt-rock of the ‘90s, Slayer remained Slayer. No collaborations with Lou Reed for them. No banjos, no Dann Huff behind the boards, no dalliances with rap. This means that one album sounds like another, by and large, and the upswings in quality come when the band commit to that high-speed rage-fueled steamroller thing they do. That’s why there are only a few essential Slayer albums – the mediocre ones are simply lesser versions of the good ones.
Recently, Slayer seemed to be on one of those upswings – they welcomed original drummer Dave Lombardo back to the fold for 2006’s Christ Illusion, a powerhouse explosion of beats and riffs that never let up for 38 minutes. 2009’s World Painted Blood was just as good, if a little less heavy on the accelerator. But then two things happened that seemed to derail the Slayer train: Lombardo left the band again, and in May of 2013, founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman died after a long illness. Hanneman, as Slayer fans know, was a key member of their songwriting team, and his passing hit hard.
So now here is Repentless, the 12th Slayer album and the first one that finds the band picking up the pieces. Tom Araya and Kerry King are soldiering on, bringing back drummer Paul Bostaph (who played with the band from 1992 to 2001) and welcoming guitarist Gary Holt. But there’s no escaping the fact that this is half of Slayer trying to sound like a whole. It’s surprising how well they pull it off – the record is solid, if uninspiring, and doesn’t sully the band’s legacy. But it seems less than necessary.
Repentless sounds to me like a diminished retread of Slayer’s mid-‘90s albums – it sports some loud ragers like the admittedly awesome “Implode,” some slower epics like “When the Stillness Comes,” and a lot of mid-tempo stock-sounding metal like “Vices.” Everyone here gives their all, particularly Araya, who shouts like a man half his age. (He’s 54, if you needed a reason to feel old.) Araya’s lyrics are standard fare, raging against the evils of the world while calling out religion as a crutch people use to avoid personal responsibility. “Pride in Prejudice” seems particularly timely – it’s a screed against violent racists in power.
So yeah, it’s fine. But Hanneman’s touch is sorely missed in the songwriting – tunes like “Piano Wire” are completely anonymous, and the album stays on one note for longer than it should – and as good as Bostaph is, he doesn’t have the power of Lombardo. Repentless is a pretty good Slayer album, particularly considering the circumstances, but not an essential one, and if Araya and King decide to pack it in after this, I won’t be surprised.
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English art-pop merchants Duran Duran have been around longer than Slayer, but they show no signs of slowing down. Every few years since 1981, Duran Duran have released a new album, and almost every time, that new album is called a comeback. Truthfully, they never went away. Their new one, Paper Gods, is their 14th, and even though it now seems to take them four years to make something new, they remain worth hearing every time they do.
Paper Gods finds the band continuing their eternal quest to sound timely and relevant while maintaining their essential Duran Duran-ness. This has always been their story – they have changed with the times, working with hot producers and collaborating with young up-and-comers, but the best Duran Duran outings are the ones that respect their compelling, dramatic center, dressing it up but never dumbing it down.
Recently they’ve worked with producers like Timbaland, Nate “Danja” Hills and Mark Ronson. Paper Gods welcomes back Ronson, but is largely helmed by Mr. Hudson, a protégé of Kanye West. It features guest spots by Janelle Monae, Nile Rodgers (speaking of comebacks), Kiesza and Lindsay Lohan. (Really.) It is unabashedly a bid for airplay and hits, but it’s also a terrific Duran Duran album, perfectly balancing the goofy and melodramatic sides they’ve always shown. Simon Le Bon’s voice remains the band’s most recognizable element, despite the relentless auto-tuning here, but the big-sounding minor-key songwriting at which they’ve always excelled is here in spades.
Truth be told, 90 percent of my problems with this album would have been solved if they’d opened it with track four, “Pressure Off.” It’s the most nimble and catchy single here, sporting vocals by Monae and killer guitar by Rodgers. It’s their “Get Lucky,” basically, but it’s a splendid pop song, full of energy and verve. Instead of leading with “Pressure Off,” though, the band front-loaded this album with moody, slow crawlers, none moodier than the seven-minute title track that opens things. I’m not sure where else on the record I would put these three tracks – they’re the weakest, and slapping them up front sucks the vitality out of everything else.
If you start with “Pressure Off,” though, you’ll have a great Paper Gods experience. “Face For Today” follows energy with energy, and leads into the silly yet kind of wonderful “Danceophobia.” (Lohan appears here, diagnosing the title condition in a spoken monologue.) “What Are the Chances” could be a lost Depeche Mode track – it positively soars – while “Change the Skyline” harnesses that four-on-the-floor synth pulse. As is their wont, the band closes things with their most widescreen productions – “Only in Dreams” and the stunning “The Universe Alone” each top six minutes, but they earn the extra space.
Hell, even the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition outdo the first three songs. I’m not sure why they made such a blunder, but thankfully it isn’t a fatal one. Paper Gods is a fun, well-made record that updates the Duran Duran sound while studiously protecting it. Don’t call it a comeback, they’ve been here for years – nearly 40 of them, in fact, and they’re as good now as they’ve ever been.
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Speaking of long-running art-pop stars, there’s Prince.
Here’s a guy who doesn’t need to put out new music. His legacy is 100 percent assured – he will be remembered as one of the finest musicians ever, a visionary who leapt fully formed into the public consciousness and proceeded to define his own place in the firmament. Prince has never stood still, never rested on his laurels, always pushed his work forward. He’s made something like 50 albums – it’s hard to get an accurate count – and has reportedly finished and shelved at least that many in the nearly four decades since his debut. New Prince albums are still treated like events. The man is 57 years old and remains as productive as he was in his twenties, despite not needing the money for a long, long time. He doesn’t have to make new music, but I’m always glad when he does.
His new one, Hit n Run Phase One, is significant because it’s the first one in his vast catalog with a co-producer on board. Joshua Welton is a 25-year-old prodigy from my adopted hometown of Aurora, Illinois, and he’s responsible for most of the sounds on Hit n Run. I was very curious to hear this thing – what about Welton’s work inspired Prince to relinquish control over his sound for the first time? Now that I’ve heard it, it’s pretty clear – Prince and Welton work well together, and their collaborative sound is a meticulously updated take on Prince’s soul-pop template.
Last time Prince consciously tried to update that sound we got Diamonds and Pearls and the unpronounceable symbol album, and while Hit n Run isn’t as immediately successful as those records, it does sound a lot less forced, a lot more natural. Prince seems relaxed and comfortable here – he even cedes the spotlight on the first track, “Million $ Show,” to singer Judith Hill. Prince raps, and sings in that inimitable falsetto, and lays down tremendous bass grooves and searing guitar leads – just listen to the update of “This Could B Us,” a slow-burn powerhouse that first appeared in less interesting form on last year’s Art Official Age. Welton, meanwhile, surrounds Prince with some of the most interesting beats and sounds he’s enjoyed in a while.
My only problem with Hit n Run is that it glides right by quickly without really sinking its teeth in. The songs on Hit n Run are beat-based, meaning there aren’t a lot of melodic detours, and Prince doesn’t take things in the strange flight-of-fancy directions he’s known for. Very few of these songs have strong hooks – the best things here set a mood and build on it, like “Hardrocklover” and “1000 Xs and Os.” I’m sure a lot of this stems from Prince’s still-burgeoning artistic relationship with Welton, and if they make more records together – Hit n Run Phase Two, for instance – they’ll get more comfortable. As it is, this first phase of Hit n Run is slight, but enjoyable and intriguing. Looking forward to more.
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Even though Prince is 57, he still has that creative fire that marks his best work. He’s still hungry, still eager to try new things. Here’s hoping he doesn’t become like David Gilmour in a dozen years. At 69, the Pink Floyd guitarist and singer has collapsed into creative complacency – his fourth solo album, Rattle That Lock, is pretty much what you’d expect from him at this point. If you’re into what he does, you’ll like this fine.
Me, I was hoping for something less predictable. Rattle That Lock opens with nature sounds, ambient washes and guitar soloing, just like his last record, 2006’s On an Island, and just like that not-really-Pink-Floyd album from last year, The Endless River. It contains two quicker numbers, the title track and the almost danceable “Today,” and eight slow, easy, quiet pieces that threaten to build in intensity but never really do. (Only “In Any Tongue” makes headway in that area, matching its socially conscious lyrics to a wider sound.) Three of those are instrumentals, which are basically excuses for Gilmour to improvise on guitar.
But he doesn’t need an excuse – that dramatic guitar tone is everywhere here, on every song. Gilmour is a fine guitar player, but he’s played exactly the same way for decades, and we’ve heard everything he has to offer in that arena. My favorite moments of Rattle That Lock are the ones that explore new ground, however tentatively – the lush harmonies, courtesy of Crosby and Nash, on “A Boat Lies Waiting,” for instance, or the lilting jazz beat and cool string parts on “Dancing Right In Front of Me.”
However, the most offbeat moment here doesn’t work for me at all – the pseudo-jazz ballad “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” brings in Colin Stetson on sax and Jools Holland on piano, but still sounds like the work of a 69-year-old English guy who plays in an artsy prog band. (If you’re coming to David Gilmour for this kind of thing, there are many other and better places to get it.) Gilmour is more comfortable doing what he normally does, which he does on most of this record – slow songs, long solos. I knew what 80 percent of this would sound like before I heard a note of it. That’s unfortunate, but par for the course.
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I think some of Chris Cornell’s fans would be happier if he took a leaf out of David Gilmour’s book. For more than 25 years, Cornell has confounded people who want him to stay in one place and be one thing.
He spent 10 of those years leading Soundgarden as they moved from raucous psychedelic metal to tricky, thoughtful rock in weird time signatures. His solo debut, Euphoria Morning, was quieter and simpler, but just as he was establishing a new identity, he joined Audioslave and churned out blocky riff-rock for three records. His return to solo recording came complete with a bizarre, laughable cover of “Billie Jean,” and then he threw his biggest curve ball, Scream, a whole album of synth-driven pop produced by Timbaland. And then he reunited with Soundgarden.
There’s really no way to know what Cornell is up to until you hear it. True to form, his fourth solo album, Higher Truth, is unlike any of the others – it’s a folksy, acoustic-driven record of small, pretty songs, seemingly designed to re-establish two essential truths. First, Chris Cornell is a heck of a good songwriter – these tunes are lovely and memorable, as straightforward as he’s ever been and still compelling – and second, he has one of the best voices in rock. He hasn’t lost a note from his younger, throatier days. He sings these songs beautifully.
Higher Truth starts out strong, with three straight-up winners (including the single, “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart”), falls off a little in the middle – folksier songs like “Through the Window” are a little too standard for me – and ends just as strong. Finale “Our Time in the Universe” is a bit of an anomaly, with its trippy beat, loud chorus and swooping strings, but it sends the record off in style. It also serves as a reminder that this isn’t a rambling folk record – this is a considered stripping down, a pop record more intricate than it initially appears. Again, confounding.
I happen to like confounding as an artistic quality, though, and I’m probably one of very few people who have appreciated everything Chris Cornell has done. (I still love Scream. He may have disowned it, but I think it’s great.) Higher Truth is another left turn, but the results seem unimpeachable. It’s a really good little record from a guy who has been writing great songs and singing the hell out of them for a quarter century now. Given his track record, I’m on board for anything he wants to do next.
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Wow, lot of words. Expect about as many next week as le deluge continues. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.