Smaller and Smaller
Size Matters in Seven New Reviews

I’ve always written long.

As far back as creative writing classes in grade school, I was delivering far more than the assignment called for. My one-page short stories were routinely seven or eight pages. My favorite editor from my journalism days would constantly berate me for writing long. “Your story is 37 inches? Goddammit!” And now I write this column, which edges 3,000 words each week. It’s a disease, and I need help.

So I thought I’d try an experiment this week. I’m going to review seven albums, and I’m going to do it in the fewest words I can. This won’t be a forced exercise in brevity, like my annual Fifty Second Week columns, but an organic attempt to write shorter. You can already see what a challenge this will be – this intro is considerably longer than it needed to be. Let’s just press on and see how I do. I have some great records (and some not-so-great ones) to burn through this week, and I’m hoping this will help me catch up a little bit.

Sigh. Go!

* * * * *

Six months ago, Justin Timberlake gave us The 20/20 Experience, a truly surprising piece of work. A 70-minute slice of future-soul, the album fully plumbed the new depths that were only hinted at on FutureSex/LoveSounds seven years earlier. Timberlake and producer Timbaland tapped into a vein of inspiration that seemed to be bottomless.

Alas, the second 20/20 Experience volume, released this month, shows us exactly where that bottom is. Like most sequels, the second act is longer and emptier than the first, regressing Timberlake’s sound and removing a lot of the fascinating production choices and old-school soul that elevated its predecessor. There’s nothing here as smooth as “Strawberry Bubblegum” or “Spaceship Coupe,” nothing quite as joyous as “Let the Groove Get In,” and nothing as dark and moving as “Blue Ocean Floor.”

What is here? A bunch of sex rhymes with beats that range from not bad to tedious. Opener “Gimme What I Don’t Know I Want” strides in on a convincing funk groove, but second track “True Blood” outstays its club-happy welcome after its second minute. (It goes on for nine.) I enjoyed the Michael Jackson-ness of “Take Back the Night” and the dramatic “Amnesia,” but the lows are much lower – “Drink You Away” is an embarrassing attempt at blues-rock, “You Got It On” is as cheesy as anything N’Sync ever did, and “Only When I Walk Away” is a sad attempt to ape Mutemath’s sound.

Instead of leaving “Blue Ocean Floor” as the finale of his 2.5-hour project, Timberlake ends this second volume with the breezy, semi-catchy “Not a Bad Thing,” then obliterates all goodwill with the goopy hidden track “Pair of Wings.” I worried that this second 20/20 Experience would just be the b-sides from the first, and as it turns out, I was right. The first album is terrific. The second, not so much.

* * * * *

In 2010, Peter Gabriel released a stunning covers album called Scratch My Back. It was intended to come out simultaneously with an album of the covered artists returning the favor and tackling a Gabriel song, but for various reasons – not the least of which was a negative reaction to Gabriel’s covers – it never materialized.

Well, it took three years, but the companion album is finally here. It’s called And I’ll Scratch Yours, and it brings together 12 artists, each taking on a Gabriel classic. I’m a huge fan of the man’s work, so for me, hearing these reinventions was revelatory. Of the original dozen artists covered on Scratch My Back, only Radiohead and Neil Young declined to reciprocate. They’re replaced here by Joseph Arthur, who turns in a remarkable guitar-dirge take on “Shock the Monkey,” and Feist, who does a capable take on “Don’t Give Up.”

The Scratch My Back Ten, though, mostly knock it out of the park. Many of them are so honored to participate, and you can hear it in their tracks. Bon Iver’s absolutely wonderful version of “Come Talk to Me” finds a home here, as does Elbow’s magical “Mercy Street.” David Byrne brings his nervous, kinetic energy to “I Don’t Remember,” Randy Newman just owns “Big Time,” and Arcade Fire work their magic on “Games Without Frontiers.” Only Lou Reed, who ruins “Solsbury Hill,” truly disappoints, but the record ends with Paul Simon’s lovely, sympathetic read of “Biko,” and it’s perfect.

Essentially, Gabriel has compiled a tribute album to himself here, a questionable practice at best. But the results are mostly fantastic, and worth the risk. If you’re a Gabriel fan, you’ll hear these songs in a completely new light.

* * * * *

It’s been 17 years since Mazzy Star released a new album. But if you’d told me that Hope Sandoval and David Roback recorded their new Seasons of Your Day in 1997 and just held on to it for all this time, I would believe you.

Seasons is the fourth Mazzy album, and virtually nothing has changed. The band still delivers slow, woozy folk-pop, with Sandoval’s gorgeous, laconic voice floating over it. This album gives us less of the sinister psychedelic side of the band, but we get everything else – the organ-drenched swoon of opener “In the Kingdom,” the melancholy acoustics of “California” and the title track (and a bunch of others), the spectral pop of “Lay Myself Down,” the bluesy crash of finale “Flying Low.”

Along the way, we get some of the prettiest music the two have created. It’s all slow and simple, but if you ever liked Mazzy Star, well, here’s another one. I have no idea what about this record took 17 years, but it’s quite good.

* * * * *

There’s a song on this new Jars of Clay album called “Love in Hard Times.” I first heard it when it was offered as an extra with the band’s live EP, Under the Weather, and I probably listened to it 25 times that evening. It’s a moving, wonderful thing – over a web of reverbed guitars, Dan Haseltine sings of lovely reconciliation. “It’s when I think to reach across those battle lines, and love in the hard times…” There are shades of U2 to this song, but it stays quiet and subtle for its entire running time, and it just sweeps me along. I love it.

It’s also the best song on Jars’ new record, Inland. I had high hopes for this album, but while about half of it is memorable, polished guitar-pop, the other half just lies there and does nothing. I quite like “Loneliness and Alcohol,” the most upbeat and rocking Jars tune since Good Monsters, and “Fall Asleep,” a hushed piano piece, is also quite nice. “I Don’t Want You to Forget” has a lovely melancholy to it.

But listening to the rest of this album, I find myself wishing it were as good as the band thinks it is. I don’t hate anything here, but quite a lot of it – “Skin and Bones,” for instance, and “Human Race,” and the title song – just slips by without comment. The band has called this the album it took them 20 years to make. I would like to hear that. This sounds like just another Jars record to me.

* * * * *

Only William James McAuley, also known as Bleu, would risk ire by naming his first crowdfunded album To Hell With You, and then turn the title track into a song of undying devotion. It’s exactly those kind of quirks that have kept him a vital and fascinating artist for 15 years and counting. He inspires fan devotion – he raised $39,645 to make and distribute To Hell With You – because he always keeps you on your toes.

This album, his fifth, is no exception. It finds him embracing electronic music and wrapping it around his warped pop sensibility, to dazzling effect. Once you’re past the overture, the first four songs here are probably his finest opening salvo, inspiring dancing and smirking in equal measure. “In My Own Little World” is a fabulous ode to sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting life away, while “Merry Go Round” is as delightful a pop tune as the man has ever written.

From there, the record gets weirder, but no less enjoyable. “I Have to Have You” is a creepy crawl; “It’s Not Over (Til It’s Over and Done),” co-written with David Mead, is a slice of ‘50s pop; “Grasping at Straws” a true guitar-fueled epic; and “Endwell” and “Odd Future” experiments in hip-hop. I won’t tell you it all works, but enough of it does that this record comes out on top. Closer “Won’t Make It Out Alive” sums up the record’s dark tone with lilting acoustics, capping it perfectly.

It’s hard to say To Hell With You is a curveball, since Bleu’s whole career has been made up of sharp left turns. As experimental works go, this one’s pretty fantastic, though. Bleu’s a master craftsman, and here he shapes his drum machines and synths into something that remains quintessentially him. Check it out here.

* * * * *

Speaking of master craftsmen, there’s Aaron Sprinkle.

Formerly of Poor Old Lu and Fair, Sprinkle’s name has appeared on a million production credits, but it’s been 12 years since he’s made a solo album. He’s back with Water and Guns, and like Bleu, he’s gone electronic – this album is glossy, layered, intricate and synth-heavy, a one-man-band labor of love. Sprinkle’s got a great voice and a way with a hook, and this album showcases both in brand new ways.

Fans of his earlier acoustic-based material may be put off by the wall of sound that comes at them at the start of opener “Heatstroke.” But by the time Sprinkle gets to the chorus, it all makes sense. “Whisper Something” is one of the year’s coolest songs – its kinetic piano chorus makes me grin like an idiot. “River of Lead” has a killer chorus, and an even more killer post-chorus refrain. Sprinkle’s voice proves a surprisingly fine fit for the synth-balladry of “Giving Up the Gun,” and “I’ve Missed You” provides a late-album jolt of energy.

Bottom line, Aaron Sprinkle is a terrific songwriter, no matter the musical pond he’s swimming in, and Water and Guns proves it. It’s unlike anything he’s done, but amid the swirling synths, electronic drums and pounding pianos, his skill with a melody shines through.

* * * * *

I’m probably going to spend the least amount of time on Gungor, since I owe this one a full review at some point. I Am Mountain, the third studio album by the collective led by Michael and Lisa Gungor, moves them away from their liturgical roots and into a far more interesting realm. It’s an album full of doubt, pain and magic, and just as the lyrical concerns have widened, the musical range has exploded.

Imagine a mix of Sufjan Stevens, the Black Keys, Moby, synth-funk and centuries-old spirituals, and you have the idea. And you’ll understand why I just can’t review this one in 100 words. I write long, what can I tell you? More to come. But this album is highly, highly recommended.

* * * * *

Next week, classic rock with Paul McCartney and Pearl Jam. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Facebook at, and Twitter at

See you in line Tuesday morning.