LISTEN UP! - Harry Styles, Blondie, Diana Krall, Elf Power, and Niia
Blondie releases their 11th studio album, a modern take on their classic vintage sound. The Athens, Georgia indie rock band Elf Power releases their 13th album, 14 kooky tunes with nutty lyrics that will make you laugh and think. Chanteuse Diana Krall releases her 13th studio album, a loose collection of standards with a jazz bent. Harry Styles releases his self-titled debut album, and American singer/songwriter Niia Bertino releases her debut album, "I," a mix of trip-hop and R&B.
Blondie releases their 11th studio album, a modern take on their classic vintage sound. And the team of Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke, Matt Katz-Bohen, Leigh Foxx and Tommy Kessler have never sounded better. The 11 tracks were recorded in NYC's famed The Magic Shop, where David Bowie recorded his last two albums. The band enlisted a lot of collaborators for this album, including Sia, Charli XCX, David Sitek, Nick Valensi, Johnny Marr, Joan Jett and Laurie Anderson, in a hidden track. "Long Time" is a deliberate echo of their huge hit "Heart of Glass," with intense drums, '80s synthesizer, funky guitar riffs and a thumping bass. With a flourish of drums, they kick things off with "Doom or Destiny," rocking as hard as they ever did with help from the always excellent Joan Jett. Dev Hynes help out on "Long Time," with Harry singing, "take me, then lose me, then tell them I'm yours." Excellent echo effects amplify Harry's voice in "Already Naked." Erik Hassle and Dave Sitek lend a hand for the bouncy single "Fun," which is among the album's best, with Eritrean-Swedish singer Adiam Feireiss' coy lyrics, "you're smiling at me/not with your eyes." The middle of the album is a bit plodding, as they make their way through the Johnny Marr song "My Monster" warning, "Don't jump, get lost, in your hollow darkness/ your ghost, my god, there goes my monster." It's followed by Sia's "Best Day Ever," and the Charli XCX cover "Gravity," a punk-pop confection with lyrics like "I drank your cherry cola, I let you win me over/ You're nicer when you're sober, please just tell me what makes the world go 'round?" The Gregory Brothers lend a hand on the slow, saccharine cut "When I Gave Up on You" and John Roberts is featured in "Love Level," with its excellent horns and herky-jerky rhythm and innovative elements. She's been locked inside "my room of gloom" in the moody, '90s-esque "Too Much," and they end the album with the dark, serious An Unkindess cover song, "Fragments," with Harry advising you, "if you want a new life, just take it. And if you wanna change the world, then speak real clear and make sure someone's listening." Blondie and her crew changed the world back in the '80s, and it looks like they're not done yet. Artist Shepard Fairey designed the CD cover artwork; get yours now. Blondie kicks off their North American tour with Garbage on July 5.
"Twitching in Time" (Elf Power)
The Athens, Georgia indie rock band Elf Power releases their 13th album, 14 kooky tunes with nutty lyrics that will make you laugh and think. The group, all of whom sing, is made up of Andrew Rieger on guitar, Laura Carter on keyboard, Mathew Garrison on bass, Peter Alvanos on drums, and Davey Wrathgabar on guitar. (Full disclosure: this writer attended graduate school with Wrathgabar). They start with the introspective and slightly creepy "Halloween Out Walking," finding them "with the vampires in the rain." They're sitting in a car waiting for the light, with everybody looking for "Ten Dollars on the Ground" singing about being "left to wait for answers, then burned away like trash." An excellent piano opening marks the soporific "Watery Shreds." And there's a childlike glee to the scales in a song about someone remaining hidden like "The Cat Trapped in the Wall" as they sing how "someone tried to erase the trace of where they came out of." Elf Power gets upbeat as they sing about the perils of "Sniper in the Balcony" and how "all the actions are entwined, impossible to separate when all things are combined." The sentiment flows into "All Things Combined," one of the most cohesive cuts on the album. The instrumentation is excellent in "In a Room" and they slow things down in "Too Many Things in My Hands," singing candidly, "I can see you out there in the backyard, dissolving like the dog shit in the rain." They harmonize through "Cycling Aimlessly" and their sing-song pattern mesmerizes in "Cold Vines." "Clouded up the daytime and then swallowed in the night... trying to find your way around there in the dark," they sing in the title song "Twitching in Time." In "Melted Down" they churn about being "Lost in space you once controlled, swallowed under holy seas, always here submerged with me." They're left on the side of the road, another victim of the machinery, in "Withered Husk," with its excellent guitar break, and end the album with the louche track "Gorging on the Feast." Elf Power hits the road this May with Robin Sprout, playing assorted dates throughout the South before headlining in Brooklyn on May 27.
"Turn Up the Quiet" (Diana Krall)
Chanteuse Diana Krall releases her 13th studio album, a loose collection of standards, with a jazz bent. (Krall's also got an impressive passel of live albums, EPs, singles and promos.) She said she came up with about 40 possible tunes, and chose 11 from the list for her first album since 2015's "Wallflower." The trio of Krall, bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Russell Malone weave through classics like "Blue Skies," while the five-time Grammy winner tapped Tony Garnier, Karriem Riggins and Stuart Duncan for "I'll See You in My Dreams." "I wanted to create three different ensembles: a quartet, a trio and a band that Tommy and I had recorded with before. We just wanted to see what would happen. The only concept was not to have a concept," Krall told Billboard. Her deep voice pairs well with stand-up bass in "Like Someone in Love," written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke for Ella Fitzgerald. She slides slowly into the spare arrangement for the Richard Rodgers/ Lorenz Hart classic, "Isn't It Romantic," and bounces into Nat King Cole's "L-O-V-E," singing, "L is for the way you look at me." She does it even better than Michael Buble. Her cover of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" is stunning, and she admits that a lot of it was improvised on the spot. She follows in the big footsteps of Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, and even Doris Day with her jaunty cover of "I'm Confessin' That I Love You," and slyly seduces with Benny Goodman's "Moonglow," singing, "It must have been moonglow, that lead me straight to you." She makes Irving Berlin's upbeat "Blue Skies" her own with funky bass stylings and percussion syncopation, studded with excellent piano and guitar interludes. Her eyes will see only you and your 'magic technique' in her super-slow version of Dean Martin's "Sway," and an excellent string composition lends a slow throb to "No Moon At All," another favorite of Doris Day. She sets the mood of an old Elks Lodge dance with her cover of Johnny Mercer's "Dream," and ends a very elegant album with the regret-laden tune "I'll See You In My Dreams," also popularized by Ella Fitzgerald. Krall kicks off a huge world tour for the album on June 2 in Minneapolis. Catch her when she rolls through your town.
American singer/songwriter Niia Bertino releases her debut album, "I," a mix of trip-hop and R&B. She collaborates with producer Robin Hannibal, who she worked with on her very first single, the haunting soul ballad "Made for You." Niia was trained in classical piano from her Italian mother, whose own mother was an opera singer. You could say it's the family business. Other family members have trained at Juilliard School, and she attended Berklee College of Music, then the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. But it wasn't long before she met Wyclef Jean and released a 2007 single, "Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)," which made it on the Billboard Hot 100. Now she's got 12 tracks on display, dealing in equal measures with love and the angst of loving. Niia's placid soul sounds like a mix of Sade and Mary J. Blige, part fine soprano and part melodic crooning. She grinds things into gear with her "Prelude," then moves on to "Hurt You First," a song that has Niia looking to sink in the first knife on a man that's just too perfect, saying, "Is there a secret that you're hiding, my Prince Charming?" She employs some jazz scatting in "Sideline," which is remixed at the end as a bonus track. The suspenseful edge makes it sound like the perfect soundtrack for a David Mamet film, as she says, "I told you all the passwords," bemoaning that, "I have you, but I don't really have you." The twangy, breathy opening of "Nobody" cedes to a catchy repetitive sound, with a slight disco vibe over the chorus, "nobody takes me higher." This track and the next, "Last Night in Los Feliz," are easily the album's best cuts. The percussion pops and cracks as she sings this sad, slow ballad about green, green eyes for a blue night. The sultry, spare instrumentation devolves at the end to a regret-laden strings outro. Her catchy mid-tempo song "Girl Like Me," has her promising to "be your heaven and your hell." The R&B cut "Day and Night" has an underlying island beat as Niia sings about being, "so lonely, I wish you'd hold me." In "Constantly Dissatisfied," she wonders, "Do I give up too easy or do I hold on too long?" She goes deep into her regrets in "California," which is basically a litany of how she can't measure up, saying, "every time you need me I fall apart... every time you trust me, I let you down." Her last two tracks are spare piano ballads that have her asking you, "don't give me a little love, I want it all/ I don't want just enough, I need it all," in "All I Need." "Mulholland Drive" is an instrumental track. The album does a great job at showing Niia's skill as a performer; now it's time for her to spread her wings and take some chances.
"Harry Styles" (Harry Styles)
English singer/songwriter and boy-band heartthrob Harry Styles says goodbye to One Direction and heads in his own direction with his new self-titled debut album. He's the second band member to strike out, following Zayn Malik's departure a year ago. Styles' 10-song album was produced with help from Jeff Bhasker, Alex Salibian, and Tyler Johnson, and he appears to have helped write many of the album's tracks. He kicks off the album with the psychedelic guitar track, "Meet Me in the Hallway," with its funky refrain. It's about as far as he can get from the pop legacy he created, and it goes far toward establishing the album as a thing of substance rather than just so much fluff. "Just stop your crying, it's a sign of the times, welcome to the final show, hope you're wearing your best clothes," sings Styles over slow piano opening of "Sign of the Times," with its super-high refrain challenging the higher register of his singing abilities. The funky break is reminiscent of an old David Bowie track. He goes for a rollicking sound in "Carolina," singing about a good country girl who's living on the West Coast, but the addition of a chorus of singing, screaming girls makes it feel more like an early Beatles song than a rockabilly cut. Fans suspect that his track "Two Ghosts" compares his ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift and new girlfriend food blogger Tess Ward, especially the lyrics, "same lips red, same eyes blue, same white shirt, couple more tattoos but it's not you and it's not me." That seems unlikely, but the soulful strains of electric guitar make it a highly listenable cut. His "Sweet Creature" is a folksy guitar ballad that lets Styles show off his sweet boy-band pipes as he sings about "two hearts, one home." A choir of heavenly voices opens "Only Angel," with piano distortion and echoed vocal samples quickly ceding to Styles "whoo-hoos" as it turns into a hard rocking anthem with lyrics like, "Turns out she's a devil in between the sheets, and there's nothing she can do about it." He rocks out with yearning in his voice in the gritty pop tune "Kiwi," concluding, "maybe this time we're broken, 'cause I don't know where to go from here." Styles sang his single, "Ever Since New York" on a recent episode of "Saturday Night Live," and it's an excellent, moody guitar cut with the chorus, "Oh, tell me something I don't already know." His cut "Woman" has a spoken word intro, "Should we just search romantic comedies on Netflix and see what we can find?" The snare-driven track may be dealing with the "Netflix and chill" world, but the instrumentation is very much out of the early '90s. Styles ends the album with "From the Dining Table," a moody acoustic guitar song about waking up alone in a hotel room. Styles kicks off a 25-show tour in late September at Radio City Music Hall, hitting venues across the U.S. and Canada.