Albums of the week | New records from Bobby Womack, Hot Chip, Usher and more
Bobby Womack The Bravest Man in the Universe
Too many comeback albums look backwards. This stunning and welcome return does Bobby Womack the credit of pointing him forward. It proves that our grizzled icons are not just here for nostalgia. There's a depth of soul on this record that takes decades to accumulate, yet it's set in refreshingly alien grooves. Damon Albarn and Richard Russell have crafted a new sort of acoustic-synthetic funk that is a little bit futuristic, a touch low-tech. Albarn's battered piano twinkles under drum-machine patterns; some of it, like Gorillaz, comes off as hip-hop made by by jerry-rigged robots in some tin shack in Togo. The one-two punch of heartbreak and joy in "If There Wasn't Something There" and "Love Is Gonna Lift You Up" is a good example of this. But the focus is squarely on Womack, on both his wise and weathered voice and his fascinating and unconventional guitar playing. "Deep River" needs nothing more than those two ingredients to put goosebumps on your heart and send shivers down your guts. I love this record.
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs Trouble
Next time T.E.E.D. releases an album, his people should take a glance at the album release calendar and make sure Hot Chip is nowhere to be seen. Hot Chip is bound to overshadow the similarly minded electro-pop of Orlando Higginbottom, the second best British celebrity name behind Benedict Cumberbatch. Which is a shame, because Higginbottom is crafting better hooks and squeezing more colorful sounds from his synths than the long-in-the-tooth Hot Chip. Higginbottom cares less about R&B, and a faint trace from his time in the Congo has rubbed off on his rhythms (see: "Panpipes"). With a melancholy voice sighing over bouyant beats, the classically trained youngster induces a woozy effect on wonderful singles like "Trouble" and "Tapes and Money," while "Household Goods" elevates fist-pumping to high art. A bit overlong, but filled with dozens of lively moments.
Hot Chip In Our Heads
What's gotten into these kooky dweebs' heads? Primarily, the notion that they are R&B loverboys. The British band's fifth platter is bigger, smoother and more expensive. Of course, that rarely means better. The professional moves have ironed out most of Hot Chip's distinctive quirks, save for a couple tracks, like the frantic "Night and Day." Early on, they were singing about macaroni and cheese, using extended pro wrestling metaphors for sex, and threatening to bust your head over complex and detailed beats that sounded as if they had been designed by Sarah Sze. Now, "Always Been Your Love" and "Look At Where We Are" could pass for Robin Thicke tunes, if they were sung by a weird little British dude. There are enough flourishes—cartoon voices, guitar solos, steel drum bursts—to keep it from being banal, but for the first time you see every move coming from a mile away. "Flutes" and "Don't Deny Your Heart" will perk up clubs, sure, but listen to them back to back with "And I Was a Boy From School" and tell me Hot Chip shouldn't being looking at their bedrooms as studios instead of sex dens.
Spaceghostpurrp Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of Spaceghostpurrp
The notion of 4AD releasing a rap record is hard to wrap your head around, but Spaceghostpurrp's menacing and mythological debut fits surprisingly well into the aesthetics of the legendary goth and shoegaze label. "My shelf is filled with dollar bills and pills," Muney Jordan slurs, waist-deep in molasses sythesizers. Sure enough, the mood is pleasantly low-budget and high. An eerie lethargie hangs over all these trance-hop tracks. I prefer when Jordan pretends he's Amun-Ra over the bits where he acts like Omar Little. Purrp's not as outer-spacey as Kool Keith, nor as connected to the Mothership as Digital Underground, as his album title might suggest. This cosmic, downbeat album occupies its own planet in the genre, spinning far out in a system that includes Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction.
Usher Looking 4 Myself
Around the time of Confessions, how insane would it have been to suggest that Usher should work with the dude from the Sleepy Jackson? Nothing really encapsulates the sea change that has occured in pop music over the last few years better than the title track to Usher's seventh, produced by Luke Steele. The Australian electro-popper crafts a slick Foster-the-MGMT groove for Usher to skate over. The results are not far off from Hall & Oates. The title suggests that the superstar is seeking a sound, and the jumble of club beatz and slow-jams double the feeling that our pop A-listers aren't entirely sure how much of this EDM trend to chase. Of course, we all know the answer to this. It's obvious when you listen to a well-oiled love song like "What Happened to U" before an appropriately titled fist-pumper like "Numb." Usher should sing R&B. Duh. Yet the best moments come when he finds a middle ground between the two sounds, as on "Climax" and "Twisted," which show what good can come from treating electronic music as an influence and not a template.
The Hive Dwellers Hewn from the Wilderness
When did indie rock stop paying attention to K Records? The Olympia label has been undergoing a renaissance of late, with wonderful records by Lake as well as welcome returns from two underground icons, Ian Svenonius and Calvin Johnson. Svenonius has made two Chain & The Gang records over the last year that rank up there with the best of his pinko garage soul. Now Johnson picks up where Beat Happening, the Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic left off with the Hive Dwellers. The 49-year-old still sings like a cross of an old-time crooner, a cowboy and an entertainer at a toddler's birthday party, while the bare-bones rock & roll behind him imagines Buddy Holly in Black Ark Studios. It scratched an itch I forgot I had.