Michael Ashton

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Album Review: “The Original Jill Scott from the Vault, Vol. 1″ by Jill Scott

In Reviews on December 15, 2012 at 11:46 pm

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Typically, a compilation release of unreleased material features unremarkable outtakes and half-finished demos with varied quality compared to that of an official studio record. The opposite proves to be true with The Original Jill Scott from the Vault, Vol. 1 by Jill Scott, the first (of hopefully, several) contractual fulfillment albums following her quiet departure from Hidden Beach Recordings and subsequent signing to Warner Bros. Records. Impressively, the tracks are unfailing and on par with every release in her revered catalog, likely due to her involvement in the song selection process. Unlike her uneven 2011 release The Light of the Sun which featured some formless and even half-baked compositions, The Original Jill Scott… is consistent, with some of the material being recorded as far back as the conception of her first album.

After a brief introduction, Jill flirts coyly on the bombastic and shuffling “I Don’t Know (Gotta Have You)” produced by Carvin & Ivan. In contrast, “Wondering Why (You Don’t Talk to Me)” finds Jill cooing with distress from miscommunication amid a mid-tempo track, complete with a gooey live bass line and background vocals by Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men for some additional color. The funky bounce of “The Light” (produced by Dre & Vidal, who also supply a “piano mix” of the track) and the Southern soul of “Wake Up Baby” both play off of Jill’s impeccable strengths as a versatile lyricist,while the breezy “I’m Prettier” and “Comes to the Light (Everything)” highlight her multi-textured vocals.

Two of the most exciting inclusions are found with “Running Away (Suite)”, a twelve-minute, seemingly free-styled studio jam is complete with adlibs, giggles and hollers from Jill and members of her band, all of whom perform to pleasurable perfection. The other, “Holding On”, is a slow burning torch masterpiece in which Jill mournfully envelops her voice around each instrument as she reminisces about her lover during the wee hours of an early morning.

The Original Jill Scott from the Vault, Vol. 1 may not get the attention it properly deserves from audiences but those who have followed Jill will have their perception of her musicianship and perfectionism enhanced by each of this compilation’s songs and their varying moods.

Album Review: “Biophilia” by Björk

In Reviews on December 15, 2012 at 11:41 pm

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Björk has always been an eagerly forward-thinking artist, consistently challenging the conventional definition of “pop” music. Each of her iconic musical moments since the mid-90s has contained a specific sonic identity.  Microbeats and music boxes, vocal babbles and manipulations, 1950s Sci-Fi brass accompaniments – her mission statement to explore everything possible manifests itself to be more and more high-concept on every album in her catalog. Partially recorded on an iPad, she fuses her past sounds with new flavors and discovers the human’s relationship with the universe on 2011’s ambitious Biophilia. Interestingly, this isn’t just an album – it is a multimedia exploration album in collaboration with Apple, with each of the ten tracks featured as its own singular app designed specifically for Apple operating systems.

Björk embraces her love for nature and technology, connecting her compositions to a much larger scale as the songs reaching high extremes and low subtleties. Biophilia explores sounds and instruments, such as the  “tesla coil” featured as a bassline on the mesmerizingly brooding “Thunderbolt”, the creation of “gameleste” on “Crystalline” and a pendulum harp on “Solstice”, compiled to create patterns with the Earth’s movements to evoke the sound of a harp on a handful of other tracks.

On “Crystalline”, the album’s first single, Björk revels in the “sparkle you become when you conquer anxiety” against a wall of punchy synthetics and glassy rhythms before erupting into a frenetic Aphex Twin-like breakbeat. The centerpiece “Cosmogony” finds Björk quietly contemplating creation over a slow-building brass section and harmonious choir. The gargantuan “Mutual Core”, a metaphor for attachments in human relationships, pairs her unique vocal phrasing to a somber organ before rumbling, menacing beats (courtesy of British production group, 16bit) and swooping choir vocals erupt together.

Some Björk’s past few albums have included experimental songs that may be perceived as unlistenable or too peculiar. Biophilia continues this trend, thus bringing down the ceiling of one of her most audacious and fearless moments in her musical career. “Dark Matter” seeks to “connect breath, the human soul and the cosmos”  with gibberish improvisations over beat-less electronic drones and swirls. The aforementioned “Solstice”, one of a few songs written with longtime collaborator and poet Sjón, is so eerily intimate and intricate that it is almost without discernible melody to be even remembered. Contrarily, the adventurous “Hollow” and the stunning “Virus” both return individually with breathtaking results. Biophilia becomes her most expertly varied set of songs since the 90s, proving what is so compelling about Björk: her willingness to outdo herself time and time again.

Album Review: “Lotus” by Christina Aguilera

In Reviews on December 15, 2012 at 11:32 pm

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In the two years since Christina Aguilera released the commercially and critically maligned Bionic, she went through a divorce and received poor reviews on her performance in Burlesque. Since then, she rebounded as a coach on NBC’s The Voice, scored a #1 hit with Maroon 5 and began work on a new studio record. It would go without saying that this next release would chronicle this chapter in her professional and personal life. Her newest album, Lotus, is the culmination of these experiences.

With a discography of albums individually dedicated to throwback soul and futuristic electronica, Aguilera has always (sometimes, arrogantly) prided herself on being an artist ahead of the curve compared to her pop star peers. In most cases, the tracks on her fifth studio prove otherwise, relying on safe and familiar sounds. The album begins with promise on the “Lotus Intro” – an experimentation of layers of chanting vocals and chilled-out electro where Aguilera likens herself to a rising, unbreakable flower. Though “Your Body” is arguably her best single in years, it and the neon pulse of “Let There Be Love” align her with the faceless, homogenized Top 40 songs that newer artists have conquered many times over in Aguilera’s musical absence.

With her intentions to regain footing on the charts are obvious, she enlists mega-producers Lucas Secon, Max Martin and Shellback. Unfortunately, they supply her with sloppy, slapdash productions that are so busy and overstuffed that Aguilera herself sounds lost trying to keep up with their pace. Alex Da Kid, who has previously produced for Eminem and Skylar Grey and helms nearly half of Lotus, provides Aguilera with tepid and uninspiring tunes. Aguilera has proved to be a competent songwriter since her second album Stripped, but it seems here that she has run out of ideas. She assumes the position of a soldier waving her white flag on “Cease Fire”, rewrites a less interesting version of her 2002 hit “Fighter” into “Army of Me” and takes aim at her unnamed haters on the bonus track, “Shut Up”. The worst offender on the 13 track set is the abrasive Supa Dups-produced “All Around the World”, where Aguilera runs down a laundry list of cities and countries where she would like to make love in. It eventually winds up being as sexy as a root canal. Even a much-hyped collaboration with Cee-Lo on the retro-sounding “Make the World Move” never fully takes off, eventually crumbling under its own weight.

In contrast, there are bright spots on the album, but they too are not without flaws. “Red Hot Kinda Love” is a summery jam that winds up being the album’s standout track, likely due to its vocal modesty. When she pulls in the reins during the verses of power ballads she demonstrates excellent use of her vocals. But when she reaches to the end of her range on ballads like “Sing for Me”, “Blank Page” and “Just a Fool” (featuring Blake Shelton), they are ruined by Aguilera’s penchant for shouts and pointless over-singing that threaten to overtake the entire song for the worse.

For all of its intents and purposes, Lotus renders to be disappointing because it’s to on the nose for what it sets out to achieve. When the pretenses are down, the results are refreshing. Being her shortest album since her debut, there is less filler but too many songs that abandon Aguilera’s instincts that made her earlier releases work so well.

Album Review: “P R E S S U R E” by Rochelle Jordan

In Reviews on December 15, 2012 at 11:02 pm

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Released independently as a free download in 2011, Toronto songstress Rochelle Jordan released her debut EP, R O J O – an adventurous, multi-layered joyride showcasing promise and an equal footing in the R&B of the 90s and the future. She makes a clear step forward with her second EP, P R E S S U R E, released digitally in August 2012.

As implied by the title, P R E S S U R E underscores conflict and tension, specifically in romantic relationships. Written entirely by Jordan and intricately produced by PROTOSTAR producer KLSH, the record closes in on a specific vibe, both sonically and vocally. Her influences are obvious – the fluttery coos of Aaliyah and the slick vocal layering of Amerie’s heyday, among others. Yet, Jordan manages to fuse them into a singular style and sound that is uniquely hers throughout the record’s twelve tracks. Meanwhile, KLSH’s minimalist and atmospheric productions are approached completely with swirling synths, pulsing bass lines and menacing, snare-driven drums. This provides ample room for Jordan to explore textures and rhythmic patterns of her detailed and impassioned lyrics.

The first e-single, “Losing”, is a downbeat lament to the sacrifices made in the name of a strained relationship. Equally alluring as it is chilling, it is a tender and deeply intimate moment that very few unsigned artists are willing to display in their early musical offerings. Elsewhere, Jordan aims to please her lover on the frenetic up-tempo title track, reminisces on a past love on “Could’ve Been” and is haunted by that same former love in a new setting on “Somebody”. Elsewhere, her frustrations with insecure and dismissive men are laid out with serious bite and sass on “You Ain’t My Man” and “Too Long”. However, it is on the spare “Shotgun” where Jordan wallows in the beautiful anguish of the end of a relationship, brilliantly winding up with what is the record’s best vocal performance.

Hailing from Toronto, home of fellow artists like Drake and The Weeknd, Rochelle Jordan is a welcome addition to those following independent R&B music and is sure to delight fans with her distinct sound.

Album Review: “Glassheart” by Leona Lewis

In Reviews on December 15, 2012 at 11:00 pm

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One of Leona Lewis’ biggest assets is her voice – a rich, honeyed vocal that can wrap its way around any lyric and instrument light years beyond any of her contemporaries. It has been the siren’s calling card since her stint on the original UK version of The X Factor and her 2007 debut album Spirit. That album, designed to update the MOR-schmaltz that Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston occupied in the 90s, wonderfully displayed her glorious pipes with worldwide hit “Bleeding Love”. After the relative disappointment of her last record Echo, Lewis eschews the chugging, formulaic throwaway ballads for tempo and small experiments with fuzzy electronics on her newest album, Glassheart. Lewis brilliantly teams up with producer Fraser T. Smith (Adele, Taio Cruz) to helm much of the album that takes a distinct foray into dance music.

The first single “Trouble”, co-written by Emeli Sande, is a sleek homage to Massive Attack-like trip-hop with a bed of swelling strings, chronicling an emotional break up. Both the single-worthy title track “Glassheart” and “Come Alive” are pacey, looming numbers – a wall of Lewis’ lilting vocals sliding against eruptions of volcanic, feverish beats. On “Shake You Up”, Lewis lets loose on the summery Rodney Jerkins-produced track which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of Rihanna or Katy Perry album.

Even when the songs venture into the balladry of her first two records, they are less meandering and more progressive. Both “I to You” and “Fireflies” channel her influences of Kate Bush and Tracy Chapman as she respectively evokes mournfulness and marvel into her performances.

Glassheart benefits from increased writing contributions from Lewis as well as an injection of her personality, two key aspects that have been eclipsed by her walloping vocals. She sounds engaged and exuberant, even on quiet and muscular ballads like track “Fingerprint”. The album is a unified set of songs from an artist who has finally stepped outside of her comfort zone.

Album Review: “My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1)” by Mary J. Blige

In Reviews on December 10, 2012 at 9:53 pm

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It’s a daunting task that musicians face as they age in the music industry: how to maintain relevancy without deviating too far away from their winning musical formula. Mary J. Blige, now 40, has cemented her legacy as one of the finest and revered vocalists in contemporary R&B, assuring her position as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul with her 1994 opus, My Life. That album, rife with wrenchingly emotional cuts like “Be Happy”, “You Gotta Believe”, “I’m The Only Woman”, has remained a favorite among her legion of fans, justifiably ranking as one of Blige’s best musical works. That record documented the essence of a young female in the midst of deep romantic longing, a struggle for comfort and a journey toward spiritual growth – a foundation she would expound on her subsequent albums. Its sequel, My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1), released on November 21, 2011 on Geffen/Matriarch is a perfection of the vintage sound one comes to expect from Blige. With production supplied by Rico Love, Danja, Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins and Jerry Wonda, among others, the record is split into two parts – bass heavy hip-hop and shimmering R&B ballads – both of which have become Blige’s signature.

After a brief intro featuring her former mentor Diddy, Blige quickly glides into “Feel Inside” and “Midnight Drive”, featuring the reprise of her rapper alter-ego, Brook-Lynn. Blige sounds assured, upbeat and most importantly, optimistic, even as she injects her classic style upon the tension and excitement in the lyrics to the respective tracks. “25/8”, weaved wonderfully around a Gamble & Huff sample, finds the siren exuberant, spirited and brimming with the confidence that new love can bring. The same buoyancy can be found on the Chaka Khan cover, “Ain’t Nobody”, a pulsing and synth-driven workout that will likely find great success in dance clubs and European markets.

Many R&B albums of late have featured guest appearances from other artists, resulting in a mixed bag of collaborations. Predictably, My Life II… continues that trend. While Nas adds his clever edge to the aforementioned “Feel Inside”, a Drake verse comes off as a forgettable and phoned-in addition to the album’s second single, “Mr. Wrong”. One of the strongest collaborations, however, is the heartfelt “Love a Woman”, where Beyoncé joins Mary to list instructions for male suitors to properly romance and treat their ladies on a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 90’s throwback playlist.

As the album is a collection of nostalgic moments with many of its roots stemming from the 90s, Blige reaches deep to produce some of her most impressive ballads she has fronted in years. “Empty Prayers” is a devastating slow number, regretting her hopeful naiveté for believing in an uncaring lover. “Need Someone”, resembling that of an understated country ballad with its hushed acoustics, is a hug to the younger and troubled Blige from 1994, examining the recurring theme in her string of dysfunctional relationships.

My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1) stretches Mary J. Blige artistically the way her last few albums promised and failed. Blige has made peace with her yesterdays and applied her learned lessons to good use.