“They Want My Soul”
After establishing a standard of excellence with five albums since the turn of the millennium, the Austin, Texas, rock band Spoon took a break after 2010’s slightly less than excellent “Transference.” Singer Britt Daniel paired off with Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade to form the synthsational side project Divine Fits, while drummer/producer Jim Eno got busy knob-twiddling for bands such as Telekinesis and !!!.
The brief hiatus served the band well. Collaborating with a pair of producers – Joe Chiccarelli, who’s worked with everyone from Tori Amos to Frank Zappa; and Dave Fridmann, who’s closely associated with the Flaming Lips – Spoon tweaks its sound ever so slightly, playing around with electro-pop experimentalism on “Outlier,” for instance.
But mostly, “They Want My Soul” is sharp, smart and concise, exactly what you would hope – and expect – a Spoon album to be. That goes for the meaty hooks that get things going with appropriate swagger on “Rent I Pay,” and the grabby melody and jagged guitar breaks on the title cut, in which Daniel rails against anyone who might steal his mojo. The special treat is “I Just Don’t Understand,” a 1961 Ann-Margret hit sung by principal Daniel influence John Lennon when the Beatles covered it on their BBC radio sessions. Here, it just sounds like another really good Spoon song.
Dan DeLuca, McClatchy-Tribune
“Mandatory Fun” (RCA)
An accordion-playing song parodist? Not a formula for career longevity. But here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic, 35 years after his recording debut, bigger and brassier than ever. Weird Al hasn’t changed his approach one bit with the chart-topping “Mandatory Fun.” He goes after pop’s big fish (in this case, Lorde, Pharrell, Iggy Azalea). The backing tracks are cheesy but instantly recognizable, and the mock lyrics are clever and cohesive. The best parody here: “Word Crimes,” a warped copy of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” but heavy on the grammar. The worst: “Inactive,” which sounds more like Linkin Park than it does intended target Imagine Dragons (“Radioactive”). There are also a number of unremarkable originals on the album, a labored takeoff of Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Carry On,” and an accordion medley that covers everyone from Carly Rae to Pitbull. They’re all fair game for Weird Al.
David Hiltbrand, McClatchy-Tribune
“Friends & Lovers” (RCA)
On her second album, this Liverpool-to-Philly expatriate vocalist-composer known for co-penning Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies” (among other hits) is in a romantic, emotional, erotic vein recalling R&B great Millie Jackson – without the raunch. If Jackson is a hot trumpet, Ambrosius is a subtle tenor sax that can blare at a moment’s notice.
As she did on her soulful, gut-wrenching “Late Nights & Early Mornings,” Ambrosius paints a sumptuous scene for romance.
The aching chord changes and quiet-storming whoosh of “Cupid (Shot Me Straight Through My Heart)” and the Teena Marie-like “La La La La La” signal that Ambrosius is up for a good, ruminative chat about loss and love. On “Friends & Lovers,” when Ambrosius pitches woo with her husky voice and poetic but explicit lyrics, the slow jams reveal a singer as emphatic as she is vulnerable.
An eerie, sensual mash-up revolving around a Sade hit (retitled “Stronger”), a steamy duet with gruff Charlie Wilson, and several sexed-up interludes help make Ambrosius’ sophomore effort a marvel of modern carnal soul.
A.D. Amorosi, McClatchy-Tribune
Billy Joe Shaver
“Long In The Tooth”
Old cowboys love to lament that contemporary country music’s in a sorry state and guilty of casting aside sage singers and songwriters – like Billy Joe Shaver. The crusty Texan trots out that trope at the start of his new album, and then spends the rest of the record showing he still has plenty to say.
“Long in the Tooth” covers a wide range of topics in 10 songs and 32 minutes. Shaver sings about politics, war, the lessons of Jesus and the Garden of Eden, and that’s just in the space of four verses on the tune “The Git Go.”
The title cut’s a hoot, with Shaver noting that as his 75th birthday approaches, “what I used to do all night, it takes me all night to do.” He sings about the rails on “Sunbeam Special,” then rails against America’s class divide on “Checkers and Chess.”
Best of all is “I’m In Love,” a ballad beautiful in its simplicity as Shaver pledges everlasting devotion. The song’s a testament to this cowboy’s staying power.
Steven Wine, Associated Press