LIKELY fed up with the Lady Gaga comparisons she received for her 2011 debut Perfectionist, British singer Natalia Kills trades in the dance-pop for grimy electro-punk full of snarling, distorted vocals. It's aggressive, addictive, and about 1,000 times better than that silly "wanna go shopping with will.i.am" song she put out a few years ago. Four stars
FRENCH MONTANA FEATURING NICKI MINAJ
Freaks (Bad Boy/Interscope)
BUILDING the hype for his upcoming Excuse My French album, Moroccan-American rapper French Montana drops this latest single that heavily pilfers the old Lil' Vicious and Doug E. Fresh track of the same name, as well as Chaka Demus & Pliers' Murder She Wrote, without doing anything remotely creative with them. Tack on plenty of obnoxious blaring horn effects and a throwaway Minaj verse and you're left with a song that's as lazy as it is disposable. Two stars
ALREADY being championed by Armin van Buuren, consistently solid electronic producer Brian Transeau's latest is a crisp, dreamy instrumental, loaded of luscious melodies and glistening peaks and valleys. No big surprises then, it's more or less the same quality trance he's been churning out since the mid-'90s. Three and a half stars
-- Reviewed by Steve Adams
POP & ROCK
The James Hunter Six
Minute By Minute (Fantasy/Go Records)
U.K. retro-soul man James Hunter may need no introduction to those who witnessed him tear up the stage during the 2007 Winnipeg Jazz Festival. His blend of classic rhythm and blues tones driven by guitar, horns and his own faultless vocals is again on offer with his latest album, the superb Minute By Minute.
Some call Hunter's music "analog" soul, which really only means it's not radio fodder. The Six features two saxophone players, and baritone man Lee Badau gets free rein to bottom out plenty here, adding a gutsy edge to many of the tracks.
Hunter uses a familiar musical language -- it's hard to miss the Motown reference on a track like One Way Love or the Tequila-esque throb of The Gypsy -- but it's the verve and panache with which this combo hits the boards that make MBM sound so confident and perfect for money-maker shaking.
For guitar geeks, Hunter is a player of note as well. His economic phrasing and tough tone mean he doesn't need to overcompensate with notes, just honest playing that adds to the song structure without needing to scream "Watch me now!" Producer Bosco Mann (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Antibalas) delivers the kind of sound that warms the room with effortless old-school precision. Who knows? Maybe Hunter and the Six will head back this way soon. We'll count the minutes. Four stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: The Gypsy
-- Jeff Monk
The Next Day (ISO/Columbia)
THE Next Day is the work of a master.
Bowie's first album in a decade -- first since a life-threatening heart attack in 2004 and widespread speculation of his retirement after disappearing from public life -- is a stunning, emotional thrill from start to finish, playing more like a collection of future hits than an album wrapped around a particular theme or sonic approach.
For The Next Day, Bowie reinvents himself by reinventing, well, himself. The cover of the album, which is actually the cover of his classic Heroes album with a sheet of paper over it, hints at his inspiration -- looking at some of his career's most memorable periods through the lens of the artist and the person he has become. The biggest difference on "The Next Day" is in his lyrics, which have rarely been this introspective or direct.
Considering his health issues, Bowie is understandably interested in discussing death. With the haunting ballad Where Are We Now, Bowie musically revisits his Berlin period, but lyrically confronts the fear of death and the future with the determination to move forward.
Bowie returns to his interest of celebrity and Fame with The Stars (Are Out Tonight), which sonically sounds like a sequel to China Girl, and the strutting rocker (You Will) Set the World on Fire.
With The Next Day, Bowie shows that the years out of the spotlight haven't diminished him in any way. In fact, they made him better. Four and a half stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Where Are We Now
-- Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
Spring Break Here to Party (Capitol Nashville/Universal)
WITH nine 2012 American Country Awards and four Academy of Country Music Nominations this year, Georgia Born Luke Bryan is one of the hottest new acts in country right now. He won't release a new studio album until the middle of 2013, so for now we've got Spring Break, a compilation of tracks from previous EPs plus two new cuts.
If you're looking for originality in this 14-pack of pickup-truck-windows-down, radio-up, rockin' party anthems, you'll get thirsty real quick, as they tend to trade substance for songs dominated by substance abuse. That substance is usually beer, though, and this collection is admittedly as infectious as poison ivy.
Spring Break Here to Party is guaranteed to be the soundtrack to every backroad party this summer, including one of Manitoba's biggest, Dauphin's sold-out Countryfest, where Bryan headlines the Saturday night. Three stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Take My Drunk Ass Home
-- Bruce Leperre
Honky Tonk (Rounder)
SON Volt's Jay Farrar says he wanted Honky Tonk to reflect the sound the band had on its 1995 debut, Trace, one of alt-country's pioneering albums.
That's a great plan. Though Farrar has followed his eclectic interests all over the musical map, his warm voice never sounds more at home than when it's surrounded by pedal steel guitars and fiddles. And throughout Honky Tonk, Farrar sounds great, especially on the gorgeous Angel of the Blues when he sings of time slipping through and burdens of truth, declaring, "Sad songs keep the devil away."
Son Volt has come a long way on the six albums since Trace, as both musicians and lyricists. Musically, the influence of the "Bakersfield Sound" popularized by Buck Owens is here -- and not just in the song Bakersfield, where pedal steel and electric guitars duel. The simple arrangements showcase the way Farrar can fit unconventional lyrical ideas into these tradition-steeped songs.
On the single Hearts and Minds, he adapts a Michael Stipe-ish delivery on the questioning verses before going extra-traditional on the chorus about unwavering love. In Brick Walls, Farrar takes us through a clever, extended metaphor about the "brick walls and bridges on the way to your heart" that plays off the musical simplicity.
Honky Tonk may seem deceptively simple and comforting in its alt-country traditions, but it harbours a whole lot of envelope-pushing ideas that only masters could make work. Four stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Angel of the Blues
-- Glen Gamboa, Newsday