POP & ROCK
WHEN it comes to a band like Denver's the Fray, critical ears should not apply. From the opening track on their fourth studio album, Helios, the quartet succeeds in delivering a solid and varied pop-rock album with a range of emotional and musical highs and lows. That's the good news. The bad news comes in the form of singer/pianist Isaac Slade. His emotive singing style relies too heavily on some pretty annoying tics that, by the time the album rolls into its final half, become obvious to the point of being distracting. An overstated breath sucked in here, syllables and words turned into slithering slips of the tongue there -- all distract considerably.
On the plus side, the album has some great songs. Tracks like the New Order-ish Closer To Me, the dancey Give It Away and the simply built Love Don't Die show that the band is willing to experiment with arrangements and styles while continuing to be powerfully expressive. Titans they may be, but Helios will take some getting used to. 2 1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hurricane
-- Jeff Monk
R&B stardom used to be so much simpler for guys.
You sing a sexy song about a pony or a little red Corvette, and you got yourself a career if you did it right. But in recent years, that wasn't enough. For superstars like Justin Timberlake and Usher, there were envelopes to push and artistic standing to consider, which made things far more uptight.
Maybe that's why SoMo sounds so refreshing. SoMo, a.k.a. Joseph Somers-Morales, isn't caught up in all the other issues of R&B stardom on his debut. He just wants to sing about sex and love -- not necessarily in that order. And he does it really well.
His first single, Ride, feels like the new-millennium version of Ginuwine's Pony -- simple, effective and essentially timeless as a slow jam, destined for a prom near you. However, Hush shows SoMo is no one-trick pony. A breezy bit of disco-flecked soul, Hush is a clever, catchy good time that gives SoMo a chance to deliver some smooth vocals to create one of the best pop songs so far this year.
While Crash owes some to the Weeknd's timely icy synthesizer soundscapes, the bulk of SoMo could have been released at any point in the past three decades. More important for SoMo, though, is that the bulk of his debut will likely work for the next three decades. You can never have too many soulful slow jams. 3 1/2
Download this: Hush
-- Glen Gamboa, Newsday
Out Among the Stars (Columbia Legacy)
WHEN Johnny Cash originally recorded the bulk of this album in 1984, it would be fair to say that he was not really worrying the country music charts. Nashville had gone safely contemporary with acts such as Lee Greenwood, the Judds, Alabama, George Strait and Reba McEntire, while stone originals like Cash were relegated to the oldies circuit to scratch out a living.
Indeed, the Man in Black was floundering musically in the '80s and these recordings were made right around the time he was getting clean from his most recent grapple with prescription drugs.
It's not a bad album, it's just not a very interesting or exciting Cash set, adorned as it is by cookie-cutter Billy Sherrill production, rote musical performances and songs that were more suited to the chart-topping "hat acts" of the time. Tracks like I'm Movin On, Baby Ride Easy, If I Told You Who It Was and I Drove Her Out of My Mind effectively neuter Johnny's generous gravitas.
The tacking-on of an over-produced 2013 Elvis Costello remix of She Used To Love Me a Lot only adds to the hopelessness factor. 2 1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: Tennessee
Back Road Paradise (Song Dog/Fontana North)
ON his sixth album since leaving his siblings behind and going solo in 1999, multiple award winner (32, including five Junos and seven CCMA awards) Jimmy Rankin has finally fully embraced the country format. That's not to say you can't hear the folk, roots and pop influences that have informed his songwriting from the beginning, but they're cloaked with more traditional-sounding instrumentation, including banjo and pedal steel.
The 50-year-old Rankin co-wrote every track on Back Road Paradise, and even if the themes are tried and true (songs about love, love songs about cars and lovely songs about country living), his unique voice does them all justice. It's especially apparent on one of the album's best tracks, Shades, and on the equally dark and beautifully brooding Flames, featuring Grammy winner Alison Krauss. Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy duets on the driving Never Gonna Leave, a song Rankin refers to as "Everly Brothers but with a modern twist."
Rankin's spring tour stops at Dauphin's Watson Arts Centre on April 17 and Winnipeg's West End Cultural Centre on April 19. 3 1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: Flames
-- Bruce Leperre
THIS WEEK'S SINGLES
Draft Day (Republic)
Not to be confused with the new Kevin Costner football movie of the same name, Drake's latest promo single is a solid slice of playful head-noddery that cleverly samples Lauryn Hill's classic Doo Wop (That Thing), while our man shouts out NBA and NFL up 'n' comers and lusts after Jennifer Lawrence. 3 1/2
I Was Gonna Cancel (Parlophone/Warner)
With a little help from Pharrell (seriously, can this man do no wrong?), the latest offering from Kylie's recently released Kiss Me Once album is a deliciously quirky blend of funk, disco and camp that sounds a bit like Stevie Wonder's Superstition goes synth pop at the opera. 3 1/2
GARETH EMERY FEAT. GAVIN BEACH
Eye of the Storm (Garuda)
Taken from his new album Drive, this is easily the most mainstream-sounding track of English trance DJ Gareth Emery's more-than-decade-long career. That's not to say it's a bad thing. Electronic dance music is, after all, the current pop music. Very similar in style to Armin van Buuren's This Is What it Feels Like. 3 1/2
-- reviewed by Steve Adams
The Bad Plus
The Rite of Spring (Sony Masterworks)
THE incendiary Rite of Spring, the orchestral ballet known for the riot it caused during its Paris debut a century ago, gets a trio rendering from the Bad Plus.
And, ironically, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King stay closer to jazz-friendly language than in earlier recordings that melded Queen and Rush with their own compositions.
The adventurous Minneapolis threesome's version of the Igor Stravinsky classic is the real deal, not a stunt. The composition's dissonance and pounding rhythms are right in the Bad Plus's wheelhouse.
The musicians condense a score written for a large orchestra down to a trio, but a trio that understands, and loves, the propulsive tempos. They perform Rite as straight as possible, but that doesn't mean they leave their interpretive chops behind.
They don't try to recreate the lushness of the orchestral version; rather, Iverson's precise articulation, Anderson's pizzicato wonders and King's controlled cymbals create a 39-minute relentless musical experience. 3 1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: Adoration of the Earth: The Augurs of Spring
-- Chris Smith