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Neil Young + Promise of the Real
The Monsanto Years (Universal)
WHEN we last checked in with old Mr. Young, he was singing about new love and life changes on the solidly average Storytone. We predicted it wouldn't be long until the former Winnipegger released another album, and now we have the lively and political The Monsanto Years.
Here, Young -- along with a crew of much younger players that includes two of Willie Nelson's sons -- rocks and rails against genetically modified seed use and its effect on the food chain. These nine tracks bear a striking sonic resemblance to 1994's Sleeps With Angels, to the point that some of the dense chord progressions sound like repeats. This works for Young, as his body of work is so expansive that, sure, he can steal from himself.
Fans of the "rock" Neil as opposed to the "folk" Neil will love the weighty grind of tracks like opener A New Day For Love, People Want To Hear About Love and especially Workin' Man. The album's messaging gets pretty deep so be prepared; if you could care less about what you eat or drink and where it comes from, these songs may not stir any excitement. For anyone who wants to hear the Bard of Omemee turn up Old Black and heat up his amplifiers, these notes are definitely for you. HHHH1/2
DOWNLOAD: People Want to Hear About Love, A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop
-- Jeff Monk
Feels Like (Startime/Columbia)
MUSIC fans who were in their teens or early 20s in the late '80s and early '90s know how guitar-based rock 'n' roll is meant to sound. The loud-quiet-loud vibe of bands such as Pixies, Nirvana, Hole and Breeders is basically a default neural template.
If this is true of you, then you won't be disappointed by this startling debut from Nashville four-piece Bully. But don't go mistaking it for the new Veruca Salt album that sounds exactly like Veruca Salt did 20 years ago (not that there's anything wrong that). Fronted by studio-rat Alicia Bognanno -- who grew up in the Twin Cities suburb of Rosemount, Minn., and who was barely out of diapers when all those bands were breaking -- Bully brims with a vitality that can't really be imitated and, while, yes, the musical ground is familiar, Feels Like is an edgy, danceable reminder that well-written songs delivered with emotion can always breathe life into a genre.
Bognanno, who started the band after working in Nashville for a few years as an audio engineer, writes and sings all the material and the 11 cuts are packed with the kind of confessional lyrics of youth and love and longing that most songwriters only get to write once. I Remember tells the story of a high school relationship with the sort of nostalgic filter that only young adults can apply to their teens; Trying lists her many insecurities; and Six kicks off with the revelation that once she broke her sister's arm (and then broke hers two years later). HHHH
DOWNLOAD: I Remember, Trying, Six
-- John Kendle
Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil's Back (Busted Flat)
ROOTS-DRIVEN singer-songwriter Brock Zeman has a voice that's reminiscent of the legendary Tom Waits. Luckily, he also shares Waits's aptitude for writing some of the finest lyrics and poetry set to song, sometimes earnest, but always heartfelt.
It's all effectively held together with Blair Hogan's electric guitar; he weaves seductive aural textures amongst the mandolin, cello, piano, organ and other sounds, organic and synthetic alike.
The Ottawa-area Zeman has been perfecting his craft over 10 previous albums, but on his 11th, he outdoes himself, baring his heart and soul, but not in a sappy manner. On the starkly beautiful Walking in the Dark, Zeman speak-sings, "My pillow still smells like her hair and whenever I lay down to sleep I dream the dreams that she's left in there, and you know... I ain't in any of 'em."
Those alleged songwriters in Nashville could learn a thing or two from the exceptionally talented Zeman. An alluring mix of beautiful ballads and edgy rockers, this is without a doubt one of the best albums released this year. HHHH1/2
DOWNLOAD: 10 Year Fight, Drop Your Bucket
-- Bruce Leperre
The Nash Ensemble
ANYONE who's ever shuddered at Bernard Herrmann's screeching strings in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho might be equally shocked that the same composer could pen eloquent chamber music.
On its latest release, the Nash Ensemble -- celebrating its 50th anniversary next season -- performs music by a variety of film/stage composers, including Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Aaron Copland and the granddaddy of them all, George Gershwin.
The six-piece British ensemble, led by pianist/conductor Ian Brown, is known for its eclectic repertoire. Here it ably captures the windswept vistas in Herrmann's lushly romantic clarinet quintet Souvenirs de voyage (1967).
Another in Hitchcock's stable, Waxman, wrote his charming Four scenes from childhood (1948) to celebrate the birth of fabled violinist Jascha Heifetz's son. Its four short movements, depicting different events and times of the day, showcase first violinist Marianne Thorsen's sensitive playing over Brown's accompaniment, including a gently rocking The Fairy Princess and more angular Playtime.
George Gershwin's Song-book, an intriguing set of solo piano arrangements penned by the iconic American composer, offers transcriptions of songs he frequently extemporized on at private parties. Brown successfully navigates through the 18 featured works' knotty textures, relentless syncopations and fascinating rhythms, including the technically treacherous I Got Rhythm and Liza.
Also included are Copland's Waltz and Celebration from Billy the Kid.
But you can't beat Gershwin's jazz-infused Lullaby, which wafts through the air, evoking the gentle night strains of Tin Pan Alley. HHH1/2
-- Holly Harris
Sporting an infectious, minor-key piano line and some Kanye-style primal screaming, Pharrell's latest comes across like a revolutionary anthem in the waiting. While it's similarly paced, it's got much darker undertones than Happy, which, depending on your opinion of that song, may or may not be a good thing. HHH1/2
Selena Gomez feat. A$AP Rocky
Good For You (Universal)
The first single from Gomez's upcoming second full-length album has a surprising level of sexiness and maturity to it. The sultry, slo-mo vibe would appropriately soundtrack either getting ready for a night out on the town or an ensuing late-night make-out session. HHH1/2
Harkening back to the days of '90s trip-hop, Toronto newcomer Alessia Cara belts out some incredibly soulful vocals over an Isaac Hayes sample (which Portishead and Tricky fans will instantly recognize), creating a complex soundscape that, much like the conflicting smells of perfume and cigarettes, is sexy and grimy at the same time. HHH1/2
-- Steve Adams
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