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Matisyahu – Spark Seeker album review

Freshly shaven and free of his Hasidic tag line, Spark Seeker finds a Matisyahu who is desperately trying to reinvent himself. By pulling a reverse Snoop Lion move and turning away from the religious nature of his music, we should have been left with nothing but the reggae laced jam-grooves that got thousands of stoned frat-boys hooked on Matisyahu in the first place. Instead, his reinvention digs even deeper and we’re left with over-produced dance-pop that presents the once Chassidic reggae superstar as nothing but a broken shadow of himself.

Things start out promising on the opening cut “Crossroads.” Over a menacing beat seemingly ripped from a back-alley in Detroit, Matisyahu sounds legitimately angry as he raps “I’ve been searching for my bite/They say I inspired, but I’m still looking for my fire/These lies have got me tired.” It’s definitely a slap in the face to his Jewish fans, but it’s also a moment of relief for those wanting to dance to his music sans a lesson in the Torah. Unfortunately, the power behind his quick-tongue and beat-boxing skills must have all been tucked up in his yamaka, because any of those defining traits are completely absent on Spark Seeker.

It was definitely a suspect move to bring in Kool Kojak as a producer. Completely oblivious to the rhythmic structure of roots-reggae, Kojak crafts nothing here but pop-driven dancehall that would be much more suited to the work he’s done with Nicki Minaj or Katy Perry. With a heavy reliance on overly auto-tuned hooks, simplified lyrics, and a serious urge to appeal to 13 year-olds, the question is whether Matisyahu is big enough to just completely flip the switch on the majority of his fans. Sure it worked for the Black Eyed Peas, but is a massive sell-out really the spiritual path he claims his instincts are pulling him towards?

“I Believe in Love” and “Sunshine” are the only cuts on the album that come close to living up to anything he’s done before, and they still sound terribly weak when put next to his back catalogue. Just like Sampson of yore, it seems like his power may have truly lied in his locks and beard. Matisyahu once demanded a certain degree of intelligence from his listeners, and these are the same folks who aren’t going to be fooled into liking a shiny pop tune crafted for Top 40 radio by adding in the grunts of an Israeli yak at the end of it.

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R. Kelly – Write Me Back album review

While R. Kelly may still be trying to live down some erroneous decisions from his past, there’s never been any doubt that the man can sing. On Write Me Back, his voice still sounds as vibrant as it did in the days before he was a constant headline on TMZ, but unfortunately his once lauded production skills seem to have vanished much like the $4.85 million he owes in back taxes.

On the opening cut “Love Is,” Kelly admirably tries to resurrect the pop-soul of a prime Barry White, but instead comes off sounding like a washed up Tom Jones performing at a Reno dinner-club. This is largely due to the horribly crafted digital instrumentation on the track – I’m pretty sure he just hit the demo button on his ’92 Casio keyboard for this one. At least you can appreciate his new found appreciation for monogamy and true love on the song. Well, at least until the next cut: “Feelin’ Single.” But hey, what’s an R. Kelly album without some carnal dichotomy, right?

The biggest flaw with Write Me Back though, is Mr. Kelly’s attempt to make a ‘timeless’ album rather than something that sounds fresh and from today. Horrific synthesizers scream for a home on adult-contemporary radio, and make a majority of these tunes stray far from the seductive vibe which the lyrics imply. “Believe That It’s So” builds upon the samba beat from a nursing-home organ, and is shockingly mundane enough that most listeners will never make it to the sexy breakdown on the song’s second half. Which is thus to say that there are great moments on this record, but for the most part they are just that – moments.

The only cut that holds the whole way through is “Fool For You,” a piano-driven track that finds Kelly showing his true potential of sounding like a modern Smokey Robinson. If he was smart, and if he cared about the reputation of quality R&B music the world over, he would stick to this traditional formula. Then none of us would ever need to be subjected again to the terror known as “Party Jumpin’.” Easily the lowest point of his career, the track is either a reject from the new Buster Poindexter album or Kelly’s theme-song for a new alcohol-fueled America’s Funniest Home Videos. Either way, with production this horrendous, I think it’s about time he called in Danger Mouse to the rescue.

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Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing album review

The last time you listened to Neneh Cherry, probably both you and she had at least one piece of neon spandex in your wardrobe. If you do remember when “Buffalo Stance” was on the radio though, you’ll probably be relieved to hear that The Cherry Thing features none of the euro-pop grooves that Cherry so embraced in the late 80’s. Her voice however, is still as sultry as ever and it finds ideal bunk-mates with the modern jazz masters of re-definition, The Thing.

With dark-souled covers of tunes by everyone from MF Doom to The Stooges, the Nordic trio locks so perfectly into an eerie pocket with Cherry on The Cherry Thing that it makes their previous releases sound half-empty. Opening track “Cashback,” a Cherry original, kicks in with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten thumping his bass with ferocity equal to the difficulty of pronouncing his name, and he remains relentless throughout. When the vocals drop, you get the feeling as if you’ve found some forgotten soul-vinyl in a dungy basement – at times Neneh’s near-rasp sounds like a higher-pitched Billie Holiday. And as obscure as some of the covers may seem, the formula works perfect for all of them. The electro-pop of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” takes a slanky turn down a late night New Orleans alley. The funky swagger of The Stooges’ “Dirt” takes on a far more threatening vibe, like a giant gorilla lumbering around the corner. Doom’s “Accordion” could be mistaken for a lost Gil Scott-Heron track if there wasn’t the telltale verse name-checking Dick Dastardly and Muttley.

The requisite Don Cherry cut is anything and everything but forced, (Cherry was Neneh’s father and The Thing named themselves after one of his songs.) Papa’s track “Golden Heart” drifts off in a hypnotic cycle as his daughter’s voice becomes increasingly more macabre and distant, like she’s heading into the light with Carol Anne from Poltergeist. The spooky ambiance coupled with a warming sense of romanticized opiates give all of The Cherry Thing a vibe like you’re at a jazz-club in late 50’s Cairo – there’s a uncertain danger to this music, and the looming menace wraps these songs in a tangible flesh. Let’s just hope we don’t’ have to wait another 16 years before Cherry breathes life into her next project.

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Lorn – Ask The Dust album review

Did you ever wish that the soundtrack to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had a solid backbeat to it? Well there seems to be just as much inspiration from an illegal slaughterhouse as there is from Daft Punk on Ask the Dust, the first release on the Ninja Tune label from Milwaukee artist Lorn. It may be easy to lump all electronic dance music together these days, but this is definitely not the album that will be inspiring the wearing of candy-necklaces anytime soon. Embracing a far more sinister presence than that of his peers, Lorn crafts a 45-minute unified piece that forces the listener to embody the warming darkness of their subconscious as they crush the dance-floor. Don’t be afraid though, Ask the Dust is wholeheartedly beautiful.

The album starts out with distant melody lines being owned by a devastating bass crunch, making the first few tracks sound like the far-off echoes of a dub-step apocalypse. On “Weigh Me Down,” one of several tracks that Lorn sings on, his vocals somehow ideally mesh with this formula, either despite or because he sounds like Tom Waits on sleeping pills. There is a sense though that on these early tracks, his bass-focus seems to be reaching out to an EDM crowd that doesn’t necessarily welcome the level of sophistication his music requires. However, his direction takes a rightful change once the atmospheric interlude “This” rears its head. As rhythms begin to subtly vanish in psychedelic washes, prevailing emotions take precedent over a solid dance beat. At times, the groove buckles in fear like Darth Vader just walked into a Tatooine disco – thumping in cosmic uncertainty.

All of the tracks on Ask the Dust are fleshed out with a patience that’s desperately lacking from many of the drop-obsessed producers today. Lorn is able to caress his glitch stabs in a seemingly, far more organic and less-forced nature than normal and the resulting drift removes any potential distractions from the inner existential-journey. Above all, this is music to get lost in. Things go deepest on the album’s centerpiece “Everything is Violence,” where the Wisco kid starts hitting frequencies so low you’d think he’s sending out a mating call to a blue whale.