WEIRD AL YANKOVIC “Mandatory Fun” (RCA, 2 1/2 stars)
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 its 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
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SPOON “They Want My Soul” (Loma Vista, 3 1/2 stars)
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 do tweak their 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.
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MARSHA AMBROSIUS “Friends & Lovers” (RCA 4 stars)
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.
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JENNY LEWIS “The Voyager” (Warner Bros 3 stars)
The clock is ticking on The Voyager, California alt-pop songwriter Jenny Lewis’ first solo album in six years. “When I look at myself all I can see, I’m just another lady without a baby,” the 38-year-old former Rilo Kiley front woman sings on “Just One of the Guys,” the album’s lead single about never being able to fit into the indie-rock boys club. In “Head Underwater,” she remains guarded (“I don’t want to bore you with how I feel, but when the walls came down the s- got real”) while hinting at anxiety attacks induced by contemplations of mortality.
That tension roils beneath the surface on The Voyager, which looks back on past travels (“Late Bloomer,” about a teenage sojourn to Paris) and relationships gone wrong (the fabulous “She’s Not Me,” the not-so-good “The New You”) and right (“Love You Forever”). With flourishes and sweet harmonies, the 10-song collection is so smoothly produced — mostly by Ryan Adams, partly by Beck — that you might not notice the trouble lurking. It’s a far more successful move into glossy yet substantive grown-up pop than was Rilo Kiley’s 2007 failed Fleetwood Mac move, Under the Blacklight, and it’s nice to have Lewis back in action. But The Voyager is not quite the out-of-this-world comeback Lewis fans were waiting for.
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OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW “Remedy” (ATO 3 ½ stars)
“Give me that old-time music, Lord make it hot,” Critter Fuqua pleads on “Doc’s Day.” Old Crow Medicine Show delivers on that request in spades on Remedy, but the veteran septet as usual also spikes its string-band attack with some heavy doses of rock-and-roll attitude, whether it’s the rambunctious humor of “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” or the Dylanesque bite of “Mean Enough World.”
Speaking of the Bard, Dylan contributes to another fine cowrite, “Sweet Amarillo.” (The first collaboration with Old Crow’s Ketch Secor, “Wagon Wheel,” became a country and pop hit for Darius Rucker.) The accordion-laced waltz, along with “Dearly Departed Friend” and “The Warden,” points up how Old Crow is just as compelling when it slows the breakneck pace and softens the edge.
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SHABAZZ PALACES “Lese Majesty” (Sub Pop ATO 3 ½ stars)
For its second full-length album, 18 murky songs funneled into seven oddly-titled suites, Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces picks up the “ancient to the future” motto that guided the Art Ensemble of Chicago and blasts further into the jazzy avant-rap stratosphere than on 2011’s Black Up. That first album was exquisite, psychedelic art-hop, but the new effort from MC/singer/ex-Digable Planet Ishmael Butler and soundscaper/multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire is something expansive yet weirdly robotic, and deliciously Afrocentric — a hip-hopera, if you will, with the fat lady in full effect.
Talking about his rap past on “Ishmael,” Butler breathily intones the lines “Huey beats and Malcolm flow/ Intimacies I doubt you know,” as if proudly reciting Shakespeare through Hendrix’s purple ambient haze. By the time we get to the creepy blues of “They Came in Gold” and the nervous New Wave of “Solemn Swears,” Butler begins to loosen and “think in terms of I,” doing or dying on the former, making listeners “dance at just a glance” throughout the latter. Whether navel-gazing on the sociopolitical tip or focusing on the self, ripping sound is first and foremost on Shabazz’s agenda, with a bracingly bizarre score overwhelming all they survey.
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