Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes (Columbia)
Nobody has more of a right to revisit their back pages than this perennially forward-looking workaholic. And perhaps no song in Springsteen’s mighty back catalog is more deserving of revisitation than the Live In New York City-consigned “American Skin (41 Shots),” recent events having magnified the song’s relevancy beyond municipal outrage to encompass the lonesome deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. But even that song seems undone by the fussy studio sheen ladled over it, a fate befalling every other tune here, none of which are standouts. From the synth-choked wiseguys number and the cluttered Celtic jig to the Saints cover muddied with “Penny Lane” horn charts and a title track bloated by Audioslave pyrotechnics, this grab bag’s mushy center cannot hold. Yet there’s a unifying factor in place - showboating guitarist Tom Morello, or as Bruce likes to call him, “my muse”. Morello certainly goes for finger-flurrying broke on yet another version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Still, somebody should remind Bruce’s ax-wielding afflatus that Steinbeck’s metaphors are generally ham-fisted enough to render window-dressing superfluous.
Hospitality, Trouble (Merge)
Having loved the baroque-pop flourishes of single “Friends of Friends” without ever quite connecting with the sweet melancholy informing the entire song cycle, I’ll admit underrating this Brooklyn outfit’s 2012 debut, although not by much. Or maybe the art-prog archness of their scattershot follow-up simply helped throw the debut’s harmless twee into sharp relief. Hospitality have indeed discovered guitars, as see the rather catchy “I Miss Your Bones,” complete with spiky solos that at least one wishful thinker has compared to Marquee Moon. They’ve also discovered vintage synthesizers, which helps explain the daft twaddle of the nearly seven-minute “Last Words”. Frolicking amidst cascading mellotron and crescendoing moog, savoring every thudding silence or downshifting tempo, Amber Papini and co. will clearly give anything a shot. What is it that bands have too much of these days? Right - ambition.
Rick Ross, Mastermind (Maybach / Slip-n-Slide / Def Jam)
Of course this is ponderous cheese - it’s Rick Ross, self-inflated pomposity is what he’s pushing. Amid grandiose production and soaring strings he doth bellow and hector, so committed to pursuing his South Florida crime narrative that listeners get treated to both gunshots and a Scarface shout-out within the opening seconds. No regrets, no second thoughts, no insights, really. Not even many jokes, unless you snicker when the mastermind compares scarfing sushi at Nobu to Afghan soldiers wired with explosives. Just the self-pitying soliloquies of a fictional drug lord, complete with audio verite clips proudly documenting that one time he got shot at. Fucks the game raw, he wants you to know: “Pussy boy, we all could die tonight”.
Sun Kil Moon, Benji (Caldo Verde)
Back in his Red House Painters prime, Mark Kozelek applied thick dollops of distortion to flesh out his skeletal compositions, and the results were generally engaging in a rainy afternoon kind of way. Lately, he’s mostly just skeletal, pursuing formless musings in sluggish all-acoustic formats. As befits an artist nearing 50, Kozelek’s thinking a little bit about death, which means sweet if hardly distinguished tributes to his parents. But his conception of mortality seems commingled with morbidity, as it so often does in the minds of men younger and more callow than Kozelek. Which means James Oliver Huberty, Adam Lanza, and Richard Ramirez The Night Stalker all make grisly appearances, while the album opens with a low-energy narrator drawling out a family tragedy’s gory details: “Carissa burned to death last night / in a [pause] freak accident fire / in her yard and Brewster her daughter came home from a party and found her / same way as my uncle / who was her grandfather”. Sure got a way with words, don’t he? And we haven’t yet considered the ten-minute “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”.
Linda Perhacs, The Soul Of All Natural Things (Asthmatic Kitty)
I know the guy from Opeth has raved over Parallelograms, this dental hygienist’s 1970 freak-folk obscurity. That doesn’t mean the private press crowd is onto something. Yet those adherents marvel over the way Linda Perhacs’s cosmic wonderings haven’t aged a day after forty-odd years out of the studio, as if New Age blather has never ripened into a stinky cheese before. I sorta prefer 2014’s string-choked merely corny Linda (“True as the light of a new day / I want to be freely with you”) to 1970’s folkie-guitar animal magnetism Linda (“Dolphin / take me with you”). Gotta say, though, she’s definitely lost her knack for snappy song titles. If Parallelograms boasted “Chimacum Rain,” “Hey Who Really Cares,” and “Porcelain Baked-Over Cast-Iron Wedding,” things are sounding a lot more teleological these days. “River Of God”. “When Things Are True Again”. And, uh oh, “Song Of The Planets”.
Cole Swindell, Cole Swindell (Warner Bros)
Anybody wearied by Eric Church’s chest-thumping mythos or turned off by Eric Paslay’s business degree should attend to this objet d’art as a graphic reminder of what it’s like to really sink your teeth into a Nashville shit cake. A living breathing bro-country cut-out evincing zero personality, there’s no Florida Georgia Line table scrap Swindell won’t slurp up. Does he cruise some back roads? Does he kick it with a couple of down home boys? Does his girlie dance in his truck bed under the Tennessee moonlight? Does he pop the cork and tap the keg? Does he rhyme “tonight” with “damn right”?