I'm shamefully behind in reviewing albums this year. In an effort to knock a few out, here are some shorter reviews.
The Weeknd - House of Balloons (4/5)
Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, caused quite a stir when he released his debut album, House of Balloons, earlier this year. Not so much for the fact that it was put out free of charge from his website, but for the fact that it made critics swoon. Anyone tired of the usual suspects in R&B should take note of the growing revolution in sound born by the likes of The XX, James Blake and now this haunting, often beautiful, sometimes nasty work. It manages a nice balance between indie experimentalism and pop sensibility, although it definitely has a dark side too. "What You Need" is a clear highlight--a smooth, late-night jam that seduces as much with its sharp beats and liquidy synths as it does with Tesfaye's (surely knowingly) dated lyrics about "knocking boots." But then there's "Wicked Games," with its sad melody and bitter lyrics making a potent, jaded song ("Bring the drugs baby, I can bring the pain"). And I'm not even going to get into "House of Balloons"/"Glass Table Girls"--let's just say these girls aren't playing pinochle on that glass-top table of theirs. Best: What You Need, High for This, Wicked Games, The Knowing.
Kanye West & Jay-Z - Watch the Throne (3.5/5)
So much starpower and ego come together on Watch the Throne, the long-awaited collaboration between rap superstars Kanye West and Jay-Z. With a combination like that, it had the potential to be a masterpiece or a disaster, so it's almost surprising that instead it falls somewhere in the middle. "No Church in the Wild" serves as a subdued if somewhat ominous opener, with auto-tuned vocals from Frank Ocean. Ocean also provides vocals on the album's other track with heavy religious references, the uplifting "Made in America," an ode to successful African-Americans (including themselves) during which they thank "sweet baby Jesus" for their success. As gracious as that song may seem, the duo doesn't escape typical boastfulness, as they have in fact adopted "The Throne" as their nickname throughout this work. Shameless as that may be, they probably deserve it. And after all, when Jay-Z uses "Beyonce" as a slang term to refer to a fine woman (as he does in "That's My Bitch"), he's talking about the Beyonce...his Beyonce. Too bad when the lady herself shows up on "Lift Off" the song stays grounded. Mr. Hudson has a nice guest turn though on "Why I Love You," the kind of grand track that could have felt at home on West's comparatively superior My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Best: Why I Love You, Made in America, Otis.
Hard-Fi - Killer Sounds (3.5/5)
Remember when Hard-Fi were hot stuff back in 2005? Their debut, Stars of CCTV, was NME's album of the year and a Mercury Prize nominee. Then, although I greatly enjoyed their 2007 follow-up, Once Upon a Time in the West, it received a lukewarm reception. After a 4-year break, they finally return with their third album, Killer Sounds, which, despite the lapse of time, manages to sound not unlike their earlier work. And that's not a criticism necessarily. The album opens strong with upbeat "Good for Nothing," followed by the even better "Fire in the House," with its bristling, electronic arrangement. "Give It Up" pushes along with an insistent tempo and guitars to match. After that though, I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for the rest of this. It's not bad, but it's missing a "wow" factor present on their other albums. Even the songs from one of my favorite producers, Stuart Price--the man responsible for last year's pop trifecta of brilliant albums from Take That, Scissor Sisters, and Kylie Minogue--fails to bring much originality to songs like "Bring It On," which I just find ho-hum, "Feels Good," which sounds like "Cash Machine" recycled with some Middle Eastern instruments, and "Love Song," which seems to curb from Roger Sanchez's "Another Chance" (Price does deserve credit for "Fire in the House," my favorite track, which he produced with Richard Archer). Best: Fire in the House, Give It Up, Good for Nothing.