St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (4/5).
On her third album, Strange Mercy, St. Vincent paints her emotions on the surface and fills in her canvas with a range of sounds that can be airy and ethereal or heavy and raspy--sometimes both at that same time. "Chloe in the Afternoon" has a beautiful arrangement composed of cacophonous elements that resolve under the bass synths of the chorus and then vanish, replaced by gentle electric guitar. "Cruel" is bouncier, bursting with retro synths but also light, airy choruses. "Cheerleader" and "Surgeon" approximate Goldfrapp, with the former throwing out a bold synth-draped verse garnished with electronic flourishes and the latter repeating a airy refrain reminiscent of John Barry's James Bond theme for You Only Live Twice. She rocks out harder on "Northern Lights," sounding more like Liz Phair, on which she sings "it's a champagne year full of sober months," setting up later track "Champagne Year," one of the albums slower cuts, along with the art-rock title cut (although that picks up toward the end). "Dilettante" shows a bit of swagger, with a loud, raspy guitar cutting incisively into the groovy melody. It concludes with a lush brush of keyboard and piano. "Year of the Tiger" completes the picture, but leaves some spaces unfilled with its mysterious lyrics about "living in fear in the year of the tiger," (the period ending last February, according to the Chinese calendar). Best: Chloe in the Afternoon, Cruel, Cheerleader, Surgeon.
Black Keys - El Camino (4/5).
On their seventh album, The Black Keys continue to churn out tight, minimalist songs with a rugged feel, although this time their faster, harder tempos push them away from blues-rock and more toward a classic rock & roll sound. It's apparent from the start with "Lonely Boy" pulsing along its racing guitar melody and the harder drum and bass of "Dead and Gone." Other kicky tracks include "Money Maker," with its cool use of talk box, "Run Right Back," which charges along a staccato bass line and "Nova Baby," which nicely uses the new female trio of backup singers. Producer Danger Mouse (Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells), who was responsible for the group's fifth album and their last album's big hit, "Tighten Up," returns to work the controls on the entirety of this release, an influence you can hear on the retro instrumentation of tracks like "Gold on the Ceiling," through which the prominent guitar and bass overlay the less obvious keyboards and hand claps. Subtler "Sister" has them too, along with a darker melody. "Little Black Submarines" starts out as a ballad but transforms into a loud rocker halfway through. Best: Dead and Gone, Lonely Boy, Little Black Submarines, Gold on the Ceiling, Nova Baby.
Real Estate - Days (3.5/5).
On Days, Brooklyn-based Real Estate's second album, the band churns out mellow and melodic rock, the kind of music that's a nice soundtrack to a sunny Sunday afternoon. The vocals are delivered somewhere just above a hush and never louder, the guitars play continuously but never threaten to rock out and distort. Because the songs sound so much alike, it's hard to pick standouts, although the dual guitar arrangement of "Green Aisles," makes it a strong contender, as does the sweetness and slightly faster tempo of "It's Real" and the brighter sound of "Wonder Years." Instrumental passages are long and, in the case of "Kinder Blumen," constitute the entire track. Best: Green Aisles, It's Real.
Amy Winehouse - Lioness: Hidden Treasures (4/5).
After last year's disappointing Michael, I'm suspicious of posthumous releases. Made by definition without the artist's input, it's easy for such an album to feel undercooked and lacking a continuous thread that would define the work as an album and not just a collection of leftovers. Thankfully, Lioness actually manages to feel rather cohesive, making it a touching coda to Amy Winehouse's brief by vibrant pop music career. That it lacks the gusto of her 2006 masterpiece Back to Black is fitting: it's emphasis on slower songs plays up the album as a memorial and tribute. Because Winehouse sounded so comfortable in her soulful retro '60s mode, the remakes of actual '60s songs like "Our Day Will Come" and "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" sit comfortably alongside new songs written in a '60s-inspired mode like the breezy "Between the Cheats." Several of the tracks are alternate versions previously songs. Particularly interesting is "Tears Dry," which recasts the boisterous Back to Black single as a rueful ballad with a gorgeous strings arrangement. The album closes with a 2009 recording of "A Song for You," on which Winehouse sounds quite fragile--she was, after all, in quite a bit of trouble at that time. Nonetheless, her beauty and talent shine through. In the end, she may have been overcome by her demons, but songs like this leave a lasting impression of her beauty. Best: Our Day Will Come, Tears Dry, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, A Song for You, Between the Cheats.