No Doubt, Push and Shove
No Doubt’s femme-fronter Gwen Stefani longs for the past on a track from the band’s new album, Push and Shove, when she sings, “Do you remember how it was?” Though the song, “Sparkle,” is likely lamenting a relationship that’s aged into oblivion, it can’t help but be read as a nostalgic trip down memory lane – the kind that comes 11 years after releasing your last album, where “it’s never gonna be the same” even if we want it to be. The decade between Rock Steady and this roots-rewind established Gwen Stefani as a solo act and mommy. So while it’s true that we can’t expect the same No Doubt – the foursome are all in their 40s and have eight kids among them – Push and Shove recaptures the scrappy-pop magic of the 26-year-old band. That imitable grungy ska sound is immediately recognizable on “Settle Down,” a single that goes from Middle Eastern restaurant to nightclub. One of the best songs, “Easy,” works evocative ’80s synths into a power-ballad rush that feels inspired by late-night drives along the Cali coast. Not all the softies prevail: The few fillers tacked on at the end, especially the closer “Dreaming the Same Dream,” are lost for ideas. But even the ridiculousness of “Looking Hot,” which could fit any of Gwen’s solo sessions, has a cool strut that you can’t help but go bananas over. Welcome back, No Doubt.
Could Dragonette be having a Robyn moment? The Canadian trio, which has struck up buzz in the dance underground, is ready to mingle with the mainstream – and, like Robyn did with Body Talk, has an album accessible enough to put them there. (Look at the album titles, too: one’s about body parts; the other – Ms. Fembot herself – gets those parts talking.) They also have the cocksure confidence to climb that ladder: “Live in This City” isn’t just the biggest earworm on the album; it’s better than most of what’s currently on radio. It’s also a damn good song to dance to in your underwear. Same goes for “Giddy Up,” a hyper jolt of Mario Bros. blips, frontwoman Martina Sorbara’s brisk singing and a novelty sound that can’t help but conjure the teen years of Hanson – in a good way. Songs like “Untouchable,” about tainting a goody two-shoes, and “Run Run Run,” almost indistinguishable from Goldfrapp, take an evocative approach that’s tempered so much they barely register; the same pure-pop punch just ain’t there. But “Let It Go” has that emerging from every corner of its synth-powered, drum-slapped whoop; “My Legs,” too,” is a saucy dance-floor ditty – but it also has a message of empowerment tucked in its get-down proclamation. Bodyparts is dance music that’s guiltless even after the drinks wear off.
Pink, The Truth About Love
In a world ruled by artificial pop princesses, Pink has always approached her music with real-woman candor, whether she’s slamming horny dudes at the bar or singing a true-life tale about her parents’ divorce. But this hell-raiser act, which extends through her catchy-but-safe seventh album, is turning cocky into caricature. The Truth About Love wants so hard to convince the world that Pink, who had a kid not long ago, is still the biggest badass on the block that it spends so much time proving a point when it should be using Pink’s mighty ways as a singer and songwriter to crush the competition. (We know she can.) The potty mouth, the man put-downs (she tells him, cheekily, to blow her) and a duet with another often-misunderstood musician, Eminem – we get it; she’s still a punk. Though Pink at her most “punk” was on the fierce commercial-dud Try This, released nearly 10 years ago, it’s clear record execs won’t let this one suffer the same fate: Second single “Try” fetches a generic credo of perseverance but has a cool grunge sound, while “Walk of Shame,” about a one-night stand, is goofy super-pop that’s a lot of fun. But Pink, who has made catchier songs about jerking off, is better than “Slut Like You.” Her deftness is demonstrated on “Beam Me Up,” where she lets down her guard for a needy moment of vulnerable release. It’s just too bad how hard The Truth About Love tries to be another Funhouse, turning Pink into a brand instead of the artist she always seemed destined to be.
Barbra Streisand, Release Me
There’s a predictability to Babs that’s like comfort food: Her rainy-day music tends to require a box of tissues, and she sings with the same passion, precision and power that made the Brooklyn girl a star over 40 years ago. Simply put, there’s no one else like her in this smoke-and-mirrors music industry. Not even Adele possesses the same purity as Babs. Release Me, spanning decades as it reaches back into her song catalog for 11 previously unreleased tracks, is a testament to her reign as a vocal luminary who’s not just stood the test of time, but stands taller as the years go by. But even in 1971, during her “Stoney End” era, Streisand’s capabilities were so absolute that her cover of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” was cut in one take, with a simple reading over Newman’s piano that preserves the melancholic sorrow of the song without overdoing it. Better than Bette’s version from Beaches? Not when it comes to heart. “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough,” from the 1967 Broadway musical Hallelujah, Baby! about equality, goes all diva with an escalating orchestra that finally crescendos as Babs sings her butt off. It’s also refreshing to hear Streisand, who’s gone the contemporary love-song route, take on a song as theatrically thrilling as her up-tempo version of “Home” from The Wiz. The song never made The Broadway Album as planned – but it’s here, and it’s glorious.
Tori Amos, Gold Dust
It’s natural to want to reflect on the originals after hearing the rerecorded versions – backed by the famed Metropole Orchestra – on Tori Amos’ latest release. Don’t be surprised if many of them sound very similar. Though the set list, which covers Amos’ early work as much it does the lesser-known and more current fare, is a satisfying collection of songs, the differences are so subtle that Gold Dust is more direct, with just minor changes – though a new “Precious Things” is refreshing. Made to commemorate 20 years since her Little Earthquakes breakout, it’s best to look at this as a greatest hits.
Cher Lloyd, Sticks & Stones
That Cher Lloyd recently declared Nicki Minaj a pop-music trailblazer shouldn’t be surprising. On her debut, the fourth-place finisher on Britain’s The X Factor shows signs of doing Minaj better than the rapper herself. Lloyd can sing (standout: “Behind the Music”), and she’s not trying too hard with the overblown gangsta fakeness. Her raps might skirt closer to the Disney Channel than BET, but “Oath” is fun for any programming – catchy, cute and licked with a sweetness that Nicki just can’t pull off. The album derails halfway through its skimpy 35 minutes – but with a name like Cher, don’t count her out.
Ryan Bingham, Tomorrowland
Never mind that Ryan Bingham won an Oscar for his fragile folk song “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart; he’s a new man who’s, well, not so weary. At least by the sound of his new DIY disc, where he’s without his signature band and former label. He rocks hard on “Beg for Broken Legs” with his usual gruffness but also a fiery attitude that’s almost inspiring. His heart, however, hasn’t strayed too far: “Never Far Behind” ruminates quite poignantly on the difficulty of moving on from a family member’s suicide. If Tomorrowland wasn’t so rooted in yesterday’s rock, that awards mantle could be looking a lot fuller.
Pet Shop Boys, Elysium
On “Your Early Stuff,” Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe – a.k.a. Pet Shop Boys – recall a conversation with a cab driver who thought the U.K. duo was done for, but admired their ’80s work. Since their 11th album tends to drag – its chill-out vibe could really use a few more hits of adrenaline, and the songs aren’t nearly as memorable as their classic anthems – who can blame the guy for wishing they were still in their prime, singing about West End Girls? But the Pet Shop Boys still pull off some splendid moments of loungetronica: “Hold On” is a gospel beauty, and the dry-witted “Ego Music” satires celebrity vanity. Otherwise, though, it’ll have you turning to the early stuff.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.