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Reviews of new pop music releases

Posted: August 21, 2014 - 12:04am

VARIOUS ARTISTS

“Warby Parker Presents Song Reader — Twenty Songs by Beck”

What started life in 2012 as an elegantly old-timey volume of sheet music of new Beck songs published by McSweeney’s blossoms into what was intended by its author: something purely interpretive, a chance for others to sing out, to bring their own voice to his music. Performers did not have to consider themselves obliged to follow Beck as the mini-funkateer of Odelay or the melancholy apologist of Sea Change. All they had to do was not be Beck. He in his sole appearance (“Heaven’s Ladder”) sounds more Canterbury folk than his usual California cool.

The high-profile indie likes of Jack White, Jack Black(!), and Laura Marling sound solely (and sorely, even glumly) like themselves. Norah Jones, too, comes across as timidly confused. By contrast, the art-pop band Sparks, folkie Loudon Wainwright III, and glam elder David Johansen have spirited glee with their tracks while maintaining their individuality. The band Fun. proudly lives up to its name, while Colombian pop sensation Juanes offers something rousing, anthemic, and flavorful. The best of Song Reader comes when raunchy R&B howler Swamp Dogg turns “America, Here’s My Boy” into a gorgeously funereal dirge you wish they’d play at your funeral.

— A.D. Amorosi

GRACE ASKEW

“Scaredy Cat”

After going Hollywood last year as a contestant on “The Voice,” Grace Askew went down home, in more ways than one. The 27-year-old Americana singer and songwriter returned to her hometown of Memphis and recorded her fourth album at the fabled Sun Studio. The results on “Scaredy Cat” are raw, rootsy, and uniformly arresting.

Playing slide guitar, Askew fronts a small, drummerless ensemble that often exudes a back-porch vibe while mixing blues and country. The music leaves plenty of space for Askew to shine as a singer, and you can see why she made some noise on “The Voice” before being knocked out. Her sultry drawl is both seductive and soulful on the intimate opener, “Wild Heart,” and on the gently empathetic “Out on Your Front Steps,” but it also possesses a tangy bite when the music takes on a swaggering edge, as it does on numbers such as the title track and “Tip-Top Liquor.”

— Nick Cristiano

THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM

“Get Hurt”

The opening moments of “Stay Vicious,” the first track on the Gaslight Anthem’s fifth album, “Get Hurt,” loudly proclaim that the New Brunswick, N.J., punk band has entered new territory. The grungy, heavy chords and frayed, echoing vocals recall Nirvana or Screaming Trees rather than Social Distortion <0x2014> before the fuzz abruptly clears for a chorus of chiming, trebly guitar lines and more intimate singing. The track <0x2014> a bitter break-up song <0x2014> whiplashes between those poles.

On “Get Hurt,” the openhearted romanticism and detailed narratives of 2008’s The ‘59 Sound, the band’s breakthrough second album, disappear, replaced with more personal songs, many inspired by singer Brian Fallon’s recent divorce. And the band seems to have changed Jersey idols, from Springsteen to Bon Jovi, especially with the hair-metal chords that open “Stray Paper” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ “ and with the power-ballad title track. The rousing “Dark Places,” the rollicking “Helter Skeleton,” and the rumbling “Break Your Heart” work well, but whereas the Gaslight Anthem used to balance and blend scrappy punk skillfully with fist-pumping bro rock, Get Hurt finds the two genres polarized.

— Steve Klinge

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