Music reviews for May 22, 2014

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Gazette wire services
Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Michael Jackson, “Xscape”

The Michael Jackson vault allegedly holds hundreds of recordings, but only eight songs appear on “Xscape,” the second posthumous release since Jackson's death in 2009.

This one has been “contemporized” by a team of ardent-fan producers, helmed by Timbaland and including Rodney Jerkins. Up-to-the-minute textures and flourishes are added, taking the final cut out of the hands of a control-freak tinkerer who no longer can have the final say on what his music sounds like.

Not that “Xscape” is run-of-the-mill necrophilia. Jackson's legacy has been largely respected. While the beats have been modernized, the basic shapes of Jackson's songs have been maintained. You can tell because the refurbished cuts are followed by their original versions. It's thrilling to hear Jackson sweetly croon in “Loving You” and “Love Never Felt So Good” (here done up as a TSOP groove with Justin Timberlake), or forcefully ride the beat in “Slave to the Rhythm” or “A Place With No Name,” which, strangely, bears more than passing musical resemblance to America's “A Horse With No Name.”

Familiar obsessions are prevalent. That's most uncomfortably so in “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” in which the late King of Pop, who was charged with—and cleared of—sexual molestation in his life, sings from beyond the grave about a 12-year-old female victim of sexual abuse, and he warns parents of how afraid they need to be of sexual predators.

In “Blue Gangsta,” he plays the outlaw, la “Smooth Criminal.” His desperation is palpable as he fantasizes about getting away from prying “electric eyes,” not to mention greedy women after his money, on the Jerkins-produced title cut. Five years after his death, he still sounds trapped in the prison of fame from which he would never escape.

—Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Black Keys, “Turn Blue”

After a decade of steady audience-building, the Black Keys, a duo from Akron, Ohio, broke through big-time with 2011's hook-happy “El Camino,” whose popularity also led to singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach building a resume—and earning a Grammy—as a highly in-demand producer. He's helmed acclaimed albums by Dr. John, Bombino, Valerie June and many others.

So now that they're sitting on top of the world, what do the blues-rockers and producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton do? Do their best to make an immersive rock record that consciously avoids the hit-single approach of songs such as “Lonely Boy,” which made them so popular in the first place, of course.

That's not a big problem on “Turn Blue.” The album has its catchy moments, such as the addictive keyboard squiggle in “Fever” and the John Fogerty rip “Gotta Get Away.”

Auerbach, Carney and Burton are now so self-assured in the craft of record-making that they can start off with a 7-minute slow-burner such as “Weight of Love,” a Led Zep-meets-Air mood piece, and be confident the music-heads among their arena-size fan base will go on the head trip right along with them. Not thrilling, but solid.

—Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Coldplay, “Ghost Stories”

Chris Martin's breakup album deals with loss in generalities rather than specifics. But then, not many words rhyme with “Gwyneth.”

“I'm ready for the pain,” Coldplay's frontman sings on “Oceans.” “I'm ready for a change.”

Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow announced in March they were uncoupling after more than a decade of marriage, which intensified anticipation Coldplay might stray from its familiar formula on the band's sixth album, “Ghost Stories.” The lyrics do suggest Martin's trying to escape ghosts in his past, but he surrounds his singing with the digital drone of synthesizers and never digs too deep to describe his heartache. “Blood on the Tracks” this is not.

Instead, the band's music remains appealing mostly for its surface sheen. Several arrangements on the nine-track set are intimate by arena-band standards, and the best sound like Martin singing in his bedroom. “Another's Arms” offers a dreamy chorus for Bic wavers, and the band cranks it up on “A Sky Full of Stars,” which was co-produced by Avicii and has a thump and hook to please the club crowd.

Most of the album was created with producer Paul Epworth, known for his Grammy- and Oscar-winning work with Adele, as well as Florence + the Machine and Foster the People. But Epworth doesn't bring out the best version of Coldplay.

—Steven Wine, Associated Press

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