Artist: Mary J. Blige
Album: My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act One)
Mary J Blige’s new record is the follow-up to the neo-classic that was her 1994 album My Life. Seventeen years on, and she is still making pain sound pleasurable. Title aside, it’s less about her own journey, however, and more a reflection of the life and times of the people that surround her. Although the raw pain of My Life is absent, the album still encounters challenges and triumphs, good times and bad times.
Sonically, it’s a menagerie of ballads, anthems and throwaway hip hop beats. In ‘Feel Inside’ she enlivens a threadbare breakup narrative with vocals full of life-like ambivalence. Later, she gives ‘25/8’ the energy required to sell its ludicrous lyrical conceit. Being packed with guest stars and top producers does give this album a slick quality, but do not be deceived, it is merely a repackaged My Life, just minus the soul.
In a Nutshell: A lesson in why producing sequels rarely pays off.
by Emily Mullen
Artist: The Saturdays
Album: On Your Radar
On Your Radar marks the third major release from The Saturdays, with the girls penning half the material on the record themselves. The band have charted ten top ten hits but are yet to score that elusive number one, and it is entirely likely that they’ll miss the boat again with this effort.
On first listen, On Your Radar is reminiscent of a nineties dance compilation album, which is particularly obvious on the electro-pop singles ‘Notorious’ and ‘All Fired Up’.
The Saturdays are, in theory, a fun pop band, and yet ballads ‘When My Heart Takes Over’ and ‘Last Call’ are the standout songs. Their success is reliant on their vocal talent, which they under-utilise by rarely singing rich harmonies together. This is what sets them apart from sounding like a David Guetta song with a generic female vocalist, something which they would do well to bear in mind.
In a Nutshell: Just enough to keep The Saturdays a firm pop favourite.
by Rachel Heavey
Album: Talk That Talk
With Loud still knocking around the billboard charts, Rihanna hasn’t even let the dust settle before unleashing her sixth studio album, Talk That Talk. Although it’s less angry and dark than Loud or its predecessor, Rated R, this record is not afraid to be very in-your-face.
Her more dubstep/electronic direction is particularly obvious on ‘Where Have You Been’ and ‘You Da One’ while lead single, ‘We Found Love’, a collaboration with Calvin Harris, is already an inarguable hit. However, ‘Farewell’ seems like Rihanna’s attempt at ‘Someone Like You’, and ‘Roc Me Out’ sounds a lot like she’s just rehashed ‘Rude Boy,’ both with mediocre results.
Rihanna has never been one to shy away from more explicit themes, but Talk That Talk largely relies on barely disguised, almost laughable innuendos to create interest, and it grows tedious quickly. Perhaps more exuberant and romantic than her last two offerings, it’s sure to fill dance-floors, but ultimately lacks any kind of ‘wow factor’.
In a Nutshell: Filthy, obnoxious and more than a little boring.
by Aoife Valentine
Artist: Amy Winehouse
Album: Lioness: Hidden Treasures
This posthumous collection of covers, alternative versions and demos will, for brief moments at least, remind the listener why Winehouse received such acclaim. Produced by her long time collaborators Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, it fits more broadly into the earlier jazz and blues style of debut Frank, yet its lyrics lack the vibrant wit of that record.
The melancholic ‘Tears Dry’ displays her versatility and the breezy ‘Between the Cheats’ is straight from Motown records. The contrast of Amy’s soulful chorus to Nas’ gritty rap makes a potent formula on ‘Like Smoke’.
Winehouse’s ability lent her songs an almost instant iconic strength, and made albums Frank and Back to Black crackle with emotional depth and musical ingenuity. Lioness lacks the coherent musical direction of its predecessors, and will sadly never compare as favourably for this reason, despite some strong tracks.
In a Nutshell: A tighter EP collection would have left a more fitting legacy to an artist of such talent.
by Elizabeth Beecham
Artist: The Black Keys
Album: El Camino
Few bands have set themselves a higher standard than the Black Keys. The Ohio rock duo’s last album, Brothers, was a Grammy-winner and a chart hit. El Camino continues in the same vein as its predecessor; inventive, powerful drumming and bluesy guitar combining to produce raucous rock music.
The opening three tracks have a sound somewhere between Kasabian and early Led Zeppelin. In fact, much of the album sounds like this but ‘Little Black Submarines’ is a welcome switch to loud-quiet-loud songwriting. It draws the listener in with its tender opening, the sparse vocals adding to the emotional effect. The second half of the song springs to life with fuzzy distorted guitar and singer Dan Auerbach approaching a scream.
Despite many of the tracks here sounding repetitive due to limited instrumentation, El Camino succeeds as a good old fashioned rock and roll album.
In a Nutshell: A very listenable album, if forgettable at times.
by Dan Moriarty