Dig These Discs: Ed Sheeran, Maggie Rogers, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Dams Of The West, Jordan Klassen
English singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran releases his third studio album, an excellent selection of hits from a talented lad. Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is back with his fifth album, "The Tourist," a collection of 10 songs that picks up where his 2014 album "Only Run" left off. Maryland singer Maggie Rogers releases her five-song debut EP "Now That The Light Is Fading." Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson releases his debut solo album under the moniker Dams of the West. And Jordan Klassen releases an EP of five pop songs with bright, popping melodies and vocals.
"÷ (Divide)" (Ed Sheeran)
America loves an underdog. Perhaps that explains why we've embraced English singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran. After years seeing his songs make everyone else a big star, the rumpled redhead began recording his own stuff, to critical acclaim. Now he drops his third studio album, a dozen tracks (16 on the extended release) that have already yielded the hit singles "Castle on the Hill" and "Shape of You." The title, "Divide," follows his mathematical formula of his last two albums, "Plus" and "Multiply." Since it dropped, it's been snatched up by fans to become one of the top three fastest-selling releases ever in the UK. It's another combination of earnest acoustic riffs and electronic flourishes, with the occasional bit of hip-hop thrown in. His first cut, "Eraser," looks back at his scrappy youth and follows it to where he is now without being preachy, with Sheeran singing, "I think that money is the root of all evil and fame is hell, relationship and hearts you fix, they break as well... Please know I'm not trying to preach like I'm Reverend Run, I beg you don't be disappointed by the man I've become." In the steadily pounding "Castle on the Hill," he reminisces about his childhood experiences, evoking a palpable feeling of homesickness. Sheeran gets a doo-wop vibe out of "Dive," singing, "don't call me baby unless you mean it." He works the beats in his hit single "Shape of You," with rapid-fire lyrics and loops that Sheeran pairs with a couple falling in love at the boxing gym in his excellent video. His slow ballad "Perfect" is a classic love song, and his fast-moving "Galway Girl" recounts the tale of a girl who "played her fiddle in an Irish band, but she fell in love with an English man." The plaintive "Happier," is a classic guitar song about seeing the girl he used to date with her new man, who treats her better. In the following song, he criticizes the faults of her "New Man" while conceding that the man-bag wearing poser "drinks beer but has a six-pack; I'm kinda jealous." He follows it with "Hearts Don't Break Around Here," a soft ballad about a girl with flowers in her hair. He's got a stage, a guitar, and a song in "What Do I Know," and sings slow and sad in the love song, "How Would You Feel (Paean)." His teary-eyed piano ballad "Supermarket Flowers" is about his grandmother's funeral, told from the perspective of his mother. The deluxe album includes another four tracks. He's got "two left feet and a bottle of red wine" in the bouncy "Barcelona," and follows it with the saucy Latin ditty, "Bibia Be Ye Ye." He adds a bit of the blarney to the Irish reel "Nancy Mulligan," a tune about William Sheeran marrying the love of his life in an Irish Border town. He finishes a superb album with the self-reflective piano tune "Save Myself." Sheeran is a musical powerhouse, and this new album just cements that fact. If you don't believe me, just check the math.
"The Tourist" (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah)
Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is back with his fifth album, "The Tourist," a collection of 10 songs that picks up where his 2014 album "Only Run" left off. It's a collection special effects melded with synth, acoustic guitar and harmonica that has keyboard tracks line up next to folksy numbers. He said that album, recorded in a week at Dr. Dog's studio in Philly, is a tribute to his inspirations, including Nick Cave, Paul Simon, and Tom Waits. Ounsworth said the album was a "purge of certain emotional confusion that manifested itself in the last several years. I'd rather not say that it was a dark time, but it was a difficult time in my life -- among the most difficult. But I needed and need to try to let it go. And this is how I let things go." The first track, "Pilot," is a meandering tune that melds folksy and experimental. It cedes right into "A Chance to Cure," a bass-driven melody with vocals like, "you don't know where you're running but you're trying to get there first" whispered quickly above it. Eventually, it turns into a toe-tapper, after a fashion. He adds funk to his special effects in the catchy rock song, "Down (Is Where I Want to Be)." The disjointed "Unfolding Above Celibate Moon (Los Angeles Nursery Rhyme)" presents a slow sing-song of sounds, while "Better Off," with its snappy drums and synth, catapults us to those hip-swaying hits of the '90s. Among the best tracks on the album is the edgy "Fireproof," which builds to a very pleasing crescendo and hums along steadily. Acoustic guitar sets the pace in "The Vanity of Trying," and the homespun, snare-heavy cut "Loose Ends," with the lyrics, "Someone exposed herself in a magazine, someone exposed himself on a TV screen/ There's always someone else to blame for what is going 'round." These off-sync snares spring up in the busker cut "Ambulance Chaser," with Ounsworth wailing the siren sounds all by himself. The acoustic cut "Visiting Hours" caps an excellent album, one that finds Clap Your Hands Say Yeah cementing a legacy, while at the same time experimenting a bit with new influences. Ounsworth sets out on tour on March 2 in Philly, and makes his way through the U.S. and Canada, ending up on the East Coast in May. Catch the show, and you too can clap your hands, say yeah.
"Youngish American" (Dams of the West)
Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson releases his solo debut, 10 somewhat atonal songs with predictably, lots of drums, layered into uptempo rock/pop hybrids. Tomson said he dubbed his new project Dams of the West after reading about how dams in western America have outlived their usefulness. As a straight white man playing rock 'n' roll, he said he felt a camaraderie. Unfortunately for the listener, he's onto something here. Despite that Tomson plays almost all the instruments on the album, his voice is too lackluster for these naval-gazing songs to have much of an impact. And his lyrics shoot for clever, but often miss their mark -- sometimes, there's not that much fun stuff to write about getting older and settling down. He says that "Tell the Truth" is a song about our "post-truth world," and has him looking at his own life to see what it reveals. He opens "Death Wish" with the lyrics, "I must have some kind of death wish/ didn't even start to floss until I was 31." He's almost too self-referentially funny for his own good. In "The Inerrancy of You and Me," he sings about making her pasta with red sauce when she's PMSing. He shoots to be quirky, but it's often a hard sell. His whimsical "Polo Grounds" pulls heartstrings by trading on the sentimentality of them tearing down the storied New York site, with lyrics like, "Tomorrow let's go uptown and try to rebuild the Polo Grounds/ When the Giants are up to bat we can sit where Sinatra sat." He does better when he sticks to catchy hooks, as in the fast-moving "Will I Be Known to Her," with its post-punk flourishes. "When I drink a Bud Lite do I love America? Or only when there's a flag on the can?" he deadpans in "Flag on the Can." In "Perfect Wave," he sings about hearing pirate stories from his father-in-law, but it's all about sports, a la the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cacophony rules "Pretty Good WiFi," and he ends the album with his slow, downcast track "Youngish Americans." It's easy to see what prompted Tomson to release a solo album; after all, the other members of Vampire Weekend all did. But just because you can do something doesn't always mean you should. A little more groundwork to establish his own sound could have resulted in a stronger album. On the plus side, he's hired an all-female touring band to hit the road with him, going from the East Coast to the West, and up through Canada.
(30th Century Records/Columbia)
"Now That the Light Is Fading" (Maggie Rogers)
Maryland singer Maggie Rogers releases her five-song debut EP "Now That The Light Is Fading," and this student of NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music has finally got the attention of critical masses -- and Pharrell Williams. She's released several collections of her ukulele folk in the vein of Joni Mitchell, but this is the first one to stick, so to speak. Rogers croons her first track, "Color Song," over the chirping of crickets, and her voice sounds like church as she intones, "Now by the dying embers, we watch the day grow old." Although she's only 22 years old, the multi-instrumentalist got big hits on her first single, "Alaska," as well as "Dog Years" and "On + Off." In the bouncy yet fragile "Alaska," she's "walking through icy streams that took my breath away." The lilting folktronica beat has everyone losing their shit. The high register of "On + Off" has Rogers assuring us that she's okay, but the discord underneath, moved along by a catchy piano loop, keeps you interested. Rogers experiences a bit with her vocals in "Dog Years," as she sings, "I spend my time daydreaming, sure as the sea it's just you and me oh, and I'm the one that loves you." She slides right into the last track, "Better," and it's a great balance of man-made and natural sounds. Many critics have labeled this newcomer and her fresh, unassuming take on music as "simply lovely." And here's another one. Rogers kicks off her first-ever North American headlining tour on March 20. Look for her in a venue near you.
(Capitol Music Group)
"Curses" (Jordan Klassen)
Jordan Klassen releases an EP of five pop songs with bright, popping melodies and vocals. He kicks things off with "Carol," a song for his wife, with is familiar sounding instrumentation and excellent strings. The intro is reminiscent of Ellie Goulding's "Lights." Klassen's voice is high and fine, and he uses it to delve into some dark subject matter. His songs were written amidst deep depression and mental illness, and were actually written for his earlier album, "Javelin." His title song "Curses" is a strong track that charts what it feels like to be riddled with negative thoughts and cynicism. It really allows Klassen to show off the high end of his vocal register, as he sings, "You've gotta catch a flight, but he comes round, and he brings curses upon your head." In the feather-light tune "Light Come Again," Klassen explores the idea of never being satisfied, and in the juddering, melancholy, "Night Is Young, Story is Old," he looks at his fear that life is passing him by. He finishes up with "Cool Night," a song built out of "deep melancholy." In it, he finds a moment of peace within the maelstrom of his life. I'm not sure why Klassen hesitated before releasing this EP, but he needn't have worried. It's about as sweet as an album about crippling depression can be.