Album reviews: White Denim, Ariana Grande, Amos Lee, and Sha La Das

The Sha La Das. Publicity photo The Sha La Das. Publicity photo

White Denim

Performance (City Slang)

The new record by Austin’s scraggle rock standard bearers opens with the tumble of a spinning radio dial. It sounds ironic but it could also be a statement of purpose; on Performance, White Denim skillfully updates various ’70s rock styles from the jump, the horn-laden, glammy stomp of “Magazin” leading straight into the taut, blithely ripping title track. “Double Death” sports a frilly jazz-rock riff; “Moves On” gets to sounding a bit like a Styx demo, and “Sky Beaming” is even proggier. White Denim almost substitutes insistence and tightness for melody, but their insistence and tightness are high qual, especially on the Steve Miller- meets-T. Rex “It Might Get Dark.”

Ariana Grande

sweetener (Republic)

Pop duchess Ariana Grande responds to the horrific terrorism that visited her 2017 Manchester concert by keeping calm and carrying on, and making half a great record to boot. These inward-looking love songs are pretty basic—a lot of lying down and holding and dreaming—but Grande’s fluid vocals bring them to life. The phalanx of producers on sweetener get mixed results—the songs by Max Martin and fellow Swede Ilya Salmanzadeh sound crude and plodding; “God Is a Woman” is too lumbering for Grande’s light sensuality, which sounds better on the sweet pulsing of “R.E.M.” and the title track, both produced by Pharrell Williams. sweetener is wisely frontloaded with Williams’ tracks, and Grande turns his packets of nimble funk into dance floor magic on “blazed” and “borderline.”

Amos Lee

My New Moon (Dualtone)

Amos Lee made his name opening up for Norah Jones and Bob Dylan, and landed a No. 1 record with 2011’s Mission Bell. He slipped a bit with the too-soulful-by-half Spirit (2016), and while he doesn’t lose the affectations on My New Moon, his mood has turned darker. He’s not angry—he’s just bummin’. Sure, there’s “a crooked leader on a crooked stage,” but “it turns out it’s all crooked, y’all.” Lee doesn’t say “I love you,” he says “I look at you and I don’t feel so alone.” To a friend in ambiguous but dire straits, Lee blandly suggests “hang on.” To another in a different song, it’s “don’t fade away.” Amos Lee seems to aim his growly Americana at the NPR set, but sheesh, even “Morning Edition” has more good news than My New Moon—and it’s more articulate with the bad.

Sha La Das

Love in the Wind (Daptone)

The story seems too on-the-nose: The four Schaldas—father Bill and sons Will, Paul, and (hell yes!) Carmine—grew up singing harmonies on their Staten Island stoop, connecting decades later with the Daptone crew that helped make belated stars of Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley with their meticulous revival of ’60s soul. A cynic would view Daptone’s production of a greaser-soul vocal group as an expansion of its retro kingdom, and maybe it is. But the results are swell. Unsurprisingly, Love in the Wind is a sonic delight. And vocally, the Sha La Das are truly greater than the sum of their parts—individually shaky, but together, effortlessly and instantly evoking doo-wop and early ’70s soft soul with broken-but-beautiful vibes, like when you’ve been up all night and you’re about to work a double, but the sun’s coming up on the beach and there’s a song in your cynical heart.

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