By BRUCE DENNILL
Meek Mill: Dreams Worth More Than Money
Red: Of Beauty And Rage
Train: Does Led Zeppelin II
Michael Buble: My Kind Of Girl
Jon Guerra: Little Songs
Stone Jets: Memory
Dreams Worth More Than Money album kicks off with dramatic orchestral arrangements fit for an opera as Meek Mill (Robert Williams) kicks off with his assured rapping style in Lord Knows. Sound-wise, that’s all great, which makes the immediately evident lyrical threads all the more disappointing (particularly given this album’s title). That song and many more in the collection detail Williams’ dreams as involving money – always – as well as the quest for respect (ironically, given the clichéd chauvinism common to so many artists in this genre. Technically, there is a great deal to like here, with producer Rick Ross delivering a number of good beats as well as the aforementioned muscle in terms of arrangements, often underpinned by forboding synthesised bass. On Jump Out The Face (and others), though, AutoTune is used almost as an extra instrument, diluting the vocal impact Williams and guest artist Future make. There are plenty of other high-profile guests, to, including Nicky Minaj (All Eyes On You and Bad For You), Drake (the agreeably simple R.I.C.O, which nods towards Williams’ roots as a battle rapper), The Weeknd (Pullin Up) and Diddy on the closing Cold Hearted. Over the course of 14 tracks, the relentless minor key and single-note bottom end gets a bit wearing, but that’s all part of the alpha male posing that comes with the territory. Solid stuff.
The cover art for this collection from hard rockers Red depicts a cowled figure wearing a plague mask striding towards the camera, setting a sinister mood similar to that that might be suggested by a horror film using similar imagery. With the occasional instrumental track and a number of thundering but somewhat directionless compositions with vocals, it’s almost as if Red created Of Beauty And Rage as a soundtrack to just such a vision, with a primary focus on mood and tone rather than hooks and approachability. This is not always the case, with Yours Again being a swaggering rocker that recalls Daughtry at his most macho and Gravity Lies a compelling quiet-loud mini-epic that allows singer Michael Barnes to show off his clean leading man credentials alongside his unhinged metal screamer persona. Take Me Over then adds a hint of a house beat to create a slightly different feel, which is necessary for a collection with the otherwise narrow overall dynamic range of this one. Red are an excellent band with a punchy, compact sound, but their sonic range is frustratingly restricted here.
So much could go wrong here. Taking on Led Zeppelin’s legacy for any reason is a foolhardy quest, even if if the band involved is as capable and respected as train and the project is conceived to support a charity (that receives all of the band’s earnings from sales). Also, to recreate an entire album, rather than focusing on the best possible interpretations of a couple of classic tracks requires of listeners a passion for the material at least equal to the performers’. The major plus point in Train’s favour is Pat Monahan’s voice. He’s one – perhaps the best – of only of a handful of rock singers who can really do justice to Robert Plant’s range and trademark tone. If nothing else, this collection should persuade naysayers who’ve argued against that claim when Monahan has, in the past, been considered as a replacement for Plant should the singer continue to be wary of occasional reunions. That’s a pretty inconsequential argument, though, as the chances of a hodge-podge Zeppelin-plus-guests get-together are remote at best. Do Train, regardless of all these considerations, do a good job with the material from Led Zeppelin II? Unsurprisingly, yes – they’re a technically top-notch outfit, and these songs still work as well as they did (that is to say, to varying levels of success) when first released. Whole Lotta Love remains one of hard rock’s cornerstones; Thank You’s combination of folk whimsy and muscular strut still appeal; and Ramble On’s acoustic strum-into-headbanging chorus structure will, it seems, never age. You won’t, if you already have the original album, need to invest this, but you are a Train fan first and only getting exposed to Zeppelin because of this diversion, the idea will have been worthwhile artistically as well as altruistically.
Michael Buble is a tone and mood kind of artist; not someone attempting to branch out too much or to put at risk a model that has seen him enjoy sustained popularity for nearly two decades now. As such, the whole of My Kind Of Girl is a safe but cheerful and well-curated brand extension that sees the singer, now in his forties, still being able to cater to listeners a generation younger with pop tunes like the title track, Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow and Someday (featuring Meghan Trainor and co-written by Harry Styles, thus ticking further popularity boxes) while continuing to showcase his love for jazzy standards in the equally appealing – no small feat, that – My Kind Of Girl, The Very Thought Of You, I Wanna Be Around and My Baby Just Cares For Me. Given the different styles and themes of these different genres, it feels like the sequencing of the album, which sees them all mixed together, shouldn’t work. But it does, because Buble’s own calculated cool is transferred in some way to the listener, and the fun he seems to have singing the songs becomes difficult to deny, even if some of the choices are available in a hundred other guises. It’s ironic, then, that a sparse, closing take on the Beach Boys’ eternally gorgeous God Only Knows is probably the best thing on the album, offering something more profound – in tone and performance terms – than is delivered elsewhere.
Christian singer-songwriter Jon Guerra underlines perhaps the most important aspect of the work he and others in his niche create – beyond the chart results, sales or critical acclaim. He recognises that his compositions are the most sincere mode of worship he can offer, and in the title track for Little Songs – “They are the best this little child can do, so for now, receive my heart through every little song” – he kicks off this debut album with a moment that is both cheerfully feel-good and philosophically weighty. Beyond that, his style recalls Owl City’s gentle, electronica-tinged output. There is always a faith-based thread in the lyrics, but many of the songs play well as commercial pop, with Wherever You Are likely to appeal to a wide age range as well as listeners who also enjoy folk music. The relative slightness of Guerra’s voice (that’s not a synonym for weak; it’s wonderfully pure) is countered by rich production that allows for plenty of space while also creating thrilling dynamics. This means that even the songs more likely to work exclusively (based on lyrical content) in church scenarios, such as Bound For Glory, sound of a sort with singles from more mainstream artists. He doesn’t shy away from tough themes – I Will Follow addresses maintaining belief when it seems foolish – but Guerra’s sensitive style keeps the drama quotient low.
Stone Jets, though considerably younger than their forebears, share the sonic pedigree of wonderful South African folk-rockers like Bright Blue, Hot Water and Beatenberg. Songwriters Given Nkanyane and Manfred Klose are responsible for the core of the sound through Nkanyane’s sublime vocals and Klose’s exuberant guitar work. Perhaps the standout aspect of their output is the feeling of joy the music evokes. Interestingly, it’s not that the themes of the songs are necessarily upbeat, but rather that the sound that comes through the speakers acts as a tonic; making you feel … better. I Can’t Live Without You kicks things off with a high falsetto and builds into something that’s too subtle to be termed an “anthem” but which has all those hooks, singability and popular appeal. How Can You continues in that vein, showcasing a production sensibility that prizes clarity over clutter. Tired Of Missing you sounds more optimistic than its title suggests, as does This Time (“This time I’m leaving” is just one of the lyrics that confirms that you can sing with a smile on your face and sadness in your heart). Given these patterns, the title track is perhaps the least typical, a simple strummed melody that highlights how unnecessary embellishment is if basic song structure is strong. Memory being an EP rather than a full album is the only disappointment – there will be more from this band, count on it, but what’s on show here will leave listeners impatient for more.