Hear Me Out
Estelle, ‘All of Me’
When West London soul sista Estelle blew up over the success of “American Boy,” she seemed destined for the big time. But then she slipped off our radar, letting four years pass before dropping her third album, “All of Me,” a confident-but-underwhelming follow-up that gets a lift from swaggering back-to-back grooves – “The Life,” a celebratory party anthem, and cameo-stuffed “International (Serious)” with Chris Brown – before backing down on her promise: “Ain’t slowing down, I only know speed.” Not for long, though, as she decelerates into mid-tempos that mellow out the get-this-party-started vibe. Of them, “Break My Heart” exposes Rick Ross’ romantic soft side (who knew?), while “Thank You” and “Wonderful Life” are charmingly optimistic, even if none of them achieve the greatness of the artists she’s going for (Lauryn Hill and Amy Winehouse, both of their landmark albums referenced). And those tedious group-therapy dialogues about relationships, acceptance and the ethics of cheating? They’re old-trick and only superfluous to the music, which does just fine covering all the bases of love’s ups and downs, whether Estelle’s loving herself – and rapping about it – on “Speak Ya Mind” or loving up on someone else on the sexy ’80s R&B flashback “Cold Crush.” Two things really shine here: “Back to Love,” a bittersweet song set to a disco shimmer, and a collaboration with Janelle Monae on the sassy girl-group update “Do My Thing.” On “All of Me,” those things are almost worth the long wait. Grade: B-
The Ting Tings, ‘Sounds from Nowheresville’
At least the scrappy pop-incarnation known as The Ting Tings are in on the joke: “Sounds from Nowheresville” is exactly that. Songs without a point and the hookability of breakout single “That’s Not My Name” – and ones that go, well, nowhere: This is a major come-down from the buzz they created with 2008’s listenable-if-novelty romp “We Started Nothing.” They started something, but the English alt-rock duo of Katie White and Jules de Martino, in an act of stubborn defiance, pretend none of that ever happened, going for dirty ’90s grunge-pop – and doing it with amateurish aptitude – rather than tapping into the retro awesomeness of their claim to fame. And this was no accident: They scrapped the original version of this album because it sounded too radio. “This could have been perfection, but we had a little sense,” sings White on “Give it Back.” “So we started all again.” So, despite label’s thumbs up, they rebelled with… this? Not much of this frustratingly bad offering sounds mainstream – it’s too demo-like, garage-band sounding for that – and, also, not much of it’s any good. Their sound salad starts with the decent lead-in “Silence,” part Portishead, before heading into nine other songs, most of them half-baked, that last a mere 33 minutes. Thank god. “Sounds from Nowheresville” is a cobbled mess of screaming rants (“Guggenheim”), awful ’80s knock-offs (“One by One”) and Avril Lavigne soft-rockers (“Help”) – a persistent WTF dangling over every one of these poorly mastered and performed songs. Oh, what could’ve been. Grade: D
Andrew Bird, ‘Break It Yourself’
Get past that awful indie Instagram cover art and the folkster’s not nearly as bad as first impressions let on. The follow-up to his last proper album, 2009’s “Noble Beast,” the singer-songwriter veteran’s 12th full-length is stretched in multiple directions: traditional folk (easy-sounding “Lazy Projector”), chamber pop and tango-tinged spirituality. And there is, of course, the whistling. Several tracks feature Bird’s requisite dog call, and they’re also often beautifully strewn with strings, marimbas and, on the pretty coda, wind chimes. But halfway through, right as the brief interlude “Behind the Barn” creeps in on violin, the laid-back vibe becomes – pretty as it is – background music that can’t quite push through to the end.
K’naan, ‘More Beautiful than Silence’
Few rappers would go as tender-hearted with an album title as this Somali-born one does, but that’s part of what sets K’naan off from other fathers of flow: he’s hip-hope. “Better” is a decent chin-up mantra for the ages, effectively working in a Coldplay sample; “Is Anybody Out There?” could easily fit the It Gets Better campaign, and no wonder it’s the first single from this five-song EP – it’s that good. Nelly Furtado lays down empathic vocals for the call-out chorus, punctuating sensitive stories of struggle about an insecure girl and a drug-addicted boy who are “crying for your love tonight.” More beautiful than silence? Sure. But we prefer he speak up.