Elton John, ‘The Diving Board’
The advantage of being an aging icon is the artistic freedom to do whatever the hell you want. And when you’re Elton John – legend, diva, grand master of pop – your high-ranking order merits an LP like “The Diving Board,” a throwback in the sense that he recorded it, upon the request of producer T Bone Burnett, much like the albums of his heyday: by not overthinking it. This approach makes for a respectable, mostly non-mainstream work still rooted in John’s name-making blues brand and blossoming balladry. “Home Again,” the first single, is the latter – a tuneful adult-contempo meditation that’s primed for Disney film closing credits. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It’s a lovely piano composition. It moves you. It’s Elton John post-millennium. The drug-less John. Dad John. Also: It doesn’t flicker out as soon as it’s over like some of the more languorous, here-and-gone melodies on “Diving Board” (there’s little weight to the bluesier tracks). And that the production slightly falls short of the words that John’s longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin scribed is unfortunate; the album is a lyrical masterpiece in scope and poeticism. There are many times, though, where divine production meets divine songwriting, and during them – the graceful piano piece “My Quicksand,” and the true-story song “The Ballad of Blind Tom” – John reminds you that, yes, at 66 he’s still got it. Grade: B
Chvrches, ‘The Bones of What You Believe’
Mark my word: The whole world will soon be worshipping Chvrches (pronounced churches, but not because they’re holy rollers), one of the best new bands to enter the electro-pop fold in the last few years. Their shimmering alt-pop singles – the tremendous “Lies” and “Recover” among them – have already boosted their profile from Glaswegian basement band to blog-born new-wave Einsteins. With their ’80s-chic-meets-Robyn-bleak spirit, and the childish sweetness of lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry, the Scottish trio’s debut LP is a wonderland of ear-sugar and earnest displays of endearing lyricism – its heart beats as much as those delicious hooks. With its stuttered go-oh-oh-ohs and yo-yo sound, “The Mother We Share” wraps your mind instantly in its infectious reverie. “We Sink” does synth circles before dropping into an ominous chorus that has Mayberry warning, “I’ll be a thorn in your side till you die.” “Gun” whoops into a frenzied confection, the lurching “Lungs” finishes with vocal contrast from bandmate Martin Doherty, and the penultimate “By the Throat” is a refreshing tonal shift – slowed down and dreamy, but like the rest of this charming set, easy to get lost in. “The Bones of What You Believe” is the beginning of the next big thing. Grade: A-
Natalia Kills, ‘Trouble’
You can just lay off the Lady Gaga comparisons when it comes to Natalia Kills; with “Trouble,” the English siren is making a name for herself. Her sophomore follow-up to “Perfectionist,” featuring breakout single “Mirrors,” is a major step up from her debut. With more to say, and with better beats to deliver those childhood-inspired stories, Kills rocks her pop-dance sound with some Pink-ish badassery (see hooky “Trouble”). But there’s plenty of pain, too. “Marlboro Lights” is a wistful song that cuts deep, and “Saturday Night” dances off the heartbreak of a broken home.
Gloria Estefan, ‘The Standards’
There’s no body shaking for the conga queen on her second album of covers (you remember 1994, when Estefan released a single off “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” with drag queen lookalikes). This, however, is Gloria’s first go at the Great American Songbook, a low-key collection of cabaret-style numbers that find her reinterpreting classics from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. The proceedings are fairly standard themselves, as the production, which includes Dave Koz on sax, faithfully sticks to the originals. It’s all kind of “been there, done that.”