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Tori Amos, ‘Unrepentant Geraldines’
It took Christmas carols, 400-year-old classical music themes and a lovestruck “light princess” for Tori Amos to recapture her burned-out muse. The fire, though, is back with “Unrepentant Geraldines,” the piano banshee’s first contemporary release since 2009. It was clear then, with the middling “Abnormally Attracted to Sin,” that Amos was wringing out a dry towel; the peculiarities abided, but the music was some of the most uninspired babble of Amos’ career. Apparently, if you wanna jumpstart your career, you study Schubert. Amos is reinvigorated on “Unrepentant Geraldines,” a compelling return to the back-to-basics sound of her ’90s zenith. Though “16 Shades of Blue,” which tackles ageism, is a wonky tech-flecked, laser-beaming ballad delivered on a synth bed, and the gorgeous guitar earthiness of “America” could have been an outtake from “Scarlet’s Walk,” Amos lets the Bosendorfer take center stage. She’s weak in love on “Wild Way,” a starry-eyed beauty, and “Invisible Boy,” also piano-led, is tender, endearing and nostalgic. “Boy” is an obvious standout, a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any of Tori’s earliest works. Then there’s “Promise,” an inspiring conversation with Amos’ daughter that sweetly embodies the lifelong bond between mother and child. If classical music and holiday carols inspire this kind of work, Tori, get that Christmas playlist going right now. Grade: B+
Neon Trees, ‘Pop Psychology’
Musicians can be funny about their sexuality defining their music, but on Neon Trees’ latest, the gayness of frontman Tyler Glenn – now out, now proud – is embedded into every technicolor beat of the band’s cool synth-pop. Coming of age and shamelessly sex-focused, “Pop Psychology,” the Mormon band’s third release, is practically a rite of passage. Because though it’s a nonstop rush of New Wave, the first album since Glenn’s coming out goes deeper than its superficial shell – a shell that’s radio accessible but also just a monotonous drone of instantly gratifying beats muddled into one big blur. Uniform to a fault, the disc is front-loaded with a tiring parade of disposable bubblegum party pop: “Love in the 21st Century,” a sly observation on modern-day yearning; the first single, “Sleeping with a Friend”; and “I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends),” where Glenn celebrates “your blatant sexuality.” As a reflection of contemporary relationships and sexual exploration, and writing-wise, “Pop Psychology” is an engrossing project, making the album all the more frustrating. During the back half, there’s promise in a duet with his bandmate, Elaine Bradley, on “Unavoidable,” and with a synth loop reminiscent of Alphaville’s “Forever Young” on “Voices in the Hall.” The rest should be as solid, but it’s just not. Instead, Neon Trees’ latest leaves you with a bunch of coulda-beens. Grade: C
Augustana, ‘Life Imitating Life’
Augustana has come a long way from “Boston,” the song that put the San Diego band on the map and is easily their most well-known. Since its release in 2005, though, those romanticized rhythms have more in common with Bruce Springsteen than Coldplay … and the band members? Except for bearded frontman Dan Layus, they’ve all bailed. Still, committing to the soulful heartland sound of its underappreciated predecessor, “Life Imitating Life” is another earnest outing, and “Remember Me,” a sincerely moving coda, is its swan song.
Neneh Cherry, ‘Blank Project’
Had time been at a stand-still, Neneh Cherry could’ve slipped this one by without anyone questioning the 18 years that have passed in the interim. It’s been that long since Cherry released “Man,” but you’d never know it by the ingenuity and tangibility of her experimental comeback “Blank Project.” And it’s more than that, even: The greatest asset here is Cherry’s disarming honesty, a quality that makes liberating fodder out of “Weightless” and “Out of the Black,” featuring someone who knows a little something about dancing on your own: fellow Swede Robyn.