Maxwell BLACKsummers' night (Columbia)
Eight years have passed since Now, Maxwell's previous album. Fortunately, though, he's lost none of his musical sophistication, and he remains in possession of an impressively wide-ranging skill set -- one that allows him to achieve most, if not all, of his ambitions. Rather than easing into his return recording, he arrives astride "Bad Habits," a complex creation that requires him to shift vocal textures -- from falsetto to full-throated crooning and back again -- with each compositional change in mood and mode. That's followed by "Cold," a bold portrait of a cruel lover that belies its title with a spicy brass arrangement and a vocal that regularly brings the fire. The production on that cut and elsewhere makes no concessions to current trends, which could have made the material feel hackneyed and dated. However, the likes of "Help Somebody" are so strong that they seem more akin to buried treasures than contemporary attempts at capturing the essence of past masters. Tight and concise, yet impressively wide-ranging, BLACKsummers' night is more than strong enough to keep fans satisfied until the next Maxwell recording. Which should arrive in 2017.
Royal Bangs Let It Beep (Audio Eagle Records)
Knoxville, Tennessee's Royal Bangs record for a label owned by the Black Keys' Patrick Carney -- and it's not hard to figure out why the group fired his imagination. Throughout their second album (and first made in an actual studio), the guitars are loud, persuasive and fuzz-toned, the beats are winningly primitive, and the electronic accoutrements are pitched for high impact instead of tasty decoration. But no one will mistake these players for Keys' clones, since beneath the artsy exterior of their sound beats the heart of pure popsters. Tracks such as "Poison Control" and "Brainbow" start out as if they're going to be quirky, danceable instrumentals instead of catchy finger-poppers, but before they run their course, they still manage to deliver more than their share of hooks - and "Shit Xmas" and "1993" both offer keyboardist/vocalist Ryan Schaefer indelible melodies on which to unleash his high-spirited yelping. Keeping weirdness and accessibility in balance isn't easy, but the Bangs manage it more often than not. Good ear, Mr. Carney.
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Fabolous Loso's Way (Fabolous/Desert Storm)
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The former John David Jackson has a couple of qualities that make him endearing -- namely his tendency toward lyrical overreaching, and his certainty that he's among hip-hop's true geniuses when he's actually a second-tier talent who owes much of his success to aggressive self-promotion. Appropriately, his latest album, which comes with a DVD, was at least partly inspired by a film that wasn't as good as people wanted it to be, either -- the 1993 Al Pacino vehicle Carlito's Way, which Fabolous name-checks in the introductory track, "The Way." Still, the best things about the cut aren't the cinematic allusions, but the bizarro juxtapositions -- like twinning an absurd line ("You'll end up down under, tryin' ta holla at koalas") with an actually sort of clever one ("I keep that nine on me, à la Iguodala" - the Philadelphia 76ers' Andre Iguodala, who wears number nine). The zaniness continues on "Imma Do It," which finds him declaring, "My attitude is celibate/I don't give a fuck" before following up with "My attitude is virgin/I still don't give a fuck," as if the second variation upped the ante on the first one instead of restating it in a dumber manner. The man knows how to merge hardcore posturing with effective hooks, as on the single "Throw It in the Bag," and some tracks actually work up compelling narrative drama - particularly the moody closer, "I Miss My Love." For the most part, though, Loso's Way is like a b-movie: occasionally entertaining, but not exactly a classic.
Bomba Estéreo Blow Up (Nacional Records)
Over the past few years, the Nacional imprint, which specializes in what it describes as "The New Sounds of Latin Music," has created a killer lineup of artists with a variety of styles and backgrounds: Manu Chao, Aterciopelados, Nortec Collective and many more. And Bomba Estéreo, a quintet from Colombia, is yet another thoroughly enjoyable addition to the roster. Lead singer Liliana Saumet's vibrant vocals maintain a connection to the indigenous music of the region while at the same time seeming totally contemporary. Lucky thing, since the settings created by Simón Mejia, BE's musical director, are heavy on loops and electronic treatments that he boosts with live instrumentation courtesy of guitarist Julian Salazar, drummer Kike Egurrola and percussionist Diego Cadavid. Track one, "Cosita Rica," sets an exotic mood, with Saumet locking into the sensuality of the rhythms. After that, Mejia mixes things up: "Fuego" touches on reggae, "Juana" gives off a slightly chilly house-music vibe, "Feelin'" incorporates hip-hop-oriented toasts, and so on. But Blow Up feels consistent, not scattershot -- the sort of album that's capable of starting the party, and keeping it going, and going, and going.