Beware, there will be Björk sympathizers who will try their best to convince you Biophilia is a return-to-form for the iconic Icelandic pixie. But save for a few enthralling moments where Björk’s unmistakable caterwauling deftly matches the experimentations she reeled in for this go-around, Biophilia is full of flat, pretentious compositions that usually fizzle out before there’s any semblance of a song. Take it from a Björk sympathizer, it kills me to even write a sentence like that. But let’s face facts: since Medulla, Björk has been blinding us with bewildering concept and unparalleled pomp, instead of gracing us with abstract future-forward pop, like that on Post and Homogenic. Only those who have seen Biophilia’s immersive stage show or purchased every little individual iPad doodad know the real inner truths of the album, right? I will willfully travel endless miles to see the woman perform in the flesh, and I have no bones about Björk manipulating hardcore fans into paying for the album twice via overpriced and underdeveloped interactive “games,” but none of it connects.

In a recent interview, Björk revealed that she was approached by National Geographic to be the first musical artist signed and distributed by the magazine. That seems fitting as Biophilia’s overriding theme deals with, and is figuratively inspired by, the Earth’s elements. At any moment on the record, it also appears Björk’s lyrics could have come directly from the pages of the magazine. There is no ambiguity in Biophilia’s message, with song titles like “Thunderbolt” (which fails on its promise), “Virus” and “Solstice.” Björk’s concept is clear as day or dark as night. Unfortunately, the album suffers from too much misguided moonlight. The assumption that Björk’s vocals could work within the infinity of black hole space and other desolate climes here on Earth isn’t far-fetched; she’s used the smallest of elements before. Over time, Vespertine has revealed itself as a micro-masterpiece, and even Volta has subsequently blossomed. Maybe that’s the fate of Biophilia? It might take years to fully comprehend, but for now her appropriation of grimy experiments, as on the digging-in-the-dirt abrasiveness of “Dark Matter” and the completely one-dimensional drones of “Hollow,” is incredibly dull. Where once Björk ushered in genre mutations and an abjectly opulent sort of pop, she’s now cribbing from dubstep (see the end of “Crystalline”) and working with worrisome beats made for her younger self (“Mutual Core”), leaving many of us wondering if she has become blinded by her own past genius.
Kevin J. Elliott

Ryan Adams
Ashes & Fire

Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams’ 2000 debut solo album, was both a high watermark and an unintentional swan song for the alt-country genre that had its best days behind it. With sophisticated melodies placed in stark contrast to Adams’ emotionally raw lyrics, Heartbreaker suggested a bright future for the ex-Whiskeytown frontman, instead of the one we got, which was mostly filled with bloodless Springsteen posturing.

It should come as a relief then that Ashes & Fire sounds like the lost follow-up to that album, infused with the kind of effortless Americana that made Heartbreaker so beloved. The similarities are most evident on opener “Dirty Rain” which, not coincidentally, is the album’s best song. Borrowing a vocal melody from Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” Adams walks through the ruins of a relationship with confused but cautious optimism. Elsewhere, he candidly yearns for domestic creature comforts on “Come Home” and exorcises his Springsteen demons with the subdued anthem, “Lucky Now.”

But while Adams has his head and heart in the right places, Ashes and Fire is little more than a step in the right direction, rather than a full-fledged return-to-form. The most conspicuous qualities missing from Ryan Adams 2.0 are his wit and his mean streak, which added an edge to past classics like “Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains)” and “Come Pick Me Up.” Here, Adams’ one-note sentimentality, while honest, makes him come off as the guy always in the corner at parties: nice, but kind of a bore.
David Holmes

Real Estate

If it’s reasonable to say that Real Estate’s first album was an explicit nod to Yo La Tengo, then it’s fair to suggest that this one is their Galaxie 500 tribute album. Call it “Listen, the Sun Is Shining.” Though they occasionally manage more momentum than the slowcore standard-bearers, they’ve found a similarly nostalgic sheen for even the most up-tempo tracks on Days. It’s the auditory equivalent of those smartphone photos on Facebook that your friends have digitally aged to make them look less perfect and therefore more authentic. The whole album is packed with seemingly unrelated images of winter on the way, train tracks in the middle of nowhere, open fields—lyrical Polaroids pulled out at random—though you’ll only know it if you can get through the thick cobwebs of reverb that hang all over everything.

What makes this different from their less-hazy debut is that Real Estate seems to be recalling the beach party, rather than attending it, though it might all have just been a dream. As they sing on “Three Blocks,” “Endless summer under pine trees and a springtime spent by the sea. All those people all around me, were they strangers or was it me?” Are they talking about their peers? Since the band’s last release, an awful lot of bands have joined the big indie-poppy luau, riding the Wavves or getting totally Washed Up on the shore. “It’s too much to focus on” (as they sing on “Younger Than Yesterday”), so instead they let it all blur together into a general impression of lost days barely remembered, at least “until the dream is done.” The overall effect makes you so bleary-eared that when all the reverb and atmosphere drops away suddenly in the middle of “Out of Tune,” it’s like a soft smack in the face, a startling moment of clarity in the middle of an album most suitable for a nap in the sun while you think about your childhood regrets.
Matt Slaybaugh

Jane’s Addiction
The Great Escape Artist

For all the chatter about the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, it’s interesting that neither of Jane’s Addiction’s two benchmark albums were celebrated with similar fanfare or reissue treatments upon hitting that milestone. While there’s no denying that Nirvana is the sales champion, arguably Jane’s Addiction set the stage for alternative’s embrace by mainstream America. Nothing’s Shocking, Ritual de lo Habitual and the launching of Lollapalooza were as effective a gateway drug as Kurt Cobain’s angst-ridden lyrics and Dave Grohl’s monstrous backbeat, but Jane’s broke up before alternative became a cash cow and none of the band members’ subsequent spin-offs ever really caught the imagination of fans. The band eventually embarked on a couple of “relapse” tours (without bassist Eric Avery, who declined to participate) before finally hitting the studio for 2003’s return Strays. They did eventually reunite with Avery in 2008, but he exited the fold once more before the band entered to the studio to record The Great Escape Artist.

At the time, Strays seemed like a respectable return, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who still listens to it. So there’s still the lingering question of whether Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro and Steven Perkins are capable of recapturing the magic. Thankfully, The Great Escape Artist doesn’t have to be graded on a curve. While there’s nothing that approaches Jane’s Addiction’s best work, it still sounds how you hope it would. Songs like “Underground” and “Twisted Tales” hit the perfect balance between atmosphere and rock and showcase the members playing their roles perfectly. And the rotated bass players—Strays-era Chris Chaney, TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagen—hit just the right presence on the songs. The band doesn’t seem concerned with trying to appear contemporary. Instead, they just made a Jane’s Addiction album. While they may miss out on some hosannas, The Great Escape Artist shows that their legacy is, presently and for the forseeable future, rock solid.
Dorian S. Ham

My Brightest Diamond
All Things Will Unwind
Asthmatic Kitty

My previous experience with My Brightest Diamond had me chalking frontwoman Shara Worden up as a high-concept, conservatory-educated Björk empathizer in league with big-production folk-scenester Sufjan Stephens. All Things Unwind, though, takes a bit of a different tact, away from the remix-ready bloopy soundscapes I’d heard before and further into jazzy, folk-eschewing amplification to achieve a certain (pre-prohibition?) sound. It’s unfortunate that when a more modern rhythm is used with the plinks and strums of tiny stringed instruments, as on “Reaching Through to the Other Side,” it just doesn’t jibe. All Things reaches the pinnacle of this throwback genre on songs filled with squeaking squeezebox and moody vocals, like “I Have Never Loved Someone” and “In The Beginning,” whose string arrangement is twisted with flurries of flute.

At the very least, Worden is doing something new. This is not grunge or nü-garage or nuevo soul or calypso rap. It may be seafaring in the way the Decemberists are nautical, and though you do hear too much of that lately, you’ve got to love it. I mean, you really have to love it or else you’re going to claw your eyes out every time you hear it in a store or on a commercial. I’m sure there was a point in the ’90s when Eurythmics fans had to come to terms with Annie Lennox’s solo career and the pervasiveness of her music. It was as if she’d become a new beast all together. Nowadays, punk youngsters really like the globbed-on cosmetic look of the Human League, and that’s okay with me. Vamping and haute couture posturing are coming back in style, maybe less as a full rejection of the thriftstore values of grunge and garage and more as a mutually respectful recognition of the other side of the coin. There is a change going on in music, and it started bubbling to the surface when Antony let Lou Reed sing on one of his songs. Conservatory kids are learning how to actually write good music, though admittedly not enough time has passed to forget when Tori Amos covered “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Remember that? I’m sure My Brightest Diamond does as well.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Reaching Through to the Other Side”