Britney Spears, “Glory” (RCA ☆☆☆)
Coupled with her Las Vegas residency and this fun and fizzy dance-pop album, a welcome improvement after 2013’s desultory “Britney Jean,” the recent MTV Video Music Awards were supposed to be a platform for Britney Spears’ big comeback. It didn’t quite work out that way: Though not nearly such a train wreck as the 2007 showing that seemed to sound a death knell for her career, this time around, the onetime VMA snake handler was stiff on stage and awkward in her exchanges with lanky white rapper G-Eazy. The performance also made the 34-year-old Spears seem bland and passé in comparison to larger-than-life contemporary stars like Beyonce, Rihanna and Kanye West. But her dearth of personality isn’t as much of a liability on recordings as it is on stage. On the best of “Glory” – the hot and bothered “Do You Want to Come Over?”, the spaced-out “Man on the Moon,” the cleverly crafted “Clumsy” – Spears sounds engaged rather than vacant, as committed to concocting winning pop trifles as she has been in a decade.
Cass McCombs, “Mangy Love” (Anti ☆☆☆1/2)
“No more cliché songs,” Cass McCombs sings on “Cry,” and the cryptic, empathetic, and funny “Mangy Love” lives up to that lofty goal. Although the music is an accessible but shape-shifting blend of loping Laurel Canyon rock, gently orchestrated folk, and understated psychedelic soul (in the vein of Shuggie Otis), the lyrics are hard to pin down.
At one moment, he’s proclaiming didactically, “Men, respect your sister and respect your queen.” In another, he’s singing ironically about a “rancid girl.” “Laughter Is the Best Medicine,” according to one song, but elsewhere, he presents somber truths: “It is not wealth to have more than others / it is not peace when others are in pain.” “Mangy Love,” McCombs’ eighth album, has serious things to say about gender and race relations and the healing power of nature and love, but it does so in subtle and unstable ways.
Banks & Steelz, “Anything But Words” (Warner Bros. ☆☆ 1/2)
In a month when the cartoony “Suicide Squad” sound track has its share of swank rap/electro-disco pairings (e.g. Rick Ross meets Skrillex) and old-school electronic producers are hooking up with fresher indie voices for newly formed duos (Fudge, created by Prefuse 73 and MC Michael Christmas), why shouldn’t RZA and the singer from Interpol get in on the action? RZA is famed as the de factor leader/sonic conceptualist/Shaolin provocateur for Wu-Tang Clan, and Paul Banks is a blond guy with a unique vocal manner, and is partnered up with model Helena Christensen when he isn’t making moody punk-disco. Let’s get that together, gents.
With RZA rapping low and tough to Banks’ salted-caramel screech, “Anything But Words” is a back-and-forth bounce between what Tina Turner once called “the nice and rough.” Most of its songs, like “Giant,” have a pattern where RZA comes in gruff and mean with a fast rhythm and “ghost-y” melody behind him, leaving Banks to slow things down and bring all of its elements to a lovely denouement.
There are eerie exceptions – the crepuscular operatic “Ana Electronic” and the scary movie-hop “Speedway Sonora,” in which Riz shouts, “I shot the wolf with a silver bullet” – but mostly, Banks & Steelz is fast/slow, mean/cheerful, bang/pop that’s solid but never quite as amazing as you need it to be.