Sleep Well Beast
(4AD *** 1/2)
Forced reinvention is a trap for aging rock striving to make it new, and one that The National deftly avoid on their seventh album. Instead of attempting to dramatically alter their patient, world weary sound, the band fronted by erudite baritone Matt Berninger and featuring two sets of multi-instrumentalist brothers (most crucially Aaron and Bryce Dessner, who write and co-produce with Berninger) subtly integrate digital elements and electronic dissonance without upending their trademark thinking dude’s approach. Literate lyricist Berninger references John Cheever and his fondness for gin while confidently letting the Tom Waits and Nick Cave influence show, and the smartly sequenced 12 song set moves satisfyingly from quieter, more contemplative moments like “Born To Beg” to burst of aggression such as “Turtleneck.” If they’ve never really grabbed you, a good place to start. —Dan DeLuca
Yusuf / Cat Stevens
The Laughing Apple
(Cat-O-Log / Decca; *** stars)
After creating some of the most beloved albums of the early 1970s singer-songwriter era, Cat Stevens (born Steven Georgiou), converted to Islam, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and retired from the music business for nearly three decades. In 2006, he started recording again (going solely by Yusuf). The Laughing Apple, his fourth album since his return, is a self-conscious nod to his early career: He’s working with several of his Tea For The Tillerman collaborators, and, aside from three new compositions, he’s revisiting songs he wrote 50 years ago (when New Masters, his second album, came out).
A childlike simplicity runs through The Laughing Apple, in the lilting, allegorical title track, in the expanded nursery rhyme “Mary and the Little Lamb,” and in the lullaby “I’m So Sleepy.” He sings about aging in “Grandsons” and then gets his eight grandkids to contribute to “Mighty Peace.” At times, The Laughing Apple sounds like a children’s album, but that’s part of the same comforting innocence that was central to “Moonshadow” and “Oh Very Young” and other Cat Stevens hits from the ’70s. —Steve Klinge
Prophets of Rage
Prophets of Rage
Last year, around this time, Chuck D — mouthpiece-lyricist for Public Enemy and Prophets of Rage — told this writer that he started Prophets with Tom Morello to create “an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront a mountain of election year bull—-, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.” The roar created by D, Cypress Hill’s B-Real and guitarist Morello’s Rage Against the Machine band-mates was as lyrically incendiary, sonically corrosive and rhythmically pummeling as anything associated with the ’90s most ferocious socio-political rock and rap. That same sound, however, often seemed stuck in ’90s era-appropriate riffs and production tips.
Now for the band’s self-titled album, producer Brendan O’Brien (Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Mastodon’s recent Emperor of Sand) graces Rage with a clarion, clearly-delineated ambiance. Here, each verbal joust between D and B-Real (rhyming partners rather than each other’s hype man) and Morello crunch crackles like fire. It might seem funny to call “Unf%$k the World” a universal plea for oneness, but its “Time’s Changin’/One Nation/Unification” chant states otherwise. Ranting for righteous causes like homelessness (“Living on the 110”) and making activism sexy (“Radical Eyes”) read heavy-handed and oafish, but the positive pragmatism of “The Counteroffensive” and “Smashit,” more than make up for any staleness. Plus, it’s great hearing B-Real in a context that isn’t strictly weed-and-smoke-centric. Rage on, gentlemen. —A.D. Amorosi