The Knack Music Reviews

Maroon 5 Tightens Up on 'V'

The guys of Maroon 5 have the art of making pop records down pat. They've been sneaking into ear canals and embedding seemingly irremovable songs in four minutes flat for more than a decade. And lately, they've been doing it spite of lead singer Adam Levine, who's wrestled with an unsavory image for a while now (for the record, he gets why you may think he is a douchebag, but is, in fact, not one).  

They've also been accused of leaving behind their brand of honeyed California coastal soul (see "Sunday Morning") in favor of full-on pop jams ("Payphone"). Sure, a great deal of their success can be credited to going that route. However, a close listen to fifth album V reveals that their foundation has not been removed. Levine's hummingbird vocals and passionate delivery are as earnest as they were on their 2002 debut Songs About Jane.   

Since then, they've buddied up with big-name producers -- Benny Blanco, Shellback and Ryan Tedder all assisted on V. Levine's also become a master at stretching and twisting words, like he did with that final "moves" in the "Moves Like Jagger" chorus. Such additions put V in the fast lane to chart-topping victory: after all, lead single "Maps" peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100, and follow-up "Animals" is creeping up the chart now.
V is a tight relationship album, clocking in just shy of 41 minutes. Capturing, losing, and demanding love is the set's focus. To find out what songs Billboard fell hardest for, check out our track-by-track review of the new album.

Twenty-seven million album sales and multiple Max Martin collaborations into its career, Maroon 5 can no longer accurately be called a rock band, as much as Adam Levine's increasingly dense skin canvass of tattoos might seem to indicate that the label still applies. As the band has maintained a consistent presence in the global pop market over the past decade, whatever sharp edges it displayed on 2002's Songs About Jane—the cheeky garage-guitars on "Harder to Breathe", say—have been sanded down, lacquered over, and decorated with an impressively slick array of flashy sonic embellishments, culminating in the parade of top-ten singles produced by its 2012 effort Overexposed. When a band starts releasing songs via lucrative inclusions in Kia Soul commercials (see: the recent offering "Animals"), it's fair to identify that behavior as selling out. But if you take Maroon 5 for what it's become—a meticulously produced pop act with a barely detectable rock pedigree—then it's worth crediting the band for having spawned a distinctive sub-species of guilty-pleasure earworm, one containing just enough traces of actual instruments to remind listeners that digital synthesizers haven't completely cannibalized rock 'n' roll.

Co-written with four of pop music's reigning hit-machines, including Benny Blanco and Ryan Tedder, V's lead single "Maps" epitomizes the formula that has secured Maroon 5 a seemingly ubiquitous presence on the radio. As with the melismatic groove that distinguishes "Moves Like Jagger", "Maps" optimizes Levine's remarkably flexible falsetto by adding surprising vocal touches like the melodic uptick on the line "map that leads to you-ou" and the downwardly cascading, vocal-exercise-esque delivery of the verb "following". Like Tedder's recent hits with his own band One Republic, the song pivots sharply between verse, pre-chorus, and chorus in such a way as to hold the listener's attention throughout, not always an easy feat in an era when the "shuffle" command is just a finger-swipe away. The song harnesses Police's breezy guitar licks as well as Daft Punk's disco danceability, anchoring those two elements with peppy handclaps and percussion that builds and relieves pressure as the song's structure switches gears.
Maroon 5 hits a far more innovative stride on "Sugar" and "Feelings", two songs that manage to elegantly hybridize syncopated funk grooves and synth-driven '80s nostalgia. In interviews, Levine constantly mentions his adoration for Stevie Wonder, and these two tracks bring him as close as he'll probably ever get to sounding like his idol. "Sugar" hits a sweet spot by layering a subtly funky guitar pulse over gossamer synths and multiple tracks of Levine's easy-on-the-ears upper range, while "Feelings" draws on the disco catalogue yet sneaks in transgressive turns-of-phrase such as "You and me let's go all night / Going so high we fucked the sky / Come with me now fuck that guy." While "Sugar" and "Feelings" benefit from collaborations with Dr. Luke and Shellback, respectively, fun. lead singer Nate Ruess's co-writer credit can be felt a bit too ham-handedly on "Leaving California", which finds Levine's hyper-earnest delivery sounding exactly like Ruess's, while lifting melodic passages straight off the sheet music for fun.'s hit "We Are Young".

If V doesn't seem destined to yield the formidable helping of catchy singles that Overexposed did, the album delivers a consistent palette of genre-melding pop offerings and affable fist-pumping anthems, on the whole surpassing the flaccid duo of records released in the wake of Songs About Jane. Leaving scrappier rock behind for the sunny horizons of chart-friendly pop was surely a wise commercial move for Maroon 5, but reaching for ubiquity on the singles chart often means sacrificing any hope of making a conceptually cohesive and musically sophisticated album. As far as lightweight, easy-listening charts pop goes, V doesn't totally offend the sensibilities, and that's surely more than can be said about some of Maroon 5's overly pandering, less exploratory "pop-rock" peers.

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Ingrid Michaelson: Lights Out

If voices were candle scents, Ingrid Michaelson would be the warm, buttery aroma you'd burn in early fall: comfortable, cozy, and effortlessly personal. Until recently, Michaelson was all about fuzzy feelings. However, her newest album "Lights Out" features songs that have transitioned out of the coffee shop and into more adventurous territory.

Cue the disappointment of all the Ingrid Michaelson fans who liked her the way she was. Her music, which consisted of syrupy singing over simple backup vocals, has transformed into a bluegrass derivative that relies heavily on intricate background music. For example, in "Home," which is more synth-pop in flavor, Michaelson layers drums, flutes, and electronic "ooh-ooh" harmonies in order to deepen the soulfulness of her voice. 
This is far from the Ingrid we once knew in the Old Navy commercial, where her song "The Way I Am" perfectly served to advertise holiday sweaters. It was a song one could easily hum to a significant other while intimately snuggled on a couch in front of the fireplace. Now, her songs are darker and more mature: The lyrics in the songs evoke a deeper journey of longing, searching, and losing. She's no longer a singer easily emulated.

There are also many artist collaborations on this album and a larger co-writing staff. But fans shouldn't be disappointed. This album is more than a feeble attempt to push genre boundaries or to follow the folksy craze spearheaded by Mumford & Sons or Of Monsters and Men.
Michaelson acknowledges that "Lights Out" will be an experimental journey for both herself and her listeners. Songs like "Home," "Wonderful Unknown," and "You Got Me" all have a connected lyrical theme reflecting on Michaelson finding her identity, as well as a new stability. She invites her listeners to enter the unfamiliar with lyrics like "Into the dark and wonderful unknown, let us go." These songs differ the most from the original Michaelson flavor. They possess the upbeat elements of indie pop, rather than the soft strummings of a ukulele.
Other songs on this album - "Warpath," "Time Machine," and "Girls Chase Boys" - would make a great dance party playlist. They all contain strong bass beats and a driving cymbal ticking sure to encourage some shoulder thrusts and head rolls. These musical elements seamlessly aid in Michaelson's metamorphosis from easy listening to bubbly indie pop. Old fans may not like her new transition, but new audiences will fall in love with it right away.

But not all of her older essence is gone. Long-time listeners will enjoy the songs "Ready To Lose," "Over You," and "Everyone Is Gonna Love Me Now." They are very reminiscent of her preceding classics "Overboard" or "Are We There Yet." With these, Michaelson employs her softer side with an ever-beautiful trick that makes her audience feel as if she were singing solely to them.

These songs serve as a training bra for old fans, becoming a necessary and easy transition that is both comforting and exciting. Michaelson subtly weaves in characteristics distinctive of her newer style, such as faded vocals and poppy rhythms, while concluding each song on a louder, heavier dynamic.

While Ingrid Michaelson is no longer that slow-burning autumn candle, her older fans should not feel disappointed by her fresh scent. Michaelson has experimented a lot with sound, style, and instrumentation in "Lights Out" but has not completely done away with her former self.
Throughout this album, the songs are peppered with old and new components of Michaelson. While her new identity may not be exactly tactile quite yet, this album proves to be a perfect stepping-stone.

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Ed Sheeran: X

From the start, Ed Sheeran has demonstrated a skill for shrugging off the conventions of mainstream pop while still managing to enjoy its successes: His breakthrough radio single focused on a crack-addled prostitute. "The A Team," from Sheeran's debut album, "+" (pronounced "plus"), cloaked its harrowing subject matter in a sensual melody, a nifty trick that has helped the 23-year-old British singer-songwriter transition from pub-playing troubadour to arena act in roughly three years. The accented yearn of his vocal delivery distinguishes him from other aspiring folkies, but Sheeran's real gift lies in his writing -- his lyrics' attention to detail and unorthodox phrasing in particular. As the title implies, "x" (pronounced "multiply"), Sheeran's highly anticipated follow-up, ups the ante from his debut. He sinks even deeper into feelings of love, jealousy and inebriation while trying to navigate pop superstardom -- a problem this album is sure to only amplify.

To that end, "x" looks like a smash. Every song synthesizes the catchiest qualities of "The A Team" and its follow-up hit, "Lego House." "Bloodstream" flaunts a soulful naiveté over the most delicious guitar lick on the album, while "I'm a Mess" builds into an anthemic ending that will surely cap off Sheeran's future live show. As the hooks intensify, Sheeran paradoxically spends much of the album trying to hide -- from the bright lights that make his eyes squint with intoxicated confusion, but also from unnamed women who endlessly frustrate him. There's a reason Sheeran name-checks two Bon Iver songs on separate tracks; throughout the album, he attempts to spin his heartbreaks into an empathetic cry for shambling twentysomethings. "Loving can hurt sometimes/But it's the only thing that I know," he concludes on "Photograph," which lets its careful piano keys and acoustic strums simmer until arena-size drums kick in.

The daring spirit at the heart of Sheeran's appeal is magnified here, and he outclasses other rising male singers simply by utilizing a deeper bag of tricks. Few artists could pull off as stark a transition as the leap between "Sing," a swaggering, Justin Timberlake-inspired dance track, and "Don't," a blue-eyed-soul hymn built around the line "Don't fuck with my love." Elsewhere, Sheeran raps like The Streets' Mike Skinner on "The Man" and crafts a new-school wedding jam with "Tenerlife Sea." Such wild swiveling never feels forced, or even unexpected, from Sheeran, who has proven his exacting musicality onstage. There, he uses chopped-up loops, but few ideas get repeated on "x."

Sheeran seldom lets his songs breathe, packing each second with syllables even when he's not spitting bars. But that overeagerness will likely be tamped down, as Sheeran continues to polish his impressive craft. "x" finds a hungry artist doing everything possible to elevate to another level, simply by abiding by his instincts. After arriving on the U.S. pop scene with an offbeat folk ballad, Sheeran is expanding his profile on his own terms.

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