The Flaming Lips
(Warner Records, ***½)
For the last decade or so of their 35-year career, Oklahoma’s Flaming Lips have doubled down on their love of extremes, from the abrasive The Terror to full-album covers of Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper’s to numerous collaborations with Miley Cyrus. They’ve been fascinating, but inconsistent.
In its open-heartedness, love of melody, and Dave Fridmann’s expansive production, American Head recalls their mid-period heyday of 1999′s exuberant The Soft Bulletin.
Leader Wayne Coyne wrote a set of semi-autobiographical songs inspired by imagining his drug-dealing older brother encountering Tom Petty’s early band Mudcrutch when they passed through in Tulsa in the early ’70s.
The Lips have always been a trippy, psychedelic band, but this album is explicit in its drug references, often detailing problematic consequences. The chorus of the lovely “Mother I’ve Taken LSD” is “And now I see the sadness in the world.”
“At the Movies on Quaaludes” is similar: “As we destroy our brains til we believe we’re dead.”
The tone is often wistful and haunted, anchored in Steven Drozd’s stately melodies and Coyne’s thin, high vocals. But the songs often open up and soar.
The band, now a septet, slides easily from the ethereal, orchestral “Flowers of Neptune 6” (one of three tracks with Kacey Musgraves) to the more electronic “You n' Me Sellin' Weed” to the contemplative guitar ballad “My Religion is You.”
American Head reveals a Flaming Lips that is surprisingly tempered and grounded but still impressively adventurous.
— Steve Klinge
Toots & the Maytals
Got To Be Tough
(Trojan Jamaica / BMG ***)
The release of the first studio album in a decade by the band fronted by reggae pioneer Frederick “Toots” Hibbert late last month was followed almost immediately by the sad news that he had been hospitalized with COVID-19-like symptoms and his death on Sept. 12.
Hibbert, who was 77, was a Jamaican music trailblazer credited with coining the term reggae on his 1968 single “Do the Reggay" and an extraordinary singer, raised on gospel music, who was on a par with American vocalists who influenced him like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.
On Got To Be Tough, Hibbert’s soaring, elastic voice — familiar from classics such as “Sweet and Dandy” and “Funky Kingston” — is constricted and not nearly so gloriously supple as it was in his prime. But the album still packs a significant punch. Its cover depicts the former boxer throwing a left hook.
Got To Be Tough is full up with horn-fired soul workouts like “Just Brutal” in which Hibbert takes in the suffering that surrounds him and sings in a rugged rasp: “I don’t know what this world is coming to.”
Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is revisited with guests Ziggy Marley and Ringo Starr. The song’s sunny “every little thing going to be alright” optimism that’s found its way into Maroon 5 covers and Hyundai commercials goes down bittersweet on this gritty version heard in the wake of Hibbert’s passing.
On the rock-steady title cut, Hibbert warns against letting one’s guard down — “You’ve got to be tough, when things get rough ... It’s not so easy to carry on” — and is mindful of his own mortality: “Your days are getting shorter,” he sings to himself. Got To Be Tough is an impressively solid final entry in an illustrious career.
— Dan DeLuca
(GOOD / Def Jam **1/2)
Big Sean’s popularity has longevity — Detroit 2 is his third straight No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, but he hasn’t been the star of his own career highlights
His “Control” remix gave Kendrick Lamar an alley-oop. And “Dance (A$$)” and “MILF” are two of the funniest songs in any genre from the 2010s — thanks to Nicki Minaj.
His just-happy-to-be-here full-length albums are completely fine, but just that. The new Detroit 2 rides professionally pretty productions like “Guard Your Heart” through inconsequential pandemic references. Lines like “Don’t just take them clothes off / Take the problems off” make Drake and J. Cole sound like Socrates by comparison.
He fares best here when he corrals his world-class Rolodex into one place, namely on the shape-shifting, 9-minute-plus “Friday Night Cypher” with Eminem and Detroit upstarts like Kash Doll.
— Dan Weiss