New recordings: Spoon; Ed Sheeran; Real Estate [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: BC-MUS-ALBUMS:PH]
"Hot Thoughts" is the most dance-floor-directed of Spoon's nine albums, a truth-in-titling 10-song exercise in getting frisky. The four-piece fronted by Britt Daniel has been a remarkably consistent outfit since finding its taut, itchy groove with "Girls Can Tell" in 2001. Daniel and drummer Jim Eno excel at efficiency. They're masters of always-holding-something-back minimalism in four-minute songs with sharpened hooks that rarely overplay their hand. There's no attempt at reinvention here, but a few notable tweaks. Multi-instrumentalist Eric Harvey has left the band, and Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev associate Dave Fridmann has come aboard as coproducer, drawing out the band's experimental side, particularly on the closing jazz instrumental "Us." On "Tear It Down," Spoon makes a reference to wall building that may or may not be making a political point with a non-specificity that is typical of a band whose songs satisfy because of how they sound, not what they mean.
When elfin Englishman Ed Sheeran made himself apparent in 2011, he was a cute and quaintly clever songwriter and pleasantly breathy vocalist who wrapped his lover-boy longings in references to getting soused at the pub, fumbling sexcapades, and up-to-date computer gaming skills. Delightful, right? He began a run of coy, symbol-based titles "- +" (2011), "×" (2014) - that pointed toward each album's chipper main theme, an idea that, with the new "÷" overspeaks its saccharine but sour intentions when it comes to divisions, personal and universal. Not so delightful.
Starting with the worst-ever idea - him rapping on "Eraser," "÷" goes quickly downhill, with Sheeran replacing most of his signature witty intimacy and icy lyrical detail with trite sentiment and overused treacle. Even his late grandmother gets the religious Hallmark platitude treatment on "Supermarket Flowers." Sheeran, that's your granny. The only saving grace of "÷" is Sheeran's still subtly contagious melodic tics and a vocal sensibility that's as whispery and conversational as your first boyfriend. That's not enough of a +, but it'll have to do for now.
Time seems suspended in Real Estate's shimmery, languid songs. The band, originally from Ridgewood, N.J., but now with members scattered from Upstate New York to California, specializes in languid and lovely guitar interplay inspired, primarily, by the pastoral songs of the Feelies. Their fourth album, "In Mind," introduces some slight variations: Lead guitarist Matt Mondanile left to focus on his Ducktails project, and new guitarist Julian Lynch and keyboardist Matt Kallman add some distorted edges to the usually pristine arrangements.
Most of the album is comfortably familiar, full of Martin Courtney's crystalline guitar arpeggios and musings on the transience of relationships and the passage of time, songs filled with starry nights and morning sunlight. There's little tension here. Even when bassist Alex Bleeker sings, "It's a time to raise our voices loud and not go quietly," he does so with easygoing complacency. Real Estate would rather go gently, with thoughtful tunes and sparkling guitars.
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