So, you say you’ve always wanted an interactive concept album about the intersection of nature and technology, preferably one delivered by Icelandic goddess Bjork? There’s an app for that.
“Biophilia,” Bjork’s exhaustive, ambitious, frequently incredible and occasionally difficult new multimedia project, can be consumed as a stand-alone album or as a series of iPhone/iPad apps. Each song refers to a specific topic — plate tectonics, the moon, the mutation of viruses — and each app offers visuals to match.
Composed in part on an iPad, “Biophilia” makes use of exotic, just-invented instruments such as a gameleste (a gamelan fused with a celesta, used on the gossamer-light “Crystalline”), although the songs are fairly conventional and, ultimately, very Bjork-like forays into electro-fairy pop.
“Mutual Core,” the closest “Biophilia” gets to a dance-floor raver, is an examination of plate tectonics that’s also a love song that’s also a celebration of the project’s unlikely existence: “My Eurasian plate subsumed / Forming a mutual core,” Bjork trills, somewhat awkwardly. “You didn’t know I had it in me.”
More than any album in memory, “Biophilia” feels like a living, breathing organism — a thing, its tracks not an end in themselves but a jumping-off point for a planned series of concerts, art installations and additional apps. It offers endless room for learning, if not imagination: Even the most beautiful song about molecular DNA is still a song about molecular DNA, impossible to interpret as anything else, impossible to take on any terms but Bjork’s. Meant as much as a teaching tool as an album, “Biophilia” is a groundbreaking work born of incredible heart and nerve. It’s also, at times, the world’s prettiest homework.
— Allison Stewart
Recommended Tracks: “Crystalline,” “Mutual Core”
“Ashes & Fire”
Ryan Adams has been with us for so long and in so many iterations that it is sometimes difficult to remember that the prolific singer-songwriter is only now reaching his late 30s, junior by several years to fellow insurgent country veterans Jeff Tweedy and Neko Case.
Adams began as the wunderkind leader of the beloved mid-’90s cow-punk band Whiskeytown, reinvented himself in the early 2000s as a tempestuous, all-over-the-map solo artist and resolved in recent years as a purveyor of consistently pleasant (if occasionally tepid) adult contemporary rock. A self-professed child of punk rock whose early work wed mannered formalism with a touch of mayhem, he has settled a bit too comfortably into his soft-rocking chair.
Adams’s new “Ashes & Fire,” a collection of earnestly personal but same-sounding mid-tempo laments on love gone wrong, accelerates this trend. Produced with relentless professionalism by 70-year-old studio legend Glyn Johns, the album could no more offend than it could provide meaningful catharsis. During otherwise strong Adams compositions, such as the opening track, “Dirty Rain,” the singer sounds bridled and housebroken, his affecting rasp hemmed in by a paint-by-numbers wash of lightly plucked guitar, unobtrusive piano fills and tastefully rendered organ. It is a formula too frequently followed on this ballad-heavy album, with songs overly light on revelatory lyrics capable of justifying the heavy atmosphere.
The band’s complacent approach periodically recedes, most notably on the jaunty, waltz-time title track, on which strong singing and rueful mirth provide a welcome jolt. But by and large, “Ashes & Fire” is a somnambulant and safe affair, one that fails at nearly every turn to cast Adams’s significant gifts into bold relief.
— Timothy Bracy
Recommended Tracks: “Ashes & Fire,” “Chains of Love”
The life teachings outlined on singer I-Wayne’s new album, “Life Teachings,” are familiar themes in roots reggae: fighting social ills, uplifting the people, teaching the youth, nurturing spirituality, legalizing marijuana. But the album is a revelation, nonetheless, in part because of elegant production and thoughtful songwriting, but mostly due to I-Wayne’s incredible, crystal-clear voice. His instrument is a perfect reflection of the clean lifestyle he espouses in song.
Well, except for the weed smoking, perhaps: The singer belongs to an elite group of artists who can wax about the holy herb in a voice that bears no mark of its use.
It’s hard to get the full impact of I-Wayne’s incredible tone until it is heard alongside other fine but slightly less dulcet ones. On “The Fire Song,” gruff-voiced guest Assassin makes I-Wayne sounds like someone who gargled clouds before jumping behind the mike. I-Wayne also matches, and then surpasses, the crisp sound of respected reggae singer Etana during her cameo on “Life Joy.”
The singer first attracted mainstream attention with his 2004 prostitution cautionary tale “Can’t Satisfy Her,” and much of “Life Teachings” is similarly political, and/or reflective of Rastafarian principles (“Burn Down Sodom,” “Change Them Ways”). I-Wayne is also using his sweet voice to sing love songs more and more, including “Real and Clean,” Empress Divine” and “Pure as the Nile” (he’s talking clean energy and spiritual purity, people).
The VP Records artist, who hasn’t released an album since 2007’s “Book of Life,” is being credited in some circles for bringing socially conscious roots (as opposed to dance-hall) reggae back to commercial radio and getting a new generation of listeners excited about the music. That has, of course, meant inevitable comparisons to some of the genre’s greats. Such talk could be premature, but I-Wayne has at least one of the elements required of someone who is to become a voice of the people — an incredible voice.
— Sarah Godfrey
Recommended Tracks: “Change Them Ways,” “Real and Clean,” “Empress Divine”