Veterans return for better or worse
Cher’s album of ABBA’s greatest hits is one to avoid
CHIC “IT’S ABOUT TIME” (UNIVERSAL)
Guitarist Nile Rodgers found a new musical lease on life after he appeared on Daft Punk’s 2013 smash “Get Lucky” (and two other key tracks on “Random Access Memories”), at which point he started touring again under the name Chic, the group he founded with bassist Bernard Edwards, who died in 1996, and drummer Tony Thompson, who died in 2003. Rodgers is a Zelig figure in pop music of the last 40 years, not only for his massive hits of the disco era with Chic (“Good Times,” Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” Diana Ross’s “Upside Down”), but also with David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), Duran Duran (“Wild Boys”), INXS (“Original Sin”) and dozens of others — even the Spoons, from Oakville, Ont.
There’s no mistaking that this is a Chic album, despite the absence of two founding members. Nile Rodgers’ signature rhythm guitar is instantly recognizable, and the opulent old-school production values age well with more modern accoutrements. In its heyday, Chic had two female vocalists, neither of whom are back for this incarnation. There is a core vocal group here, but also a dependence on guests like Hailee Steinfeld, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Craig David and Nao. The result is a bit more hodgepodge than it has to be; some of the best tracks here are the ones without guests. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga covers Chic’s own “I Want Your Love” — effectively, but unnecessarily. There are also some odd throwbacks to new jack swing — an R&B style of the early ’90s largely unrelated to Chic’s legacy, which resurfaced only recently thanks to Bruno Mars; what’s it doing here?
One chorus goes, “I dance my dance / I’m in a trance / living my life like it’s now or never.” It is now or never: Rodgers has been sidetracked with health problems in recent years, but it’s clear he’s got a lot more to give. This is far from his finest work, but it’s good to hear him back in the spotlight and fully in charge.
Stream: “Till the World Falls,” “Dance With Me” featuring Hailee Steinfeld, “I Dance My Dance”
CHER “DANCING QUEEN” (WARNER)
Why on Earth does this exist? Disclosure: I’m a huge ABBA fan, albeit one who has zero desire to see them do a hologram tour and who has boycotted “Mamma Mia!” since its inception. Their music is their legacy, and their music is perfect: why mess with it? Cher has a cameo in this year’s “Mamma Mia!” sequel, a cameo that was so well received that someone convinced her to record a full album of ABBA songs, which now sits beside the two official “Mamma Mia!” film soundtracks (and more than one theatrical cast recording) as completely unnecessary. Cher’s is particularly galling, however, because the arrangements are so faithful — only the occasionally modern drum machine and the singer’s now-trademark use of Vocoder AutoTune — that these are not cover versions; they’re merely poor facsimiles. Cher herself is far from being in fine voice, which just makes the whole affair no better than a bad night at a karaoke bar. Avoid at all costs.
Stream: “One of Us,” “SOS,” “The Winner Takes It All”
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS “DISTANT SKY EP” (BAD SEED LTD.)
Against all odds, 61-year-old Nick Cave keeps getting more popular, year after year. His goth-tinged, death-obsessed, tortured-writer shtick should be getting tired by now; indeed, many of his songs border on camp. But for a guy who was always harrowing to begin with, his live shows have become even more intense, in ways that only a veteran performer like Cave and his band can do. Even if his records are increasingly subdued — like 2013’s “Push the Sky Away” and 2016’s “Skeleton Tree,” recorded after the death of his teenage son — the fury and chaos he’s capable of conjuring live is something to behold. So while he prepares for his first tour of hockey rinks — he plays Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 28 — Cave has released this EP, featuring one track from each of his last two records, and two tracks that have provided the climax in his live sets for the past 30 years (!): “Mercy Seat” and “From Her to Eternity.” If you’re late to the game or sitting on a fence, “Distant Sky” is as strong a testament as any to Cave’s powers.
Stream: all of it
BEAK “>>>” (TEMPORARY RESIDENCE)
As a key member of Portishead, Geoff Barrow has made three of the greatest British records of the last 25 years. Problem is, those three albums are spaced pretty evenly over those 25 years, and there’s no sign of a new one any time soon. What else does Barrow get up to in his spare time? Since we last heard from Portishead, on 2008’s “Third,” Barrow has turned his attention to this project, which is not that much more prolific: a debut in 2009, a second album in 2012, and here we are six years later. Much like that last Portishead record, Beak draws heavily on German art rock of the ’70s, primarily the group Can: funky live drumming with droning analog synths, pulsing bass and icy, new wave guitars. It’s entrancing, mysterious and magical, with a warmth that comes from its old-school approach: this very much sounds like a live group of mad scientists tripping over wires, playing synths on the verge of breaking down. No digital trickery here. It’s a matter of time before they’re tapped to score a dystopian sci-fi suspense flick. Beak play the Mod Club in Toronto on Oct. 17.
Stream: “The Brazilian,” “Brean Down,” “RSI”