It hasn't been an easy ride for Hawthorne Heights. Three years ago the Dayton band sued the record company that made it famous. Not long after, their guitarist died from an accidental prescription-drug combo. The remaining members soldiered on as a quartet and memorialized their bandmate on 2008's Fragile Future. For their first album since that memorial record, Hawthorne Heights add an electronic element to their pop-punk arsenal. But this evolution could further alienate the band's already-fractured fan base, which views any departure from its screamo roots as giving in to mainstream modern-rock trends. It's easy to see the concern: The '80s-flavored "Nervous Breakdown," the anthemic "Bring You Back," and "End of the Underground" are all standard-issue pop-punk. But Skeletons does have its quirks, most notably the synth-driven "Drive," the western-themed "Gravestones," and the expansive "Boy." Let the backlash begin. — Brian Baker
Stone Temple Pilots
Stone Temple Pilots
Scott Weiland has always been a complicated frontman. For years his addictions prevented Stone Temple Pilots from soaring as high as they could have. And while his lunkheaded bandmates grind out a familiar backwash of alt-rock grunge riffs, Weiland's tastes gravitate toward more glammy heroes. On their first album in nine years, STP tackle the roots of their problems out of the gate: "You always were my favorite drug/Even when we used to take drugs," Weiland sings in opener "Between the Lines." But Stone Temple Pilots is more about celebration and looking forward than regret and contrition. It's an occasionally motivated and, yes, glammy work that sounds charged at times ("Cinnamon," "Maver"). But STP has never been a very inspired band. They jumped into the '90s alt-rock revolution sounding like a lab-concocted experiment in grunge. Not much has changed. Eighteen years later, the reunited Pilots are still grounded by their complex past.
— Michael Gallucci
The Futureheads caught a lot of flak for 2006's News and Tributes and its 2008 follow-up, This Is Not the World. While neither was awful, they were more predictable listens than the band's wild self-titled debut. But the songwriting certainly matured over the two albums, to the point where discernible hooks could be found in most of the cuts. On The Chaos, the Futureheads meld the elements of their first album with the hindsight of albums No. 2 and 3. The title track is full of angular muscle, stretching out to more than four minutes without feeling derivative (most songs on their debut clocked in at half that length, so this feels like a major accomplishment). "Heartbeat Song" is an even better distillation of the group's past. The band still mines some great moments from relative simplicity: See what it does with the bland chorus of "I Can Do That." The Futureheads remain rooted in '80s new wave throughout The Chaos. In "Sun Goes Down," they even go a little bit darker than they have before, but it's a welcome addition to their evolving sound. — Jeremy Willets
Nas & Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley
Nas and Marley (one of Bob's sons) first hooked up a few years ago for a track on Marley's Welcome to Jamrock album. For Distant Relatives' 13 songs, they present a sort of history lesson, tracing hip-hop to Africa and charting its long, varied course through the years. The mix — not so surprisingly — is somewhere between Marley's Jamaican reggae and Nas' NYC hip-hop. Opener "As We Enter" flips through both artists' backgrounds for inspiration, with a swinging beat and twisty rhymes finding a common ground. But elsewhere the results are more strained, as Nas and Marley step out of each other's way during verses (mostly Nas) and choruses (mostly Marley). Lil Wayne and K'Naan are also here, but they're lost in the shuffle, as is Distant Relatives' original concept. A few songs play along with the African-roots setting — like the biting "Strong Will Continue" — but the album ends up somewhere else altogether. — Gallucci
Gemma RayIt's a Shame About Gemma Ray
If there's one good thing about American Idol, it's the show's contribution to the art of interpretation. Of course, recording old standards has a long history in pop music. But from Susan Boyle to Bettye LaVette, there seems to be renewed interest in revitalizing the classics. Add smoky British songstress Gemma Ray to that list. She showed some flair on two original albums over the past few years, but she really shines on It's a Shame About Gemma Ray's 16 tracks, bringing a slinky torch-noir style to a wide variety of covers. Ray grew up on '80s indie rock, but she's also a fan of Buddy Holly and Edith Piaf. Those influences reveal themselves in the stately yet smoldering strut that she tackles this eclectic collection with. The most striking track is a shadowy take on Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick," but Holly's "Everyday (Rollercoaster)," Lee Hazlewood's "I'd Rather Be Your Enemy," Gun Club's "Ghost on the Highway," and the Obits' "S.U.D." are also highlights. Though her torchy approach doesn't vary much from track to track, Ray sings with such charismatic verve that it hardly matters. — Chris Parker
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