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Amy Winehouse, Back to Black

With most of Hollywood in rehab this summer, Amy Winehouse’s infamous summer anthem “Rehab” arrived with perfect timing. The remainder of Back to Black, her sophomore album, is a surprising blend of old soul and new R&B. Winehouse matches her unexpectedly bluesy voice with background vocals and instruments played in the fashion of ‘50s and ‘60s super girl groups with a twist; instead of dwelling on lost love, Winehouse manipulates her vocals to sing about other topics: the troubles of unworthy men, her addiction to booze, and, in “Addicted,” her refusal to share her weed.

Winehouse has the ability to connect with her listeners with honest lyrics and a language so completely unanticipated. This album’s old-soul feel is more pronounced than Winehouse’s debut, Frank. Back to Black shows a more gutsy Winehouse, as she trades in her first effort’s hip-hop for blues, as evidenced by various stand-out songs, from “Tears Dry On Their Own,” to “Me & Mr Jones.” Her modern twist on classic music is versatile enough to attract different audiences — by no means an easy feat.

Gym Class Heroes, As Cruel As School Children

This summer, Gym Class Heroes made a surprise appearance on the mainstream music scene with their infectiously glorified single, “Cupid’s Chokehold.” But, like Amy Winehouse, Gym Class Heroes are more experienced than the new artist label they have thus far attained. As Cruel As School Children is the third album featuring the dynamic vocals of frontman Travis McCoy, who acts as the representative personality of the group. (Gym Class Heroes was, as the name might suggest, formed in McCoy’s and drummer Matt McGinley’s gym class around 1999.) The indie group perfected its effortless blend of hip-hop and rock somewhere between 2005’s The Papercut Chronicles and the original release of As Cruel As School Children in the summer of 2006.

The group’s newest album, upbeat and optimistic in both rhythm and lyrics, is an absolute reversal from Chronicles — a more somber record, successful in its contemplation of drug addictions, family deaths, and broken hearts. McCoy’s soul is less evidently in School Children, but his catching vocals are almost overwhelming, especially in tracks like “Viva La White Girl” — which, McCoy assures his audiences, is not about white girls, but a metaphor for his love of music. The album’s other tracks seem to be a portrayal of Gym Class Heroes’s move to the mainstream, with catchy lyrics and beats that skim the surface, refusing to go as deep as Chronicles. Still, it was School Children that put Gym Class Heroes on the map.

The New Pornographers, Challengers

The biggest problem with The New Pornographers’s latest record, Challengers, is that many of its songs would sound far too fitting in places where respectable, worthwhile music rarely gets played. If someone were eating at Wendy’s, watching the credits of a romantic comedy, or shopping at Target and one of Challengers’s songs came on, it wouldn’t seem out of place. The music is a little too “feel good,” even maudlin at times. This is not to say that this music is vapid, or even that all music that blends harmlessly into the background is somehow innately bad, but it’s definitely not a trait that an indie band wants associated with its music.

Fortunately, The New Pornographers are very skilled at crafting pop songs. Songwriters A.C. Newman and Dan Bejar offer fun and whimsical melodies that are catchy in a good way. Their lyrics are creative and clever, nonsensical in a way that is never intimidating or pointless. The instrumentation on Challengers is also impressive. The New Pornographers manage to incorporate a multitude of unusual instruments — shaker eggs, French horns, and strings — that never sound superfluous or intrusive. The guitar effects and tones are worth marveling over for their appropriateness and ingenuity, most notably in the song “Entering White Cecilia,” and the riffs are as much as an indie rock fan could ask for.

The sheer talent of The New Pornographers is what allows this record to work. But, the frenzied exuberance of previous albums like Twin Cinema and Mass Romantic (think of the song “The Bleeding Heart Show”) is lost. So, while The New Pornographers remain a superior group, the undesirable meekness of their new sound is causing them to stand out less and less from your average pop band.