NEW YORK (Billboard) - The third single from Brad Paisley’s shimmering “5th Gear” is among the best songs to hit the country format in years. That might sound like exaggerated praise, but one listen to this composition will win over the masses. The conversational lyric finds Paisley writing a letter to himself at 17: “You got so much going for you, but I know at 17 it’s hard to see past Friday night/I wish you’d study Spanish, I wish you’d take a typing class. I wish you wouldn’t worry, let it be/Have a little faith and you’ll see.” His performance is tender while the song is filled with slices of Paisley’s life that find him reflecting on people and moments that shaped him.
A look at Evanescence on paper reveals a band that should be in its glory. Following a Billboard 200 No. 1 debut for its 2006 album “The Open Door” and the top 10 launch single “Call Me When You’re Sober,” the group toured the world for nearly a year. So what happened? Single follow-ups “Lithium” and “Sweet Sacrifice” never even charted in the States. The fourth single from “The Open Door,” piano-driven rock ballad “Good Enough,” is as intense and affecting as anything before it — and this time, Amy Lee’s lyric steps from the dark side, reveling in the relief of positivity:
Stevie Wonder could hardly be considered a prolific artist anymore — his last album, 2005’s “A Time to Love,” was his first in a decade — so any new release is notable, if only by default. However, “Shelter in the Rain” is a spectacularly beautiful composition, produced with a standards-quality template. Wonder gets busy here, not only writing and producing, but furnishing keyboards, synth and bass. Other elements also court royalty, with Narada Michael Walden on drums and a choir arranged by Kirk Franklin. Proceeds from the single go to the Wonder Foundation for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The lovely melody, inspiring chorus and instantly recognizable vocal make this a strong bid for the urban adult-contemporary and smooth jazz radio formats.
Those longing for a soundtrack honoring autumn and winter’s pagan holidays won’t feel complete until they purchase Ulver’s “Shadows of the Sun.” The black metal/folk band handles the despair of the human condition so devoutly, you’ll feel compelled to kneel alongside the Norwegians to pay homage. The album’s opening track, “Eos,” is all you need to know about the gorgeously dark record. Subtle, humming organs; whining Theremin; and crying violins cast a reverent atmosphere associated with places of worship, but these altars are scattered across nighttime landscapes as remote as the face of the moon. Goths who identify with the genre for its fashion sense will find Ulver’s eeriness unsettling — the band unflinchingly delves and revels in its misery; Type O Negative lovers will detect that group’s mournful harmonies.
Brandi Carlile makes a bold choice for the second single from breakthrough “The Story.” Where the album’s lead-off single (its title track) found the Washington state native soaring above full-size electric guitars and tom-toms, climaxing in an anguished yet fierce vocal yowl, “Turpentine” strips the scene bare to acoustic guitar, bass, tambourine and strings, showcasing the singer/songwriter’s country-tinged folk roots. The lyric, about Carlile and her brother growing up and, inevitably, apart, is the centerpiece here, delivered with a crafty blend of sting and sorrow. Gentle backing, featuring a lilting cello solo, is understated perfection.
“American Idol” season six runner-up Blake Lewis’ launch single, “Break Anotha,” is a lightning rod of rock’n’funk, meshing busy, skittish production and enough tempo stops and starts to build one clever three-minute jam. Vocally, Lewis channels Justin Timberlake with fluffed harmonic layers and falsetto as he sings a rapid-fire lyric about a playa: “He’ll try to prove his love is for you, just when you think he’s changed his tune/He’ll break anotha heart, babe.”