NEW YORK (Billboard) - If the lollipop-licking sleeve didn’t make it clear, the tense opening strums of the first single, “My Life Would Suck Without You,” should do it: Kelly Clarkson is back in the pop fold, which is right where she belongs. “All I Ever Wanted” shows a lighter-hearted but more vocally mature Clarkson than on her last outing, 2006’s dour “My December.” Tracks like “Suck” and “Don’t Let Me Stop You” provide the high-power guitars and belt-able kiss-offs for which she’s best known, only with even more wit and strength. She enunciates the heck out of two tunes co-written by Katy Perry, “I Do Not Hook Up” and “Long Shot,” giving unexpected pathos to lines like “My heartbeat beats me senselessly.” The ballads are more memorable too, like “Cry” and the kick-drum-driven “Already Gone,” which she delivers with a ghostliness reminiscent of Sinead O’Connor. Clarkson’s always had the best throaty yell in the business. But now she’s becoming a masterful interpreter too.
ALBUM: THROW DOWN YOUR HEART: TALES FROM THE ACOUSTIC PLANET, VOL. 3 — AFRICA SESSIONS (Rounder Records)
Bela Fleck could probably make a fine living doing his thing as the world’s foremost banjo virtuoso in jazz and bluegrass circles forever — which is only one reason his modest journey to discover his instrument’s African roots is so satisfying. As the album component of Sascha Paladino’s 2008 documentary of the same name, “Throw Down Your Heart” pairs Fleck with musicians from Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali, reuniting this supposedly most American of instruments with its true heritage in beautifully complementary collaborations. From the call and response of “Tulinesangala” with the Nakisenyi Women’s Group, to the multigenerational energy of “Zawose” with the Zawose Family, to the closing banjo/kalimba “duel” between Fleck and Anania Ngoglia, Fleck’s celebrated skill melts into each song with humility. The album is a rare and refreshing demonstration that music’s ability to bridge language and cultures is more than a cliche.
ALBUM: BARE BONES (Rounder Records)
“Bare Bones” could do double duty as both title and business plan for Madeleine Peyroux’s third set of dusky, darkly cool music. It’s a cover-free collection co-written by Peyroux and cut mostly live and with a minimum of background fussiness. The title track, for instance, features an organ line that sounds like it’s almost apologizing for its presence. Peyroux’s charms remain well tailored to devotees of coffee-shop comfiness — the kickoff track “Instead” even promotes a want-who-you-got message that goes down with surprising smoothness. “Bones” contains plenty of her late-night song-choice wanderings as well, including delicately dirty piano-bar shuffles (the jaunty “You Can’t Do Me,” co-written with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker), the finely crafted narrative “River of Tears” and the strictly gorgeous “Our Lady of Pigalle.” All sound pretty wonderful in the hands of Peyroux’s stealthy, silk-draped vocals, delivered with a winning air of slightly detached mystery.
ALBUM: LOVE VS. MONEY (Radio Killa/Def Jam)
The-Dream has definitely bypassed the sophomore slump with “Love Vs. Money.” The songwriter-cum-singer pushes the envelope production-wise (incorporating more of his Prince influences, among others) as well as lyrically. Sex is a recurring theme, but the-Dream also taps into raw emotions on tracks like “Love Vs. Money” and “Love Vs. Money Pt. 2,” which are this album’s collective version of “Nikki.” On them, he scornfully belts lyrics like, “I should’ve known money couldn’t match love” over pulsating beats.
ALBUM: SPEED OF LIGHT (Hollywood Records)
“Don’t let the nice guy image fool ya,” Corbin Bleu cautions toward the middle of his second solo album. Initially, it seems that the “High School Musical” star does indeed want to put at least a little P in front of his G-rated Disney persona. “Speed of Light” opens with club beats and swirling synthesizers and lyrics about sweaty bodies, wanting hearts and implied libidos. But fear not; the nice guy wins out in the end, and when Bleu does “Rock 2 It” he does so gently. The result is a set of tuneful and spirited by-the-numbers pop that allows Bleu to grow as a singer amid a retro flavor recalling ‘80s dance pop and ‘90s boy bands. It’s not hard to see why Disney has adopted the closing bonus track, “Celebrate You,” as an official song at its theme parks.
ALBUM: DESIRE (Telarc)
This is one of vocalist Tierney Sutton’s best albums, a success on a number of levels: Sutton’s vocal work is splendid, her band is in the pocket, and the arrangements are challenging. On the opener, “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” Sutton’s vocal is ethereal, more insinuated than sung, and the arrangement is equally elusive. “Long Daddy Green,” a famed vehicle for Blossom Dearie, highlights Sutton vamping on the vaguely ominous arrangement, thriving on the tension between the clarity of her voice and the paradoxical lyrics. Sutton’s cover of “Fever” embodies the album title. The arrangement is deliciously minimal — just drummer Ray Brinker, bassist Trey Henry and Sutton’s smoldering vocal. “Cry Me a River” is animated by a dark arrangement, and Sutton’s singing sounds very much alive to the irony of the lyric.
ALBUM: GROOVIN’ WES (Strong Brew Music)
Bay Area guitarist Terrence Brewer works a fine tribute to jazz icon Wes Montgomery on his latest disc. Brewer takes the trio approach, and it’s a particularly sweet configuration: The guitarist is joined by Wil Blades on Hammond B3 and Micah McClain on drums. An early highlight is Brewer’s take on “Bumpin’ on Sunset.” His guitar work is fluent, and his feel for the groove is unerring. “Here’s That Rainy Day” evinces a romantic sensibility, enhanced by Blades’ moody B3 solo. “Bumpin’ “ is soulful, more downtempo than “Bumpin’ on Sunset,” and as such is really an ideal vehicle for Brewer. He unwinds an extended, multicolored solo that’s particularly engaging.
ALBUM: ROUND 2 (Capitol Records)
While certain R&B bigwigs attempt to get their personal lives in order in hopes of reclaiming their musical territory, R&B newcomer J. Holiday is quietly filling the void for baby-making music with his sophomore set. On “Lights Go Out,” the Washington, D.C., crooner belts lyrics like, “There’s no more talking/no more teasing/nothing but pleasing,” over a pulsating beat. While ballads like “Forever Ain’t Enough,” as well as the poverty-themed “Homeless,” round out the set, it’s the steamier songs are what make the album a must-have.
ALBUM: BENEFIT OF DOUBT (Home Sweet Highway Productions)
Pam Gadd is an accomplished musician and vocalist whose history includes time spent with the New Coon Creek Girls as well as the Grammy Award-nominated female band Wild Rose. Her latest solo set is sure to engage a broad audience from bluegrass aficionados to country music lovers. Her clear, pretty voice oozes warmth and charm, especially on such heart-tugging tracks as “Until She Makes It Home,” which also showcases Gadd’s gifts as a songwriter. “Farewell Wagon Master” is a poignant tribute to the late Porter Wagoner, with whom Gadd often performed and recorded. Marty Raybon joins Gadd for a compelling cover of the Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn hillbilly classic “After the Fire is Gone” and gets spirited assistance on Dolly Parton’s beloved “Applejack” from Parton herself. The special guests are enjoyable, but Gadd needs no help in delivering an entertaining album.
(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)
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