Tim McGraw SUNDOWN HEAVEN TOWN
Twenty years after his breakthrough hit, “Indian Outlaw,” Tim McGraw still pushes at country music’s boundaries. His new album, “Sundown Heaven Town,” incorporates contemporary Nashville flourishes while holding onto McGraw’s signature sound — a moody, atmospheric tone developed over the years with producer Byron Gallimore.
The album hits several creative peaks, but bogs down with too many forgettable, mid-tempo tunes.
At age 47, McGraw hits home with reflective songs about love and modern life — especially those of a mature Southern man seeking balance between the past and present. His recent hit, “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” a duet with wife Faith Hill, epitomizes his strengths. McGraw’s tempered voice, all restrained emotion, conveys how the anchor of family helps him deal with the pressures of daily life.
His current single, “Shotgun Rider,” and complicated relationship songs like “Sick of Me,” show how good McGraw is at real-life situations, buoyed by Gallimore’s atmospheric production. The veteran also offers a welcome surprise with “Diamond Rings And Barstools,” which brings a contemporary context to old-school country sounds and themes.
But too many hazy sentiments — in the songs “City Lights,” “Looking For That Girl,” “Keep on Truckin’” — keep the collection from achieving the glowing consistency of McGraw’s best work.
Barbra Streisand PARTNERS
Barbra Streisand’s “Partners” isn’t just about star-powered duets, but partnerships of love and family. It’s a love album for the ages, as fit for your anniversary as your parents’ or your child’s wedding. It could have been called “Timeless,” but Babs already used that title in 2000.
Streisand sings with a stellar list of partners on her 34th studio album, including the awesome and unexpected: Andrea Bocelli, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (who co-produced the album), Blake Shelton and Elvis Presley. The new recordings of beloved standards and some of Streisand’s best known love songs feature her collaborators’ talents perfectly, and every track delivers.
Stevie Wonder’s sweet harmonica warms up their rendition of “People.” John Mayer and his guitar bring the blues to “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Michael Buble’s velvet voice matches the big-band charm of “It Had to Be You.” Bocelli lends drama and grandeur to “I Can Still See Your Face.” Edmonds’ silky voice adds soul to the classic “Evergreen.” Hearing Streisand’s inimitable voice alongside Presley’s on an orchestral version of “Love Me Tender” is magical.
Billy Joel couldn’t have picked a better partner than fellow New Yorker Streisand for a duet on his “New York State of Mind,” a tribute to their shared hometown. Family love shines through on “How Deep is the Ocean,” Streisand’s duet with her son, Jason Gould. She writes in the album’s liner notes that the Irving Berlin song “is a perfect expression of my complete and eternal love for my son.”
Streisand is in fine voice on the album’s 12 tracks, the new arrangements and instrumentations highlighting the timelessness of the 72-year-old’s soaring vocal style.
George Strait THE COWBOY RIDES AWAY: LIVE FROM AT&T STADIUM
The 20-song “Cowboy Rides Away: Live From AT&T Stadium” documents what was billed as Country Music Hall of Fame member George Strait’s final concert. Held on June 7 in Arlington, Texas, the event was more celebration than concert — where the waves of cheers play as big of a role as the voices and musicians.
The guest-heavy lineup leans on modern stars such as Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Miranda Lambert more than Strait’s peers or influences. Several cuts are reduced to karaoke sing-alongs, with the guests providing harmony vocals or taking a single stanza. But memorable cuts surface, such as a powerful version of “A Showman’s Life,” with Faith Hill on backing vocals.
There are other special moments. Strait reveals a playful side on a spirited duet with the great Martina McBride on the Johnny Cash-June Carter hit “Jackson.” He and Alan Jackson stick up for country traditions on “Murder on Music Row.” And Strait finds new emotion, given the circumstances, in songs like “Give It All You Got Tonight.” The highlight is a spoken recitation in “I’ll Always Remember You,” when Strait thanks his fans for a career that far out-distanced his dreams.
This live record isn’t the place to sample Strait’s long list of hits. It is, however, a gift to those who hate to see this legendary cowboy ride off into the sunset.
Chris Brown X
Chris Brown’s sixth studio album, “X,” is cohesive, entertaining and not at all what one might expect of a project plagued by delays following the release of lead single “Fine China” back in March 2013.
But while court dates, rehab stints and — if you believe the singer’s tweets from last year — “incompetent” management may have stalled his latest set, those factors don’t seem to have diminished his creativity.
Brown captures attention from the get-go, opening “X” with the chilly first lines of his title track: “If you’re only as good as the company you keep/Then I’ma blame you for what they say about me,” he sings, taking listeners on a slow, dark cruise that eventually erupts into a crush of dubstep and electronic stylings from track producer Diplo.
That brooding vibe shows up again on “Autumn Leaves,” a captivating collaboration with Kendrick Lamar. “I been bleeding in your silence/I feel safer in your violence,” Brown sings, making good on earlier promises to deliver honesty and vulnerability with “X.”
Brown is light and carefree on the very danceable “Time for Love,” and fun on the irresistible “Drunk Texting” with Jhene Aiko. His collaborations with Brandy on “Do Better” and Ariana Grande on “Don’t Be Gone Too Long” are both winners. And alongside Trey Songz, Brown pays homage to R. Kelly with the smooth “Songs on 12 Play.”
The R, himself, even drops in for the sexy — and slightly over the top — “Drown In It,” which is worth a listen, if only to hear Kelly find occasion for the phrase, “like a male mermaid.”
Tired math metaphors, though, drain the energy from the Danja-produced “Add Me In.” And “Stereotype,” by the same producer, features a chorus that has Brown repeating “stereotype” an annoying number of times and ways.
Those are minor details, though, and whether Brown is reflecting on life and love or setting himself up for what will surely play out as part of an elaborate dance sequence, the singer’s work is majorly on point.