Blake Shelton BRINGING BACK THE SUNSHINE
Blake Shelton’s public persona — a mix of smart-aleck whimsy and thoughtful sensitivity — has made him country music’s most ubiquitous male star. A full-grown man with a boyish cheekiness, his easy likability has made him a consummate award-show host, a high-profile judge on NBC’s “The Voice” and a constant presence in ads across print, the web and TV.
His recent albums draw on both sides of this personality — but it doesn’t always work as well on record. His new “Bringing Back The Sunshine” connects mostly when he sounds like a busy adult trying to balance love and career.
“Lonely Tonight,” an impassioned love song performed as a duet with the wonderful Ashley Monroe, shows off his vocal and emotional range. Other romantic cuts, like the fiery “I Need My Girl” and the wistful “Just South Of Heaven,” prove how well Shelton can deliver a well-written song.
The boyish side comes out when Shelton slips into a sweet, funky groove. The hit “Neon Light” is lighthearted fun, but on songs like “Gonna” and “A Girl,” where he assumes the role of a guy half his age, he stops being believable. And credibility is just as important in country music as it is when sitting in the judge’s chair.
Prince ART OFFICIAL AGE and PLECTRUMELECTRUM
To attract attention, album releases can’t just be album releases these days. They need to be Events — surprises, giveaways or, in U2’s case, both. Prince’s entry is the appearance of two stylistically distinct discs on the same day, emphasizing his freakish versatility. They also mark his return to original home Warner Bros., the company he once protested by writing “slave” on his face and briefly changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol.
The disc “Art Official Age” is Prince as the studio wizard, a funk album on which he sings and plays everything. On “PLECTRUMELECTRUM,” he leads his three-piece, all-female band 3RDEYEGIRL.
The centerpiece of “Art Official Age” is the evening seduction song “U Know,” cleverly driven by a repeated female vocal loop, followed by the morning seduction song “Breakfast Can Wait.” They’re two of his strongest cuts in decades. Yet the hurdle most veteran artists face, that technical ability now outstrips the spark of inspiration that makes a song memorable, weakens this disc. “Time” wastes too much of it, a solid slow jam that drags as it reaches nearly seven minutes.
The sound of live drums and wailing guitar that opens the fun leadoff cut “Wow” on “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” immediately signals a far different experience and, on balance, the stronger album. It’s an inspired band that shines on the title cut, a Hendrixian blues jam. “Whitecaps” is a dreamy power ballad where Prince hands lead vocals to a band member, “Stopthistrain” a solid duet and “Tictactoe” updates Philly soul.
One song, “Funknroll,” is on both albums with different versions — one emphasizing the funk, the other the roll. We’ll take the full band version. It’s fun to make the comparison, and equally fun to explore more than 90 minutes of music that make Prince relevant again as a recording artist.
Lady Antebellum 747
Lady Antebellum took off at jet speed with back-to-back multi-platinum albums in 2008 and 2010. Since then, while continuing to score radio hits, the trio’s sales leveled out and started drifting downward.
The group’s fifth album, “747,” sounds like a concerted effort to head back toward the stratosphere. After a couple of uneven albums, ‘’747” has a cohesive, celebratory feel that brings out the best in members Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott.
Landing on a sound all its own, Lady Antebellum presents pop-flavored, adult-oriented country music that stands out from Nashville’s party-all-the-time male singers and the hard-edged, aggressive female stars. The inter-weaving voices of Scott and Kelley have a buoyancy and maturity that returns on “747,” an album that ranks with the trio’s previous best, 2010’s “Need You Now.”
The first single, “Bartender,” is a grown-up take on country music’s current obsession with hard drinking. But the album has better songs: the beautifully sensual “Damn You Seventeen,” the musically and vocally complex “Down South,” the sultry, spiritual “One Great Mystery” and the yearning “Lie With Me,” which makes good use of the clever double-entendre in the title and chorus.
With “747,” Haywood, Scott and Kelley find their own distinctive path, once again. Long may they fly.
Robin Gibb 50 ST. CATHERINE’S DRIVE
As one third of the Bee Gees, Robin Gibb had a plaintive ache in his trembling, vibrato-filled voice that helped make such Brothers Gibb hits as “Holiday” and “I Started A Joke” so memorably distinctive. On “50 St. Catherine’s Drive,” his solo posthumous 17-track set, Gibbs’ searing vocal vulnerability is made all the more poignant given that it is his final album.
Named after the address of the house in which Gibb was born in 1949 on the Isle of Man, the intensely personal album was written between 2006 and 2008. The exception is “Sydney,” a nostalgic song about Gibb and his famous siblings, written in August 2011. Gibb, already ill, hoped to finish the song with his brother Barry, but died nine months later from cancer before they had the opportunity.
Gibb, who wrote or co-wrote every song here, was affected deeply by the 2003 loss of his twin, Maurice, and much of the album’s mainly mid-tempo material deals with loyalty and love that death doesn’t diminish. But as surely as there is an embrace of everlasting eternity, there’s also a very real awareness that our time here on earth is limited. He movingly sings on “Days of Wine & Roses,” the bittersweet album opener: “Time and tide will wait for no one. Now you’re gone.”
“50 St. Catherine’s Drive” makes no apologies for its unabashed sentimentality. The album could have been a maudlin mess, but, in Gibb’s skilled hands, instead it’s a delicate reminder from one who is no longer here to cherish each day.