Music reviews for Sept. 12, 2013

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Gazette wire services
Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Keith Urban, 'Fuse'

Even though Keith Urban scored three No. 1 hits on his last outing, the veteran country star decided to shake up his production team for his new album, “Fuse.”

Longtime studio partner Dann Huff still collaborates on a couple of songs, but Urban branches out to duet with young country stars Eric Church and Miranda Lambert and to work with a bevy of hot producers.

Urban joins up with Mike Elizondo, Butch Walker and the Norwegian duo Stargate from the pop world and recruits hot newcomers Nathan Chapman, Zach Crowell and Jay Joyce on the country side.

While Urban wanted to expand his sound, it's to his credit that so many songs bear his distinctive artistic stamp. For example, “Even The Stars Fall 4 U”—co-produced by Walker—might feature a pumped-up chorus, but it sounds like a natural evolution of Urban's upbeat hits from the last dozen years.

Elsewhere, the “American Idol” judge tackles new sounds, and “Fuse” benefits from how Urban rises to these challenges.

“Shame,” co-written and co-produced by Stargate's Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, takes Urban's confessional lyric and turns it into a heartfelt pop anthem. On “Love's Poster Child,” co-produced by Joyce, Urban embraces the hard-rock edge of young country stars and cranks out an up-tempo tune as fierce as any of the newcomers.

Not everything works. “Good Thing,” co-produced by Elizondo, apes too many current country clichés to sound fresh. Overall, though, “Fuse” shows Urban maintaining his consistency while challenging himself creatively.

—Michael McCall, Associated Press

Sly and the Family Stone, 'Higher!'

At the beginning of 1969, Sly and the Family Stone released a 45 that paired “Everyday People” and “Sing a Simple Song,” the first an idealistic singalong with a winning, childlike melody and irresistible pop hooks, the second a slice of pure, hard funk with an irresistible groove.

Few bands have been equally adept at formalist pop and unadulterated funk as Sly and the Family Stone, the mixed-gender, mixed-race band led by Sylvester Stewart from 1966 to 1975.

The well-annotated, four-CD set “Higher!” contains the familiar hits, often in their mono, AM radio-friendly original mixes, as well as select album tracks. But its real value is in how the outliers, including 17 previously unreleased tracks, display the breadth of Sly's genius through early, pre-Family Stone garage-rock singles, brilliant live performances, instrumental workouts, eccentric experiments and late, post-Family disco tracks.

—Steve Klinge, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Arctic Monkeys, 'AM'

A woozy, psychedelic collection cooked up in the Californian desert, Arctic Monkeys' latest album, “AM,” is the sound of Sheffield via San Francisco.

Fans expecting anything approaching the kinetic, snot-punk blast of the English group's highly revered 2006 debut, “Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not,” will be disappointed as frontman Alex Turner and cohorts rarely break a sweat—strutting and swaggering their way through 12 tasty rock nuggets.

Turner cites Aaliyah and Black Sabbath as album influences and, when the R&B backing vocals of “One for the Road” give way to a punishing guitar solo from Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, a potentially unholy marriage makes perfect sense. Other highlights include the crunching “Arabella” (complete with riff borrowed from Bad Company's “Feel Like Makin' Love”), glam-rock stomp “Snap Out of It” and starlit ballad “Mad Sounds”—sonically one of the most beautiful songs in the band's impressive canon.

The album's harmonic strengths are occasionally undermined by repetitive, perfunctory lyrics. Turner recounts tales of parties and wild nights with such disinterest that one can't help but wonder why he bothered going out. For a man capable of writing vivid vignettes about working class Britain, the album is startlingly short of quotable lines.

Despite the lyrical letdown, there's a lot to admire about Arctic Monkeys' fifth album, their self-professed “West Coast record.” The sunshine obviously suits them.

—Matt Kemp, Associated Press

Ariana Grande, 'Yours Truly'

Ariana Grande has taken an unconventional path to becoming a pop princess, in that she isn't a Disney Channel ingenue. Instead, she starred on a Nickelodeon sitcom, “Victorious.”

But make no mistake: Girl can sing. She's got a full-bodied voice, a mature sense of phrasing, and, as displayed on “The Way,” a vertiginous range that will draw comparisons to Mariah Carey. On her slick if superficial debut, she wields a throwback R&B vibe that recalls singers such as Minnie Riperton and Stephanie Mills. (Or even farther back on “Tattooed Heart,” all the way to Ronnie Spector.) Impressive showing for a 20-year-old studio novice.

—David Hiltbrand, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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