Music reviews for Sept. 26, 2013

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Kings of Leon, 'Mechanical Bull'

Three years after the Kings of Leon's last record, the edgy, gravely rock foursome return in top shape with “Mechanical Bull.”

The album takes the band's singular sound—the recognizable longing guitars and Caleb Followill's growl—and adds a hint of melancholy and a stillness that gives the songs an aura of contentment.

Nervy desire and wildness are still present in their music, most prominently in “Tonight,” with its sexy vibes of earlier hits that hinted at mad tumbling into lust, and in the obsessive strummings of “Wait for Me.” The playful notes of the first single, “Supersoaker,” set the tone, adding a sense of giddiness to the proceedings.

“Don't Matter” goes full-on rock in the beginning but gradually is imbued with a hint of Billy Joel. “Temple” starts out noisily and morphs into the confident stage presence of a rock star. “Beautiful War” rounds up the sound with a heartfelt ballad that showcases Followill's voice. And “Family Tree” sounds like an old man trying to give advice to the young, who think they know better than everyone else.

Despite tackling the familiar themes of drunken nights and tentative love, the songs weave the story of a man who knows the meaning of being lost and who has finally been found. “Mechanical Bull” isn't the anguished edgy ride you'd expect from Kings of Leon, but rather a fun, stirring experience you don't want to end.

—Cristina Jaleru, Associated Press

Drake, 'Nothing Was the Same'

Drake warns us what's coming on his new album, “Nothing Was the Same,” laying out a mission statement of sorts on the sprawling opener “Tuscan Leather.”

“This is nothin' for the radio/ but they'll still play it though/ Cause it's that new Drizzy Drake/ that's just the way it go.”

The most anticipated rap album of the year is here, and “Nothing Was the Same” is probably nothing like you expected. Drake's third album is introspective, practically guest free and every bit as sonically brave as Kanye West's “Yeezus”—though not quite so abrasively bold.

Drake's right. There are no radio cuts here—a predictable inevitability after he debuted “Started from the Bottom” last winter. That song was nothing like the music Drake released on 2011's top album, the Grammy Award-winning “Take Care.” Yet it got stronger, more mesmerizing and meaningful with each play, and it remains among the most streamed songs in a year overstuffed with sickly sweet pop tunes.

“Take Care” was meant to be played at top volume with the windows rolled down. It was club music. The party is over now. “Nothing” is for dark rooms and headphones. There are few hooks here, almost no choruses, not much to sing along to. The heart-on-his-sleeve rapper with a million friends and the tightest of crews seems all alone here after ridding himself of fake friends, trying to sort out why all the success, the money, the drugs and the women leave him with a hollow feeling.

He tells us over the course of the album how his relationships with his family and friends, such as Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, have been strained.

He references the Wu-Tang Clan in the song “Wu-Tang Forever” and in a half-dozen other places. “Nothing” is full of the kind of studied minimalism and sped-up soul vocal samples favored by RZA and his acolytes. But he's not aping the game-changers as much as using them as a landmark.

So the biggest star in the rap world retreats. “I've been plottin' on the low,” he sings on “Furthest Thing,” “Schemin' on the low, the furthest thing from perfect like everybody I know.”

It's moments like this that differentiate “Nothing Was the Same” from the year's other releases in the three-way battle for king of the hill. Where “Yeezus” shows us West has turned confrontational in the post-fame portion of his career and Jay Z has become condescending with “Magna Carta … Holy Grail,” Drake becomes more and more confessional with each release.

—Chris Talbott, Associated Press

Sheryl Crow, 'Feels Like Home'

In this affecting and often authentic genre-jumper, Crow loads up on country music's most reliable staple: the sentimental story song. Among the poignant homilies: “Homecoming Queen” and “Waterproof Mascara” (lyric: “It won't run like his daddy did”).

Crow even channels a little Dolly Parton for the catchy “Homesick.” The Chesneyian three-sheets waltz “Easy” has scaled the country charts, and the Okie whomp “Shotgun” should make the climb.

“Feels Like Home” won't rock your world, but that's the point.

—David Hiltbrand, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Alan Jackson, 'The Bluegrass Album'

Amiable country singer and songwriter Alan Jackson has been talking for ages about his wish to make a straight bluegrass album. That's the reason he signed on for Alison Krauss to produce his 2006 album, “Like Red on a Rose,” one of his strongest collections, but one that veered far afield from traditional bluegrass.

Not this time—there's nothing but earthy, lonesome music-making on Jackson's “The Bluegrass Album.” It boasts all the requisite fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dobro, acoustic guitar, upright bass and sweet bending harmonies.

Jackson and album producers Keith Stegall and Adam Wright infuse a back-porch feel in original numbers here and savvy selections from other writers, including Jackson's new spin on John Anderson's 1982 hit “Wild and Blue” and Adam Wright's sharply witty “Ain't Got Trouble Now.”

Among his own songs, Jackson's “Blue Ridge Mountain Song” and “Blue Side of Heaven” demonstrate his understanding of bluegrass themes: Life is hard, but the human spirit can rise above.

—Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times

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