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This CD cover image released by Blue Chair Records, LLC / Columbia Nashville shows "Life on a Rock," by Kenny Chesney. (AP Photo/Blue Chair Records, LLC / Columbia Nashville) Purchase photo reprints »
Natalie Maines’ first solo album continues her movement into a deeply considered, provocative form of polished adult rock heard on her last recording, the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 award-winning “Take the Long Way Home.”
As with that album, Maines sets aside the cheeky playfulness that marked her success in country music. Instead, she carefully curates an album of covers and originals by other writers—with one strong original, “Take It On Faith.” She leans hard on philosophical lyrics about self-identity (the title song, “Free Life”) and the importance of strong relations (“Without You,” “Come Cryin’ To Me”). Much like Maines’ public persona since her fallout with the conservative right after speaking out against the Iraq War, the songs waver between gutsy stands and seeking shelter with those who care for and understand her.
Musically, producer Ben Harper gives her a lush background on intimate songs and a bluesy raucousness on up-tempo tunes. Maines shows how she can wail on rockers like Patty Griffin’s “Silver Bell,” but it’s on Jeff Buckley’s dramatic “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” that shows how effective she can be with emotional vulnerability and the power of the full range of her vocals.
Maines’ talent once put the Dixie Chicks atop the country music world, which made the group’s rejection and withdrawal such a loss. “Mother” finds Maines still affected by that controversy. But it also proves that, as an artist, she’s still an American treasure.
LL Cool J
429 Records, $11.88
LL Cool J knows how to play well with others.
On his 13th studio album, “Authentic,” he delivers an eclectic mix of songs with a variety of guest singers that elevate the material to a worthy listening experience. This is not a rap album, but more of a hip-pop/hip-rock one, hitting all the right notes from romantic to raucous to punk.
The 12-track record sees a roster of stars lend their voices, including Eddie Van Halen, Snoop Dogg, Travis Barker, Monica, Seal, Earth, Wind & Fire and Brad Paisley (not “Accidental Racist,” thankfully. Their other collaboration, “Live for You,” is a rock ballad that is enjoyable.)
From the sarcastically cinematic intro “Bath Salt,” to the delightfully cheesy lust song “Between the Sheetz,” to the vivacious, Charlie Wilson-assisted “New Love,” the rapper sounds fresh.
There’s nothing wrong with pandering when one tries to hang on to artistic relevance, especially when producing a balanced, intriguing album. Who knows, maybe that’s the future of music and Cool James is still a pioneer.
The Pistol Annies
RCA Nashville, $11.88
“Annie Up” is a good title for the Pistol Annies’ second album. Like the gambling term it playfully puns, the title underscores that this brash trio is raising the stakes, investing more time, effort and artistic nerve into its new 12-song collection.
The gamble pays off: “Annie Up” builds on the trio’s successful debut “Hell on Heels” by taking even more risks with bold material and inventive arrangements. Mixing bawdy humor with sensitive insight, the Annies entertainingly take on real-life issues, including how Southern families quell their secrets (“Hush Hush”), how alcoholics curse themselves while pouring another drink (“Dear Sobriety”) and how women struggle with what it takes to prepare for an evening (“Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”).
The Pistol Annies began as a side lark for country music star Miranda Lambert. Formed with songwriting buddies Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, the trio’s debut initially was available only through the Internet and without the full promotional effort given Lambert’s other albums. But fan support and significant sales lifted these fully armed artists into a significant, ground-breaking act. Rather than play it safe, they roll the dice with another daring collection that should lift their profiles even higher.
Music From Baz Luhrmann’s Film “The Great Gatsby”
Interscope Records, $11.99
“The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.” Daisy Buchanan from “The Great Gatsby” gets to be reincarnated on the film’s soundtrack under the guise of artists such as Beyonce, Lana Del Ray, Sia and Florence Welch. Their honeyed charm work on the listener in the same indiscriminate, intense manner that Buchanan’s does on the narrator and her entourage.
The Jay-Z-produced musical roller coaster mixes electronica, hip-hop and rock with jazz-age sounds into a breathy, sexy, dangerous, electric result. It was to be expected from the master of mind-blowing pastiche, director Baz Luhrmann, to create a totally anachronistic companion to his lush film that works to drive the story’s point home — illusionary love, the excess of the leisure classes, the curse of money.
The songs, which meander in themes among partying, murder and heartache, mostly set their buttons on eerie and sad. The album is full of new cuts, previously released ones and covers. They all work, except for Emeli Sande’s strange version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” which fails to combine modern sound with Charleston. It’s more of a vaudevillian joke that falls flat.
Jay-Z’s own tracks — “$100 Bill” and the Grammy-winning jam “No Church in the Wild” — hit techno-rap notes that propel us into the seediness of Gatsby’s life. Beyonce and Andre 3000’s rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” embraces a dark, twisted mood with a hypnotizing dub beat. The xx’s “Together” is both literally and figuratively a sound drip, while Nero’s “Into the Past” explores an ambient electro world. But it is Del Ray’s haunting vocals in “Young and Beautiful” that leave you asking for more.
EMI Nashville, $11.88
After pulling out the stops with the heavily orchestrated grandeur of 2011’s platinum-selling album “Own The Night,” Lady Antebellum heads in the opposite direction with the stripped-down sound of “Golden.”
The country vocal trio hinted at its new direction with the sparse, soul-strutting groove of “Downtown,” one of the spring’s most engaging country hits. As usual, Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood deal with the complexities of modern relationships — in this case, a woman asking why her man doesn’t take her out for a fun night on the town, like he once did.
The bare-bones arrangements also work well on the emotionally moving “It Ain’t Pretty,” about a woman living out her heartbreak in public, and on the roots-rocking “Better Off Now (That You’re Gone),” which is reminiscent of classic Tom Petty.
The album occasionally recalls past successes: “Long Teenage Goodbye” has the sunny innocence of the 2010 hit “American Honey,” once again showing off Scott’s shimmering alto. The dramatic crescendos of “All For Love” prove that a big, grand sound, deployed at the right time, fits the group’s dynamic duets.
A couple of weak songs dampen the overall impact, but all in all, Lady A continues to experiment and grow while sounding like no one else in contemporary country music.