Reviews of new pop, country/roots, jazz and classical releases.
BON IVER “Bon Iver”
By getting lost inside his own head, Justin Vernon gains the world. Back in 2007, the man who is Bon Iver retreated to his cabin in the Wisconsin woods to make his beautiful beardy record “For Emma, Forever Ago.” With gauzy production and a falsetto from another time, Vernon came off like a mystic soul man who needed to go back to the land to save himself. It paid off in a swelling indie audience and some side work with a guy named Kanye West, who used Vernon’s voice to ghostly effect on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and primed this self-titled sophomore release for crossover potential. It might happen, because the music on “Bon Iver” is so unabashedly pretty, and because in the closing “Beth / Rest,” Vernon embraces his inner Bruce Hornsby to point out one possible avenue to soft-rock stardom. And it might not, because on “Bon Iver,” those mainstream roads are mostly not taken, as Vernon prefers to construct gorgeously sung, muted tone poems that are more about getting lost in a lushly melodic dreamland than making linear sense.
BATTLES “Gloss Drop”
The party line is that this is a step down from 2007’s watershed “Mirrored,” because band members already used everything up their sleeve. But them’s the breaks when a show-off act goes subtle. The first single, “Ice Cream,” pummels the harmonic intro from St. Vincent’s “Now, Now” into squeaky submission. It’s not a grand novelty like the piercing munchkin that now-departed vocalist Tyondai Braxton portrayed on “Mirrored’s” breakthrough single, “Atlas.” But it’s easier to play in the background, which is where “Gloss Drop” defeats the last album’s, well, gloss. The Latinized “Futura,” the pulsating tropicalia of “Inchworm,” and the Gary Numan-assisted “My Machines” groan and sputter their way through their own Tinkertoy logic without disrupting the pursuit of interesting sound with technique. Live gadgetry at its least demanding.
LEDISI “Pieces of Me”
It’s about time Ledisi got the credit she deserves. Since her day as an indie-label princess, the modern R&B songstress with a jazzbo’s emotional nuances has used a voice as sizable as Mary J. Blige’s and as bruised as Amy Winehouse’s to tell her often-co-penned stories of woe, want, and triumph. If there’s ever a woman you wanted to shout “You go, girl” at, it’s Ledisi when she’s at her full-tilt funkiest.
The confident, stormy title track embraces empowerment at its most urgent, a 21st-century “I’m Every Woman” with its subtly uplifting chord passages and mission statement of complexity over calm. “I’m complicated for sure / But when I love I love till there’s no love no more.” That vibe continues with the coolly driven “BGTY,” the rollicking blues of “Hate Me,” and the flirty “Coffee,” each of which allow Ledisi to toy with coy seduction in a lyrical and vocal manner. While she’s not above a good argument (the raw-knuckled “I Miss You Now,” cowritten by John Legend), Ledisi is more about making up than breaking up, what with the sound of her duet with Jaheim “Stay Together” and the sultry “Shine.”
You go, indeed.
NICK 13 “Nick 13”
We could be reviewing the ballyhooed solo debut of Ronnie Dunn, late of Brooks & Dunn. But life’s too short (and the album’s too lame). Here instead is a solo debut that’s much cooler.
Nick 13 is the leader of the punk/psychobilly band Tiger Army. For this album, however, the singer and guitarist taps into vintage country sounds, spanning Nashville and California, for a set of stylishly evocative originals.
“Nashville Winter” mixes Byrdsian country rock with steel guitar by Music City’s venerable Lloyd Green. “101,” on the other hand, is a bracing Bakersfield-style romp with a dash of Telecaster twang, and “Restless Moon” serves up Tex-Mex reminiscent of the Mavericks. “Someday” takes an acoustic turn, powered by the fiddle of Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins and the Dobro of album coproducer Greg Leisz, and “Gambler’s Life” is a blast of spaghetti western. “Nick 13” also refashions two Tiger Army numbers to fit the proceedings: “In the Orchard” has a steel- accented, Orbisonian sway, while “Cupid’s Victim” channels Rick Nelson.