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Chesney keeps it leisurely on ‘Be As You Are’

Country's hottest selling artist gets more introspective on CD, plus other reviews
/ Source: The Associated Press

New discs from country superstars Kenny Chesney and LeAnn Rimes and the posthumous CD from ODB are among this week's releases.

“Be As You Are,” Kenny ChesneyIt’s admittedly a stretch to compare Kenny Chesney to poets Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost. But like those two, Chesney’s latest recording, “Be As You Are,” draws its power from a sense of belonging.

It’s no secret that Chesney — who’s country music’s best-selling artist right now — spends his downtime in the British Virgin Islands. What’s shocking is how much this beach time has affected “Be As You Are,” a leisurely, introspective record that defies Chesney’s image as a quasi-hard-rocking country boy, best known for hits like “Young” and “The Good Stuff.”

Comparisons to Jimmy Buffet aside, by bucking trends and confounding his record label, Chesney seems to be using his multi-platinum-selling power for good (at this point, his record label has no plan to market “Be As You Are,” and is not releasing any singles from the album).

Songs like “Magic” may be lightweight stuff, but their mellow, light-handed arrangements are appealing, and Chesney is digging a little deeper lyrically: “It’s in the music out in the street,” he sings, accompanied by a steel drum, “I believe there is magic down here.”

Chesney, it seems, is a songwriter-singer at heart.— Paul V. Griffith

“This Woman,” LeAnn RimesAfter forays into pop and rock, LeAnn Rimes says she has come back to her country roots with “This Woman.”

But fans who are hoping for a return to tunes like “One Way Ticket (Because I Can)” or even the crossover “How Do I Live” may be left looking for the roots.

Except for the single “Nothin’ ’Bout Love Makes Sense,” a toe-tapping little confection that has become a hit on the country charts, there’s about as much pop or pop-rock on this Dann Huff-produced CD as there is country. “The Weight of Love” gets a country nod and “I Dare You” puts a little more country into the pop.

At the same time, Rimes does some listenable blues. The album leads off with “I Want to With You,” and includes a Janis Joplin sound on “When This Woman Loves a Man” and “Some People.” The latter may be the high point of the CD with its rich mixture of a little country, a little soul and a lot of blues.

She also does some serious rocking with “I Got It Bad,” co-written with husband Dean Sheremet. It’s big at NASCAR tracks.

If fans keep an open mind, they will appreciate that Rimes has branched out into new genres that underscore her widening musical interests and expanded vocal range.

If they still want to hear a 13-year-old singing “Blue,” well, at 22, she doesn’t yodel much any more.— Tom Gardner

“Osirus,” ODBODB made his last record counted.

“Osirus” was completed a week before the rapper collapsed and died at a Manhattan recording studio Nov. 13 from the combined effects of cocaine and a prescription painkiller.

Sadly, the album stands as a strong comeback effort. It mixes two styles Dirty thrived in: the straightforward MC’ing of his early Wu-Tang Clan days, and the glitzy, club-thumping feel from his acclaimed second solo album, “N.... Please.”

Dirty makes people stop and listen: It’s the combination of his voice, rough-edged and slurring, and the chance he just might say anything, no matter how bizarre. He seemed to lose control at times on his earlier albums, forgetting rhythm, breaking into song or shouting directly at the listener.

But “Osirus” is by far Dirty’s most lucid effort, and there’s a hint of maturity as he raps on “High in the Clouds”: “I like fame/But lockdown changed me/Now it’s all about the gauge on the stage/Cuz haters wanna shoot everything that shines/So, I’m prepared to lock and load my rhymes.”

Dirty’s rhyming has gotten better. He flows easily over the laid-back beat of “Who Can Make It Happen Like Dirt.” “Dirty Run” has him rapping on top of David Bowie’s “Fame,” creating an infectious party track.

If “Osirus” falters anywhere, it’s in the attempts to bridge the ODB to Top 40 hip-hop. “Down South” is strictly for the car stereo with its dum-dum beat and sing-a-long chorus. Constricting Dirty in this simplistic style wastes his rapping talent. He needs room to breathe. Thankfully, these moments are few here.

There’s no question the ODB was one of hip-hop’s most unique performers. “Osirus” does nothing but back it up.— Mark Donahue

“Nightbird,” Erasure
Erasure’s synth-pop melodies are as contagious as a cold on a rush-hour subway.

The duo of Andy Bell and Vince Clarke has been Erasure since the 1980s, with hits that include “Oh L’Amour” and “Chains of Love.” “Nightbird” — not named for a song on the CD but a reference to Bell’s insomnia — is their first album of new material in seven years and contains 11 songs, all written by Bell and Clarke.

The set starts off strongly with “No Doubt” and “Here I Got Impossible Again,” which have an airy, atmospheric aura that delivers listeners right back to the ’80s. Following them is “Let’s Take One More Rocket to the Moon,” with its haunting, melodic chorus (“It’s dawning, I’m gently falling, the rhythm of water and windows are white”) that doesn’t make much sense but sure sounds pretty.

“All This Time Still Falling Out of Love” is one of the thumpier cuts, a catchy techno-pop dance song. So, too, is “I’ll Be There” (“We all make mistakes, I’m all over the place, but you know that I’ll be there in the end”).

“Because Our Love Is Real” is one of those songs whose hook sounds immediately familiar even though you know you’ve never heard it before. And, speaking of hooks, hang onto the one on “I Broke It All in Two” with its subtle backing vocals by Jill Walsh (who nicely backs several other tracks, too).

And “Sweet Surrender” is a smoothie with an intro that Abba would be proud of.

The songs aren’t about much — love sought, found, lost, whatever — but their inventive melodies, friendly, toe-tapping rhythms and creative arrangements will burn them into your brain, where they will continue playing long after the CD is back in its jewel box.

Add Bell’s appealing boy-next-door voice, and production as slick as a yellow raincoat and you have the recipe for 45 minutes of comfort food for the ears.— Ron Berthel

“Off to Join the World,” Blaine LarsenBlaine Larsen’s debut, “Off to Join the World,” is a unique country record not because of the way it sounds, but because it deals with the everyday concerns of a teenager (which, at eighteen, Larsen still is).

Like previous teen phenom’s such as LeAnn Rimes and Lila McCann, Larsen’s voice is mature and his production is Music Row-slick. Unlike those two, however, he’s not reaching for themes beyond his years; for now anyway, Larsen seems content to be a young adult.

Sure, his record has the obligatory Nashville tag-team-written tracks —songs about Mexico, Merle Haggard (who makes a brief appearance on the record), etc. — but it’s Larsen’s own songs that are most telling.

On “In My High School,” for example, he takes up for his left-of-center schoolmates: “They hold assemblies for the football team,” he sings, “but never for the kids with different dreams.” At a time when Nashville seems to be putting out one sound-alike after another, it’s cool that, thematically anyway, Larsen is treading unfamiliar turf.— Paul V. Griffith

“The Secret Migration,” Mercury Rev
Mercury Rev offer an impure melodic gem — sparkling, but flawed.

The group, formed in Buffalo, N.Y., in the late ’80s, released their first effort, “Yerself is Steam” in 1991 and have kept up a steady output of albums and singles ever since. “The Secret Migration” is their seventh full-length disc.

The new album is being made available online as a series of three digital EP’s in five-week intervals between late January and mid April. It will be released in a complete form in May.

“The Secret Migration” is straight out of the digital age with a clear, but frigid production. On “Secret for a Song,” the mid-tempo drums sound more plodding because of their loud, glassy treatment in the mix.

Many of the songs here use the same loping beat — a lackadaisical chug akin to the feet-dragging rhythms of ’90s Brit-Pop groups like Oasis.

Despite this disadvantage, Mercury Rev rise above on a number of cuts, buoyed by the high, delicate singing of Jonathan Donahue — who sounds like Neil Young on a helium bender — along with beautiful piano work throughout.

Donahue’s lyrics touch on themes of love and fantasy. The optimism he spouts on “Moving On” sounds a bit fantastic, too: “You gotta start movin’ on/It will be better in the sun/Just move ahead/It won’t be long/And it’ll be brighter.”

When Mercury Rev really clicks, it’s true magic, like “In a Funny Way” — where the group finds a link between ’60s wall-of-sound pop and the reverb-soaked crooning of ’80s Jesus and Mary Chain.

Such moments rescue “The Secret Migration” and help it shine through its many rough spots.— Mark Donahue

“Emoh,” Lou Barlow
While the Pixies reunion tour got all the fanfare last year, another ’90s indie stalwart returned: Sebadoh. Their shows, though, were a tad less spectacular. Without a drummer, Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein played bass and guitar with a simple boombox between them playing prerecorded beats.

The minimalist sound may have limited the music’s power, but the strength of the songs still boomed forth — and the experience is similar on Barlow’s first solo album.

Virtually synonymous with lo-fi, (Barlow was also in Dinosaur Jr. and Folk Implosion), the singer recorded most of “Emoh” at home with just an acoustic guitar.

“Emoh” — “home” spelled backward — is a title-in-cheek reference to the three-chord, confessional rock typically known as emo. Barlow is no stranger to the absurdly defined genre, as he’s often cited as a progenitor.

Here he pens his standard lyrics of love, loss and lyin’ eyes, but Barlow’s earnest tunes were always more detached and subtly dynamic than any followers. His songs often take unexpected turns of melody — most notably on the drum machine-aided “Home.”

“Emoh” is a sweet, stripped-down reminder of smart ’90s indie rock.— Jake Coyle

“The Way Up,” The Pat Metheny Group
The Pat Metheny Group’s “The Way Up” is a breath of fresh melodic creativity. This album is a 68-minute project with only four tracks — “Opening,” “Part One,” “Part Two” and “Part Three” — that burst with sensational tone and rhythm concepts that’s likely catch the ear of any true jazz head.

The composition for “The Way Up” was mostly written by lead guitarist Pat Metheny and his longtime collaboration partner, pianist Lyle Mays. The project really follows suit with its title by putting out a progressive synthesized-basement-funk-fusion sense from start to finish. Each track gives the feel of a musical journey that has many unexpected rhythm changes, several songs in one, that top recurring music themes that are consistent throughout the entire album.

Listeners will be left feeling as if they’ve just walked into an all-night jam session with some of jazz’s best contemporaries.— Chris Jones

“Knuckle Down,” Ani DiFrancoAni DiFranco has leapt from the minimalist “Educated Guess” to some lusher sounds on “Knuckle Down.” For the first time she invited in a fellow musician — songwriter Joe Henry — to co-produce, and had a string of musician friends join her on several tracks. The result is an intimate, more atmospheric and somewhat dark album that is still pure DiFranco.

The album opens with “Knuckle Down:” “I think I’m done gunnin’ to get closer/To some imagined bliss/I gotta knuckle down/And just be OK with this.” It’s followed by a number of songs simmering with pent-up frustration, and enough about the negative side of love to make one wonder if marriage is still treating DiFranco well. On “Modulation,” a song about the end of a relationship, the tension is as tight as her guitar strings; the lyrics are alternately sung and spit.

The happy beginnings of a romance are described in “Seeing Eye Dog”: “First we touched fingers and then we/Touched toes/Then my army surrendered/My government overthrown.” But one wonders if this relationship is too shallow to succeed. Then there’s a beautifully unsettling spoken-word piece about a crime in progress and the intimate “Recoil,” which plaintively states “I’m just sitting here in this sty/Strewn with half-written songs/Taking one breath at a time.”

Everything OK Ani?

Fortunately, DiFranco’s vocal stylings and her frenetic guitar strumming, rife with tightly plucked melodies and overtones, make even songs of heartache pulse with passion and energy; even though the content is a downer, the experience of listening to them is not.— Aimee Maude Sims

“Wow Gospel 2005,” Various Artists
As regular as a pastor’s appreciation service, every year, gospel listeners await “Wow Gospel’s” annual compilation of the genre’s biggest hits. It usually has all the jams that have been bumping on the radio plus a few from those albums you were meaning to purchase but didn’t get a chance to. This year’s compilation is no different.

Twinkie Clark’s “He Lifted Me” could win a “Most Likely to be Sung by a Choir at a Church Near You” award. It’s a funky song with just enough traditional organ playing and scripture-based lyrics to please the elders. Ricky Dillard & New G’s “Let Us All Go Back” qualifies for a “Girlfriend Tore Up the Lead on That Song” award. Kierra Sheard’s “You Don’t Know” is most likely the song all the young people in the church have been singing for months — and it’s about time everybody else heard it too, because it’s just that good.

Tonex’s “Make Me Over” could start a revival — and it well earned its spot on the two-disc set. Israel and New Breed are represented, and Bishop Paul S. Morton’s Prince imitation on “Let it Rain” is here as well.

So, make the pilgrimage to the local CD spot and pick up a copy.— Aimee Maude Sims

“Voices From Heaven,” The Soweto Gospel ChoirThe Soweto Gospel Choir makes a strong U.S. debut with “Voices from Heaven,” which features the 26-member South African group singing their repertoire of tribal, traditional and popular African gospel songs in eight different languages.

Their music is reminiscent of the historical Fisk Jubilee Singers’ Negro spirituals, but with African drums and other exotic instruments in the background. Particularly stirring are the group’s renditions of “Amazing Grace” and Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross.” Everything else will surely be foreign to most ears.

Still, those who have an appreciation for a classical style of gospel and spirituals should definitely to find a spot the Soweto Gospel Choir in their CD collection.— Chris Jones