Essential tracks: These Chris Stapleton, Samo Sound Boy works qualify

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
Chris Stapleton's "Traveller," a no-nonsense collection of country songs, impresses The Times' Randall Roberts

Chris Stapleton, "Traveller" (Mercury Nashville). It's easy to imagine masses in sold-out arenas bellowing all the words to "Fire Away," the crawling country blues track that's one of many highlights of this debut album. Or, for that matter, most of the album. A sturdy, no-nonsense collection of 14 electrified country songs about empty whiskey bottles, broken hearts, lapses of faith and getting stoned because the whiskey bottle is empty, the record is a straight-talking, unflinching look at trouble and its occasional resolution.

In release notes, Stapleton, who has penned or co-penned songs recorded by artists including Adele, Kenny Chesney and Darius Rucker, said that his new record was born during a road trip from Arizona to Nashville not long after his dad died. He cited the work of Otis Redding, Ray Charles, outlaw country and classic rhythm and blues as influences, describing car rides with his father listening to the radio as formative musical experiences.

This is music made by a man, but it's far removed from the recent plague of so-called bro-country hits about cruisin' and philanderin'. Stapleton has no interest in bragging about conquests unless he's also talking about consequences. He mans up on "Nobody to Blame," eating crow after his ex hocks his guns, breaks his fishing rods and tosses his guitar into a bonfire.

"When the Stars Come Out" is set during a nighttime stroll in downtown Los Angeles. Birthed while he was preparing for a songwriting session with hit maker Dan Wilson, it's a midtempo meditation on fame and power that mixes allusions to celebrity and the celestial. Devastating album closer "Sometimes I Cry" is a primal ballad and should silence any remaining doubters.

Samo Sound Boy, "Begging Please" (Body High). One central trait of electronic dance music is its relentless optimism. Love is everywhere, and if it's absent then surely it's there on the horizon.

In Los Angeles producer Samo Sound Boy's world, realism trumps pleasantries. That's true of both this new work and his collaborative tracks (with Jerome LOL) as DJ Dodger Stadium. Like their excellent "Friend of Mine," "Begging Please" is a gorgeous dance record unafraid to gaze at the dustier, more existential corners of the dance floor.

"Feel Something" opens with a male vocalist repeating the phrase "Make me feel" while a thumpy, interlocked groove propels it. He sings it like the plea of a hollow man. Only after a few dozen bars does optimism arrive when the phrase evolves into "you make me feel ... ," but even then it's a tepid admission.

Such maneuvers add nuance and layers of meaning to tracks that don't have all that many lyrics and whose musical evolutions occur in well-measured increments. As the record progresses, though, the tidbits add up: "Save Wait Time" features what sounds like a huge gospel chorus looping those words in a mantra. "What Can I Do" chops up that question, offering little resolution but repeatedly, stubbornly asking it.

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