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New CDs: Kenny Chesney, Nikka Costa and Lucinda Williams
Kenny Chesney "Lucky Old Sun" (BNA)
* * 1/2
This is the one Kenny Chesney watchers have been waiting for ever since the cuddle-bunny country superstar's 2005 marriage to Renee Zellweger flamed out so spectacularly.
Last year's "Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates" sidestepped that issue with an album full of songs, and sentiments, written by others. Now he's written or co-written five of the 11 songs on this latest collection, "Lucky Old Sun," allowing the first glimpses of what's really been going on in his head and his heart. (A deluxe version of the album including bonus live tracks, video content and other extras came out Tuesday; the regular edition will be released Oct. 21.)
Chesney's concentrating here on the aftermath of heartbreak and broken dreams and what it takes to move forward after loss. There's nothing in any of the songs to stoke the gossip mongers but plenty to nurture fans who have been worried about the object of their affection. There's also empathy for those who might be going through something similar (minus the paparazzi), but the result is more consoling than memorable.
This is a quiet, introspective collection, predominantly an effort to find and take comfort wherever it presents itself. Pain is evident, but not the intimately revealed variety you'd expect from such esteemed songwriters as Rodney Crowell or John Hiatt. Relief from heartache is more crucial to Chesney than attempting to sort out what failings -- his or someone else's -- might have brought it on.
There's no country-rock bravado, just gentle acoustic guitars, reassuring piano accents and occasional steel drums to add the requisite island flavor, soothing stuff you'd expect on a country version of "The Wave" radio station. He counts his blessings ("I'm Alive," "Everybody Wants to Go To Heaven") and leans on friends, metaphorically and literally with guest spots from Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson and the Wailers, all of whom show up to help jump start the healing process.
-- Randy Lewis
She's comfortable with vintage soul
Nikka Costa "Pebble to a Pearl" (Go Funk Yourself/Stax)
* * 1/2
"If you're a tree I'll be the roots," Nikka Costa tells a lover on "Pebble to a Pearl," her first effort since departing the major-label system that never quite managed to make her a star. (If Costa's name rings a bell, it's most likely because you remember the Tommy Hilfiger spot that featured her song "Like a Feather.")
Roots are important to Costa, whose late father, Don, was a string arranger known for his work with Frank Sinatra: Where her previous two albums put a high-tech spin on old-school soul music, "Pebble," which she co-produced with her husband, Justin Stanley, reaches for a meticulous vintage-vinyl vibe clearly modeled on early-'70s records by Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield.
The result is Costa's most natural-sounding record by a mile; compared to the jittery electro-funk of 2001's "Everybody Got Their Something" (helmed in part by Mark Ronson, who went on to great success with Amy Winehouse), new songs such as "Cry Baby" and "Loving You" exude the relaxed air of someone working in her comfort zone. Yet as any Winehouse fan knows, soul music needs a little unease to transcend baby-making utility, and with none of that here, Costa's creation occasionally comes off like a well-appointed museum piece.
"You can't please everybody no matter how hard you try," she sings at one point, as if anticipating the inevitable Winehouse comparisons. True -- but at least Costa seems satisfied pleasing herself.
A good woman for the dirty work
Lucinda Williams "Little Honey" (Lost Highway)
* * * 1/2
Perfectionism has its place, and it's hard to argue with the results when it comes to the music Lucinda Williams has created in the years that typically elapse between each of her albums. But there's a raw energy on "Little Honey" -- which arrives this week, a little more than a year after 2007's "West" -- that's as refreshing as it is palpable. The rock swagger, the playful sexuality, the late-night alienation and bluesy introspection all make a convincing case that she should have been a Rolling Stone in whatever musical universe Mick and Keith are one guy, and that guy is a woman.
There's no less gravel on the road she travels here, but there are pit stops where happiness, or at least the potential for it, offers welcome relief and release from life's endless string of heartbreaks. "Real Love" gets the album cranking with a gritty celebration of that moment when love goes soul deep. "Honey Bee" is a frisky rock scorcher, while "Tears of Joy" is in a league with Buck Owens' "Together Again" as one of the saddest-sounding songs ever to welcome the blessings of love.
She hasn't lost her knowledge of what can, and too often does, go wrong. Her countrified duet with Elvis Costello on the deliciously downward spiraling "Jailhouse Tears" lets Costello's unlovable loser try out all his best excuses for his wicked ways on Williams, who, in the best Loretta Lynn tradition, isn't having any of it. And "Rarity" is a dirge-like ode to a musician who's been sullied by machinations of the music business.
The cumulative message is that it's all part of the territory. Rock 'n' roll is a dirty job, but thankfully someone as perceptive as Williams has elected to do it.
Save it for a rainy-day movie
Ray LaMontagne "Gossip In the Grain" (RCA)
There's something inherently unsatisfying about music so obviously meant for film and television soundtracks as Ray LaMontagne's "Gossip in the Grain." All the pieces are in place for a lovely folk-pop outing; the pedal steel guitars are tuned to "mournful," LaMontagne's whisper-wail has just enough bayou in it to stand out from the pack of bearded hangers-on. But the album seems a purposefully thin broth of domestic sadness that needs something else, something more immediate with which to identify with it. It's almost enough to send a boy walking in the rain with "Gossip" on repeat, hoping for a limousine to drive by and splash sad, sad water on him from the gutter, and finally reveal what LaMontagne is getting at.
It's a shame LaMontagne isn't from Ireland, as the success of the "Once" lovebirds and Damien Rice suggest a bull market for the kind of opaque pastoralism LaMontagne's shooting for. Songs like the title track and "A Falling Through" dissolve in a haze of underfed emoting, but whenever LaMontagne introduces specific sounds or images to hang your hoodie on, he gets more inviting.
"Meg White" is a worthy celeb-stalking indie anthem (is Meg the new Winona Ryder in that regard?), and lead single "You Are the Best Thing" is a relieving slice of Stax soul. It's a sound a bit beyond LaMontagne's vocal reach, but at least it doesn't need to be on Nick and Norah's infinitely tedious playlist to make its point.