Music releases

Toby Keith

“Hope on the Rocks”
Universal Records
Toby Keith understands honky-tonk life and all its nuances as well as any musician working today, even the parts in which nuances don't figure into the equation.

The Oklahoma country singer and songwriter who's reached the top of the country charts with such quaff-minded odes as “Beer for My Horses,” “Whiskey Girl” and “I Love This Beer” clearly hasn't exhausted that wellspring of musical inspiration yet, returning to the corner watering hole several times in the 10 new songs on “Hope on the Rocks.” The title track is the best, examining the rocky roads that often lead lost souls to seek refuge in drink. “Where do they go?” Keith asks from the perspective of a bartender who's seen it all yet refuses to judge. “At the end of the day, I'm all they got.”

Keith's thinking man arm wrestles with more single-minded characters elsewhere, as in “The Size I Wear,” whose comically reductionist sexism won't win him any new admirers among thinking women, while “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” trades on a variation on Garth Brooks' honky-tonk anthem “Friends in Low Places.” “Get Got” is an impressive compendium of country wisdom as contained in one-liners such as “Less is more, 'cept love and money” and “Talk less, just listen, you can learn a lot.”

Keith has clearly become a skilled listener, a vital trait for any songwriter — or bartender.
— Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times

Calvin Harris

“18 Months”
Columbia Records

Ne-Yo lends his honeyed croon to “Let's Go” and manly Brit MC Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah rap with musky aplomb, but where “18 Months,” U.K. producer and composer Calvin Harris' new album, is concerned, it's pretty much ladies night.

Harris has a way with the provocative female voice, bathing it in sparkling electro-house rhythms and a consistently shimmering ambience that lights each souped-up arrangement from within. There's a luster to his shining synth-pop, to his eerily sincere and catchy melodies, that works best with the female voice. It could be the feline purr of Rihanna, whose “We Found Love” gets the right jolt of theatrical floodlight to turn the singer into a modern-day Eartha Kitt. Or the underestimated Kelis, whose stabbing vocal attack is given a strobe-light's flicker on “Bounce.”

When Harris comes to the operatic Florence (of the Machine) Welch, on “Sweet Nothing,” he cranks the klieg lights to their brightest and removes Flo from her usual noir trappings. And soul slinger Ellie Goulding gets Harris' full attention on “I Need Your Love.” That's where he gives his singer the perfect glow-stick sheen and she gives him a vocal melody bolder than the sun.
— A.D. Amorosi, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Paul Banks

Matador Records
As sulk-rock throwbacks, the band Interpol ran out of ideas so quickly that all it has taken is a solo hodgepodge to actually make their lead singer sound fresh again. Where the comparative dourness of their indie-band peers the National could be attributed to bad economic times, Banks' “Banks” was unlikely to have a title track that lambasted Big Corporate.

The dryly hilarious “I'll Sue You” is a surprise, though — maybe the hopeless chap doesn't just live inside his own head. And this is the poppiest album ever released by a Joy Division habitué; the jingling details of “No Mistakes” and the vaguely ragtime guitars of “Arise Awake” are musical magnetic poetry, much like the Notwist's Neon Golden.

In the song called “Young Again,” the line “jobs are disgraceful” could even be construed as political.
— Dan Weiss, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Cody ChesnuTT

“Landing on a Hundred”
Vibration Vineyard
You remember Cody ChesnuTT: He's the guitar-slinging soul man who came up with the killer riffage on “The Seed,” the deathless track off his 2002 double-album debut “The Headphone Masterpiece” that appeared in altered form on the Roots' “Phrenology” (and is still a centerpiece of the band's live show).

“Landing on a Hundred” is ChesnuTT's first full-length album in a decade, and like his debut, it's a self-released effort by the Atlanta native that genre-blends R&B, soul, and rock, filtered through its auteur's gruff and sweet vocal maneuvers and his idiosyncratic sensibility.

Ten years down the road on a Kickstarter-funded effort that was cut at the Memphis studios where Al Green recorded his hits, ChesnuTT doesn't come off as forward-thinking as he once did. But the musical questions he asks on the smooth “What Kind of Cool (Will We Think of Next)” and “Where is All the Money Going?” are timeless.
— Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Ryan Leslie

Nextselection Lifestyle Group
Ryan Leslie sees haters lurking almost everywhere on “Les Is More,” his third album as a solo R&B artist and, more to the point, his first as a rapper. It's a pre-emptive defense mechanism and a sly form of self-aggrandizement, as he illustrates with “Glory,” the album's overture, a catalog of career frustrations that he offers as proof of his tenacity.

Now that the ground rules have been established, let's stipulate that Leslie is an adept producer and multi-instrumentalist, and that he made this album practically by himself, complete with a series of stylish short films. “Les Is More” has sleek continuity and a human touch: it's warmer than most of what's on hip-hop radio, if hardly more original.

Leslie has cited Kanye West, another producer-cum-rapper, as one of his touchstones here; another unavoidable comparison is to Drake, who has blurred the line between rapping and singing so easefully that it no longer seems exotic. Leslie shifts smoothly from croon to patter, but he hasn't yet established a rap style strong enough to claim as his own. Instead he's a magpie.

Lyrically he favors boilerplate jet-set luxury, occasionally spicing things up with some patronizing pillow talk (“Dress You to Undress You”) or a halfhearted glimpse of past struggle (“The Black Flag”). He does some of his most engaging work on “Maybachs and Diamonds,” a love song with a rare flicker of self-doubt; and “Swiss Francs,” on which he breezily recalls his early graduation from Harvard, reflects on the rate of currency exchange, and observes that “There's too many haters, there's only one of me.”

It's an open question which of those statements rings truer on this album, a marvel of multitasking that can't possibly incite as much disdain as Leslie seems to want. If “Les Is More” is less an auteur statement and more a vanity project, it's because he allows no tension beyond the certainty of his criticism.
— Nate Chinen, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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