Album reviews

Dierks Bentley, Neneh Cherry, Pharell Williams, Real Estate

Published Mar 14, 2014 at 12:01AM

Dierks Bentley

“RISER”

Capitol Records Nashville

Country music’s inexorable turn to the lunk has left Dierks Bentley in a pickle. For about a decade, he was either the thinking man’s dope or the mindless dope’s thinker, a gentle soul with a mournful voice who never pushed too hard. He could be reflective, and he could be rowdy, but never too much of either, and therefore never too much of anything.

But the pendulum has swung forcefully past Bentley in recent years. Boors are the new norm. As that was happening Bentley stepped back, first with a bluegrass-heavy album and then one that tried to play along (see “5-1-5-0,” as fun a man-child anthem as country has had in the last couple of years).

“Riser” is Bentley’s seventh album, and it’s partly a rejection of his bro birthright: not just a step away from modern trends, but toward the calm purpose of Bentley’s early albums. “Say You Do” is worthy melancholy, about talking an ex into a last hurrah. “Riser” has real moments of grit. The lonesome “Bourbon in Kentucky” is elegant and features elegiac harmony vocals from Kacey Musgraves.

Musgraves isn’t an arbitrary choice. It’s a nod from Bentley to country’s new wave of dissidents. He’s deliberate in his choice of songwriters, including Shane McAnally and Josh Kear, who provide some of the better songs on this hit-or-miss album.

— Jon Caramanica,

The New York Times

Neneh Cherry

“BLANK PROJECT”

Smalltown Supersound

The artistic strength of Neneh Cherry has never been in question over the past 30-plus years. From a member of Rip Rig + Panic to the solo phenomenon of “Raw Like Sushi” to working with her husband and daughter in CirKus, Cherry has always followed her own path in her style. However, the maturation of her voice and viewpoint, as well as the renewed interest in it, is a welcome development. First with “The Cherry Thing” and now “Blank Project,” Cherry has stepped back onto center stage to deserved applause.

“Blank Project,” her first solo album in nearly 18 years, simultaneously sounds like both the culmination of Cherry’s work to this point as well as a purposefully low-key, low pressure recording. The speed of recording and mixing — a mere five days — certainly played a part. Her vocals are imperfect yet all the better for it; the rushed moments and the occasional cracks that begin to appear as she reaches for notes add to the intimacy and vulnerability on display.

As “The Cherry Thing” previously showed, Cherry has matured into a vocal stylist of some note. She is able to slip off a beat, to emphasize not just the lyric itself but the sound of a phrase, to roll and shape a melody with a nimble tongue. While it may sound easy to sing around a beat, to do so in a way that strengthens rather than weakens a song is a rare art. Cherry does so in a style that seems natural and necessary, a way best exemplified by Nina Simone and Willie Nelson. Like those artists, she bends the tune to her own rhythm and brings a feeling of rightness when doing so.

— Erik Highter,

PopMatters

Pharrell Williams

“G I R L”

Columbia Records

Can Pharrell Williams top his incredible 2013?

Well, the singer-songwriter-producer-hat-wearing-fashionista is certainly going to try. His new solo album, “G I R L,” does seem to pick up where his smash collaborations — “Get Lucky” with Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” with Robin Thicke and T.I. — left off.

The first single, “Happy,” shows that Williams is able to top the charts all by himself with his own brand of disco-fied R&B. But that’s really only the starting point for “G I R L,” which tries to add some edge to his ready-for-radio style. “Hunter” is so retro it’s risky, piling “Rapture”-like rhymes over scratch guitar riffs and disco bass lines, while he brings back some of his “Hollaback Girl” style for his duet with Miley Cyrus on “Come Get It Bae.”

However, “G I R L” isn’t as experimental as his first solo album, “In My Mind,” from 2006. He packs this one with surefire hits. Williams is at his best when he blends his love of old soul and new beats, which he manages quite well in the groovy “It Girl” and “Brand New,” where he and Justin Timberlake team to combine “Off the Wall”-era Michael Jackson with Earth, Wind & Fire, complete with dueling falsettos. His ska-tinged duet with Alicia Keys, “I Know Who You Are,” is another possibility for him to extend his winning streak, or lightning could strike again with his Daft Punk collaboration “Gust of Wind.”

Get ready for “The Summer of Pharrell — The Sequel.”

— Glenn Gamboa,

Newsday

Real Estate

“ATLAS”

Domino Records

Real Estate’s third album, “Atlas,” differs little from its two predecessors: It rolls along to gentle waves of strummed acoustic guitars and a latticework of trebly, picked electric ones, and the vocals are wistful, understated and comforting. Although the sound will be familiar, both to fans of Real Estate and of the Ridgewood, N.J., band’s forefathers such as the Feelies, Galaxie 500, or the easygoing side of Yo La Tengo, “Atlas” still impresses. It’s unassuming but confident, dreamy but precise, leisurely but densely textured.

The opening trifecta of the shimmering love song “Had to Hear,” the nostalgic “Past Lives” (with soulful keyboards from new member Matt Kallman), and the jangly, perky “Talking Backwards” demonstrates a tight sense of songcraft for a band that still luxuriates in a drifting interplay of guitars. Real Estate may not break new ground on “Atlas,” but it builds something deeply satisfying.

— Steve Klinge, The Philadelphia Inquirer