record reviews


leonard cohen

Album: “Old Ideas”

Grade: A

Throughout his 45-year career, Leonard Cohen has walked a fine line between love, sex and religion, often embodying the trinity in the same song. Cohen doesn’t abandon those themes on his latest album, “Old Ideas,” his first studio recording in eight years and perhaps one of his best in decades. Part of the reason the record succeeds is the honesty that the 77-year singer-songwriter delivers as he questions mortality, god and betrayal with poetic dignity.

In 2005, Cohen’s former manager took the liberty of emptying his savings accounts, leaving the deep-throated troubadour nearly broke. And though the singer won a civil suit in 2006, it’s not believed that he’s collected any money back. As a result, Cohen has had to spend his retirement years on the road singing for his supper.

But out of this adversity comes an album rooted heavily in his signature prayerlike delivery with an air of aesthetic realism.

“Old Ideas” kicks off with “Going Home,” a poem written by Cohen and set to music by Cohen and co-writer Patrick Leonard. Hearing Cohen’s nearly-spoken voice delivery, it becomes a powerful ditty of Cohen’s spiritual foundation as well as how he sees himself.

In the song, God says Cohen does what he tells him, even though it’s not always welcome. This sets the tone for the remainder of the album of a man tormented by mistakes of the past and his growing older.

Cohen has never been a stranger to religious overtones: After all, he’s the man that wrote “Hallelujah,” which became immortalized by the late Jeff Buckley.

But this album seems to provide more weighted spiritual balance. It’s not religious, at least in any organized form, but it’s definitely more pious than usual.

—John Carucci, Associated Press

TIM MCGRAW

Grade: “Emotional Traffic”

Grade: C

Let’s get the logistics behind Tim McGraw’s “Emotional Traffic” (Curb) out of the way.

It’s the final album for his longtime label, delayed while a Nashville court decided whether it fulfilled his contract. In November, the court sided with McGraw, and so the album — which may have been ready as early as two years ago — can be released.

The strain shows. Though McGraw is usually savvy about picking material and shrewd about targeting a sound for his albums, “Emotional Traffic” feels cobbled together, with songs of uneven quality and wide-ranging styles.

The singles are still top-notch. The playful “Felt Good on My Lips,” which was released way back in 2010, is still a delight. The current single, “Better Than I Used to Be” (which tellingly starts with the line “I know how to hold a grudge”), covers the same ground sonically and lyrically that “Live Like You Were Dying” did so successfully, while “Touchdown Jesus” gives a “Pink Houses”-styled country-pop number a gospel twist.

However, a few songs feel like filler, and a few experiments fall flat. “Halo” oddly misses the mark as a countrified Coldplay song, and “Only Human,” a weird duet with R&B singer- song writer Ne-Yo, ends up somewhere between Christopher Cross and Peter Cetera-era Chicago.

To his credit, even when he’s not trying all that hard, McGraw still manages to sound pretty good most of the time.

—Glenn Gamboa, Newsday

KELLIE PICKLER

Album: “100 Proof”

Grade: B

The first third of Kellie Pickler’s “100 Proof” (Sony Nashville) is so far from the sassy/kooky persona she has crafted for herself that she’s almost unrecognizable. “Where’s Tammy Wynette?” is equal parts forward-looking savvy and classic-country-loving retro. “Stop Cheatin’ on Me” feels like an undiscovered Loretta Lynn guitar ballad that easily could become Pickler’s signature song, while “Long as I Never See You Again,” which she co-wrote, is filled with a gorgeous, understated ache. “100 Proof” gradually gets soggier and watered down, but the potent opening casts Pickler in a new leading-lady light.

—Glenn Gamboa, Newsday

RINGO STARR

Album: “Ringo 2012” (Hip-O/Ume)

Grade: C

One look in the mirror was all it took for ex-Beatle Ringo Starr to find the best producer for his 17th solo record, “Ringo 2012,” Starr claims. Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving, and Starr might have done better shopping around someone to make this release more interesting.

As it stands, “Ringo 2012” is equal parts reflection and rehash. The subject matter, mostly composed by others, is mostly fond memories of days gone by for Starr, with a bit of make-love-not-war ethos sprinkled in for good measure. When presented with Starr’s dry vocal approach, most tracks lack the required luster to make this album stand out.

“Ringo 2012” is blues, rock and a touch of honky-tonk. The melodies aren’t bad. They’re just too well-traveled. From the first track, “Anthem,” to the final salute in “Slow Down,” there’s not much here to show us that Starr has challenged himself beyond a formulaic delivery. “Wings” is a nice song, but he’s already recorded it years ago on his sixth album.

There are some moments when the fit is fine, as on “Rock Island Line.” This bluesy standard made its way to Starr by way of Lead Belly and so-called skiffle bands in Liverpool, England, where Starr paid his early dues in the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group. The song gets a nice boost from blues guitar standout Kenny Wayne Shepard, who sizzles throughout.

—Ron Harris, Associated Press

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