Record reviews

Tim McGraw

Album: “Two Lanes Of Freedom” (Big Machine)

Grade: B

Veteran country star Tim McGraw resolutely refers to independence and the highway in the title of his new album, “Two Lanes Of Freedom,” his first since leaving Curb Records, his label for two decades. The title cut flaunts that freedom by employing world-music instruments, harmonies and rhythms to communicate just how creatively liberated he feels.

But McGraw has always pushed at the boundaries of country music. Here he balances experimental arrangements with hat tips to contemporary country music — the hit “Truck Yeah” follows the current trend of matching rural signifiers with pounding rock, while “One Of Those Nights” nicely weaves in slice-of-life sentiments, a common McGraw theme.

Elsewhere, he succeeds at broadening his sound with hip-hop, bluegrass and piano pop. He also bridges the generations on “Highway Don’t Care,” a duet with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban that says even freedom needs an anchor in true love.

—Michael McCall, Associated Press


Album: “Face the Music” (Mo-B Entertainment)

Grade: B

Avant’s seventh album arrives just in time for Valentine’s Day. It’s full of ballads and seductive tracks that highlight the R&B performer’s singing and songwriting skills.

Avant doesn’t break any barriers vocally on “Face the Music,” but he does bring on a freshness that always makes him worth listening to. That’s evident on the album opener, “Toast to Love,” and the midtempo “80 in a 30,” which displays the Avant we know and love.

“You and I,” featuring KeKe Wyatt, sees the awesome twosome throwing down again, adding to their previous collaborations such as the classic “My First Love” and “Nothing in This World.”

Avant does stretch out of his comfort zone slightly on “No,” opting for a more poplike sound, and it works. “Face the Music” isn’t perfect, but it’s an R&B goodie.

—Bianca Roach, Associated Press

Holly Williams

Album: “The Highway” (Georgiana)

Grade: A

Holly Williams is the kind of poetic songwriter country music once embraced. These days, the powerfully sensitive songs featured on her new album, “The Highway,” are relegated to the independent Americana genre that exists outside of the arena-rock formulas of country radio.

The strength of Williams’ songwriting and the subtle emotions in her husky, expressive voice suggest she is following in the cross-genre paths of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Kathy Mattea — or the country side of Neil Young and Lyle Lovett.

Writing of struggles with family and faith, of living a transient life and of dealing with faithfulness and problematic men, Hank Williams’ granddaughter uses personal experience to explore universal issues. Amid a raw yet seamless blend of piano, acoustic guitar and subtle rhythms and sonic accents, her songs seek something true amid the bumps and bliss of daily life. She makes listeners feel why that search is important.

—Michael McCall, Associated Press


Album: “Set You Free” (MCA Nashville)

Grade: B

Gary Allan is one country star who’s not afraid to hit his fans with a lot of downbeat material (perhaps not surprising for a singer who lost his wife to suicide). That refusal to sugar-coat life is pretty country, and it has helped make the Southern Californian consistently satisfying, even as he has gradually progressed to a more mainstream, radio-ready sound.

On “Set You Free,” Allan shows again that he can hit pretty hard, whether he’s delivering a venom-dipped warning in “Bones,” admitting that “It Ain’t the Whiskey” (“that’s killing me”); or trying to come to grips with “You Without Me” (“Don’t think you’ve ever looked more beautiful / And you’ve never been more gone”).

Juxtaposed with numbers such as these, the more upbeat offerings take on greater heft. “Every Storm [Runs Out of Rain],” “No Worries,” and “Good As New” are not just formulaic banalities. Rather, the optimism and happiness they express come across as hard-earned and genuine.

—Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer


Album: “Regions of Light and Sound of God” (ATO)

Grade: B

My Morning Jacket singer Jim James has dabbled outside the band before with Monsters of Folk and other projects, but this is his first proper solo album. Begun after he was injured in a fall from the stage in 2008, and partially inspired by Lynd Ward’s 1929 wordless woodcut novel “God’s Man,” the present album is a loose song cycle largely concerning one man’s crisis of faith and rebirth.

With James playing almost all of the instruments himself, the album moves around stylistically, as you might expect of a restless artist of James’ catholic tastes. It’s more spare, however, than a typically jammy MMJ record, taking advantage of James’ clear, soaring, spiritually yearning voice, particularly on the opening “State Of The Art [A.E.I.O.U],” in which layers of sound are built up from a simple repeated piano figure, and the sweetly optimistic love song at the core of the album, “A New Life.”

—Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer

Richard Thompson

Album: “Electric” (New West Records)

Grade: B+

On “Electric,” Richard Thompson plugs in and delivers his most generous helping of guitar solos in many years, perhaps ever. The fretwork is marvelous even by his lofty standards, and some credit for inspiration probably goes to producer Buddy Miller, a fair picker himself.

While Thompson’s notes come in a flurry, he has always been prolific as a composer, too, and here he serves up another solid batch of songs. He might get flagged for a late hit on Sarah Palin with “Sally B,” but it rocks, as does “Stony Ground,” where unrequited love turns bloody. Otherwise, the body count’s lower than on most Thompson albums.

He’s ably accompanied by his touring mates, drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk, and the arrangements give the guitarist plenty of room to do his thing. Each time Thompson launches into one of his eclectic breaks, “Electric” becomes electrifying.

—Steven Wine, Associated Press

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