Album: “Spitfire” (Curb)
LeAnn Rimes has appeared in tabloid headlines more often than the record charts the past few years. But don’t fault her music: Her last three albums have featured the best work of her career, and the new “Spitfire” tops them all.
The onetime child star always had a powerful voice. She often picked good material, too. But it never gelled into a consistent creative direction.
“Spitfire” finds Rimes emerging as a mature artist whose songwriting ability is catching up with her vocal talent. Ballads such as “What Have I Done” and “Borrowed” convey deeply felt, difficult emotions. She also has developed into an effective pop-rocker: On “Gasoline and Matches,” she bites into a raw, bluesy groove, while the exposed nerves of the modern rocker “You’ve Ruined Me” burn with the fire of truth.
Rimes displays a newfound subtlety in her strong voice on several songs. She effectively uses phrasing and shifts in tone to express complex feelings that sound like they come from real experience.
It’s too soon to say Rimes finally has found a direction that can carry her back to the top of the charts. But “Spitfire” does show she’s found her adult voice — as a songwriter as well as a singer.
—Michael McCall, Associated Press
Queens of the Stone Age
Album: “Like Clockwork” (Matador)
Opening to the sound of breaking glass and riddled with lascivious intent throughout, Queens of the Stone Age’s new album, “Like Clockwork,” is the soundtrack to the B movie of your dreams.
In the six years since the release of the band’s critically acclaimed “Era Vulgaris,” Queens founder Josh Homme has moonlighted with the Eagles of Death Metal and super group Them Crooked Vultures. Now, the California native sounds energized back in his day job.
The credit list for “Like Clockwork” reads like a who’s who of modern rock, with appearances from the band’s frequent collaborators Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan, as well as Homme’s former bandmate Nick Oliveri, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Artic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner and, perhaps surprisingly, Sir Elton John — who lends backing vocals and piano to “Fairweather Friends.”
Thankfully, “Like Clockwork” isn’t overwhelmed by its roster of guest stars, as Homme and his cohorts create merry hell as Lucifer’s house band. The 10 tracks range from piano-led laments about solitude (“The Vampyre of Time and Memory”) to loose-limbed desert-funk (”Smooth Sailing”) in a collection that represents a welcome expansion of Queens of the Stone Age’s sonic template.
—Matthew Kemp, Associated Press
Album: “Once I Was An Eagle” (Ribbon Music)
Laura Marling already sounded like an old soul when she released her haunting debut, “Alas, I Cannot Swim,” in 2008, when she was 18. On her fourth album, the 23-year-old British songwriter (and former Marcus Mumford dater) sets herself even further apart from her peers with a pretty- much-peerless collection of folk songs. “Once I Was an Eagle” is so confidently conceived it seems neither precocious nor haughty. She quotes Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” in “Master Hunter,” the centerpiece of an interconnected seven-song suite about love, pain and loss that begins the album. On her first three records, she moved from ultra-spare to a fuller- band sound. But working here with producer Ethan Johns — who also produced Tom Jones’ impressive new “Spirit in the Room” — Marlin pares her approach back down. She often relies on just her guitar and voice to put across songs with a mythic quality that are at once timeless in their connection to British and American folk traditions and utterly personal.
—Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Album: “Sing to the Moon” (Columbia)
With a look as stark as her sound, the Birmingham, England-born Laura Mvula is a commanding presence. She stands apart from the Brit retro-soul movement, which gave the world Amy Winehouse and Adele. Mvula is stranger, jazzier, with a spacey sound that features her throaty vocals, which often (but not always) recall Nina Simone.
Written with producer Steve Brown, Mvula’s “Sing to the Moon” is arranged for maximum chamber-pop effect (lots of harp and celesta), with odd melodic tangents out of nowhere on songs such as “Make Me Lovely” and “Is There Anybody Out There.” Mvula nearly goes off the vocal rails during the theatrical tune “She,” but she manages, via whispered dynamics, to keep her cool.
Onto all these starry melodies, Mvula grafts a potent, naturally dramatic sense of soul — the centerpiece to a perfect debut effort.
—A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer
Album: “Avalanche” (Epic Records/Vested in Culture)
Coco O.’s soft and dreamy tone over the R&B-flavored beat on “Sea Salt” is enough to make you melt (summer heat not required).
“’Cause you just play on, you just play with my feelings,” she coos. “Blame it all, you still blame it all, inexperienced.”
It’s an outstanding track and one of the 10 gems on Quadron’s electronic soul debut, “Avalanche.” The Danish duo — made up of singer Coco O. and producer Robin Hannibal — have crafted a lush, breezy group of songs that hark on love and make for feel-good and easy listening.
The title track is slow and layered, “It’s Gonna Get You” has a girl-group vibe and Kendrick Lamar adds volume to the lounge-y “Better Off.”
—Mesfin Fekadu, Associated Press
Album: “I Thought About You [A Tribute to Chet Baker]” (Concord Jazz)
Brazilian pianist-singer Eliane Elias offers an inspired tribute to cool jazz legend Chet Baker, a major influence on bossa nova pioneers such as Joao Gilberto. Unlike other recent tributes, which focused on slow ballads reflecting the sadness in Baker’s music, Elias covers a wider spectrum of the trumpeter-singer’s repertoire by including up-tempo and midtempo tunes with a certain swagger and seductiveness on “I Thought About You.”
Elias’ background as a top-flight instrumentalist who also sings gives her particular insight into Baker’s music. She takes after him by not using a drummer on half of the tracks — including the blisteringly paced “Just in Time” and “Blue Room,” a duet featuring playful interplay with her husband, bassist Marc Johnson.
Elias uses a Brazilian rhythm section to give a sensual bossa nova flavor to “Embraceable You” and “Let’s Get Lost.”
—Charles J. Gans, Associated Press