record reviews

Hunter Hayes

Album: “Storyline” (Atlantic Records)

Grade: B

At 22, Hunter Hayes isn’t one for subtlety on his sophomore album: His up-tempo songs (“Tattoo,” “Storyline”) race with breathless rushes of lyrics and fast, busy arrangements; his ballads are intensely dramatic, whether he takes on self-esteem (the top-10 country hit “Invisible”) or the mysteries of attraction (”Still Fallin’”).

The Grammy-nominated rising star is following up his 2011 successful self-titled introductory record by once again co-writing, co-producing and playing several instruments on “Storyline.”

To his credit, Hayes avoids contemporary country cliches: There are no pickup trucks, dirt roads or beer drinking in these songs. Still, even though the opening “Wild Card” boasts that he’s a crazy guy, Hayes could benefit from loosening up and showing some of that wildness on record.

That said, Hayes is an inventive country-pop songwriter and performer. He and co-producer Dann Huff cram songs with clever sonic twists; they even include a couple of short musical interludes, as if the other dozen tracks don’t provide room for all of the instrumental ideas.

Hayes is striving for something more distinctive than radio hits; he wants to inspire, to create something spectacular. “Storyline” doesn’t quite fulfill that ambition, but fans will find the collection entertaining.

—Michael McCall, Associated Press

Natalie Merchant

Album: “Natalie Merchant” (Nonesuch Records)

Grade: B

Natalie Merchant has never been one to pull punches.

From her start singing deceivingly jovial-sounding tunes about tough topics such as child abuse and air pollution with seminal 1980s alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs through her 21 years as a solo artist, Merchant has made her mark as an unflinchingly honest artist.

That fearlessness continues on the self-titled and self-produced “Natalie Merchant,” her first collection of entirely original songs in 13 years.

On the haunting “Giving Up Everything,” Merchant sings about mercy killing her craving, giving up her “cursed search for meaning.” Think of it as her version of John Lennon’s “God.”

Not everything is a downer. The opening track, “Ladybird,” is a jaunty toe-tapper. But that’s quickly followed by “Maggie Said,” which begins with the line: “Maggie said dig one more shallow grave before I’m dead.”

With her distinctive voice still in strong form as she enters her 50s, together with the lush backing of strings, piano, organ and the occasional woodwinds, Merchant creates a rich musical tapestry that transcends the typical vagary of pop music.

—Scott Bauer, Associated Press

Lykke Li

Album: “I Never Learn” (Atlantic)

Grade: A

Sweden’s Lykke Li delivers a full fusion of deep, soul-searching lyrics on “I Never Learn,” her third studio album and an artistic zenith for this talented singer.

There are no weak songs here, and the best comes on “No Rest for the Wicked.” Ghostly piano stabs echo until an avalanche of percussion falls over it all. It’s a poignant song about fighting to keep a relationship alive as it tears apart, territory that sounds personal when Li sings it.

In the end, it is love that is at stake on “I Never Learn.” Lykke Li adroitly captures the struggle that one must endure to keep love at the risk of losing it forever.

—Ron Harris, Associated Press


Album: “Supernova” (RCA)

Grade: B

Famous for his smooth, smoky voice and softly soulful, earnest craft as a songwriter, Ray LaMontagne has now rearranged his brand of Americana with sensual, reverbing psychedelia and the production help of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach. The result: LaMontagne suddenly sounds as if he’s loose and having weird fun. When he sings about wanting his girl on this album’s title track, he seems, at last, to really want her — and not just to talk while sipping coffee.

—A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer

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