Record reviews

Katy Perry

Album: “Witness”

Grade: C

She once roared. But now, we’ll just call it meowing.

Katy Perry, one of the top voices in contemporary pop over the last decade, limps into her fourth album with a collection of songs that don’t have a cohesive feel or message. It’s a random hodgepodge of tracks that don’t spark or shine; some of the tunes are cute, but most are forgettable.

“Witness” doesn’t offer a fresh, or refreshed, Perry — the only thing new about her is that haircut. Vocally, she doesn’t sound inspired or inspiring. And while “Witness” isn’t expected to be the year’s best album, what was expected was some fun, killer pop hits.

Lead single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” is watered-down reggae pop without any real reggae flavor, and current single, the Nicki Minaj-assisted “Swish Swish,” is a miss-miss.

“Witness” is Perry’s first album without mega-producer Dr. Luke, who is at war with pop singer Kesha over sexual abuse claims (he denies her allegations). Max Martin, Dr. Luke’s former mentor, is still present though, along with big names such as Sia, Jeff Bhasker and DJ Mustard.

But none of them come to Perry’s rescue. The beginning of “Hey Hey Hey” sounds like “Dark Horse,” Perry’s last No. 1 hit, and the hook echoes Avril Lavigne. “Bigger Than Me” comes off like a leftover track from her 2013 album, “Prism.” And the title track is a bore.

Perry finds the right momentum on the dreamy “Tsunami,” produced by Mike WiLL-Made It; “Bon Appetit,” chosen as the official second single for mere minutes, is upbeat and catchy; and “Power,” with little lyrics, is a shining effort thanks to multi-instrumentalist Jack Garratt’s layered, experimental sound. But overall, “Witness” falls short.

— Mesfin Fekadu, Associated Press

Cheap Trick

Album: “We’re All Alright!”

Grade: A

Cheap Trick is way better than all right on “We’re All Alright!” – which may be their best in 35 years.

With the album title taken from the ending chant on their signature song “Surrender,” Cheap Trick makes a bold declaration that joyful, unrestrained, in-your-face (and burned into your brain) rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well.

Even this band’s rejects are better than most bands’ A-material: The best track on the album, “Radio Lover,” sat atop a discarded demo pile for 20 years before surfacing here. It’s one of four up-tempo rockers in a row that kick off the album, including the scale-climbing “Nowhere,” and the first single “Long Time Coming,” which pays homage to their musical roots with a Who-like riff similar to “Can’t Explain.”

A bonus track that deserves to be on every copy of the album is a cover of The Move’s “Blackberry Way,” which sounds like what would result if The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” and The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” had a baby.

Forty-four years after their debut, Cheap Trick has still got it going on: Robin Zander is screaming again at the end of verses, and Rick Nielsen’s quirky, minimalist guitar solos are as rambunctious as the most caffeinated garage band. This band neither surrenders nor gives anything away.

— Wayne Parry, Associated Press

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Album: “The Nashville Sound”

Grade: A

In the hands of an ordinary songwriter, “Anxiety” would be an ordinary song.

But when the writer is Jason Isbell, arguably the finest songwriter putting pen to paper these days, the song changes tempo and builds to an angsty, gnarling crescendo, all in unspoken support of lyrics about being anxious when you should be happy.

It’s not the best song on “The Nashville Sound,” the new album Isbell produced with his old band, the 400 Unit, but it shows what a craftsman he has become.

Following “Southeastern” and “Something More Than Free,” two masterworks that have grown in stature since their release in 2013 and 2015, “The Nashville Sound” doesn’t always rise to Isbell’s standards. An angry song called “White Man’s World,” for example – likely Isbell’s take on post-2016 election America – lacks his usual flair for nuanced, show-don’t-tell lyrics.

But the album has its moments.

The opener, “Last of My Kind,” is an evocative reflection on losing touch with the past. A wistful love song called “If We Were Vampires” rivals Isbell’s best work. So does the emphatic, optimistic anthem, “Hope the High Road,” the album’s first single.

The 400 Unit is in fine form throughout, rocking when Isbell snarls and hanging back in songs that demand restraint.

So even if the album is not as consistently transcendent as the last two, that’s a high bar – and nothing here will harm Isbell’s soaring reputation.

— Scott Stroud, Associated Press

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