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Arts & Music

Album reviews: Drake, Kings of Leon, Elton John, Alan Jackson


Published:   |   Updated: September 24, 2013 at 03:57 PM

Drake, "Nothing Was the Same" (Cash Money)

Drake warns us what's coming on his new album “Nothing Was the Same,” laying out a mission statement of sorts on sprawling opener “Tuscan Leather.”

“This is nothin' for the radio/but they'll still play it though/Cause it's that new Drizzy Drake/that's just the way it go.”

The most anticipated rap album of the year is here and “Nothing Was the Same” is probably nothing like you expected. Drake's third album is introspective, practically guest free and every bit as sonically brave as Kanye West's “Yeezus” — though not quite so abrasively bold.

Drake's right. There are no radio cuts here — a predictable inevitability after he debuted “Started from the Bottom” last winter. That song was nothing like the music Drake released on 2011's top album, the Grammy Award-winning “Take Care.” Yet it got stronger, more mesmerizing and meaningful with each play, and it remains among the most streamed songs in a year overstuffed with sickly sweet pop tunes.

While there were introspective lyrics and moments on “Take Care,” the album was filled with songs meant to be played at top volume with the windows rolled down. The party is over now. “Nothing” is for dark rooms and headphones.

There are few hooks here, almost no choruses, not much to sing along to. The heart-on-his-sleeve rapper with a million friends and the tightest of crews seems all alone here after ridding himself of fake friends, trying to sort out why all the success, the money, the drugs and the women leave him with a hollow feeling.

He tells us over the course of the album how his relationships with his family and friends, like Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, have been strained.

The only pleasant memories seem to come from his childhood — represented by that chubby-cheeked cherub in the cover painting — and the '90s are all over the album, serving as touchstone, reminder and measuring stick.

He references the Wu-Tang Clan in the song “Wu-Tang Forever” and in a half-dozen other places. “Nothing” is full of the kind of studied minimalism and sped-up soul vocal samples favored by RZA and his acolytes like West, who we'll get back to in a minute. But he's not aping the game-changers as much as using them as a landmark.

So the biggest star in the rap world retreats. “I've been plottin' on the low,” he sings on “Furthest Thing,” ''Schemin' on the low, the furthest thing from perfect like everybody I know.”

It's moments like this that differentiate “Nothing Was the Same” from the year's other releases in the three-way battle for king of the hill. Where “Yeezus” shows us West has turned confrontational in the post-fame portion of his career and Jay Z has become condescending with “Magna Carta ... Holy Grail,” Drake becomes more and more confessional with each release. His charismatic self-doubt remains intact even as he wears the crown.

It sits atop his sharp-cut fade, heavy and at a tilt, but still firmly in place.

-Chris Talbott

 

Kings of Leon, “Mechanical Bull” (RCA)

Three years after the Kings of Leon's last record, the edgy, gravely rock foursome return in top shape with “Mechanical Bull.”

The album takes the band's unique sound — the recognizable longing guitars and Caleb Followill's growl — and adds a hint of melancholy and a stillness that gives the songs an aura of contentment.

Nervy desire and wildness is still present in their music, most prominently in “Tonight,” with its sexy vibes of earlier hits that hinted at mad tumbling into lust, and in the obsessive strummings of “Wait for Me.” The playful notes of the first single, “Supersoaker,” set the tone, adding a sense of giddiness to the proceedings.

“Don't Matter” goes full-on rock in the beginning but is gradually imbued with a hint of Billy Joel. “Temple” starts out noisily and morphs into the confident stage presence of a rock star. “Beautiful War” rounds up the sound with a heartfelt ballad that showcases Caleb's voice. And “Family Tree” sounds like an old man trying to give advice to the young, who think they know better than everyone else.

Despite tackling the familiar themes of drunken nights and tentative love, the songs weave the story of a man who knows the meaning of being lost and who has finally been found. “Mechanical Bull” isn't the anguished edgy ride you'd expect from Kings of Leon but a fun, stirring experience you don't want to end.

-Cristina Jaleru, The Associated Press

 

Elton John, “The Diving Board” (Capitol)

Eager to make a relevant record at age 66, Elton John sought a return to his roots on “The Diving Board,” advertised as piano trio music in the vein of his marvelous early albums. But while they had energy, humor and good songs in abundance, “Board” is dull.

The 15 cuts suggest Elton and producer T Bone Burnett weren't fully committed to the trio concept. Bass and drums remain subdued throughout, and several songs are dressed up with strings and backup singers. Meanwhile, John plays polite piano in starchy renditions of generic ballads. There's no “Bad Side of the Moon” here.

Longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics, which read as if he mailed them in. “I went to Paris once, I thought I had a plan, I woke up with an accent, I wound up in quicksand,” goes the chorus to “My Quicksand,” which does create a sinking feeling.

The hourlong album is heavily back loaded, and the final three cuts are the best. “Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)” swings with a gospel feel, and the inventive instrumental, “Dream #3,” offers more surprises than anything else in the set. On the autobiographical closing title cut, Sir Elton is supported by warm horns and is convincing as a cabaret singer. It's a better role for him than trying to reclaim his youth.

-Steven Wine, The Associated Press

Alan Jackson, “The Bluegrass Album” (ACR/EMI Nashville)

Veteran country star Alan Jackson ranks among the most tradition-based singers of his generation. Most of his influences are on the surface: honky-tonk, swing, blues and songs both romantic and social that draw on details from his personal life.

Jackson's new “The Bluegrass Album,” much like his two collections of gospel hymns, brings out another form of American roots music that he loves. With characteristic laid-back charm, Jackson applies his sweet baritone to the hot acoustic picking and soaring harmonies that characterize bluegrass.

What Jackson brings to the table is outstanding songwriting — an area where contemporary bluegrass can be lacking. The 54-year-old contributes eight original songs, including the standouts “Blacktop” and “Let's Get Back To Me And You,” as well as two by his nephew Adam Wright, who co-produced the collection with Jackson's longtime studio collaborator, Keith Stegall.

Jackson tips his hat to bluegrass history by covering Bill Monroe's “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” and the Dillards' great “There Is A Time,” and he runs John Anderson's “Wild And Blue” through a mountain gap without losing its soulful strength.

To Jackson's credit, he doesn't aim any of these songs to fit country radio's format. Instead, he concentrates on making a solid string-band album for the ages — and succeeds.

-Michael McCall, The Associated Press

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