Little Big Town, Tornado, Capitol Nashville * * *
Little Big Town’s fifth album should finally be the one to catapult it to the top commercial ranks of country music, especially given the success of its first single, Pontoon, which has mmm-motorboated its way to becoming a smash summer anthem.
The first four tracks, which includes the earworm Pontoon, are so blatantly commercial, and the album is mastered so loudly (every nuance is squeezed out of the instrumental-vocal balance, the better to stand out on radio) that one could cry “sell-out.” But no quartet has worked harder, released better material or exhibited more intricate vocal harmonics and yet been so inadequately rewarded, so the power grab is forgivable.
That’s because, starting with the mournful Your Side of the Bed and through most of Tornado’s second half, Little Big Town, working with a new producer, begins to sound like itself again, delivering one thoughtful, beautifully sung tune after another. Examples include the tender Can’t Go Back and Night Owl, where the production takes a breather, the infectious pop-rockers Leavin’ in Your Eyes and Self Made and the title track, powered by a clever woman-scorned/storm metaphor.
Download: Self Made, Leavin’ in Your Eyes, Tornado.
Mark Knopfler, Privateering, Universal Import * * * 1/2
Mark Knopfler resurrects the hoary concept of the studio double album, something he has avoided while leading Dire Straits and in his six previous solo albums. Remarkably, Privateering, which takes its title from a British Naval term, flows as briskly as a taut single.
Credit a broad assortment of engaging musical styles, from folk to blues, rock to country, with nary a duff track among the 20. Knopfler’s guitar playing, both electric and acoustic, is more economical than it was 30-plus years ago. He leaves some of the showmanship to his fine current band, which might disappoint fans of Dire Straits’ sprawling guitar workouts like Telegraph Road and Sultans of Swing. But with Knopfler’s songwriting and his warmly weathered, conversational voice in peak condition, Privateering is one of the fall’s musical standouts.
Knopfler is on a North American arena tour with Bob Dylan. Alas, no dates yet in South Florida.
Download: Go, Love; Kingdom of Gold, Redbud Tree.
Various Artists, Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac, Hear Music/Concord * * 1/2
Just Tell Me, produced by film director Wes Anderson’s musical associate Randall Poster and Gelya Robb, gathers 17 primarily indie rock acts for a go at selections from the 45-year Fleetwood Mac catalog.
But with 10 of 17 tracks centered on Stevie Nicks’ contributions, the tribute seems misnamed. Only one Christine McVie cover (two on the deluxe iTunes version) is a shame, especially since The New Pornographer’s bouncy, keyboard-driven take on McVie’s Think About Me is the disc’s highlight.
Marianne Faithfull’s world-weary reimagining of Nicks’ Angel adds an intriguing edge to the original, while newcomer Trixie Whitley merits attention for scorching her way through Peter Green’s percussive blues rocker Before the Beginning.
No act here approaches the chemistry, vocal passion or craft that made Fleetwood Mac’s records such an enduring source of inspiration. But with only a few outright disasters (notably MGMT’s ridiculous, robotic reduction of Bob Welch’s Future Games), this nicely packaged tribute at least captures the mystical current that has run through every incarnation of the band.
Download: Think About Me, Angel, Before the Beginning.
Pet Shop Boys, Elysium, Astralwerks * * 1/2
For the British duo’s 11th studio album — and rumored finale — Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe recorded for the first time in the United States with a new producer, Anthony Dawson, who has worked with Kanye West.
But the mostly dance-free, reflective Elysium isn’t rooted in hip-hop.
Though it has its standouts — these songwriters are too good to release an album without a few killer hooks — much of the down-tempo Elysium drifts by. The first single, Winner, was a missed London Olympics opportunity (the duo performed the dated West End Girls at the ceremonies instead), but at least it’s better than the grating Ego Music, a veiled slam at pretentious pop stars like Lady Gaga.
The three must-haves: the classic Pet Shop Boys pop of the opening Leaving; the elegant, slow-churning ballad Invisible; and the campy closer, Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin. That last one sounds like the bubbly background music on an old episode of Charlie’s Angels.
If Requiem sounds all too much like an end — “this is the last chance for goodbye” — at least the Pet Shop Boys are going out on a giggle.
Download: Leaving, Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin, Invisible.
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