Lyfe Jennings is not afraid of the tough questions.
On his sublime third disc, the Toledo soul man doesn't shy away from issues of responsibility, commitment, and sacrifice, while growing musically and vocally.
Jennings, who served prison time for his role in a fatal Toledo arson, is making a career now out of doing the right thing. Unlike so many artists who glamorize the street life, Jennings sees it for what it is: a depressing dead end of bad decisions and even worse consequences.
So on "Lyfe Change" he focuses on what he refers to as "the revolution of positive music." Jennings isn't a pollyanna, so using a creative palette that resembles Terence Trent D'Arby and vintage Marvin Gaye, he paints a picture of urban life where choices trump circumstances.
And he keeps it real, singing about the challenges of relationships, finances, and peer pressure over sophisticated soul arrangements that sizzle. Lending help are rappers T.I., Snoop Dogg (on one of the discs's strongest tracks, the hypnotic "Old School"), and Wyclef Jean.
But the real star is Jennings, whose confidence in both his music and his message makes "Lyfe Change" a strong step forward for an artist who already had more than enough game and now has a disc that picks up momentum with each track.
- ROD LOCKWOOD
As a contemporary country songwriter, Vassar has had few peers in a brief career, penning big hits for such luminaries as Collin Raye, Alan Jackson, Jo Dee Messina, Tim McGraw, and BlackHawk. His creations won him ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year honors in 1999. Early successes led to a self-titled debut album in 2000 that charted three Top 5 singles for him as a performer.
But after four albums, Vassar's light seems to shine less brightly each time out, unable to fulfill the promise expected after his first album. It's not that he doesn't come up with an occasional outstanding, chart-climbing single, but there seems to be a big gap between the truly good tracks and the very ordinary tracks on his albums.
Despite its title, his new disc hasn't a prayer of changing that pattern because the very good songs are outnumbered again.
Vassar's voice is a fine, workmanlike baritone with little exceptional to recommend it except for the lyrics and music he created as a vehicle for it. "Why Don't Ya" is a knockout number, but it's due in large measure to some substantial assistance from Los Lonely Boys.
Vassar wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 12 songs on this release, and there's some very fine music here. But wading through the routine stuff is for fans only.
- KEN ROSENBAUM
Louisiana-born drummer Brian Blade, whose resume includes performances with Bob Dylan, Seal, Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman, Joni Mitchell, and Emmylou Harris, leads a soothing, warm, and provocative sound on this light jazz disc.
Heartfelt, but with its moments of complexity, the CD's nine all-instrumental originals were written by Blade and pianist-composer Jon Cowherd, who appears with bassist Chris Thomas, saxmen Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.
"Season of Changes," the group's first recording in eight years, is mellow but deceptively strong.
- TOM HENRY