Eric Church (EMI Nashville)
These 11 songs continue Church's steady rise to success, coming after two widely acclaimed albums and taking care not to saturate the airwaves with his distinctive voice and music. His 2006 debut "Sinners Like Me" and 2009 follow-up "Carolina" earned him raves as a songwriter and Country Music Association's award as top new solo vocalist.
Church gets co-writing credit on 10 of the songs that in large measure cater to the rowdy side that live audiences have come to expect. However, it's a couple of the introspective, thought-provoking pieces that stir the most feelings.
"Like Jesus Does," the one track Church didn't write, is jam-packed with emotional lyrics that get a down-to-earth working-over. "Springsteen" is a dreamy homage to young love and the effect a popular song had on the relationship. It's the album's standout, despite several other highlights. Church mixes hard, contemporary country with hints of traditional sounds, yet there's no doubt this is completely modern. His solid baritone leads the way through outstanding instrumental work in every number. There are fresh sounds and thoughts in each new song, but the listener is left wanting more after just less than 40 minutes. Regardless, it's as good as or better than any country album released so far this year.
-- KEN ROSENBAUM
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT
Pat Metheny (Nonesuch)
Pat Metheny is an incredible guitarist who set a new standard for -- if not redefined -- the soft jazz genre when his career took off decades ago.
But this is a collection of covers -- many of them show tunes, soft rock songs or pop ballads -- that I just don't get. Do we really need to hear the great Metheny struggle with an acoustic guitar solo of The Association's sappy 1966 hit, "Cherish," or with Burt Bacharach's overdone "Alfie?"
Mildly interesting, I suppose, is the fact Metheny performs as a solo act on baritone guitar. But when you're covering composers such as Roger S. Nichols and Paul H. Williams ("Rainy Days and Mondays") and Henry Mancini ("Slow Hot Wind"), you'd better come up with something wildly innovative.
Paul Simon's "The Sound of Silence" and the Lennon-McCartney classic "And I Love Her" offer ample opportunity for innovation, but Metheny -- with a few exceptions -- plays those and other songs surprisingly straight.
-- TOM HENRY
DIRTY JEANS AND MUDSLIDE HYMNS
John Hiatt (New West)
Love and devastation share the songs on "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns," John Hiatt's 20th solo album and his best since 1995. "Shots in the square where they mowed them all down/River runs red from the center of town," he sings in the album's most apocalyptic song, a minor-key waltz that rises to a desperate shout in its chorus: "Hold On for Your Love."
Hiatt long ago established himself as a roots-rock sage, terse and heartfelt. He can write songs that are ready for the Nashville cover treatment, but he usually slips in some strictly individual twists. As he seeks everyday epiphanies and praises the redemptive power of love, memorable lines leap out of his lyrics. His voice, a hound-dog baritone with odd breaks and hollows, can be an acquired taste, but it's striking and expressive.
Yet his recent albums have been disappointing. "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns" works harder on both songwriting and sound.
Love has to pull his narrators out of deeper holes this time, reflected in minor chords and mournful realizations. "I hide in the darkness/It's all I can do," he sings in "Till I Get My Lovin' Back," a slow country waltz about a man who can only hope for a reunion. In "Adios to California" the singer suddenly finds himself alone and bereft: "Two cigarettes from the package gone/You must have thought about it just that long."
Hiatt's sly humor still emerges. In "Damn This Town," a grim march about a deeply dysfunctional family, he allows, "I got a sister who's a thief and she's filled with hate/Now she's got a job working for the state." But even his celebratory moments, like "I Love That Girl," hint at tough back stories. And when he looks beyond the domestic, he sees ruin: "Creeks and rivers dried up, down around my place/My woman's tears are cried up, down around my place."
The songs' structures are meat-and-potatoes: opening guitar riff, verse, chorus, bridge. But Hiatt makes each melody distinctive, and Kevin Shirley's production gives the instruments space and resonance. The songs get the gravity and mystery they've earned.
-- JON PARELES, New York Times