Adam Levine of the American band Maroon 5 performs during the Rock In Rio Festival at the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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RED PILL BLUES
Maroon 5 (Interscope/222 Records)
When Adam Levine hits his buzzer and swivels his chair on The Voice, you know he recognizes talent. So is it any surprise that the Maroon 5 frontman has an excellent ear when he records with his band?
Red Pill Blues finds Maroon 5 doing what the band does best, writing well-crafted, cleverly produced pop songs that instantly nudge you to the dance floor. Don’t even try to fight it. Remember “Animals” or “Moves Like Jagger”? Just submit.
Maroon 5’s strong sixth studio album is co-produced by Levine, who has a hand in writing every song, and producer J Kash, who helped the band with the previous hits “Sugar” and “Cold.” Aided by some inspired guests, the 10-track album sparkles without messing around too much with the band’s slick, hook-driven sound.
“I tried to resist but I just can’t,” sings Levine in one tune — and you’ll soon know the feeling.
There are potential hits all over the album, from the opening radio-ready “Best 4 You,” to the flirty, dance floor-friendly “What Lovers Do,” showcasing a super SZA. “Lips on You,” co-written by Charlie Puth, is a perfect slice of melancholy electronica, while the strummy “Girls Like You” sounds nicely Ed Sheeran-ish.
The spare “Bet My Heart” combines acoustic and murky electric elements and “Help Me Out,” co-produced by Diplo, gets a nice assist from an ethereal Julia Michaels. Throughout is Levin’s fearsome falsetto; there’s simply no one better at it right now.
“Whiskey” sees Maroon 5 take a bit of a risk, mixing Levine and A$AP Rocky on a stripped-down, hypnotic slow jam that sounds perfect to blast on the ride home late at night. The moody and beautiful “Closure” fittingly closes the album and, once Levine’s vocals are done, lets the band jam with throwback funky textures and riffs for another 8 minutes, a bold, confident step few bands could pull off.
Maroon 5 is firing on all cylinders with “Red Pill Blues,” an album that sounds ultra-current and yet shows off enough versatility to seduce virtually anyone. You need to turn your chair and face the music.
— MARK KENNEDY, Associated Press
Sam Smith's "The Thrill of it All."
THE THRILL OF IT ALL
Sam Smith (Capitol)
When Sam Smith debuted on the music scene in 2014, he sang beautiful and searing songs about love lapses and loneliness. There are moments you’d feel sad for him, but then you’d remind yourself not to pity the guy too much, because, wow, he has THAT VOICE.
On his sophomore album, he’s still singing emotional songs, but his growth is evident. And perfectly executed.
The Thrill of It All is simply that — a thrill — as Smith’s piercing voice and vivid lyrics tell stories about his relationships and experiences over the last three years — the good, the bad, the sad, and more.
“Burning,” which hits straight to the heart, is one of the brightest spots on the album, as Smith sings about the after effects once a relationship has ended.
“I’ve been burning/Yes I’ve been burning/Such a burden/This flame on my chest,” he sings on the piano tune, where a choir — or layered vocals — later comes in, bringing on a chilling feel.
Another highlight is “HIM,” where Smith sounds powerful and most confident.
“Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us/It is him I love,” he sings in a commanding tone, followed by a choir again — coming in at the right time.
There’s not a miss on the 10-track album. “Say It First,” about wanting your partner to say they’re in love before you do, is soft and relatable, while “No Peace,” a duet with unsigned singer YEBBA, is a winner.
There are groovier jams too that will move your spirit, including “One Last Song,” a song for the ex you’re still in love with but need to be away from, and “Baby, You Make Me Crazy,” with its sing-a-long hook. At times the latter track sounds like an advice column.
“When the person that you love just says no?/Boy, get yourself together/Move on with your life,” he sings.
Smith co-wrote each of the 10 songs, and even recruited new collaborators to help him out. Malay, who has worked with Frank Ocean and Zayn, lends his magic to “Midnight Train” and “Say It First”; Poo Bear, who has written many of Justin Bieber’s hits, co-wrote “Burning”; Timbaland co-produced the closing track, “Pray,” and Grammy-nominated country singer Cam co-wrote “Palace.” Jimmy Napes, who worked heavily on Smith’s debut In the Lonely Hour and won the best original song Oscar with the British singer last year, also worked on seven songs.
But at the core of it all, it is Smith, and that voice that emotes the lyrics so perfectly. The Thrill of It All is everything, and more.
— MESFIN FEKADU, Associated Press
John Lee Hooker's "King of the Boogie."
KING OF THE BOOGIE
John Lee Hooker (Craft Recordings)
A lot of people today may only remember blues icon John Lee Hooker from his solo in the hit 1980 film, The Blues Brothers, or other places they have seen or heard him perform his hit single, “Boom Boom,” including various YouTube clips.
But as this outstanding 5-disc career retrospective shows, there was a whole lot more. Released during what would have been the 100th anniversary of Hooker’s birth in 1917 (details of which are sketchy, but he was believed to have been born on Aug. 22, 1917), the first three discs — which range from 21 to 25 songs — cover the origins and development of a music career that began with Hooker’s first recorded releases on 78 rpms in 1948.
The last two discs — which both have 15 songs on them — are more modern takes, with Disc 4 all live recordings and Disc 5 collaborations with other artists.
Hooker is especially outstanding on two songs with Van Morrison, with both injecting passion and life experience that goes well beyond their rich, road-weary bass and tenor voices. Also included are duets between Hooker and Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Joe Cocker, B.B. King, Canned Heat, Los Lobos, Jimmie Vaughan, Robert Cray, George Thorogood, the Groundhogs, and ‘Little’ Eddie Kirkland.
This exhaustive package, which includes generous liner notes, photos, and other goodies, makes you love John Lee Hooker more than you’d think. He’s like Muddy Waters, as someone close to him wrote, in that some of his best work was released near the end of his life.
— TOM HENRY, The Blade
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