Diane Birch, "Speak a Little Louder."
Katy Perry (Capitol)
Pop queen Katy Perry may choose to split her career doing Smurfs movies and acting as the face of Cover Girl. That’s business: Divide and conquer. But give Perry props for the thing she’s best at: She can sing her face off and knows when its time to switch the formula.
Rather than rework the electrically enhanced power-pop of 2010’s “Teenage Dream,” Perry has waltzed into the steely, spacious sound of Swedish dance-house with native producer Max Martin (Robyn, Britney) among her collaborators without losing her voice in their fussy mix.
The tech-tribal power-balladry of “Roar” makes for a perfect sweltering opener with its slick synths and faux-Burundi drums surrounding her tuneful holler and words of empowerment like a steel skin. A similar metallic taste affects “Dark Horse,” with its vicious, undulating bass line and chunky samples through which Perry’s voice (and its spooked-out lyrics) plows like a truck.
Calmer cuts such as “By the Grace of God” and “Ghost” sound more familiar to the Perry oeuvre; the glorious Middle Eastern swirl of “Legendary Lovers,” the ’90s house vibe of “Walking on Air,” and the theatrical “Unconditionally,” with its woodblock-backed groove are not.
At a time when radio-pop is so homogenous, Perry is an avatar of change.
WON'T BE LONG NOW
Linda Thompson (Pettifer Sounds)
Linda Thompson’s first solo album in six years (and only her third since 1985) finds songwriter/guitarist Richard Thompson’s former better half once again having her exquisitely soulful way with dark and deathly British Isles balladry.
"Won’t Be Long Now" is very much a family affair: Her ex shows up on the opening “Love’s for Babies and Fools,” son Teddy plays guitar and contributes songs throughout, and daughter Cami takes a lead vocal turn on “Fast as My Feet.”
Thompson has been kept out of action with a rare vocal disorder, but here she sounds divine and she navigates troubled love songs of betrayal, loss, and despair that are right in her wheelhouse. And just to let you know her voice is in great shape, she includes a commanding, live a cappella version of the brutally codependent drinking song “Blue Breezin’ Blind Drunk.”
SPEAK A LITTLE LOUDER
Diane Birch (S-Curve)
On her 2009 debut, “Bible Belt,” Diane Birch masterfully evoked the golden era of the late ’60s, early ’70s, drawing comparisons to such fellow piano-playing singer-songwriters as Laura Nyro and Carole King.
On “Speak a Little Louder,” Birch is decidedly less retro, at least on the surface. Gone are the overt R&B and gospel touches, and the tracks tend to be swathed in a synthesizer gloss and other more modern textures that can make the drama of the songs seem a bit overblown.
It would be more off-putting if Birch’s strengths as a singer and writer were not still in evidence. Especially on numbers that plumb romantic tribulations, such as “Love and War” and “Frozen Over,” her soul shines through the sometimes sterile surroundings.