Shakira (RCA Records)
Shakira's domination in America has dwindled since she became a hip-swiveling goddess of festive pop hits such as Whenever, Wherever and Hips Don't Lie.
Already a superstar in her native Colombia, the multitalented singer-songwriter-instrumentalist took the American pop scene by storm when she made her U.S. language debut in 2001 with personal, rich songs about romance and more. But her recent albums haven't matched the spark, edge, and charisma from her work a decade ago, and her new self-titled release, while enjoyable at times, doesn't showcase this Grammy-winning, Golden Globe-nominated superstar in the right light.
Shakira, her tenth album, features the 37-year-old taking a back seat as lead songwriter and producer, and that doesn't come off as a wise move. Dare (La La La), helmed by Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and others, sounds like a Jennifer Lopez song, and that's not a compliment (sorry, Jenny). While Shakira's stint as a judge on The Voice has been pleasurable to watch, her duet with fellow mentor Blake Shelton on the country-feeling Medicine is a bore, though it was co-written by Academy Award nominee and hit country songwriter Hillary Lindsey.
Even the duet with Rihanna, the up-tempo lead single Can't Remember to Forget You, comes off as a cry for a pop hit. The song lacks energy though two superstars are part of it, and the collaboration feels forced (Rihanna and Shakira are both signed to Roc Nation management).
The album's lyrics also lack emotion and depth. It's a far stretch from Shakira's earlier songs, such as her Latin pop breakthrough Estoy Aqui (I'm Here) or the part-gritty, part- bouncy La Tortura. The new album follows in the footsteps of her last two albums, 2009's She Wolf and 2010's Sale el Sol, which have bright spots, but still didn't carry the oomph and appeal of her earlier work.
Shakira does move the needle a bit on the reggae-laced Cut Me Deep, which features the band Magic! Nasir Atweh, the band's lead singer, is part of the songwriting duo the Messengers, who have penned hits for Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, and Pitbull.
Spotlight, co-written by Lindsey and produced by Greg Kurstin, sounds arena-ready, which is excellent for an entertaining performer such as Shakira. And the album's most honest moment is 23, a sweet ode to her 1-year-old son's father, soccer player Gerard Pique, who is 10 years younger than Shakira (he was 23 when they met). She co-wrote the simple guitar tune with Luis Fernando Ochoa, who collaborated with Shakira on her third album and major label debut, 1996's Pies Descalzos.
Full-blown reunion please?
— MESFIN FEKADU,
Jerrod Niemann (Arista Nashville)
Jerrod Niemann's one-of-a-kind recordings have been as adventurous as any male country singer to score a hit in the last five years. But country music doesn't always embrace experimentation. So the Kansas native has enjoyed a few hits but has struggled with consistency on the radio charts.
High Noon, Niemann's third album with Arista Records, is his attempt to reign in his wilder ideas without completely ditching his daring nature. His current hit, Drink to That All Night, overflows with unusual musical flourishes, bringing life to Niemann's mix of rap-influenced verses and a thumping, sing-along chorus. Even the seemingly conventional Come On, Come On features sly embellishments, while Niemann nails the feel-good spirit of the lyrics — making it the album's standout cut.
However, some songs go too far in dulling Niemann's edges. Nearly every male Nashville singer has a song boasting that country boys can get loud and rough, and Niemann's We Know How to Rock doesn't add anything new or clever. The lackluster She's Fine wastes a chance to create something special with country rapper Colt Ford.
But when Niemann ends the wacky Donkey by mocking the animal's signature bray, it's clear he's still full of unexpected turns. Let's hope he keeps the weirdness intact while trying to strike gold.
— MICHAEL McCALL,
MATTER OF TIME
Nine Times Blue (Renegade Recordings)
This power pop group from Georgia still likely has a bright future. But the follow-up release to its lovely 2012 debut, Falling Slowly, is a lot less infectious and, well, mundane.
Lyrically, there's no real sparks. The album's messages of love and life are pretty ordinary. More important, there's something missing stylistically and that leaves the listener unfulfilled. The follow-up album's a lot more traditional pop than the debut — which is fine, if you're into that. But Nine Times Blue — which consists of singer-songwriter-guitarist Kirk Waldrop, Greg King on lead guitar, Jeff Nelson on bass, and Jason Brewer on drums — has shown it's capable of something a bit more sophisticated, while maintaining its stripped-down, fundamentally cool charm.
— TOM HENRY