Ed Sheeran (Atlantic)
It’s a story as old as Bob Dylan: a guitar-toting young troubadour heads to the city, gets a deal, hits it big, and then goes electric. In 2014, his name is Ed Sheeran, he’s 23 and from a coastal town two hours from London. His new record, x, arrives on the heels of his Grammy-winning folk-pop hit The A-Team. It’s crammed with hits and will make him a star.
On x (which reads as Multiply), the charismatic young redhead aims for pop ubiquity after years working the acoustic guitar and perfecting a clever mix of busker-style storytelling and rap-inflected rhyming. He’s teamed with one of the most successful pop producers of the last 15 years, Pharrell Williams, the Happy hit maker and co-producer of such pop classics as Britney Spears’ I’m a Slave 4 U and Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot. Sheeran isn’t hiding his aspirations, and in Williams he’s found his Rick Rubin.
The dozen songs on x carry his devoted listenership through a whirlwind few years that saw him touring the world with pal/collaborator Taylor Swift and perfecting the art of building beat-based songs live onstage using a guitar, sampler, foot-pedal, and inventive layers of loops.
Extremely personable in front of big crowds, Sheeran’s the same charmer on x: more than willing to express deep emotions, but not through whiny emo-rock poetics but with a working-class chattiness and the sing-song raps of a bloke sharing yarns over some pints.
Sheeran’s a promising writer, even if he hasn’t fully determined what separates tepid from vivid metaphor. For every Dylan and Beck Hansen rolling down highways in private buses are a dozen Everlast and G Love would-bes getting splashed in their wake. At his most unconvincing, Sheeran cuts it close. Flames burn bright inside his eyes on the strum-happy confession I’m a Mess, signifying, as always, confused desire. In asking forgiveness on the otherwise lovely ballad Bloodstream, he sings of “scars upon a broke-hearted lover.” Tenerife Sea is a love song in the vein of Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight and Ginuwine’s In Those Jeans.
Still, Sheeran’s able to tweeze exquisite moments and place them sparkly and vivid into the crown of a song. On Photograph, he gives a snapshot to a lover and sings, “You can keep me inside the pocket of your ripped jeans,” then “inside the necklace you got when you were 16.” The playful Nina isn’t very well rapped — he’s certainly no Eminem — but woven amid a piano and guitar dance pop song, it sure is catchy. That’s x writ large. Well-crafted, generous and willing to lay it on thick when necessary, but fun to be around nonetheless.
— RANDALL ROBERTS, Los Angeles Times
Phish (ATO Records)
For a band that made its name on being able to interact with one another while playing live, Phish has had a hard time translating that collaborative interplay in the studio.
They succeed on Fuego, the Vermont quartet's first studio release in five years. It's a fun, spirited, rocking record that has a cohesiveness largely lacking on Phish releases in recent years.
It actually sounds like they're having fun — together.
On the nine-minute title track and opener Fuego, band members trade lead vocals and harmonize on a driving tune with Phish at its musical best, even though the lyrics are largely nonsensical.
Sing Monica and Devotion to a Dream bounce along with the catchiest of Phish songs. Wombat is a weird stinker in most respects, but so what? It sounds like they were having a blast recording it, especially the references to Barney Miller, or as they call it on the song — the Phish TV show starring Abe Vigoda (for those who don't recall, his character was named Fish).
The most intriguing song on the 10-track set, The Line, joins the pantheon of rock tunes about dramatic moments in sports history. It focuses on the story of University of Memphis basketball player Darius Washington, Jr., as he steps to the line to take three free throws to decide the 2005 Conference USA tournament.
It's quirky and rocks at the same time. But that's Phish. That's Fuego.
— SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press
Keb Mo' (Kind of Blue Music)
In his first new album in three years, blues guitar master Keb Mo' does nine originals and a cover of That's Alright, a song Keb first first heard sung by Mississippi Sheiks' Sam Chatmon. It might not be anyone's business that Keb and his wife, Robbie, hit a rough road in their marriage, except that Keb takes note of it in a song entitled For Better or Worse.
The album explores the familiar challenges of life, love, and redemption. The opener, The Worst is Yet to Come, offers a slightly comedic, offbeat take on the bad luck that some people get dished up, while the slower tempo Somebody Hurt You, is — in Keb's words — "where the blues meets the church," The latter features vocals by Rip Patton, a longtime friend and civil rights-era Freedom Rider. The three-time Grammy winner offers his poignant moments, but also messages of hope and inspiration.
— TOM HENRY