Robin Thicke (Interscope)
It's easy to fall in line with the crowd that believes Robin Thicke's attempt to win back his wife by calling his new album Paula is desperate and ridiculous.
In some ways it is.
But if we're judging strictly on the music — and not on the over-the-top, awkward, and somewhat creepy public pleas by Thicke everywhere from the BET Awards to the Billboard Music Awards — Paula Patton might want to reconsider.
The 14-track Paula, where Thicke spills his feelings, confesses his sins, and insists he's a changed man, is a return to Thicke's R&B roots. It is also a reminder that he was a talented, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter pre-Blurred Lines hysteria.
The sexy number You're My Fantasy helps the album start on the right foot, and the piano mixed with Thicke's aching voice on Still Madly Crazy is impeccable. Lock the Door is dramatic and theatrical, while the horn-heavy Love Can Grow Back is a winner.
Thicke ditched the glossy electro beats and catchy hooks on last year's Blurred Lines for a more stripped-down, acoustic, and simple sound on Paula — a much better fit for the 37-year-old crooner.
Blurred Lines made Thicke an international star and helped him tap into a younger audience that constantly streams music, buys digital tracks, and can determine today and tomorrow's next pop star. But the song has also been a bit of a curse: It has pigeon-holed Thicke, propelled him to one-hit-wonder status (despite having success in the past) and alienated the singer from the R&B fans who help him reach platinum status. And the tracks on Paula don't sound like songs that will play on Top 40 radio per se.
Get Her Back, the smooth lead single, has yet to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, but the song is still a winner: Even if he doesn't get Paula back, his old fans will return.
— MESFIN FEKADU,
Old Crow Medicine Show (ATO)
"We're talking happiness here," banjo wiz Critter Fuqua says as an aside a few minutes into Remedy, which neatly sums up the latest album from Old Crow Medicine Show. Lickety-split tempos and kitchen-sink arrangements make for a set that's foot-stomping, thigh-slapping, and grin-inducing.
The string band's wide range of influences ensures plenty of variety. Brave Boys recalls the Pogues, Doc's Day is hillbilly blues, and a composing collaboration with Bob Dylan results in Sweet Amarillo, which would fit on The Basement Tapes.
All are terrific, as are songs about a fallen vet, hating on haters and a certain creek one goes up without a paddle. The hilarious Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer is a celebration of liberation, while The Warden offers a darker perspective on prison in lovely five-part harmony.
Five-part is nothing — all seven band members sing on a couple of tunes, and the result is a glorious chorus. In fact, from start to finish Remedy creates a mighty roar.
— STEVEN WINE,
Steve Dawson (Black Hen Music)
Steve Who? Canadian Steve Dawson is still not a household name to most Americans. But that could change if he keeps cranking out heartfelt albums like Rattlesnake Cage, which despite its solo acoustic guitar overtones is worthy of rattling a few chains by the way it dazzles listeners with rapid-fire finger picking and its cohesive, melodic structure.
Dawson's already established himself as Ry Cooder-like with his past albums in how he sings and plays guitar. This albums focuses on his deft acoustic guitar style, one in which Dawson is just as apt to dazzle the listener with his complex soloing techniques as his multi-layered chords. A seven-time Juno Award winner as an artist and producer, Dawson has relocated to Nashville in hopes of gaining more exposure for his obvious talent. Here's hoping he's successful in that regard.
Rattlesnake Cage, by the way, was recorded with a single vintage tube microphone that Dawson's people said had been hanging from the ceiling rafters of an old Detroit theater, a piece of technology intended to give the disc a stripped-down feel.
— TOM HENRY