Jason Mraz (Atlantic Records)
On his fifth studio album, singer-songwriter Jason Mraz returns to familiar lyrical territory, exploring the highs and lows of love in his bright, folk-pop style. This time, though, the sound is both richer and more stripped down — an acoustic ride enriched by the vocals, strings and percussion of his partners on the album, the all-female quartet Raining Jane. Their layered harmonies lend an ethereal vibe throughout, and an almost gospel quality to the album's best song, the closing ode to love, Shine.
Mraz co-wrote every song on YES! with the indie group from Los Angeles, except for the worthy resurrection of the heartbreaking Boyz II Men classic, It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.
YES! tells a love story, from the initial intoxication to the inevitable good-bye. Every moment of an ordinary day is magic in Hello, You Beautiful Thing.
"I know it's gonna be a good day," he sings over bouncy guitars and marimbas. "This is what I've been waiting for."
After heartbreak, he goes Back to the Earth, an enthusiastic sing-along about nature's solace.
"I try to stop the world from moving so fast, try to get a grip on where I'm at," he sings, "and simplify this dizzy life and put my feet in the grass."
Like Mraz's previous albums, YES! is cheerfully optimistic, as evidenced by the single, Love Someone. But the real standouts are the more introspective tracks, like the cello-driven You Can Rely on Me and the downbeat A World With You.
"Let's throw caution to the wind and start over again," he sings as a cello cries. "I want to see the world the way I see a world with you."
— SANDY COHEN,
EASY TO LOVE
Maxi Priest (VP)
There's no time like summertime when it comes to releasing a collection of smooth reggae songs full of fire and soul, and Maxi Priest has just done that with the eagerly awaited Easy to Love.
Almost a decade since his last studio album, the timing of this drop is perfect and will delight fans across the globe. With the help of talented producers, writers and fellow musicians, including Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Earl "Chinna" Smith, Steven "Lenky" Marsden, Colin "Bulby" York, Clive Hunt, and the legendary Beres Hammond, it's clear this effort has the quality needed to bust the charts.
Sitting head and shoulders above the rest, title track Easy to Love is first-class lovers rock with its silky rhythm and Priest's buttery vocal we've come to know so well. Sitting in prime position at the top of the record, listeners will have no choice but to let this one take over as they get comfortable.
Priest keeps the fire burning on the affectionate love songs that follow. Loving You is Easy is a lightweight cut with an irresistible melody and Without a Woman, featuring Hammond, is a romantic keepsake with overpowering lyrics filled with meaning.
Turning the hardest hearts into a fantastic mess, Priest offers timeless covers of John Mayer's Gravity and John McLean's If I Gave My Heart to You, with latter reviving that rub-a-dub quality from the 1980s.
The hit-in-waiting title goes to Holiday, a song that pulls at the heartstrings as Priest serenades his woman to the sweet sounds of the old school. And Bubble My Way, featuring Assassin aka Agent Sasco, is sure to damage a few speakers with its incredible bass.
Despite the 10-year wait for this record, it's evident that Priest's talent comes in abundance. Easy to Love will not disappoint.
— BIANCA ROACH,
THE OFFENSE OF THE DRUM
Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (Motema Music)
Part of me is drawn to this album out of curiosity as a percussion aficionado, knowing what kind of magic is in store whenever a project involves Arturo O'Farrill. He’s a Grammy-winning pianist, composer, bandleader, and New York-based educator with a strong Harlem influence, as well as something which involves rich and highly influential Latin jazz. It’s an album which, as its promoters explain, "examines the role of the drum as a vehicle for resistance and liberation."
Yet this album is more than simple pleasure for the drum-starved or cymbal-enchanted crowd. It includes O'Farrill's strong commitment to multidimensional and complex sounds, with piano and horns playing as much of a role as the rhythm section, and OFarrill's beautiful, biting social commentary on songs such as They Came, a tribute to New Yorkers from Puerto Rico.
Thrown in for good measure at the end is the New Orleans standard, Iko, Iko, which nobody seems to get enough of in any type of arrangement.
— TOM HENRY