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Ariana Grande (Republic Records)
This is how you follow up an impressive debut: simply step into the recording booth, and be amazing yet again.
Maybe it’s easier said than done, but Ariana Grande manages to pull off the feat with her sophomore release My Everything, the successor to last year’s near-pop perfection Yours Truly, which topped the Billboard 200 chart and spawned the hit single “The Way,” featuring Mac Miller.
Admittedly, Grande’s sophomore effort doesn’t go in a radically different direction (she was on the right path to begin with), but big changes are there. For one, music veteran Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds is nowhere to be found. Still, the R&B and soul sensibilities that he brought to Yours Truly are at play, even without him.
That’s evident on “Be My Baby,” featuring Norwegian DJ Cashmere Cat, and in the slick bounce of “Break Your Heart Right Back.” Produced and co-written by duo Pop & Oak, the latter samples Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.” Featured guest Childish Gambino repurposes bars from Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” for the track.
Additional collaborations with rappers, including Big Sean, A$AP Ferg as well as Iggy Azalea on the successful single “Problem,” might tempt critics to accuse Grande of relying on old formulas. But she shows growth, busting out of familiar genres, and exploring electronic dance music on second single “Break Free,” featuring Zedd, and again on the David Guetta-written “One Last Time.”
Thankfully, no matter where Grande ventures, her dazzling vocals lead the way — powerful on the Benny Blanco and Ryan Tedder-produced “Why Try,” with its hypnotic drums, and light-as-a-feather on “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart,” with its aching and lovesick lyrics co-written by One Direction’s Harry Styles.
The 21-year-old Grande has a fantastic voice, and she and her team have found the music to showcase that. A feat that isn’t to be underestimated, considering the powerhouse vocalists who’ve been bypassed for passable singers with more memorable tracks.
Sure, My Everything was a safe bet — but only in the best of ways. For some fans, the listening experience will be like returning to a delicious little restaurant they’ve recently discovered, and finding that the food is as good as they thought it was the first time.
— MELANIE J. SIMS,
MOONSHINE IN THE TRUNK
Brad Paisley (Arista Nashville)
Brad Paisley backs away from social issues and strikes up a party on his 10th studio album, Moonshine in the Trunk. However, that doesn’t mean he suddenly starts to play it safe.
Musically, Paisley’s arrangements continue to emphasize intricate musicianship and turn-on-a-dime ensemble play, while his lyrics use witty wordplay to explore the many ways people try to escape their problems and improve their lives.
The veteran country star’s knack for tongue-in-cheek fun comes through on the funky “River Bank,” the fist-pumping “Crushin’ It” and the high-speed high jinks of the title song. Paisley also touts American pride throughout, whether he’s name-checking sports teams and muscle cars on “Country Nation” or toasting the land of opportunity on “American Flag on the Moon.”
As in the past, his ambitious reach sometimes gets the best of him. On the traditional country tune “4WP,” for example, Paisley jams the gears by racing through too many musical ideas too quickly.
Still, 15 years into his career, Paisley is the country singer most likely to crack jokes about a hillbilly family getting rich (“High Life”) or write a sensitive power ballad about a woman breaking through the good-old-boy corporate network (“Shattered Glass”). Which also makes him the country star most likely to make fans smile — and to make them think.
— MICHAEL McCALL,
SMOKEY & FRIENDS
Smokey Robinson (Verve Music Group)
Smokey Robinson doesn’t want to be a relic and that’s understandable. He deserves for people to know his role as a chief architect of the Motown Sound and bard of the American romantic songbook, while remaining a vital, inspiring voice today.
Therein lay the catalyst and challenge of Smokey & Friends, which finds him pairing with artists young and old on classics he composed, performed or both. Some duets boost the mission while others backfire.
On “Cruisin’,” Jessie J offers a spoken-word testimony that includes how joining Robinson is “a dream come true.” It’s pleasant enough but hard to get past the pedestal upon which he’s been placed. On “Quiet Storm,” John Legend intones: “Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson one of the greatest poets of all-time. Smokey, it’s an honor to sing with you.” Just sing — that’s honor enough.
The collection clicks when the gushing takes a backseat to grooving. Steven Tyler approaches “You Really Got a Hold on Me” less reverentially and the result is something beautifully bawdy and bluesy. It’s less of a remake and more a reboot that doesn’t instill longing for the original. Other songs that work and curb pining for the past are “The Way You Do (The Things You Do)” with CeeLo Green, which romps and rolls in a sonic workout that respects the Temptations’ version while adding something new, and “Ain’t That Peculiar,” which ain’t as peculiar as it might seem to feature James Taylor and the low-key gravitas he brings.
The same can’t be said about takes on two of Robinson’s most enduring, essential works: Elton John is his soulful best on “The Tracks of My Tears” and Sheryl Crow delivers Motown-worthy harmonies on “The Tears of A Clown,” yet you’ll find yourself waiting for Robinson to come in.
The album proves Robinson retains that vital, inspiring voice and provides nice moments. The biggest success would come if it sends new fans back to the originals, which were not only nice, but necessary.
— JEFF KAROUB,