John Legend - "Once Again"
Montgomery Gentry - "Some People Change"
George Jones and Merle Haggard, "Kickin' Out the Footlights ... Again"
Paul Stanley, "Live To Win"
Brooke Hogan, "Undiscovered"
Frankie J, "Priceless
John Legend, "Once Again" (Columbia)
John Legend isn't much older his R&B counterparts — and with just one album under his belt, he certainly isn't the most accomplished.
But there's an old-soul charm about Legend that recalls a seasoned veteran — a musician from another, more sophisticated era. Though his 2004 Grammy-winning debut, "Get Lifted," covered a lot of familiar territory — cheating, relationship drama, and the dangers of a gold-digger — there was nothing common about his musical approach. From his rich, slightly raspy tenor to his piano-based melodies to his literary lyrics, Legend engaged not only the ears, but the heart and mind.
The singer-songwriter continues to captivate with his sophomore album, "Once Again." This time around, the hip-hop flavor that gave Legend's debut a little spice, courtesy of mentor Kanye West, is absent. While West still contributes artistically, Legend's focus is more on timeless, soulful grooves.
Part of that is due to clever sampling of obscure oldies, which loop in the kind of rich arrangement that defined much of '60s and '70s soul. This is put to good use on tracks like the first single, "Save Room," and the romantic, pleading "Heaven." But even on original songs, it's clear that Legend, who wrote or co-wrote all the tracks, was reaching for an old-school sound.
The song "Show Me," which looks to heavens for guidance, has a tone that recalls Stevie Wonder in his prime; the brooding but melodic "Where Did My Baby Go" and the make-up groove "Slow Dance" have a doo-wop feel. And "Maxine" has a bossa nova beat — you can almost imagine Legend performing it in a leisure suit on a black-and-white screen.
Sometimes, though, the effect is a little too dated — as if the tracks had just been dusted off from some Motown or Atlantic archive. While they are still appealing, ballads like "Again" almost sound a bit too genteel.
Which is why "Stereo" — the most contemporary song on the album — is so invigorating and necessary. Another track about a woman looking for a sugar daddy, it booms with bravado and has Legend singing with the kind of swagger one would expect from a 27-year-old. It injects the album with much-needed youth "oomph" factor and street flair, without sacrificing Legend's impeccable style.
The album ends on a bittersweet note with "Coming Home," a timely ode about a soldier anticipating his return from war. Written with the Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am, who also co-wrote Legend's breakthrough ballad, "Ordinary People," the stirring song could be an anthem for a legion of soldiers, yet it is intensely personal and intimate and seems to speak on an individual level.
With "Once Again," Legend has once again defined himself as one of the brightest singer-songwriters of his generation, taking a bit of past as inspiration for his artistic future.
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Montgomery Gentry, "Some People Change" (Columbia)
On the new song "Redder Than That," partners Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry celebrate Southern working-class life by listing ways old friends let off steam, then crowing, "It don't get redder than that."
Many would use the same phrase to describe this hard-partying country music duo, who have based their seven-year careers on prideful redneck anthems about small-town life, blue-collar work and Southeastern lifestyles.
They're still hitting those buttons. But the most interesting aspect of their new album, "Some People Change," comes when they till new territory. "Takes All Kinds" celebrates diversity, a nice anecdote to their Confederate flag-waving concerts. The title song takes that sentiment further, with positive portraits of young people who break the legacy of bigotry and alcoholism that plagued their ancestors.
As in the past, the duo occasionally mistakes belligerence for pride: The songs "What Do Ya Think about That" and "Man's Job" rely on a mean-spirited attitude toward neighbors and ex-wives. They're better when celebrating the positive aspects of who they are, as on the organ-driven soul-rocker "Hey Country."
As that song suggests, Southern life is changing, and country music is evolving along with it. Montgomery Gentry sound best when conceding that things do change, no matter how nostalgic they may be for the culture that gave them their values. (Michael McCall)
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George Jones and Merle Haggard, "Kickin' Out the Footlights ... Again" (Bandit)
Country music heroes George Jones and Merle Haggard sidestep the usual duet formula on their new album, "Kickin' Out the Footlights ... Again." Although they trade verses on four songs, the legends mostly take solo turns singing each other's hits for the rest of the 14-song collection.
That means the 69-year-old Haggard lends his rich tone to several Jones' classics, instilling quiet pain to "Things Have Gone to Pieces" and jaunty fun to "I Always Get Lucky with You," among others. Jones, at age 75, has lost some of his range, but he compensates with nuanced phrasing, effectively expressing the desperation of "You Take Me for Granted" and the playfulness of "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink."
The two obviously know each other's material well, and they sing these standards with a natural ease, but sometimes without much emotional investment. Maybe that's why their most stunning work comes when they combine their talents on a new Haggard song, the outstanding "Born with the Blues." Fans also won't want to miss how these hard-partying old friends cut up on a cover of a Johnny Bond swing tune, "Sick, Sober & Sorry." (Michael McCall)
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Paul Stanley, "Live To Win" (Universal)
Underneath the Starchild makeup and atop the 7-inch platform heels, Kiss lead singer Paul Stanley has always had the heart of a talented songwriter. On "Live To Win," he casts off the shackles of Kiss and dishes up a second solo disc that's more Foo Fighters than Frehley.
But the modern sound is welded to a firm foundation of '70s and '80s rock and proves there's a lot more to this man than pouty red lips and a rose tattoo.
Many of the songs appear to deal with the recent turmoil in Stanley's life, including a divorce, remarriage and the birth of a child, and the title track drips with angst, tempered with an "I'm-not-giving-in" defiance. "Lift" is about a quest for forgiveness and redemption from a broken love, and "Wake Up Screaming" is perhaps the most infectious track here, with its electronic drum beat giving way to a thundering chorus amid the kind of catchy hook Stanley has been dishing up for three decades.
"Bulletproof" is the closest thing to classic Kiss here. It sounds a lot like 1988's "Rock Hard," and could have fit in easily on 1989's "Hot In The Shade" LP. "It's Not Me" weds a Prince-like groove to more memorable melodies and scorching guitar.
The downside of a solo album is there's no one around to say, "What are you, kidding?" when particularly cheesy ballads are proffered. He has three chunks of cheddar here that make the much-maligned "Hold Me, Touch Me" from his 1978 solo album sound like "Stairway To Heaven." (Wayne Parry)
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Brooke Hogan, "Undiscovered" (SoBe)
If Mandy Moore took a wrong turn down an alley and got in a dustup with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the resulting melee might sound an awful lot like Brooke Hogan's debut album, "Undiscovered," a poor release of shrill coming-of-age tunes.
It's mostly pop/hip-hop ear candy backed by forgettable urban software-beats with little savvy at hand to salvage things. To be fair, Hogan (of the famed Hulkamania brood) can sing in spurts, lest you believe this is all packaging around her ample curves.
But those moments are fleeting, her vocal range too narrow and her tone all too nasal on most track.
"About Us," featuring the real deal Paul Wall, is a passable song that features more Wall than Hogan. It's a minimalist hook-driven soulful turn with a heavy bass end. To believe Hogan here, the haters' gossip just must end! Because "they" don't know "about us." And there's your musical drama, which doesn't get much thicker throughout.
Most of this album consists of a whiny-sounding Hogan emerging from some cocoon of repression. Canned beats abound as Hogan sings of her beautiful transformation into a young woman on, what else, "Beautiful Transformation."
"I've suddenly evolved from nothing at all to somewhat ladylike/ My clothes began to fit and jeans they hug my hips to catch the young boys' eyes," she sings, setting women's lib back at least two dozen years. "Nothing" to "something" thanks to flesh? Yipes!
Hogan is best on the down-tempo "For A Moment," but her solid vocal effort here is hidden behind a poor arrangement that slathers on a ton of electro-claps, where a stripped-down real guitar and drum kit would have worked perfectly. (Ron Harris)
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Frankie J, "Priceless (Columbia)
Frankie J leans heavily on Houston's hotbed of hip-hop for his third solo album, "Priceless." Moving away from his usual smooth balladeer songs, the crooner focuses on hard-driving R&B cuts, earning the former Kumbia King a well-deserved gold star.
On the dazzling ditty "Top of The Line," Frankie J welcomes 112's Slim to share his women-deserve-the-world premise: "You'd be top of the line, my model, you don't have to worry about nada/ You're my Gucci, Louis, my Prada." He also recruits a list of rap rousers, including Mannie Fresh and Chamillionaire ("That Girl") and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony staples Krayzie Bone and Layzie Bone ("Never Let You Down"), to help to meld the urban-meets-pop tracks. They give the album a harder-edge feel, but there's still plenty of pop left to appeal to audiences who know him from past hits like "Obsession (No Es Amor)."
The album is peppered with guest stars, but Frankie J shines the most when the spotlight is solely on him. The song "If He Can't Be" features Frankie J's falsetto and a cleverly sampled beat from Billy Idol ballad "Eyes Without A Face" (although the recognizable drum and bass lines overpower the Latin sensation's voice). The title track leaves room for Frankie to thrive, displaying more of his soulful yearnings.
With more hits than misses on "Priceless," Frankie J's value is steadily on the rise. (Georgette Cline)
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