B- Keith Urban
Watch Keith Urban play guitar in concert and you see an artist transported by the music he makes.
Listen to Urban sing, though, and he seems more restrained, especially on his new album, Graffiti U and its equally eclectic predecessor, the hit-filled Ripcord. That’s not to say Grafitti U isn’t well-crafted, though, or that his goal of weaving pop, rock and dance music into country isn’t worthy.
The current single, “Coming Home,” shows how it all works, with Urban sampling a bit of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” to put some twang in the dance groove. When Grammy-nominated pop singer-songwriter Julia Michaels joins in, it becomes a sweetly effective combination of styles. On “Never Comin’ Down,” Urban moves from funky verses to a banjo-picking, good-time chorus and even takes an Afrobeat detour in the bridge. The lovely “Same Heart” starts off with some icy electronics in the verses before warming up in the chorus.
However, sometimes you can almost hear Urban’s anxiety as he leaves his comfort zone. He seems like he’s trying hard to keep up on “Way Too Long,” struggling to hit notes in the poppier keys and tempos that co-writers Michaels and Nate Ruess usually use. On “Parallel Line,” co-written by Michaels and Ed Sheeran, Urban seems wary of the sparseness of the song and fills all the space with countermelodies and echoing vocals that detract from the immediacy and rawness of Sheeran’s best work. Similarly, the impact of Urban’s #MeToo anthem “Female” is blunted by the torrent of images in the chorus while the stark verses made his point so powerfully.
Trying new things is admirable. But when Urban is on familiar ground, as he is on the future singalong “Steal My Thunder,” he shows how far his experiments have to go to reach his usual stellar level.
Hot tracks: “Steal My Thunder,” “Coming Home,” “Same Heart”
— GLENN GAMBOA
B Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco
You’re Driving Me Crazy
Van Morrison has come up with a surprisingly effective way to combat possible writer’s block — recycle old songs and standards with a brand new approach.
He has tried it before with Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue in 2015 and is at it again in You’re Driving Me Crazy.
This time he’s teamed with Joey DeFrancesco in a supremely relaxed, jazzy workout notable for its easy, almost effortless swing.
This is Morrison when he’s not trying too hard, simply enjoying the chance to team up with a superb organist and trumpeter to revisit some of his older songs mixed in with a few classics.
They shine on a number of standards, including Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets,” which Morrison personalizes with some distinctive mumbling.
He reaches all the way back to Astral Weeks for an updated “The Way Young Lovers Do,” one of the most evocative pieces from that landmark album. The composition stands the test of time, and Morrison’s vocal performance meets the challenge, even if he’s decades past the coming-of-age drama depicted in that song.
He’s taking a number of songs originally performed in more of a rock style and put them in a jazz context. The joy he finds is clear from the opening moments, and there are several occasions when the sometimes grumpy Morrison laughs with pure delight.
Taking away the pressure of coming up with new masterworks to match Into the Mystic and Moondance seems to have liberated Morrison. And, lest ye forget, this man can sing.
Hot tracks: “Miss Otis Regrets,” “The Way Young Lovers Do”
— GREGORY KATZ
The Associated Press
A- Laura Veirs
Raven Marching Band
Coming off an exceptional album and tour with k.d. lang and Neko Case in 2016, Laura Veirs spent months writing and re-writing dozens of songs in her Portland, Ore., studio. The hard work has paid off, and it sounds so good and natural that you won’t notice all the perspiration bonding with the inspiration.
Veirs makes little revelations here and there about her life and circumstances, or about who was in her thoughts. She kneads the hints into the songs. Veirs says the album deals with “the fragility of precious things … the importance of looking out for each other.”
The title track is about her husband/producer/drummer Tucker Martine — her “lookout on the ground” — while “Heavy Petals” is a tribute to David Bowie, where “sunlight unserious” contrasts with his own “serious moonlight” phrase.
The death of a friend and a T.S. Eliot poem led to the affecting “Margaret Sands” and the gently swaying “Seven Falls” looks back to childhood behavior she now regrets.
Electric harpsichord and pedal steel make for a liquid combination on a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Mountains of the Moon,” its echoes of an old English folk song a natural fit.
The excellent musicianship, with guests like Sufjan Stevens and Jim James, expands the guitar/piano foundations to ideal degrees of sound, just as Veirs’ details of scandal-free intimacy result in an album that’s exhaustively gratifying.
Hot tracks: “The Lookout,” “Margaret Sands,” “Mountains of the Moon”
— PABLO GORONDI
The Associated Press
Print Headline: Keith Urban mixes it up on Graffiti U album