B Sam Smith
The Thrill of It All
Melancholy is the metier for Sam Smith, the British vocalist who won four Grammys for his 2014 debut album, In the Lonely Hour. And starting with the lead single “Too Good at Goodbyes,” The Thrill of it All — an ironic title, it seems — does not deviate from that sorrowful strategy. The 25-year-old crooner’s vocals can come off as too mannered, and to be sure, he’s most at home in the middle of the road.
But conveying heartache and vulnerability is what Smith excels at, and Thrill is for the most part an effective rebound from “Writing’s on the Wall,” his leaden theme for the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre (which won a best song Oscar despite its shortcomings).
Occasionally, the tempo does pick up on Smith’s sophomore release — most notably on the most welcome old-school soul nod “Baby You Make Me Crazy.” He’s most appealing on Thrill when he is earnestly struggling for answers, often with the help of gospel singers, as on the out and proud “Him” and heartfelt, huge-hit-to-be “Pray,” in which he scolds himself for his own ignorance and naivete after a recent visit to Iraq.
Hot tracks: “Baby You Make Me Crazy,” “Pray,” “Too Good at Goodbyes,” “Him”
B+ Maroon 5
Red Pill Blues
When Adam Levine hits his buzzer and swivels his chair on The Voice, you know he recognizes talent. So is it any surprise that the Maroon 5 frontman has an excellent ear when he records with his band?
Red Pill Blues finds Maroon 5 doing what they do best, writing well-crafted, cleverly produced pop songs that nudge you to the dance floor.
Maroon 5’s sixth studio album is co-produced by Levine, who has a hand in writing every song, and producer J Kash, who helped the band with the previous hits “Sugar” and “Cold.” Aided by some inspired guests, the 10-track album sparkles without messing around too much with the band’s slick, hook-driven sound.
Potential hits abound, from the opening “Best 4 You,” to the flirty, dance floor-friendly “What Lovers Do,” showcasing a super SZA. “Lips on You,” co-written by Charlie Puth , is a slice of melancholy electronica, while “Girls Like You” sounds Ed Sheeran-ish. The spare “Bet My Heart” combines acoustic and murky electric elements.
“Whiskey” sees Maroon 5 take a bit of a risk, mixing Levine and A$AP Rocky on a hypnotic slow jam. The moody and beautiful “Closure” fittingly closes the album and, once Levine’s vocals are done, the band jams with throwback funky textures and riffs for eight minutes, a bold, confident step few bands could pull off.
Hot tracks: “Best 4 You,” “Bet My Heart,” “Whiskey”
— MARK KENNEDY
The Associated Press
Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane is on top of the world — to say nothing of the charts — after a Rimbaud-like season in hell. The Mouth of the South, with his raw-edged but marble-mouthed verbal style, had traversed years of trouble with drugs and jail time until spring 2016. Once released from both grips, the menacing Mane not only jumped back into the game with Everybody’s Looking, but moved from being flabby — literally and figuratively — into crafting a muscular physique to go with his hard, poppier musicality. Now, along with a best-selling book, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, the newly accessible rapper is a commodity whose artfulness is worth its weight in gold.
With snark and smirking humor on his side, Mane chews through the wonkily produced “Stunting Ain’t Nuthin” and the ruggedly R&B-ish “Tone It Down” with gusto. The self-proclaimed “trap god” shows that he’s more ruminative than angry with a line like “I was gifted with a talent that was God-given/But I was so hard-headed I would not listen,” but that doesn’t make Mane soft. “I Get the Bag” and “Miss My Woe” shows a mean angularity that proves Gucci’s willingness to keep his hand in the bad guy game.
Hot tracks: “Stunting Ain’t Nuthin,” “Tone It Down”
— A.D. AMOROSI
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
A- Margo Price
All American Made
Over the course of her well-crafted second album, you can practically hear Margo Price blossom from country traditionalist to undeniable country superstar.
She opens with the Loretta Lynn-influenced “Don’t Say It” and “Weakness,” songs that seemingly pick up where her well-received debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter left off. But only a couple of songs later you can already hear her raising her game with her duet with Willie Nelson, “Learning to Lose,” as they wonder, “Is winning really learning to lose?”
On “Pay Gap,” Price tackles the hot-button issue of wage inequality with an unflinching protest that is exceedingly rare in country music today. “We are all the same in the eyes of God,” she sings over a classic country, accordion-driven backdrop. “But in the eyes of rich white men, no more than a maid to be owned like a dog.”
She caps her increasingly bold pronouncements on the title track, with references to President Ronald Reagan’s weapons sales to Iran and a series of presidential speeches, ensuring that All American Made is one of the most ambitious and fully realized country visions in years.
Hot tracks: “Pay Gap,” “Don’t Say It,” “Learning to Lose”
— GLENN GAMBOA
Print Headline: Sam Smith best when he stays in middle