Britney Jean (RCA)
Like Wile E. Coyote realizing too late that he's walked off a cliff and is standing on thin air, Britney Jean, the new studio album from Britney Spears, is marked with so many sleights of hand, dubious lyrics and bombastic but boringly simple melodies, the too-rare levitation of its better moments seems an animation trick.
Item one: It Should Be Easy, a song that practically wallows in its own failure. Featuring a cameo by the album's executive producer, will.i.am, the track casts doubt on his utility, as evidenced by these lazy lines: "Love, it should be easy / It shouldn't be complicated / It should be easy." Deep insight, indeed.
The singer co-wrote many of the songs, which trace the ups and downs of a life spent in and out of love, but there's very little beneath the album's many cliches to suggest insight, let alone the unfiltered honesty of autobiography. Much of Britney Jean devolves into an abyss of electro-neutral bangers produced by the reigning kings of danceable obviousness, will.i.am and David Guetta.
Body Ache lazily pairs sex and sweaty dancing with fifth-grader rhymes. Til It's Gone is so unspecific as to be laughable. "I'm blind from the tears that fall like rain," she sings, unconcerned or unaware this leaden simile contradicts the notion that real emotional energy was expelled in writing words so seemingly "personal."
It all adds up to a drag, considering the promise of the first track, Alien. Filled with cool UFO sounds and vast-as-the-cosmos echo, the song introduces our heroine by acknowledging self-obsession in her past through a voice so coated in electronic effects it's rendered nearly pixilated. The only track on the album to feature William Orbit's production, it introduces a confident Spears doing what she does best: inhabiting a seductive, if shallow, space within perfectly imagined, seamlessly constructed electronic pop songs.
Whatever unique skills Spears once had -- what were they again, anyway? -- Britney Jean suggests she better prepare herself for the reality that she's losing them fast. 2 stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Alien
-- Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times
Life, Love & Hope (Frontiers)
Give Tom Scholz credit for knowing one of the core tenets of business success: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
On Boston's first album in 11 years, and the first since the tragic death of legendary vocalist Brad Delp in 2007, the band sticks with its tried-and-true sound, one that has come to nearly define the classic-rock genre.
There's an unreleased Delp track here, Sail Away, about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, and it's the only one of the three Delp tracks on this album that's new. Two others -- Someone and Didn't Mean to Fall in Love appeared on the band's Corporate America album, but Scholz was never really happy with them and has rebuilt them from top to bottom while keeping the original Delp vocals.
Other songs don't fare as well, including If You Were in Love with Kimberley Dahme's nothing-special vocals.
Heaven on Earth, with David Victor singing lead could be a hit single -- that is, if all the Boston fans who were Smokin" in the '70s remain loyal to a group who helped define what rock 'n' roll sounded like for many years. 3 stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Heaven on Earth
-- Wayne Parry, The Associated Press
Various Artists: Inside Llewyn Davis
Original Soundtrack (Warner)
While it may be disingenuous to degrade the music of a soundtrack to a film that has already won the Grand Prix prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Inside Llewyn Davis is the kind of album that smacks of commercialism of the lowest order.
It can safely be said Joel and Ethan Coen's 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? re-ignited interest in American bluegrass music. On the face of it, that was good thing. For a few years, at least, after the movie's release there were enough old-timey, original bluegrass artists still gigging to benefit from the renewed interest in the form and it didn't take long for struggling careerist musicians of all stripes to think all they had to do was add a plunky banjo or weakly sawed fiddle into their band and they could ride the proverbial gravy train to stardom.
Hopefully Inside Llewyn Davis, which opens Dec. 20, won't do the same for folk music. The soundtrack features songs from the film as performed by singer-songwriter, and apparently actor, Oscar Isaac. While his voice is pleasant enough in an insipid sort of way, Isaac doesn't really do more than ape what is necessary to get the cinematic point across. Real folk music didn't, and shouldn't, sound as sleepy and lame as this. The other artists on offer (Justin Timberlake, Marcus Mumford, Stark Sands) are each as boring and non-descript as any lost Joan Baez album. Producers have thrown in a Bob Dylan "rarity" (Farewell) that will probably guarantee some sales to the shaggy Zimmy fans around the planet that think they need this song. 2-1/2 stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Bob Dylan, Farewell
The Devil Makes Three
I'm A Stranger Here (New West)
The Devil Makes Three continue to forge their genre bending hodge-podge of everything Americana including ragtime, gospel, bluegrass, blues, jug band, folk, rockabilly and hillbilly soul all executed with a raucous punkish attitude.
For album No. 6, the group recruited award-winning singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer Buddy Miller to record the Vermont raised, Califonia-based trio -- singer/guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitar/banjo player Cooper McBean -- at Dan Auerbach's (Black Keys) Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville .
The subject matter is informed by the darker side of life: addiction (Mr. Midnight), despair (A Moment's Rest), stormy weather (40 Days, featuring the Preservation Hall Horns), mortality, religion ("They say Jesus is coming, He must be walking, He sure ain't running"), life on the edge (Spinning Like a Top) and life on the road (Hand Back Down).
Predominantly lively and often even pretty, The Devil Makes Three will hopefully continue to create their unique style of old-time American music for a long time to come. 4 stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Worse or Better
-- Bruce Leperre
This Week's Singles
TIMBALAND FEAT. JAY-Z, DRAKE, & JAMES FAUNTLEROY
Know Bout Me (Interscope)
It's been four years since Shock Value II. And while Tim has been far from silent, producing hits for the likes of Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z, he's finally offering us a glimpse into his forthcoming Textbook Timbo project. With a jittery beat, some hauntingly skittish keyboards, an aggressive chorus, and a particularly great guest verse from Drake, this one's a winner. 4 stars
PITBULL FEAT. KELLY ROWLAND
That High (RCA)
After making our ears bleed with the absolutely god-awful Timber, the latest from Pitbull's new five-track Meltdown EP is more of a return to the traditional euro-dance vibe -- some solid synths and a catchy chorus courtesy of the Destiny's Child diva. Nothing revolutionary then, but at least it doesn't have any harmonicas in it. Or Ke$ha. 3 stars
B.O.B FEAT. CHRIS BROWN
Included on his upcoming Underground Luxury album, this booty-shaking promo single won't win any awards for profound or inspirational lyrics; however, much like Young Leek's Jiggle It or Eve's Tambourine, this gyrating, bass-heavy club banger has energy to spare and a hypnotic vocal loop that seems tailor-made for twerking tournaments. 3-1/2 stars
-- reviewed by Steve Adams