Me. I Am Mariah ... The Elusive Chanteuse (Def Jam)
Mariah Carey is at her best when she feels like the underdog.
It's a tough mindset for her, considering she was crowned the top-selling female artist of the last millennium and has more No. 1 singles than any other woman.
After several high-profile delays and changes of direction, Carey heads back to her musical sweet spot on Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse, big R&B ballads that show off her powerful voice and its stunning range. While Carey, in recent years, has been concerned with sounding timely, on Chanteuse, she goes for timeless, with grand results.
She opens with the lovely Cry, which should send fans of Vision of Love-era, melisma-loving Mariah into a swoon. She tackles George Michael's ballad One More Try by adding a whole new layer of emotion with her high-flying vocals.
Carey hasn't abandoned her love of hip-hop production, but she's opting for a more laid-back approach this time. On Dedicated, she pays tribute to hip-hop's heyday with Nas, but settles into a '90s-style groove, while Made It Look Good feels like an early Kanye West production. Her duet with Wale, You Don't Know What to Do, floats by on disco-era breeziness. Even the new single, Thirsty, manages to be strong-willed without being aggressive.
It's a balance that may be elusive to many, but Carey has nailed it once again on Chanteuse, her strongest effort since 1995's Daydream. ****
DOWNLOAD THIS: Cry
-- Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
Let Me Prove It To You (Sonic Unyon)
Straight from his Blues Album of the Year Juno win for for his acoustic release A Natural Fact, Hamilton, Ont., native Steve Strongman offers 11 tracks of electric blues that are deserving of nomination in the same category this year.
History has proven that the best blues albums have the capacity to maintain listenability over the long haul, and LMPITY is no exception. Strongman wrote all the tracks here and rather than trying to impress with guitar lick upon guitar lick, he instead varies tempo, feel and delivery of these cool songs. Let Me Prove It To You is a radio-ready, up-tempo charger that needs to be heard. What I Believe is a modern stop-start blues-rocker that wouldn't sound out of place on a 1970s-vintage Johnny Winter LP. Older rides a wave of sparkling dobro technique, again, without losing the thread of the song to serve a solo or three.
The proof has been delivered -- time to make more room on the mantle, Steve. ****
DOWNLOAD THIS: Let Me Prove It To You
-- Jeff Monk
Gregg Allman & Friends
All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs & Voice of Gregg Allman (Rounder)
Any dyed-in-the-wool Allman Brothers Band fanatic will inform you that the road goes on forever. As this lengthy two-CD/DVD set proves, there are some detours on that aged road. First of all, grizzled Gregg does appear here, albeit in a pretty limited form -- at least vocally. The lineup of those celebrating "the songs & voice" stack up as a mixed bag of talent, and while most fit the sonic bill, others seem only there to settle some kind of A&R person's bucket list.
The song list is solid, with everything from ABB golden oldies Whipping Post and Trouble No More to the less-celebrated solo Allman nuggets Multi-Colored Lady and Queen of Hearts. The musical accompaniment, especially the Duane Allman-esque delivery of fiery guitarist Jack Pearson, works perfectly as a solid adjunct. Problems arise when the contemporary country crew and lesser light rock "stars" show up to throw down. Brantley Gilbert, Eric Church, Pat Monahan and Trace Adkins, please exit the stage.
Celebratory moments include exciting tracks by Jackson Browne, John Hiatt, Martina McBride, Dr. John and Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave). As they say, keep your friends close, Gregg. **1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had
Just As I Am (Deluxe Edition) (Valory/Universal)
The reigning ACM New Male Vocalist of the Year is back with his third studio album. Brantley Gilbert has written No. 1 hits for Jason Aldean (My Kinda Party, Dirt Road Anthem), but he's kept a few for himself on Just As I Am. The album has already yielded a chart-topper in the edgy, midtempo, gangster-themed track Bottoms Up.
For every attempt at a heartfelt song of loss or faith, though (whether it be in life or love), there are five more celebrating Friday night lights, Skynyrd tunes, tan lines, tailgates, back seats, bad-boy attitudes and the standard Small Town Throwdown (with guests Thomas Rhett and Justin Moore) -- all the clichés are here, but admittedly, they're executed well with excellent musicianship throughout.
Gilbert's last effort, 2012's Halfway to Heaven, sold more than one million copies in the U.S. and although a lot of the southern rock-influenced material here may seem a bit contrived, this album should do just as well. ***
DOWNLOAD THIS: My Baby's Guns N' Roses
-- Bruce Leperre
Black Elk's Dream (Chandra Records)
Jazz musicians tell stories in their compositions and performances. Drummer Matt Slocum tells a book in his third release.
Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk was immortalized in the 1932 book Black Elk Speaks and Slocum found inspiration in it for 11 of the 12 tunes here (the other is Pat Metheny's Is This America?).
The drummer uses his regular trio mates -- pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Massimo Biolcati -- and former collaborators Walter Smith III and Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophones to convey specific aspects of Black Elk's life, like the massacre at Wounded Knee portrayed on Black Hills.
Slocum's compositions take listeners through emotions ranging from sadness and frustration to spiritual strength.
Black Hills, the only quintet piece, features rumbling figures from Slocum as he conjures storm clouds, setting the stage for the two saxes. On other numbers, such as Days of Peace, Slocum's brushes set the pace for Smith's tenor.
This is a tight band of accomplished musicians playing great compositions. And while Slocum is telling the tales of one man of an aboriginal nation, the music can simply be enjoyed for its beauty. ****
DOWNLOAD THIS: Days of Peace
-- Chris Smith