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Hear Me Out
Ledisi, ‘Turn Me Loose’
Turning this – Ledisi’s third LP on Verve Music – loose would be a big no-no. There are oodles of reasons why this New Orleans-bred soul-stress nabbed a Grammy nod for Best New Artist last year, and her fourth album – the follow-up to a Christmas disc that’s worth playing year-round – only accentuates a broader talent, as she goes against the R&B-jazz grain she’s established so far. That voice is reason enough, but there’s also an endearing intimacy on songs like the horn-y “Everything Changes” and heartfelt, choir-climaxed ballad “The Answer to Why” (the set’s best), where she reflects India.Arie style on life’s unpredictability and pending questions. That change theme snakes through all these grooves (the word “changes” is abused the way Celine Dion violates “love”), which cross between R&B, rock and soul-funk with the maturity of someone who’s lived much of what she sings. “Runnin'” swoons with a rocking gravely-voiced Ledisi, “Higher Than This” celebrates self-love and on “Goin’ Thru Changes,” she’s on the verge of cheating – not puberty. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Raphael Saadiq, among other first-class producers, foster her musical changes, mustering loose, breezy arrangements that always play second to Ledisi’s sublime, world-shaking wail, which is just the way it should be when, on songs like the title track, she nears Aretha Franklin greatness. And let’s hope that doesn’t change.
Sugarland, ‘Live on the Inside’
The thing about Jennifer Nettles, (adorable) lead singer of Sugarland, is you believe her. Her real-woman conviction on their original don’t-leave-me hit “Stay,” performed on both the live CD and DVD of this covers-heavy collection, is so believably weepy-faced desperate that you’ll want to duct-tape this dude to her bed just so he sticks around. And why wouldn’t he? There’s a lot to love about Nettles, and bandmate Kristian Bush, as they run through 15 songs, including hits “Baby Girl” and “Something More,” on the live DVD – like those behemoth bubbles both of them enter, and then roll through the crowd in. The CD is full of covers, with only three Sugarland originals, as the twosome tackles a smorgasbord of styles, like the Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” and two R.E.M. hits, “The One I Love” and “Nightswimming.” The latter merges perfectly into “Joey,” a sad drunk-driving song off their last album. The other tender R.E.M. tune puts Bush front-and-center, and features haunting harmonies from Nettles and a third duet partner – an obnoxious chick who felt the need to scream out each of their names during most of the song. Well, big mouth, you ruined it – thank you. She didn’t totally spoil a good time, though, because when Sugarland’s not breaking hearts, they bring the fun – and the rollicking Southern pop of The B-52s “Love Shack” and twanged sing-along “Irreplaceable” (yep, the Beyonce song) do just that. (Available exclusively at Wal-Mart)
Daniel Gray, ‘Invictus’
Michael Jackson’s been on the mind of this 22-year-old, whose debut not only mimics some of his vocal idiosyncrasies but also adopts MJ’s broken-world lyrics on “Cast Away.” It’s dark and melodic, one of the slower moments – which is good, because many of the poetic dance spasms are mostly forgettable and rip-offs, like Britney Spears copycat “Bombastic.” But when his voice isn’t the Road Runner, which often leads to him slurring like a drunk, he can be an alluring softie with something to say … that you’ll actually want to hear.
Mindy Smith, ‘Stupid Love’
That gentle texture that dominated this girlie-voiced soprano’s last studio album, 2006’s “Long Island Shores,” is kicked up with a much-welcomed boisterous (for her, anyway) oomph. “What Went Wrong” is a building love-sucks barnburner, but “Highs and Lows” is a peppy, pop-country life mantra that should finally give Smith some much-deserved radio play. Even when the rest of the disc mellows mid-LP, her honest riffs on life and (stupid) love – especially “Couldn’t Stand the Rain,” warmed with Amy Grant’s backing vocals – are all highs.