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KT Tunstall, ‘Tiger Suit’
Suddenly KT Tunstall sees who she wants to be – and it isn’t the folk-pop musician circa 2006, when she made a big, gay splash with the girl-power galvanizer “Suddenly I See.” After 2007’s “Drastic Fantastic” sent her back into oblivion, the Scottish soulstress roars back with feisty flavor and an eagerness to ditch the oversaturated “singer-songwriter” genre. Linda Perry, the superproducer who also helped Pink shift from R&B pin-up to pop-rock badass, aids Tunstall’s transit into what she calls “nature techno.” The sound switch is evident from the first track, “Uummannaq Song,” with its African tribal beat and chanting chorus that picks up like a swooping wind blowing through the desert. Her throaty rasp is wisely framed to fit organic, danceable grooves, especially on “Come On, Get In,” which borrows DNA from her biggest hit, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.” Throughout this (de)tour de force, she sounds more natural than she ever did doing the whole ballad thing, and she mostly dodges them on “Tiger Suit.” Songs that could’ve played as folk waltzes are given a whipping verve here – either striking harder with crunchy guitars (“Difficulty”) or sweeping with a momentum-building melody, like with the stunning “Lost,” where Tunstall sounds as crisp as Stevie Nicks. Just like the legend she aspires to, Tunstall finally proves she’s ready to be one herself. Grade: B+
Maroon 5, ‘Hands All Over’
Being as hot as frontman Adam Levine can only get you so far – it can’t hone a hook or write a pile of potential radio smashes. But as a band, Maroon 5 can, as they repeatedly have on pop hits so catchy they’re like big wads of bubblegum that your subconscious stepped in. That’s how “Misery,” the quintet’s first single from their third album, is made, too; with its beyond-infectious chorus and a glossier sheen, it eases them into a dancier direction that goes full-on funky town with its follow-up, “Give a Little More.” Bursting with pep and oozing sexiness from Levine’s elastic pipes (the line “you make it so hard” could go so many ways), it’s as retro gay as the Scissor Sisters. The song’s also insanely catchy, but catchy doesn’t mean creative – and “Hands All Over,” even with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange (the man behind Shania Twain’s hit trove), makes only simple strides to move Maroon 5 past their brand of procedural funky pop. Their most valiant attempt comes during a shameless crossover collaboration with country music’s Lady Antebellum on “Out of Goodbyes,” a snoozer that falls right in line with the other forgettable, cliche-riddled love songs on the easy-to-dismiss last half, like “How” and “Just a Feeling.” In fact, of all the ballads, “Never Gonna Leave This Bed” is the only one that doesn’t send you to slumber – how’s that for ironic? Grade: C+
Nellie McKay, ‘Home Sweet Mobile Home’
The singing chameleon sheds another layer of skin on her fifth album, going cross-culture and beelining for Jamaica. Both “Caribbean Time” and “Unknown Reggae” get their island-vibe on, with McKay revisiting the playfulness that defined her debut. She’s also plaintive on the gorgeous “The Portal,” political on “No Equality,” and packing swagger on the jazzy feel-good “Dispossessed.” “I’m feeling like a cool cat with a cabaret hat,” she sings. Because, well, she is one.
Brandon Flowers, ‘Flamingo’
Imagine Bruce Springsteen and the Killers, which Flowers heads, making a baby – in other words, this solo project. Western flourishes and vague religious themes can’t free him enough from his quartet’s glam-rock essence, even when he’s pitching changeups like “Only the Young” and “Hard Enough,” a duet with Jenny Lewis. The rest isn’t half bad either, but Flowers is so invested in selling himself, he gets away with more than he should.
John Legend and the Roots, ‘Wake Up!’
Give the neo-soul crooner credit for wanting to change the world – and even more for dedicating an entire album to it. By adapting Legend’s milky voice to civil rights-era songs, and especially by way of the Roots’ hip-hop treatment, the socially conscious sentiments are zapped with new life. The singer clocks some of his best vocal work, especially on the brooding 11-minute opus “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” and kills with a Nina Simone cover. Moving stuff, for sure.