Jessie Ware, ‘Devotion’
If you’ve heard British breakthrough singer Jessie Ware’s “Wildest Moments” (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you know she has one helluva voice. She could belt and whip that thing around like a weapon. But she doesn’t. Her debut, “Devotion,” finally making its way to the States after a successful run overseas, is careful not to overindulge in vocal acrobatics, setting her apart from Adele, rising powerhouse Emeli Sande and a sea of other singers competing for Longest Note Ever. Ware does it her way, and her modesty, the fact that she’s not clamoring to be the next big thing, feels genuine. Keeping the melismatic runs to a minimum, “Devotion” decidedly goes for a sophisticated old-school soul sound that makes for an accomplished vocal showcase and, all together, an impressive first outing. “Sweet Talk” is reminiscent of what Solange did on “Losing You”: It’s a throwback to the ’70s style of Motown, with groovy R&B guitar and vocal chicness. “No to Love” captures that smooth Sade sound, pairing Ware’s supple voice with funky electro flourishes and just enough electric guitar. “Taking in Water” stuns. Dedicated to her gay brother, it’s a heartfelt manifestation of loyalty and support for her struggling sibling. She’s fully in command of the song, but conveys emotion with simplicity and warmth. “Running,” too, never wails those riffs – the instinct of most singers. “American Idol” hopefuls, take it from Jessie Ware: Less is sometimes more. Grade: A-
Ashley Monroe, ‘Like a Rose’
The new trend with the country-girl crowd: weed. Yup, you read right. Marijuana, Mary Jane, “medicinal numbing agent”: however you wanna put it, these gals are singing about it (Willie Nelson, aren’t you proud?). Kacey Musgraves suggests smoking a fat one on her great genre-buster “Same Trailer Different Park,” and now it’s Ashley Monroe, one of Miranda Lambert’s bandmates in the trio Pistol Annies, who’s huffing and puffing and getting her freak on. “Weed Instead of Roses” sounds like an old-timing Music Row ditty – the honky-tonk guitars and piano solo give it a rockabilly feel – but it’s not exactly the country music that got your grandma two-steppin’: “Go call your no-good brothers, we both know what he’s been growing / I’ll be waiting with the whipped cream, and baby, let’s get going.” It’s a total hoot. “You Ain’t Dolly (and You Ain’t Porter)” is similarly playful as she and Blake Shelton get flirty over a classic-sounding country track, but it’s nothing more than novelty. Chemistry? Not so much. It’s only a letdown because the eight songs beforehand – all at least co-written by Monroe – set the bar so high: the personal title track laments family death and addiction like she’s coming clean to a therapist, “Two Weeks Late” shows off the Dolly spirit in her voice and “She’s Driving Me Out of Your Mind” is a traditional country weeper. With humor and heart, and a blunt between her fingers, Monroe isn’t just blowing smoke. She’s the real deal. Grade: A-
Crystal Bowersox, ‘All That For This’
One of the most unlikely finalists on “American Idol” – Crystal Bowersox wasn’t exactly sweeping in votes from the Kelly Clarkson crowd during her ninth season run – has a clearer sense of her musical self on “All That For This.” Improving significantly on her directionless, label-controlled debut, Bowersox’s superb sophomore album sees an artist letting her true colors show. The farm girl from Ohio was always more rough around the edges than “Idol” probably wanted her to be, and the songs here – from the bluesy bite of “Til the Whiskey’s Gone” to hooky roots single “Dead Weight,” and especially standout heartbreaker “Shine” – finally fit the voice singing them.
‘The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver’
To honor the legendary John Denver, you don’t just pick any ol’ singer. You get folks like Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Dave Matthews to take on the campfire king’s songbook. And you don’t mess too much with the songs themselves. Brandi Carlile knows this when she, with Emmylou sweetening up the harmony, stays relatively faithful to the great sing-along “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Williams finds the heart of “This Old Guitar,” retaining that sparse lonesome-cowboy feel, and Kathleen Edwards’ bittersweet “All of My Memories” haunts. And “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” performed by My Morning Jacket, has never sounded this sad. Have tissues ready.