Kelly Clarkson, ‘Piece by Piece’
Kelly Clarkson’s seventh studio album finds the “American Idol” champ at a crossroads. Does she fix what’s not broken? And if not, how does a 32-year-old pop star demonstrate she’s evolved 13 years after her “Idol” conquest? More importantly, does it even matter? “Piece by Piece,” then, is a crucial moment in Clarkson’s career, which, so far, has been a hit-factory dependent on the singer’s two most alluring qualities: lung power and every-person appeal. We like her because we want to be BFFs with her. And she makes us feel fierce. And she can sing for real. It’s a winning combo. For the most part, anyway. The best-friend-who-can-belt formula isn’t quite as convincing on her latest release, a departure that has her joining forces with music-makers du jour – Sia and Greg Kurstin – for shiny ’80s-esque pop songs that, too often, come off as mere radio stock. During a pair of the album’s most majestic tracks, the glitchy “Take You High” (note 4:20 runtime) and the aimless “Someone,” Clarkson’s powerful presence melts into the scenery, dissolved by an electronic sheen that overwhelms her voice. “Heartbeat Song” has punch, at least, as does the neon-bright EDM peacemaker “Dance With Me.” The same is true for “I Had a Dream,” a rousing anthem co-written by Clarkson, whose voice here, backed by a gospel choir, is as powerful as the galvanizing message of the song itself. Talk about taking you high. I’m still flying. Grade: B-
Brandi Carlile, ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’
Now that her major-label days are over, Brandi Carlile can get her hands as dirty as she wants. Indulging entirely in the authenticity of the sound she’s been honing since her second album – the T-Bone Burnett-produced “The Story,” released in 2007 – this latest ATO outing was recorded mostly in single takes without any previous rehearsal. The raw effect is immediate, as “Wherever Is Your Heart” – launched as a simple guitar ditty – ascends into a rousing drum-powered belter that tears itself open just before the last refrain. It crawls, builds, and, for dramatic effect, pauses. And then boom. Busting out the guttural chops, Carlile thrusts the song’s joyfulness straight into your heart, where most of these songs end up, actually. With well-established bandmates, the Twins, in tow for the three-part harmony on “The Eye,” the trio’s performance makes for one of the best songs of Carlile’s decade-long career – a tender showcase for all three of them. At its core, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” revels in bittersweet feelings familiar to the singer’s fans: nostalgia, growing up, growing old, love, and now family. “Murder in the City,” an Avett Brothers’ cover rewritten to reflect Carlile’s own life, comforts the living in the midst of a person’s death. The love we leave behind – that’s what matters, Carlile affirms. On “Daughter,” there’s plenty to go around. Grade: B
Rumer, ‘Into Colour’
If Rumer’s third full-length, “Into Colour,” had been released during the era of Carole King and James Taylor, she’d be a legend by now. Alas, the British songstress was born in 1979, and the easy-listening sounds of late-’60s aren’t, unfortunately, a mainstay – they’re now a niche. Certainly, however, a niche the singer has mastered, as she imprints her own trademark onto yesteryear’s twinkly pop. On the plaintive “Butterfly,” Rumer is strikingly candid about her miscarriage, and then there’s the disco-lite “Dangerous” and “Pizza and Pinball,” a jaunty imagery-driven number that has her waxing nostalgic about “how things used to be.” After listening to “Into Colour,” you will be too.
The Unthanks, ‘Mount the Air’
Bringing exquisite newness to the folk genre via otherworldly orchestration and lyrical intrigue is English five-piece band The Unthanks, who, for their first studio album in four years, mingle jazz and Celtic flourishes to create a lush body of work. Pure and poignant, the haunting “Hawthorn” gently pings with piano and then, as if to open the song up to the heavens, brassy horn licks. The campfire sing-along “Magpie” showcases the Unthanks sisters’ stunningly eerie harmonies, and “Foundling” is a moving 11-minute ode to an outcast. Undoubtedly, this is an ambitious album, and thanks is in order to The Unthanks for the weirdly wonderful “Mount the Air,” one of the year’s early standouts.