Levi Kreis, ‘Where I Belong’
Some might say he belongs in their bed, but Levi Kreis’ third album’s title, “Where I Belong,” is really conveying his sense of serenity, overcoming the internal homosexuality vs. religion struggle he fought on his sophomore disc. Maybe it also has something to do with the LP’s sonic vibe, which is less contrived and heavy-hearted – and consistently more him – than genre-jumping “The Gospel According to Levi.” Here, too, the out troubadour’s Southern-swayed voice is flexed to the max, scaling from falsetto to Barry White deep. The funk-soul “This Girl” (wait, isn’t Kreis a man-lover?), with a Jason Mraz-type vocal, and the chin-up “Gonna be Alright” lead the pack. Its pop-friendly partiality runs through the disc’s first half, making it a bit non-cohesive thematically (from girl lovin’ – still confused – to god lovin’), before worshipping churchy uplifters. The religious messages, and sounds, are funneled through spoken word, choral components, organs and Kreis’ charismatic asides – “sing, girl!” – that you’d imagine from a flamboyant choir director. Or a gay guy who’s wholly comfortable with himself, his insecurities and his sound, which, especially this time around, is heaven on earth.
Rascal Flatts, ‘Unstoppable’
The wholesome guys of Rascal Flatts seem like they’ve got good intentions – hell, they had Jessica Simpson join them on their latest tour – but with well-worn lyrics that make Hallmark sentiments look like Emily Dickinson, they should’ve just sent chocolate. Then, at least, we’d spare our poor ears “Love Who You Love,” a cheesy message-song with overworked guitars about, well, loving who you love, with all the love you have, however you want to love them (got it?). Good on them for extending the theme’s declaration publicly to the gay clique, but the power ballad – typical RF exalted by a showy, sky-climbing Gary LeVox vocal – is rife with cliche and a chorus that’ll make you feel lost in a cul-de-sac (luckily there’s an easy escape: skip!). More bearable – and not by much – are “Here Comes Goodbye” and “Forever,” two tear-stained weepies that’ll inevitably slam-dunk at radio, even if LeVox can barely convey anything except how good his range is. Note to band: Spike recycling bin of Songs That Make You Cry (They’re So Painfully Bad) with savvy, metrosexual style sensibilities.
Erasure, ‘Total Pop! Deluxe Box’
The ’80s club kind will get a kick out of Erasure’s ultimate must-have collection, featuring four discs – three CDs and one DVD. Everyone else should. The bisexual duo – Andy Bell, (really) gay, and Vince Clarke, straight – churned out electropop singles awash in lyrics about love and longing for much of their style-challenged heyday. Hit-heavy disc one is the remastered 1992 collection “Pop! – The First 20 Hits,” while CD No. 2 highlights their more obscure years. Also included: A live disc and a DVD, a best-of their BBC performances – and a reminder that ’80s fashion really should stay there.
Sara Watkins, ‘Sara Watkins’
The lone lady in the contempo-bluegrass Nickel Creek troika tackles a broad-sounding 14-song set, her first go as a solo artist. Her girly-toned authenticity sells the sad ballads, like the nerve-rattling album closer “Where Will You Be,” and adds blithe vigor to “Long Hot Summer Days,” a mandolin-picked barnburner that’ll inspire sprinkler cool-offs. With that voice, even the worship cuts are strong enough to woo non-believers.
Jesse McCartney, ‘Departure: Recharged’
Jesse McCartney is one pair of Fubu jeans away from making his urban image come to fruition. The former Disney star clones Usher’s free-flowing fluidity on “Leavin’,” tries out rap on “Rock You” (and fails) and on “How Do You Sleep?” employs a hook so ear-wormy you’ll regret reading this review. The new cuts on the re-release (the best-of-the-worst being “Body Language”) are more of the same: synth-driven, girl-crazy, corny urban-wannabes. Merry Christmas, New Kids On the Block fans.